Monday, October 26, 2015


I've noted on this blog that many of today's illustrators seem to devalue design and composition that have been so important to previous generations of artists.  At some point, awkwardness and ungainliness came into style, as audiences became suspicious of beauty and skill. 

I'm a big fan of awkward and ungainly art when it is done well, but too often this style is an excuse for laziness and lack of talent.  We let ourselves off the hook too easily by underestimating the continuing importance of design and composition.  One of the best ways to remind ourselves of its value is to take a look-- close up-- at the work of illustrator Mark English.

When was the last time you saw a composition this powerful in contemporary American illustration?  English has simplified these forms to their basics.  Don't go looking for fingernails or individual eyelashes in this painting.  But at the same time, his little touches of control make clear that English understood exactly where those fingernails and eyelashes would have gone.  They were removed out of strength, not out of weakness.

English was struggling with the exact same design challenges as internationally renowned fine artists such as Robert Motherwell and Clyfford Still.  In my judgment, he usually did a better job.

We can appreciate the strength of the first composition from a mile away.  But let's look at another picture up close, to see the subtler elements of design at play.  Here is an illustration from 1969 about the participants in a funeral:

To understand the nature of English's accomplishment, look at some of his details:

Even the most abstract quadrants of the painting are impressive close up. 

Looking at Mark English's work up close makes me yearn for what we've lost in contemporary illustration.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


There are thousands of reference books about drawing faces, but only the good ol' Illustration Art blog will talk to you about drawing the backs of heads.

Most people sitting in an auditorium will ignore the rows and rows of dark, featureless, identical ovals in front of them.  Nothing to see, right?

But recently I had the privilege of viewing the sketchbooks of illustrator William A. Smith and was impressed by the number of times he sat in large audiences and studied the backs of the heads in front of him.  Looking at his insightful sketches, I realized that a subject I thought was uniform and uninteresting was really overflowing with variety and choices. People slouched in different ways. Their shoulders were uneven.  They cocked their heads in various postures.  And Smith's razor sharp eyes caught it all.

I have only a few isolated examples here, but Smith did some some superb detailed drawings containing multiple figures at what would otherwise have been a pretty dull lecture. They are in the collection of the Michener Museum.

Robert Fawcett is another illustrator who found challenges in the backs of people's heads.  He never drew on automatic pilot.

If you study these heads with the same open eyes that Fawcett employed to view the originals, you'll recognize that no two are the same.  Fawcett came up with some surprisingly wild and jagged ways to depict a subject the rest of us never even notice:


There's no such thing as a dull subject matter when Fawcett picks up his brush.

I love the way that artists such as Smith and Fawcett were constantly observant.  While the rest of us  sleepwalk, they have the energy to keep looking and it seems their search is always rewarded.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015


Whenever I travel to New York City, I make a point of visiting the Society of Illustrators' Museum of American Illustration.  The current show is comprised of classic masterpieces from the Society's permanent collection, most of which are rarely seen. I heartily recommend it to anyone in the NY vicinity.

The star of the show, as far as I'm concerned, is this muscular tour de force by Harold von Schmidt:

Von Schmidt was a genuine cowboy and came by his knowledge of horses honestly.  He understood their anatomy, their movement and their spirit and it showed in his paintings.

This large oil painting (over four feet wide) was greatly reduced for publication in a 1933 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine.  It must be seen in person to be appreciated.

The Society's exhibition showcases a cross section of other strong artistic personalities.  William A. Smith is represented by one of his gritty noir paintings.

There's a striking Bob Peak employing his trademark psychedelic colors

And illustrators such as Orson Lowell and Henry Raleigh show off their draftsmanship.

The illustrators in the show included many bold, opinionated artists who helped shape the popular taste of their generation.

When I left the Society I walked down the street to the Museum of Modern Art where I viewed the work of conceptual artist Luis Camnitzer.  His exhibition consisted of 195 pages from the 2009 Montevideo phone book with the names of victims of political repression in Uruguay.  


The pages were framed and displayed in rows:

 I had to fight my way through the crowd of art lovers in order to admire Camnitzer's photocopies  close up.

Today our definition of "art" is broad enough to encompass both Harold von Schmidt's horse race painting and Camnitzer's phone book pages.   In fact, our perimeter for art is sufficiently porous to include almost anything. 

This creates a real challenge for us to articulate standards-- any type of standards--  sufficient to make such diverse types of "art" cohere as a category.  For the word "art" to have meaning, it must stand for something more than random jumbles of unrelated molecules.  Even Clement Greenberg, the leading advocate for abstract expressionism, wrote that the aesthetic validity of nonrepresentational art can only come from "obedience to some worthy constraint."

Judging from my mail, we are nowhere close to a consensus on standards for "a worthy constraint."  Readers frequently object when I criticize a picture.  They say, "You're not allowed to criticize a lack of skill or crummy drawing or poor design, because such cosmetic concerns are irrelevant-- this picture is more about the concept, or about irony or cultural observations.  Its visual appearance is secondary."  Or they say,  "You shouldn't say one picture is better than the other because all standards are inherently subjective.  You should accept a picture for what it is.  If you don't like it simply pass it by."
I agree that each artwork is entitled to be judged by its success or failure in achieving its own ambitions. (Of course, I also believe the quality of its ambitions are also fair game for criticism, but I'm old fashioned.)  But subjectivity doesn't means that two works of art with different ambitions can't be fruitfully contrasted.  I believe apples and oranges can be weighed on the same scale, just as I believe the art at the Society of Illustrators and MOMA can be meaningfully compared.  An excellent image is still superior to a mediocre concept most days of the week.  Many of the anemic intellectual puzzles found at MOMA melt away in the face of some of the bold artistic choices  at the Society exhibition.

For better or worse, we seem to be living through a period when it is popular to focus on concept over visual execution.  But anyone who believes conceptual art is categorically superior should visit the Society of Illustrators to refresh their memory of what creative design, composition, harmony balance and other traditional aesthetic experiences have to offer.