Monday, 31 July 2006


Young Norman Rockwell dreamed of the day he would paint as well as his idol, the great illustrator J.C. Leyendecker. Rockwell spied on Leyendecker, trying to discover the secret of his genius:
I'd followed him around town just to see how he acted....I'd ask the models what Mr. Leyendecker did when he was painting. Did he stand up or sit down? Did he talk to the models? What kind of brushes did he use? Did he use Winsor & Newton paints?
But Leyendecker's secret had nothing to do with his brand of brushes. A few years later, Rockwell visited Leyendecker in his studio and observed Leyendecker working on the painting above. He recalled:
New Rochelle published a brochure illustrated with reproductions of paintings by all the famous artists who lived in the town. Joe worked on his painting for months and months, starting it over five or six times. I thought he'd never finish it.
The painting was beautiful, with many fine touches.

It was nearly finished, and the client would have been happy to get it. Yet, Leyendecker remained unsatisfied. Rather than completing the painting, he set this version aside and started all over again, searching restlessly for the image he wanted. The final published version looked like this:

Nietzsche once wrote, "you admire the beauty of my spark, but you don't feel the cruelty of the hammer on the anvil that makes it happen."

Leyendecker paid a heavy price for that spark. Whatever it cost, the young Rockwell must have concluded that it was worth it. When Rockwell's turn came, he paid too. Rockwell may not have traded his soul to the devil, but he painted "100%" in gold at the top of his easel to make sure that he never gave anything less. That credo kept Rockwell at his easel seven days a week painting countless studies and refining his craft as his first wife filed for divorce and was hospitalized for depression. She was alleged to have committed suicide. His second wife was hospitalized for alcoholism and depression. Rockwell himself sought professional help for his own depression. And yet, the brilliant pictures kept on coming.

Today, we admire such artists from a safe distance. Few of today's heavily promoted artists are willing to spend the same time on the anvil. I can't say that I blame them, especially when most of their audience is incapable of distinguishing real sparks from glitter.

Tuesday, 25 July 2006

The previous charcoal and this watercolor sketch are of a sculpture at the Hunnington Gardens in San Marino Ca.

Thumbnail of Pasadena City Hall. I had just been excused from Jury service, so I sat out on the lawn with my sketchbook while security watched me suspiciously.

Thumbnail of the hills near Coalinga Ca (where I grew up).

ARTISTS IN LOVE, part four

Last year I described the life of Ivor Hele, the great Australian war illustrator. Hele painted front line combat in Africa, the Middle East, Korea and the South Pacific during World War II and the Korean War. In the jungles of New Guinea he was injured and lay unconscious for two days.

After a career filled with death and carnage, Hele withdrew from the world. He and his wife lived a life of isolation in a remote cottage by the ocean. Hele rarely spoke about what he had witnessed. He avoided the public and refused to have his picture taken. The local newspaper noted upon his death that "very few people have ever been inside their home." One young niece who visited the cottage recalled "Ivor really detested children."

But Hele never stopped drawing. Instead of drawing armies clashing on a battlefield, he began drawing intimate pictures of his wife around the house. He drew her putting on her stockings, he drew her sewing, he drew her wearing a funny hat made from a folded newspaper, he drew her reading a book. Mostly he seemed to like drawing her with her skirts raised and-- bless her-- she indulged him.

The local newspaper noted that "it was not until after his death... that it was realized he had kept so many sketches." The following drawings are from that collection. They have never been published, but deserve an audience:

Drawing his wife in the safety and seclusion of their little cottage seemed to be therapeutic for Hele's scorched soul.

These are marvelous figure studies but they are more. By lingering over the design of the human form, the symmetry and harmony of the limbs, the tenderness of human flesh, Hele may have been able to restore a little of nature's balance to his own life.

Tuesday, 18 July 2006


How would you draw the sky if your only tool was a black line? Outline a few fluffy clouds perhaps? Add some cross hatching at the horizon? Well that's why you're not Rembrandt, buddy.

The vast majority of this picture is vacant air, but Rembrandt has filled it with lines so free and abstract that they put Jackson Pollock to shame.

It takes courage to etch even a single line in an open space like that. Look closely at Rembrandt's mad, gorgeous dithyramb across the sky and be proud of your humanity!

I'll return to more recent illustrators with my next posting, but I just couldn't resist squeezing in one more Rembrandt. This picture gives me goose bumps and I hope it has the same effect on you.

Monday, 17 July 2006


I usually try to limit myself to updating this blog once a week. However, I could not let the 400th birthday of Rembrandt-- one of my favorite illustrators of all time-- go by without a gesture of respect.

Rembrandt illustrated stories from the Bible, Faust and other sources. Just like today's illustrators, he designed pictures for reproduction and popular consumption (using etchings, the most advanced technology of the day). Like today's illustrators, he was often frustrated by his tasteless and unreasonable clients. (At the height of the "tulip craze" in Amsterdam, a single tulip bulb sold for three times as much as Rembrandt's masterpiece, The Nightwatch.) And just like today's illustrators, he died broke.

But 400 years later, all the money squabbles and heartbreak and exasperation have faded into background noise, along with the names of all the investment bankers and merchants who were once such big shots in Amsterdam. All that's left is the sublime poetry of Rembrandt's pictures.

Thursday, 13 July 2006


Albert Dorne had a wretched childhood. He was born in the slums of New York and grew up in poverty, suffering from tuberculosis, malnutrition and heart disease. Fatherless, he quit school after 7th grade to support his mother, two sisters and younger brother. He tried everything to feed his family, from selling newspapers on a street corner to prize fighting to working on a shipping dock.

One of the things I like about Dorne is that he had all the credentials for life as a thug, yet the siren song of art was stronger and pulled him through.

At age 10 Dorne began cutting school 3 or 4 days a week to sneak off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he taught himself to draw by copying almost every work of art in the place. The determined little boy soon became well known around the museum. Dorne lived in constant fear that his school would catch him, and he went to great lengths to cover his tracks. He later discovered that his teachers already knew what he was up to and had agreed not to turn him in. They admired his talent and ambition, and thought his chances were better at the museum than at school.

When he turned 17, Dorne decided to make his move into the art business:

"I went to a man who ran a one-man art studio and offered to work for nothing as an office boy while I learned the business. The 'nothing' as a salary sounded fine to him. But I still had to take care of my mother-- and by this time I was also married so I had two families to support. I worked in the studio six days a week from nine to six-thirty. Then I'd get home, have supper and a nap, and go back to work all night seven nights a week from midnight to eight in the morning as a shipping clerk... I did this for a whole year. Finally... I was made a full fledged artist with a salary. I was able to give up my night job. After almost a year of this, I decided I could make more money and perhaps find better work as a free lance artist."

Dorne went on to become one of the most popular illustrators in America, rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Dorne's traumatic childhood left him scarred. He drank heavily. Yet, the bee fertilizes the flower it robs. His experience endowed him with two great gifts. First, he developed a powerful survival instinct. Like a weed pushing its way up through the sidewalk, Dorne always hustled and found assignments when other illustrators lacked work. Second, growing up in a world of desperate, scruffy people Dorne developed a sharp eye for the human carnival. Note how Dorne's insightful line captures a riot of folds, lumps, wrinkles and patches in these marvelous drawings.

However damaged he may have been by his experiences in life, these drawings demonstrate that he never lost the unabashed joy of drawing. Look at the pleasure he took in drawing fanciful hands.


Thursday, 6 July 2006

ARTISTS IN LOVE, part three

Eugene von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983) was a small, quiet man who worked the night shift at a bakery near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He and his wife Marie lived a humble life in a tiny home where Eugene painted and wrote poetry.

Eugene and Marie mostly kept to themselves. The neighbors never guessed that inside their meager shack, Eugene and Marie lived as a god and goddess.

The couple adored each other and during their forty year marriage enjoyed a rich fantasy life together. Eugene made crowns and elaborate jewelry for Marie out of clay which he dug himself. He used the bakery oven as a kiln to fire his creations late at night when no one was watching. He also made tiny thrones out of chicken bones painted gold.

Eugene's paintings and sculptures were pretty mediocre, and his poetry was no better. His real art was his several thousand pictures of Marie as his queen, muse, glamour girl, goddess, siren. He scavenged floral print wallpaper or scraps of fabric to create exotic backdrops for her. He adorned her in sarongs and togas and bikinis. Many of these photos he later colored by hand.

Eugene created montages with Marie's face in the sky, in the sun, and in the trees.

I don't imagine that many housewives in Milwaukee during the 1940s and 1950s spent their days posing for their husbands in nothing but a tiara. But then, Eugene and Marie don't seem to have felt constrained by the time and place where they lived. Their love was transcendent.

Eugene's artistic devotion to Marie reminds me of the line by that great poet of love, Walt Whitman:
I will leave all,
and come and make the hymns of you.
Whatever you may think about the song of Eugene von Bruenchenhein, there are definitely worse ways to live.