Showing posts from July, 2007


Some artists produce mediocre work because they just can't do any better. Others produce it because they're able to get away with it.

Jack Davis is a highly talented artist who has done beautiful work over a long and stellar career. He also churned out enough lame, half-hearted work to decimate an entire forest.

Davis' talent was obvious from the start. Note the confidence, humor and strength of the brush work in this early contribution to MAD magazine:

Davis was still producing excellent work for MAD decades later.

During those decades, his distinctive style became wildly popular. His work appeared everywhere, from the cover of Time magazine to cheap advertisements in the back of local newspapers.

Davis worked at lightning speed, and apparently did not believe in turning down assignments. He obviously knew the difference between good and bad drawing, but you might not know it from some of the work he pushed out the door:

Every artist is born to confront this same temptation. …


Let's face it-- artists love to draw faces. Penetrating eyes, distinctive noses, expressive mouths-- these are often an artist's richest lode.

But when that face turns away and the artist no longer has facial features with all their emotion and meaning-- what does that leave? Just the simple line of a human cheek. What can an artist possibly make of that?

Well, my friends, that depends on the artist.

Look at the knowledge that Alex Raymond conveys with this sensitive drawing. This cheek demonstrates more wisdom than most artists could convey drawing a full face.

Next, Austin Briggs applies a cruder tool and a simpler approach to the same subject, yet still manages to convey just as much information. As I said in an earlier post, I think this is a thrilling piece of draughtsmanship.

In the following detail from an illustration by Robert Fawcett, the person drawn from behind was obviously a much tougher artistic challenge than the full faces drawn from the front.

Finally, the great Mo…
Warthan Canyon tree on highway 198 in central California. Watercolor.


Today is the 90th birthday of Walt Reed, the world's foremost scholar and historian of illustration art.

Walt is author of the seminal Illustrator in America, 1860-2000, the foundation of all scholarship in the field, as well as Fifty Great American Illustrators, A Century of American Illustration, monographs about artists such as Joseph Clement Coll, Harold von Schmidt, John Clymer, Mort Kunstler, etc., and Famous Artists School books on Figure Drawing and other subjects. Each book is respected for its integrity of scholarship, soundness of judgment and clarity of expression.

When I was a young boy, I saved the money from my paper route for an entire month to buy The Illustrator in America. When I finally had that treasure trove of artists and styles in my hands, I nearly wore out the pages studying it.

Since that time, I've had the pleasure of getting to know Walt personally. The sincerity and the purity of his love for the art form is an aesthetic experience all by itself. …


When I recently posted a drawing by Frank Brangwyn (1867 - 1956), I was surprised to hear how Brangwyn-- once one of the most famous artists in the world-- had faded from memory.

Early in his career, Brangwyn was touted as "the Rembrandt of tomorrow." Then fashion took a sharp turn toward modernism, and Brangwyn quickly became yesterday's news.

One such modernist group, the Futurists, wrote a wonderful manifesto:

We want to deliver [art] from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries.

To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action. Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past....?

For the dying, for invalids and for prisoners it may be all right. It is, perhaps, some sort of balm for their wounds, the admirable past, at a moment when the future is denied them. But we will have none of it, we, the young, st…


The starting point for art is our five senses. Yet sight, touch and other senses are no help when it comes to one of art's most powerful subjects.

In his final play, Shakespeare laments, "Our little life is rounded with a sleep." The sleep that rounds us all-- vast, profound and impenetrable-- offers artists no clues. There are no colors or shapes or designs to portray. In fact, the signals we receive from our meager senses usually make the artist look silly.

In Robert Frost's poem Home Burial, a mother wails over her inability to comprehend her dying child:
The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short,
They might as well not try to go at all Perhaps for this reason, most artists don't try to go at all, resigning themselves to depicting the detritus left behind:

Artists who do try to conceptualize what lies beyond consciousness usually get about as far as the veil:

Painter Arnold Bocklin employed a similar device-- a distant island-- but the poin…


Some illustrators, such as Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper, went on to become famous in "fine art" circles for their amazing watercolors. John Gannam (1907 - 1965) remained an illustrator but his watercolors were still amazing.

Gannam's paintings adorned stories in popular magazines for many years. He also painted a popular series of advertisements for sheets and blankets.

Neither Winslow Homer nor Edward Hopper could hold a candle to Gannam when it came to portraying the deep emotional relationship between a housewife and her new blanket.

But don't be fooled. Look closely and you will see the work of a serious and accomplished watercolorist.

Many of Gannam's paintings were published in cropped form, accompanied by intrusive headlines and graphics like these:

But when you look at the originals, you see Gannam's mastery at work:

Little details like this row of flowers demonstrate how Gannam kept looking hard all the time. Gannam didn't use a rote formula or laps…


In both art and life, the sculptor Gaston Lachaise was famously devoted to his muse, Isabel.

Lachaise was working in Paris in 1901 when he first saw Isabel Nagle strolling through the gardens by the Seine. Isabel was a married woman on vacation from the United States. Lachaise later recalled, she “immediately became the primary inspiration which awakened my vision...."

The young artist appeared at her door every day until she agreed to let him draw her portrait. By the time she left Paris to return home to Boston, the couple was in love .

Lachaise could not live apart from Isabel. He gave up his friends and family in Paris, learned to speak English and followed her to Boston with just $30 in his pocket. There, he persuaded her to leave her husband, a conservative local businessman.

Gaston and Isabel fled strict Boston society to romp nude in the remote woods of Maine. They swam and frolicked in the phosphorescent sea at night. They wrote bad love poetry to each other (as is every co…