Monday, 9 July 2012

THE LENGTH OF YOUR LEASH

James Williamson for the Saturday Evening Post (1949)

There is a gap, at least 12 tugboats wide, between what an artist can imagine and what that artist can actually put on paper.

It does no good for working artists to imagine a picture they lack the technical skill to implement. Famed illustrator Seymour Chwast confessed that he avoids pictures “that require craftsmanship and a drawing ability I do not have.” Elwood Smith maintains that his inability to draw the images he envisions forces him to be more creative: “if I can’t draw it, I struggle to come up with a different idea that’s invariably more original."

Lots of artists today seem limited by their skills to a depressingly short menu of alternatives.  Many pictures are reduced to elementary line drawings with basic compositions (or even worse-- Photoshopped montages).  In graphic novels or syndicated comic strips-- art forms that once attracted skillful draftsmen--  a simplistic approach has become common.
   
We live in a culture that is forgiving of poor execution skills, and sometimes that's a good thing.  I love many pictures that have a raw, unfinished look, pictures where accident plays an important role, or pictures where simplicity and economy leave more room for the concept.

Nevertheless, there's an undeniable attraction to pictures where an artist has the skill to be fearless.  Artists who can can confidently rotate angles or force perspective to overcome the constraints of tiny spaces, artists who can manage large amounts of information in a picture without overcrowding it --such artists don't need to keep their imaginations on a short leash.

James Williamson constructed the above illustration like a master carpenter.  To convey newlyweds separated by a domineering mother-in-law, he cleverly staged a three tiered opera: 

The sobbing, ambivalent bride sequestered by her mother (and visually, by her illustrator)

All shapes and colors lead to the dominant mother in law, who bifurcates the couple and the picture.  Her hand gesture and open mouth are framed in stark relief for emphasis.

The diminished figure of the husband at the bottom of the totem pole by the ironic "welcome" mat

Williamson uses the architecture of the house as architecture for his drawing.  It simultaneously gives him an abstract design and makes a complex drawing intelligible.  The viewer could easily become confused by a less skillful artist, but we read this in exactly the sequence Williamson intended.

One current artist who seems free to go wherever the job and his imagination take him is the always entertaining Denis Zilber. You never get the feeling Zilber has to hold back because he doesn't know how to draw.

 Zilber bends perspective and anatomy to simultaneously show us the expression on the face of this lecherous old goat, his pot belly, and the object of his attention.  Quite a tour de force.

Here Zilber makes shadows do his bidding, superimposed on extreme (but convincing) angle shots and foreshortening.

Plenty of artists do overhead shots, but how many do them in the rain?



An image I've shown before, but one which helps to make this point.

There's no guarantee that skills will result in a great picture; it does no good to draw what you imagine if you lack imagination.  But I am constantly reminded by work such as Williamson's or Zilber's that it sure helps to start from a position of strength,