Sunday, January 31, 2010

Child Prodigy

Kieron Williamson is a seven-year-old in the UK who is becoming known for his paintings. In this link, he’s the subject of a Reuters news feature.

This kid makes me feel like a late bloomer. I didn’t do a lot of drawing until I was around 13, It wasn’t until about then I was starting to think about being an artist. I didn’t really get into oil painting and professional work until I was about 20. The blessing of those teenage years was that art was a private passion, something completely disconnected from commerce and recognition. I find that in my professional life I feed on those teenage years of drawing just for the love of it.

But I think young Kieron will do well. Both he and his dad seem to have their feet on the ground.

Photo and article at Lost at E Minor

Thanks, Dan, Mr. Kindergarten!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Quest for Immortality

Quick: what images do you think of when you think of N.C. Wyeth?

“Dear Papa,” N.C. Wyeth wrote in 1909. “All that I have done in the past, and all that I could do in the future (in illustration) would be utterly forgotten in a preciously few years except by a few friends and relatives perhaps. It is my purpose to create pictures that will last, like the works of men like Michelangelo, Raphael, Millet, and scores of others….Therefore, I am going to drop illustration.”

Wyeth wanted to get far enough ahead financially to devote himself exclusively to easel painting.

Two years after he wrote the letter he created the unforgettable paintings of Treasure Island.

Kidnapped, Robinson Crusoe, and Robin Hood all lay before him.

The Wyeths: The Letters of N.C. Wyeth, 1901-1945, edited by Betsy Wyeth, 1971, page 292.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Dead Tech: Proportional Scale

Before computers made it possible to scale things up or down by dragging a corner or typing in a number, the proportional scale was an indispensable studio tool.

It made it easy to calculate relative measurements when you needed to make enlargements or reductions.

It looks like a circular slide rule. The smaller inside wheel represents the size of the original, while a larger outside wheel measures the size of the reproduction. Each wheel is marked in a gradually increasing scale from 1 to 100 inches. The two wheels rotate independently, held concentrically by a grommet.

A small window marks the percentage enlargement or reduction. If you set it to a 24 percent reduction, all the relative measurements between the two wheels will be held at that relationship.

Knowing such measurements was necessary for making photographic enlargements, planning original art for a given print application, or specifying type. Although it may be obsolete for many of its original graphics art uses, it’s still a useful tool for modelmakers, craftspeople or anyone who needs to scale something up or down by percentages.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Phone Doodles

My wife Jeanette doodled this face with a ballpoint pen while she was on the phone yesterday. She was talking the whole time and she said she wasn’t thinking about the doodle. “I don’t know where he came from. I have no idea.”

Just curious: What sort of doodles do you do? Vote at left.
Addendum: In the poll, faces were the big winner, with 89 votes. Creatures/Aliens, Boxes and loops got between 30 and 40 votes each. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Genesis" Exhibition Opens Tomorrow

Thursday evening at 7:30 the art museum of the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire will debut a new exhibit of the work of five author/illustrators.

The featured artists include Shaun Tan (The Arrival, above), William Joyce (Rolie Polie Olie and Dinosaur Bob), David Wiesner (Flotsam, Tuesday), Adam Rex (Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich), and me. I’ll have ten pieces in the show, all from Dinotopia, including several preliminary sketches, though unfortunately I will not be able to attend. Scroll down for more info.

Here’s my introductory essay for the catalog:

Many years ago, on the way to a camping trip to Maine with my wife and two young sons, I purchased a secondhand copy of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle. I read the book aloud to my family each night by the flickering light of a kerosene lantern. In the blackness beyond the curtains of our tent we could hear the muffled roar of the rocks holding firm against the breakers.

Pyle, the father figure of American author-illustrators, had us completely in his spell. His words and pictures transported us from the stormy coast of America to a sun-dappled England that he conjured completely from his imagination (he never made the trip there). It made perfect sense that the same hand created both the ornate pen pictures and the stately and intricate language. The two wellsprings of imagination merged in our heads as we absorbed each chapter.

The people represented in this exhibition all share Pyle’s love of both writing and picture-making as a kind of stereoscopic creative vision. One kind of vision involves lines and shapes and colors. The other mode of expression encompasses the realm of smell, touch, sound, dialog, and sequence.

Since each single storybook is the product of a single mind, it has a unity of effect often missing from author/artist collaborations. In Dinosaur Bob, William Joyce’s visual experiments in scale fits perfectly with extravagant phrases like “two peanut-butter-and-bologna sandwiches and 400 double Dutch chocolate cakes.”

Adam Rex, in his Frankenstein books, revises the way we think words and pictures should sit on the page. He switches from typeset lines of text to his own hand-lettering, splashing word bubbles and plastering headlines across the layouts with a magician’s virtuosity.

Two of the creators in this exhibition challenge our assumptions about what it means to be a writer, for some of their stories are presented entirely without words. When Shaun Tan created his haunting and lyrical bestseller The Arrival, he first envisioned the whole story in pantomime with the help of friends, who acted out the roles on videotape. The story recounts the experience of an immigrant, baffled by unknown scripts and unfamiliar customs. Part of the power of the presentation comes from its reserve, its silence and its grayness.

David Wiesner’s work in the wordless realm includes Tuesday, Sector 7, Free Fall, and Flotsam, all of which deftly unfold their narratives around increasingly mind-expanding revelations, rendered in the precise but unforgiving medium of watercolor.

People often ask each of us auteurs: “Which came first, the story or the pictures?” In my case, the two arrived together, like fraternal twins born squabbling and conspiring. Throughout the creative process of developing Dinotopia, a sketch begets a name, an outline begets a storyboard, and a painting begets a piece of dialog. It’s not as if story is finished first, as some suppose, and then I put on another hat and do the pictures. The two activities enrich each other all along the way.

That’s why I think all authors should be encouraged to draw, and all artists should be encouraged to write. Howard Pyle, in his famous summer classes in the Brandywine valley, insisted that his art students spend part of their time writing. I would almost rather look at Rudyard Kipling’s drawings from Just So Stories, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s portrayals of Middle Earth, than see the work of others who tried to climb inside their heads.

The two modes of expression are different only in their outward form, not in their source. They both derive from the same deep creative center. Hopefully they touch the reader at the same place. A picture book, whether it has words or not, is an attempt to conjure a half-remembered dream. Those dreams arise from a place in us too deep for either pictures or words.

The images in this exhibition, and the books from which they’re taken, escort us to the rocky shoreline of our imagination, where waves roll in from far storms and sunny kingdoms.
Genesis • Jan. 28 to Feb. 18, with an opening reception on Jan. 28 at 7:30pm • Foster Gallery, Hass Fine Arts building, UWEC campus • FREE • all ages • 836-2328 • Website

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Checkerboard Illusion

The recent colored cube illusion showed us how our brain compensates for a color cast, making hues seem constant, even when they’re really not.

Our visual system does a similar thing with tones, discounting the effect of shadows and grouping tones into meaningful sets.

This checkerboard is an example. I painted it using the exact same gray mixture for the dark square in the light area (1) as I did for the light square in the shadow (2).

Don’t believe it? Here are the exact same squares with everything else made white.

Why do the tones seem so different? The light square is surrounded by darker squares. This makes our visual system automatically conclude that the actual tone is light in value, and we group it with the other light squares.

We interpret the diagonal bars of darker tone as shadows for the following reasons:

1. They have soft edges, and soft edges usually belong to shadows.
2. Those edges are parallel, and cast shadows from the sun on flat surface are parallel.
3. The tones of adjacent colored squares gradate to an equal degree, just the way shadows do.

Our visual system is designed to help us determine the actual color of objects in the world. The fact that it seems to deceive us is not a defect of our vision. It’s central to our survival.

But we have to know about this mechanism of visual perception if we want to paint tones accurately.
A related illusion from Edward Adelson’s website.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Cal Arts Animation Program

California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA, was founded in the early 1960s by Walt Disney, who wanted to create a “Cal Tech for the Arts.”

The school developed a counterculture spirit in the 70s and 80s, taking on teachers like Judy Chicago, but it has recently become oriented more to the mainstream. It earned praise from several of the animation studios we’ve visited, who told us it graduates some of the best animation artists.

The 150 character animation majors show their short films in the annual “Producer’s Show,” which draws interest from the industry. Students own the rights to their own characters and stories.

When we visited in October, the spaces inside the building struck us as a bit confusing, with unmarked doors and volumes that were alternately cavernous and cramped. As visitors we needed a guide to find our way around, but everyone was helpful, and the students seemed well enough adapted, dividing some of the bigger rooms into beehives of ingeniously decorated work cubicles.

Above, with Steve Brown, who teaches animal drawing, and Maija Burnett, who is associate director of the character animation department. To my left is student Patrick Harpin.

The animation program builds on traditional skills. In the display case was a collection of character designs based on camels. Most of the animation students do the “cape assignment,” which involves fabric flapping in the wind, a harder challenge than it might seem.

The goal of the school, as originally expressed by Disney, revolves around the idea of cross-pollination of various disciplines, something he also tried to accomplish with Epcot, Imagineering, and Fantasia. The dream is to whip up a spirit of Gesamtkunstwerk, a marriage of creative disciplines, where dramatists, musicians, and artists build on each other’s creativity.

CalArts website, with QuickTime movies
Producer’s Show, 2009
Art of Jen, a student blog

Metropolitan Museum of Illustration

In 1907 The New York Herald invited N. C. Wyeth to write an article in support of “a movement in N. Y. city to have the Metropolitan Art Museum set aside a gallery for the best example of illustrations.”

The Herald solicited the opinion of Howard Pyle and a few other eminent illustrators to make the case. Wyeth acknowledged that “the men at the head of the museum are not at all in favor of it.”

It never happened. Contemporary narrative art was overlooked by the Met for a hundred years. Edwin Austin Abbey’s Daughters of King Lear was banished in hallways for years.

But the tide has turned. Smart museums, including the Met, are now welcoming art that tells a story. The exhibit “American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life,” which closed yesterday, brought together more than a hundred paintings that even New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl called “a great show.”

Meanwhile the Museum of Modern Art is hosting an exhibit of movie-related art by director Tim Burton (through April 26), focusing on his characters and stories. The show is so popular that visitors need advance reservations.
American Stories Exhibit
Tim Burton Exhibit.
The Wyeths: The Letters of N.C. Wyeth, 1901-1945, edited by Betsy Wyeth, 1971, page 232.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Verne’s Right Half

Jules Verne’s manuscripts were written in longhand on the left half of the page. The right half was reserved for other purposes.

His publisher, Jules Hetzel sometimes wrote comments in the right margin, said Agnes Marcetteau, director of the Jules Verne Museum in Nantes, France.
The original manuscript for Paris in the 20th Century, which is kept in the city library, showed angry scribbling from the publisher.

“Unpleasant word,” wrote Hetzel. “Wrongly done. Especially for a start.” Another time the publisher commented, “No one will ever believe what you write.”

At one point Verne described a medical dissection in gory detail. “It is out of the question. It is shocking,” complained the publisher.

Ms. Marcetteau gently turned the pages of precious manuscripts for Mysterious Island and From the Earth to the Moon. The right margin was full of corrections, comments, diagrams, and mathematical calculations.

Around the World in 80 Days required careful reckoning, because the story was released in serial form. The count of the mileage and the tally of days fills the right margin. It all had to come out right for the story to work.

Jules Verne Museum

Cover Poll Results

The people have spoken! In the Color and Light book cover poll, there were 744 votes in all, and here’s how they were distributed.

So we’re going to go with the sleeping dino, which happened to be my favorite, too. For those of you who wanted the street scene, don’t be disappointed—we'll show it uncropped on the back cover. The lamplight, birdman, and sunset scenes will appear inside the book with about 300 other color illustrations.

It was an amazing experience to read all 114 of your comments. Perhaps because you’re all so visually sophisticated and articulate, you managed to verbalize all the vague hunches and considerations that were lying half-dormant in my brain, plus you pointed out many angles I never had thought of. The folks at Andrews McMeel were impressed with you all, too. So thanks again, and I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Superior Mirage

Ordinary ground mirages look like puddles on hot roads in the desert. They’re called inferior mirages and they’re fairly common.

Far more rare and magical are superior mirages, also known as fata morgana. They occur when a layer of very cold air is overtopped by a warm air layer. The change of densities bends the light and inverts faraway images.

Phantom icebergs, ships, mountains, or even entire cities appear upside down, floating in the air. The observed objects are often so far away that they would normally be invisible, hidden behind the curvature of the earth,

Superior mirages usually occur in polar regions over ice or cold water. Sometimes they look like spiky mountains. In Iceland these are called halgerndingar. Floating cities or ships are called hillingar in Icelandic.

In her book Half-Broke Horses, Jeannette Walls describes her grandmother’s eyewitness account of a floating town in the high desert of Arizona: “There, floating in the air above the horizon, was an upside-down town. You could see the low, flat stores, the adobe church, the horses tied to the hitching posts, and the people walking in the streets.”

Images from Astronomy Cafe
More examples at the Mirage Gallery

Thursday, January 21, 2010

More About the New Book

Thanks so much to all of you for your insightful comments and votes on yesterday’s post about the cover design for the upcoming book on color and light.

In this post I wanted to tell you more about how I came to write the book, and what’s in it.

When I was in art school I took a color class that consisted of painting a lot of flat swatches, cutting them out with a sharp knife, and pasting them down into color wheels and gray scales. I spent months learning how to paint perfectly smooth swatches and trying to get the steps between them exactly even.

At the end of each day I would leave the classroom and look up at the colors of the sky, the trees, and the water around me. The sky was not composed of adjacent flat colors, but rather of an infinite variety of gradating hues. Why did dark colors turn blue as they went back toward the horizon——except in a few instances, such as in the photo below, when a setting sun casts the far vista in orange light? Why did the leaves have a sharp yellow-green color when the light shined through them, but a gray-green color on top?

In school I was learning valuable skills about how to see and mix color, but I had no idea how to apply this experience to real-world painting problems. Color theory seemed more like a branch of chemistry or mathematics, a separate science that had little to do with making a realistic painting. I felt like a piano student who had played a lot of scales, but had never gotten around to the melody.

If there were answers to my questions about how color interacts with light, atmosphere, water, and other materials, I would have to find them in fields like physics, optics, physiology, and materials science. I started digging back into art instruction books from more than 75 years ago, when it was taken for granted that artists were trying to create an illusion of reality. Artists as far back as Leonardo da Vinci were struggling to explain the workings of the visual world around them. Each old book had its vein of gold, but the information needed to be translated and updated for our times, and the old theories needed to be tested against recent scientific discoveries.

I investigated recent findings in the field of visual perception and found that many of my assumptions, even about such basic things as the primary colors, were mistaken. I learned that the eye is not like a camera, but more like an extension of the brain itself. I learned that moonlight is not blue, it only appears blue because of a trick that our eyes are playing on us.

During the last few years, since the release of Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara, I have taught workshops at a lot of art schools and movie studios. I have also kept up this blog, which explores the working methods of contemporary realists, academic painters, and Golden Age illustrators. I adapted some of the blog content into my recent book, Imaginative Realism: How to Paint what Doesn’t Exist. As I assembled that volume, I realized that the information on color and light was so extensive—and so popular with you blog readers—that I decided to save it for a second volume.

This book (Fall, 2010, Andrews McMeel, 224 pages) will begin with an illustrated survey of historic masters who used color and light in interesting ways. Those paintings are a tough act to follow, so I’m a little nervous about using my own paintings to fill the rest of the volume, but at least I can talk knowledgeably about them. Chapter 2 will examine the various sources of light, and we’ll look at how light creates the illusion of three-dimensional form. Then I’ll cover the basic properties of color as well as an introduction to pigments and paints. Chapters 6 and 7 present the method I use called color wheel masking or gamut mapping, which helps the choosing of colors for a given picture.

The last chapters of the book will deal with specific challenges that we face when we paint textures like hair and foliage, and some of the areas where we’ve learned from our digital colleagues, such as subsurface scattering, and caustics. After that we’ll look into the infinitely varied phenomena of atmospheric effects: including aerial perspective, fog, dappled light, sunbeams, rainbows, sunsets, and reflections. The book ends with a glossary, a pigment index, and a bibliography.

The book won’t contain recipes for mixing colors or step-by-step painting procedures. My goal is to bridge the gap between abstract theory and the practical knowledge needed by realist painters. I also want to cross the divide between observational color experience of the plein-air artist, and the imagined color of the fantasy artist. I would like to cut through the confusing and contradictory dogma about color, to test it in the light of science and observation, and place it in your hands so that you can use it for your own artistic purposes.

I believe color and light are the artist’s most fundamental tools. Whether you work in paint or pixels, fact or fantasy, or you’re a non-artist who is curious about the workings of the visual world, I want this book to bring color and light down to earth for you.

Cover Poll Update

If you haven’t voted on the cover design yet (scroll down), the polls will stay open until tomorrow noon. I should add that I just stuck the title typography in there really quickly, and I used the same font on all of them so that hopefully the voting would be based on the images, not the graphic type fonts and colors. That will ultimately be handled by the brilliant graphic designers at my publisher, Andrews McMeel.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Color and Light Book

I’ve got a big project in the works, and I’d like to ask for your input.

As you may have guessed, I’m creating another book to be a companion volume to Imaginative Realism. It’s called Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter. It’s all new art and all new material. I’ll tell you more about what’s in the book at the end of this post and in tomorrow’s post.

About your input: we’re not completely settled on the cover design. Please look at all of the following rough mockups and vote at left for the one you like best.

Sleeping Dino

Street Scene





Here are the big chapter titles:
Sources of Light
Light and Form
Elements of Color
Paint and Pigments
Color Relationships
Visual Perception
Surfaces and Effects
Atmospheric Effects

I look forward to your vote in the poll at left. More tomorrow!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Golden-Age of Pen and Ink

Jim Vadeboncoeur is a publisher and collector of classic pen and ink artwork. He has published several editions of of the pen-and-ink collection called ImageS, which brings together some of the finest black and white artwork from Golden Age of illustration.

The fifth edition of “ImageS” has just been released. It includes work by Frank Pape (above), Daniel Vierge, Elizabeth Shippen Green and many others.

Producing these collections requires a lot of careful restoration work. Mr. Vadeboncoeur often begins with faded, yellowed, and foxed reproductions. He digitally strengthens faded lines, erases brown spots, fixes rips and tears, and otherwise brings the artwork back to the way it looked when it rolled off the pen.

It’s becoming a rather rare delight these days to see good pen-and-ink illustration.

Slide show
Home page of ImageS

Monday, January 18, 2010

Color Isolator

On Saturday’s post we looked at color constancy illusions, which prove how hard it is to judge a color note accurately. There are various methods to overcome the problem, most of which involve isolating a particular spot of color. One way is to look through the hole in a half-closed fist. Another is to hold up two fingers spread slightly apart and look between them.

Other artists have developed special viewing scopes for isolating colors. You can make one yourself by painting a 3x3.5 inch card half white and half black. Then punch a hole in each corner. Looking through those holes allows you to isolate a given color against white or black. You can also compare two different nearby colors through side-by-side holes. You can test a mixture by putting a daub of paint next to the hole.

The limitation of any such device is that the illumination on the scene may so far exceed the range of your pigments that no single one-to-one match is possible. A related problem is that the tone of the white card changes as the illumination on the card changes, so you have to hold the card exactly at the right angle relative to the light to get a useful comparison.

Previously: Color constancy.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Vlaho Bucovac

Vlaho Bucovac (1855 - 1922) was a Croatian portraitist, history painter, and muralist. He was born to Italian parents and studied in Paris under Cabanel, along the way absorbing some of the ideas of the Impressionists.

His portrait of Barun Vranicany (detail) shows solid drawing and a sense of the pointillist’s small touch.

A photo shows his working method. The courtyard setting offers soft and indirect light, perfect for a portrait. The paintbox, mahl stick, and paint rag sit on a chair in front of him. His handheld palette has a single medium cup. He holds about three extra brushes in his left hand.

Another photo shows him working out the full-size drawing for a mural, while referring to a smaller layout.

'Portrait of a Daughter' shows what’s possible with a disciplined limited palette, probably something like black, Indian red, and yellow ochre.

Thanks, Valentino Radman.
More at Wikipedia.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Color Constancy

The painting below show the same colorful cube in red light and green light. The squares on the cube are cyan, magenta, ochre, blue, and white. Or so they seem. What colors are those squares really, objectively?

In fact, the cyan square in the bottom corner of the red-lit scene is exactly the same color mixture as the red square in the upper corner of the green-lit scene.

To test that claim, here’s the same image file with everything but those squares turned to gray tones. Nothing else has changed. The colors of those squares are made from the same paint, applied with the same brush. (The shaded surface side is a slightly redder gray in both cases.)

This phenomenon is called color constancy. We interpret local colors as stable and unchanging, regardless of the effects of colored illumination, the distractions of cast shadows, and the effects of form modeling.

Here’s another example. This powerful optical illusion, created digitally by R. Beau Lotto, is called the cross-piece illusion. Two bars made up of colored cylinders, meet in a junction piece. In one picture, the cross-piece looks blue-gray. In another it looks yellow. In fact it’s precisely the same color. At this link, you can view the illusion with a slider to isolate the actual color.

A fire truck looks red, regardless of whether we see it lit by the orange light of a fire, the blue light the twilight sky, or a blinking light of an ambulance. If the truck were parked halfway in shadow, we would still believe it to be a single, consistent color. If the fender were dented, the tones of red reaching our eyes would change, but we would still believe the red to remain the same.

Our visual systems make such inferences automatically. Color constancy processing happens unconsciously. It’s almost impossible for our conscious minds to override it.
More at
R. Beau Lotto's site
R. Beau Lotto
Wikipedia on Color Constancy

Reilly and Beyond

Over the February 5 weekend at the University of Connecticut campus, The Connecticut Society of Portrait Artists will be hosting an exhibition and symposium focusing on the methods of Art Student's League teacher Frank Reilly.

Many of his students and advocates, including John Howard Sanden, Everett Raymond Kinstler, and Jack Faragasso will be in attendance to lecture and demonstrate.
More about the event at the CSOPA website.
More about Reilly:
Matthew Innis's blog
Lines and Colors blog.
Thanks, Mike Dooney.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Art By Committee: Conversation

It’s the 15th of January, time for our group sketch game called "Art by Committee." The way it works is I share a science fiction quote and you come up with a picture to go with it.

This month the starting point was a very long, and rather dull, conversation between "Billy" and "Souci." You all rose to the occasion with some creative solutions. Thanks, everyone, for participating.

Michael Geissler
Michael says: "..and many thanks to Apophysis for their amazing fractal generator."

Mei-Yi Chun

Ian Garrick Mason

Andy Wales
Blog, with full-size comic

Mario Zara


Here's the quote for next month:

"Randall's avatar was a tortoise."

Have fun! Please scale your JPG to 400 pixels across and compress it as much as possible. Title it with your name, send it to: jgurneyart(at), subject line ABC. Please let me know in your email the full URL of the link to a larger image or your blog or website so people can see your image at full size and learn more about your other work. Please have your entries in by the 12th of February. I'll post the results February 15.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Disasters in Our Ears

Many of us paint away for long hours with the radio playing in the background. How can we concentrate amid the news of war, disaster, and tragedy? How should we respond? Keep working or drop everything?

There are two famous stories of creative people working despite the tragedies happening on their very doorsteps.

The Greek mathematician Archimedes (above by Domenico Fetti) was grappling with a geometrical problem when the Roman soldiers broke down his door during the siege of Syracuse. According to legend, the last words that he uttered before he was killed was "Do not disturb my circles," It may just be apocryphal, but it's a good story.

The composer Sergey Rachmaninov was working on one of his piano concertos during the crisis of World War 1. He said “I became so engrossed with my work that I did not notice what was going on around me….I sat at a writing table or the piano all day without troubling about the rattle of machine guns and rifle shots.” On Christmas eve, 1917, he crossed the Finnish border and left forever the country of his birth.

Lawrence Roibal’s response to the Haiti earthquake, drawing on the newpaper itself.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Absorbing Art from Newspapers

The illustrated newspapers called The Illustrated London News, The Graphic, and The Sphere provided the first art education to young artists growing up in Europe a little over a century ago.

Above: “Mothers Leaving Their Babies at the Foundling Hospital,” from the Illustrated London News. Image via Foundling Museum.

According to author and art historian Brian Kane, “Delacroix, Vernet, Manet, Monet, Renoir, and many other prominent artists contributed to illustrated newspapers. The influence of these graphic journalists was extensive.”

Mr. Kane makes the following observations:
1. The Van Gogh Museum alone maintains a collection of over 1,500 pages, which where amassed from various illustrated newspapers by Vincent and his brother Theo. Van Gogh wanted to be a graphic journalist. There are even samples of a few of his attempts at illustrations in the Van Gogh Museum. In his letters, Van Gogh also mentions Vierge a couple times.
2. Some of the world’s first comic strips, illustrated by Swiss schoolmaster Rodophe Topffer (1799-1846), were first published in L’Illustration in the 1840s.
3. The Illustrated London News’ Yokohama-based news correspondent, illustrator, and humorist Charles Wirgman (1832-1891) laid the groundwork for Japanese manga in 1862 with his self-published The Japan Punch.

Brian Kane continues:
“Until now, no one has had a good explanation as to the proliferation of artists in the mid-late 19th century. My theory, and as far as I know I'm the only one who has thought of this, is that the illustrated newspapers in England, Germany, and especially France became the first art primers for the middle class.

From the 1840s on, publications such as L'Illustration and The Illustrated London News were treasure troves of mass market art. Images of wars, floods, festivals, fine arts paintings, heads of state, foreign lands -- all of contemporary visual culture a child could ever want -- arrived in their homes weekly.

Since art was not taught in the primary schools, young artists would learn about art by copying images from the papers, just as you and I learned to draw from copying our favorite comics.”

In his book the Prince Valiant Companion, Brian Kane makes the case for Prince Valiant’s origins in the illustrated press.
Brian Kane's books for Fantagraphics. Thanks, Brian

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Devil Dinosaurs

Here’s a 1978 Marvel comic called “Devil Dinosaur.”

“If dinosaur evolution were an Austin Powers movie, T. rex would be Dr. Evil.”
So says the official National Geographic website.

A recent Discovery Channel program about dinosaurs was called “Monsters Resurrected.

Why do we demonize meat-eating dinosaurs? If you read the old accounts of explorers in Africa, they used to refer to lions, tigers, gorillas and even elephants as beasts and monsters. But no one does that with living animals anymore because we understand them more fully as complex and vulnerable creatures.

Tyrannosaurs are shown in most movies——and most documentaries——as rampaging killing machines. But real meat-eaters don’t have it so easy. Predators get kicked by prey, they get chased off a kill by other predators, and they starve.

Perhaps people associate meat-eating with the moral evil of murder. Perhaps we make monsters out of dinosaurs because they’re unknown enough to allow us to place them on a mythic plane. That’s OK for comic books and stories—after all, Dinotopia romanticizes dinosaurs both as allies and adversaries—but I don’t think marketing departments of science publications should use that angle, because it stands in the way of a more interesting scientific understanding.
Thanks, Andy, for the comic! Comic copyright Marvel.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Prado’s 19th Century Collection

Blog reader Carlos Ygoa of Spain reports that the Prado Museum in Madrid has recently reinstalled their collection of 19th-century Spanish painting.

Carlos says, “This was the collection that used to be on view in the Casón del Buen Retiro, a sort of annex of the Prado that has been under renovation for years now. Because of this renovation, the paintings were hidden from public view for a long time. The paintings, which include works by Sorolla, Fortuny, Rosales, the Madrazos, as well as other big names of 19th C Spanish painting, have now found a permanent place in 12 new salas of the Prado.”

More info at the Prado site.

The painting is by Carlos de Haes (Spanish) "Mancorbo Canal in Picos de Europa," 1876

Interview on ImagineFX

ImagineFX magazine has just posted an interview with me. Here's the link.

Selling Out

An art student named Stephen raised the question, “What is selling out?” He said the word has come up in a lot of his discussions, and he’s heard it bandied about in creative fields.

Stephen asks:
1. Is it someone who very overtly markets themselves? Because many of us have blogs that we direct others to.

2. Is it someone who sacrifices their artistic instincts to make someone else happy? Because most people with clients do that.

3. Or is it just a term we toss at people who have the success that we'd like but don't have? Because that's not honest criticism, that's just jealousy.

Thanks, Stephen! Here are some of my own questions and an attempt at an answer:

More questions:
Another way to think about your question is, what kinds of artist is the most removed from being a sell-out? An independently wealthy amateur? An artist drawing in a sketchbook that no one else will see? A child who is drawing for the pure love of it? A modestly successful artist who is misunderstood and undiscovered? A university art professor?

Is personal vision incompatible with commercial success? Is there another way to arrange a system of patronage to keep artists from having to compromise expression?

Some thoughts:
In the past there has been state support for the arts. And there have been art-oriented popes, or enlightened patrons, but that’s more of a rarity now. Let’s face it: artists who have to please politicians, popes, or patrons have to make compromises, too. So like it or not, apart from people who do art for the pure love of it, the commercial marketplace is where most American art has to live or die.

I think it’s reasonable for any artist to want to reach a wide audience, because communication is an important part of art. And it’s reasonable to want to be compensated by the people who enjoy the work. It is wrong to assume that something is automatically bad because it’s popular. But if marketing considerations begin to drive the process, something is worthwhile is lost.

I believe that one kind of art isn’t any purer than another. There’s original, daring work in every category: gallery landscapes, portraits, still lifes, figure work, illustration, concept art, animation, comics, game art, packaging design, and logo design. Some of the most creative filmmaking is in the 30-second TV ad spot. And in every one of those categories there’s hack work manufactured with the sole purpose to please a supposed market.

Any kind of work can meet the demands of a crass client and still be deeply inspired: look at Mozart’s Requiem, for example. (He was paid by an anonymous patron who wanted to pass it off as his own work). Mozart died in the process, but delivered some of the greatest music of all time.

Ironically, you have to be gifted with a personal vision to be commercially successful. Just trying to make a calculated product to make money only leads to hack work that doesn’t sell. Stuff that’s original and daring is often is very successful and remunerative.

So, Stephen, I’d say you should ignore people who talk about selling out. Do the kind of art you love. If you make money doing it, more power to you. If not, that’s OK too, just do your best stuff, even for what may seem the lowliest commission, and never do something just because you think someone else is going to like it.

Regarding comments: For this topic, I’d suggest that we don’t mention names of any living artists (You can talk about your own experience, of course). Corporations and deceased artists are fair game.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Monochromatic Color

A monochromatic color scheme is not necessarily a neutral gray picture. It can be composed of any single color taken through the full range of values from light to dark.

There is long tradition for artwork for made only in grayish or brownish tones (Above, F.R. Gruger). Any drawing tool, such as a pencil or a stick of conté crayon, automatically makes a monochromatic image. Painters have rendered figures or scenes en grisaille, which literally means “in grays.” Grisaille painting was most often used as a preliminary step to work out the tonal values, or as a part of the process in painting, before the colors were overlaid in transparent glazes.

But apart from those exceptions, most painting through history has been created in full color. The 19th century and early 20th centuries saw the invention of several imagemaking technologies, including photography, halftone printing, motion pictures, and television, all of which began in black and white. It took until well in the 20th century before all those media changed to full color. The New York Times didn’t run a color photo on its front page until 1997.

As a result, people living through the early part of the last century got used to seeing the world interpreted in black and white or sepia tones. Now, of course, full color is universal, and black and white has become artistic choice rather than an economic one. Monochromatic schemes often draw attention for their very uniqueness and understatement.

Today in graphic novels or illustrated books, monochromatic schemes immediately suggest historical photos, as in this image Dinotopia, to lend credibility to an imaginary world. In full-color comics, flashback sequences are often presented in sepia.

In a painting, you can lay out any string of grey, brown, or blue colors. If you want to simulate an old photo, it often helps to stop short of the full range of tones. Instead of a black or a bright white for the extreme values, a more limited range can better suggest a yellowed or faded photographic image.