Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fine Art and Illustration

Blog reader Gary Gowans asks: "Where do you draw the line between fine art and illustration? How about galleries? Does it matter? I have been painting just short of photo realism and am in several good galleries BUT, I love the illustrators of the Golden Age as well as like Fuchs, English, and Robt. Heindel to name a few." 

Answer: Yes, Gary, it matters, because words matter. Words shape the way we arrange the furniture inside our minds. I believe that you can love the great illustrators while you paint for galleries.

I try not to draw a line between fine art and illustration, because both terms are impossible to define and the distinction is meaningless.

By "fine art," some people mean gallery art. For some people the term suggests a branch of art that's supposedly free from commercialism.

Having been involved in all sorts of art-making, I can attest that gallery art can be liberating, because you can paint whatever you want, especially when you're getting started. But once paintings start selling, things change, and the gallery career can become the most commercial of all. Gallery artists are always reminded of what's selling, and what's not, and are pressured by the marketplace to repeat successes more than any other kind of art.

There's nothing wrong with making art solely with the intent to sell it. We've all got to make a living. And it's possible for a gallery artist to be unaffected by thinking about sales and prices, but it's not easy. Are you going to keep doing those experimental things that you love doing when that last show got no red dots? 

The least commercial art form I've ever experienced is magazine illustration, where the individual work of art has no measurable influence on the ultimate commercial success of the larger work, namely the magazine. If any art is "fine" in the sense of being non-commercial, it is illustration.

“Illustration” is a term that means different things to different people. It can mean: 
1) work that’s commissioned.
2) work that tells a story.
3) or work that is reproduced. 

Those are very different criteria, and none of them should be grounds for disparaging artwork. There have been great works of art that fit one, two, or even all three of these measures. Work has been commissioned by publishers, and before that by popes and kings, often formatting them very specifically for altar pieces or tombs. Artists have always been capable of inspired work under such conditions.

Work that tells a story includes all great artwork, not just painting, but also movies and novels. How could that not be the highest calling? And work that is reproduced just brings it to a larger audience, as the phonograph has done for music. Live musicians don't disparage musicians who make recordings, so why should art that's printed be any different?

So let yourself love whatever artwork speaks to you. Whatever kind of artwork you do, throw your heart into it. Now I guess the next question is: So are we all artists, then? Too late to call ourselves artists, because musicians and actors have stolen that term!


Tom Hart said...

This is one of the most eloquent, on-target answers to that question that I have ever heard or read...At least it jives with my thoughts :^).

As for the last paragraph, I prefer to call myself a painter rather than "artist". "Artist" feels too pretentious and broad to me, personally. I also feel that "painter" is more descriptive in my case. The term does potentially include house-painters, of course, but I'm not insulted or bothered by any temporary confusion in that regard.

If (as in my past) I was endeavoring to do more illustration work, I would be proud to call myself an illustrator.

Matt Hunter Ross said...

Great post. I feel like George Lucas' venture belongs in this conversation somewhere.

Keith Patton said...

"Work that tells a story includes all great artwork, not just painting, but also movies and novels. How could that not be the highest calling?"

I love that line. It's very true. I don't know why many representational artists today-- who mostly look to the old masters as their guides-- seem to think that the highest calling is "painting nature," which can mean both highly rendered still lifes and portraits or loose brushy landscapes. Those very same old masters considered those subjects to be lower than "history" painting.

It's like thinking that journalism is a higher artform than fictional novels, audio recording of nature as higher than orchestra, or infomercials as a higher form than dramatic film.

Of course, I love both types of art-- paintings of nature and imaginative painting. But I agree that storytelling is a "higher calling."

Smurfswacker said...

When I worked in TV animation (in the pre-digital days) a talented key background painter told me why he preferred that job to gallery painting. He'd started out painting for galleries and struck paydirt with a couple of pictures of elegant women seated at pianos. After that the gallery wanted him to paint nothing but elegant women at pianos. He liked the variety of BG painting, where each piece was a new challenge.

Jim Serrett said...

I have always wondered if this division of commercial artist/fine artist is a postmodern invention by a elitist gallery system. By this imaginary exclusive separation Titian, Michelangelo, Rembrandt all would of all been considered commercial artists. For they worked mainly on commission, had narratives and told stories.
If in theory, a work is considered commercial art when its purpose is to sell products, then what is Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst artwork?

Nina Brodsky said...

Great post. I wonder if one would ever call abstract art "illustration"? Also, can you identify the drawing/etching in the post? I'm sure I am showing my ignorance by not recognizing it but, I love it!

DamianJ said...


the etching is: The Salon of 1785 by Pietro Antonio Martini.

a google image search will return assorted hi-res versions.

Nauman Abrar said...

Great arts and illustrations. I am looking for abstract wallpapers app, downloaded some of them from Download Android Apk Free Online but can't find a good one. Need your suggestions.

Greg Newbold said...

Some folks like to equate selling your art to "selling out", as if making a living with your art as an illustrator is somehow a less virtuous method of visual creativity than being a starving artist who paints only what he wants. I'll just say that there is no virtue at all in being a starving artist.

Sam said...

Excellent to hear your perspective on this, James. I'm young (mid-twenties,) but I've lived around art and artists on enough sides of the spectrum to understand that, for the most part, drawing too fine a line between one kind of art and another without a distinct reason to do so is limiting, meaningless, and sometimes even damaging.

Perhaps this is another debate for another time, but I've noticed as I've matured as an artist that less experienced peers I know are usually the ones preoccupied with these distinctions. Obviously I can't control the way they think, but it hurts my heart to watch a younger colleague forcing themselves onto a path that they just weren't made for and take no joy in, because they misattribute another individual's success to how they fit in to some hazily-defined labeling scheme. Yes there are labels that are helpful to describe things, like "painting" or "sculpture." Even those sometimes fail to describe the nuances. But when I meet a student who asks what the difference is between a gallery painter and an illustrator before their first painting is even dry, I wonder why they think my answer will even matter. Once upon a time, I believed that labeling myself an illustrator before I even got started was the key to everything. I would tell myself that it was because I was looking for a community where I would fit in - maybe partially true - but at the heart of it was my lack of confidence in myself. I was looking for permission. I was looking for an authority to approve the limits I put on myself because deep down I knew I would fail and that would be proof positive that I should give it all up. The only person who can grant any kind of permission is me, and only to let go and be the person I am. I'd rather question the belief that those labels mean anything or that they can be starkly defined because I have too much respect for my fellow creatives to allow myself to be put into the position of permission-granter. Paint what you love, even if what you love can't easily be defined. Labels are an index for navigating subjects. They have no part in the process of self-discovery. You don't start a book by writing the index.

Elena Jardiniz said...

I think Jim Serrett nailed it. Fine Art (tm) IS marketing. It's about creating a product, then creating a demand for that product by somehow marketing the product as valuable. There is ...stuff... marketed as FA(TM) that has no connection with the target audience's emotions at all - beyond desire to own this thing. It really isn't meant to engage the viewer - it's something else. I've actually seen a talk given by a fellow who is an example of this species. He developed an "art form" that looks rather like cheap yarn spider webs attached to packing crate armatures. The "knitting" is done by employees and the "fabric" is developed by a complicated random number generator. Seriously! I'm not making this up! And it ties directly into the whole "Fine Art (tm)" as a product. People buy this stuff not because it evokes an emotional reaction of any kind but as an investment.

All I can think of, when I see examples of that sort of thing, is the story of The Emperor's New Clothes - which is, of course, a cautionary tale about con artists. And if I have to read the artist's manifesto to figure out what the devil s/he's playing at... the medium of the art is the written word, not visual art.

The art we see here, whether Mr. Gurney's own or anyone he's spotlighted, is some form of beauty. And of course that beauty varies wildly day to day, piece to piece, artist to artist and viewer to viewer. Some sketches are problem solving, but most are 'hey, that's neat/lovely/intriguing and I want to capture it.' Or whimsy, or flat out fun.

Story telling is important - whether it's done with visual images or words. And the heartfelt connection viewers make with the artist is what makes it 'art'.

Bill said...

I belong to a co-op gallery in a working class resort town best known for it's bay front. There's a lot of pressure to produce and hang more marine work. It's the marine images that are selling, no matter how good the other stuff is. Reminds me of my old day job. It's about the money.

Kyle Henry said...

I think the separation between fine art and illustration occurred when those who couldn't draw and paint decided they were superior. James M. Flagg has some great quotes on this.

Elena Jardiniz said...

Well, Bill, the gallery does need to pay its bills, as do the artists, and that makes sense that the gallery would ask for paintings that have a better chance of selling. There are a lot of ways to paint/draw/illustrate using the sea and life on it, in it, around it. You can paint realistically, abstractly, cartoon, or anything along that scale and produce some splendid artwork. You can tell stories, show so many aspects of life.

That doesn't irk me near as much as someone throwing shit (literally, though it IS then sealed in verethane or something) and managing to actually sell it as "art". The former is merely reasonable, the latter is execrable.

Dan said...

Thoughtful post, James. Lots of great points.

I think ultimately it comes down to intent. It seems to me that Illustration is created for the benefit of the audience foremost, sometimes at the cost of self-expression. Fine Arts is about self-expression, sometimes at the cost of your audience. Ideally, the artist finds a nice balance.

dragonladych said...

A lot of interesting comments here. I find it so difficult to explain these things at times. Maybe it's not really possible.

But I recently had this discussion with "fine art" people who told me I shouldn't be diminishing my work by calling myself an illustrator. Really put me off trying to do some shows here, I am very proud and happy to be an illustrator, but somehow we don't have a place in galleries. It's a shame but there are other paths. I really dislike this elitist attitude, but I wish there were ways to show my originals at times.

Actually in the US there are now galleries showing illustration, but listening to them I see the same "problem" they ask for "consistency", meaning you need to have a series of similar paintings or they won't "sell"? Is it the public who only wants to collect the same stuff all the time or is it that gallery owners think that it is how things should be? In any case I am not interested, as others said, might as well have a regular job, it will pay more.

But it's all really frustrating

dragonladych said...

Actually illustration is 60% about marketing (or more at times) that's just the way things go if you want to make a living. No way around that.
The difference is in the type of business format, but it's really very similar. The purpose of any professional artist is to sell that's the whole point. You can very well produce art just for fun, but I think most of us want to share what we do? and to produce enough quality the job needs to pay money... I have 5 side jobs at the moment, no way I can produce enough art to make a living. It's not about selling out it's about paying our bills.