Saturday, April 20, 2019

Are Comics Respectable?

Micheal, a community college student in Idaho, asks:

Jack Kirby (1917-1994) at his drawing table
a) Do you consider comics and graphic novels to be an art form? Is it a respectable one?

Yes, comics are an art form. Like movies, they are a form that can communicate stories, characters, emotions, and ideas. They can be a showcase for a variety of styles of drawing and writing, and an infinite range of moods. There's nothing about the form that makes them respectable or not respectable. Quality work in any art form is always worthy of respect. But you'll also find uninspired, mannered, and derivative work in any art form, too.

Lynd Ward, illustration God's Man: A Novel in Woodcuts
b) Do you feel that a book with illustrations has less literary merit than one without?

It's a circular question, because the term "literary" usually refers to the world of writing, not that of pictures. So an illustrated book isn't strictly "literary." But if you're talking about artistic merit, my answer would be yes, an illustrated book is entitled to be regarded as a work of art. The merit has nothing to do with the form, but rather with how well the work is executed and how successfully it communicates to its audience.

Conventional critics and professional associations coalesce around art forms that are familiar and popular. Literary critics often don't know how to respond to illustrated books for adults because there isn't much illustrated fiction outside of graphic novels. It's rare to find a critic who can respond intelligently to the unique synergy between art and writing.

Superman comic from 1938
10 cent investment; $3.2 million auction record
c) As a person who has studied the masters and been heavily involved with art education, do you feel that comics and graphic novels are fairly represented in the professional art world?

Are comics fairly represented? I don't know, but they certainly have made a splash in the professional art world. A single printed comic book has sold at auction for millions of dollars. Important galleries specialize in comic art. Cartoon art has been featured in museum shows everywhere from Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art to the Norman Rockwell Museum. Art schools offer classes in sequential art. Professors in leading universities have specialized in dissecting the the language of comics. There are books recounting the history of comics. And there are professional awards, professional associations, and popular conventions.

So, yes, comics have earned a place in the professional art world. That doesn't mean it's easy to make a living in comics. And I'm not sure all that gold-plated respectability is always a good thing for any art form. Have the Oscars® encouraged people to make better movies? I'm doubtful about that.

As we think about honors, awards, and auction prices, let's not forget the silly fun of comics, the flashlight-under-the-covers thrill of comic books that your parents don't want you to read, the over-the-top craziness of experimental comics that authorities frown upon, the guilty pleasure of comic books rescued from the dumpster, thrown there by someone who told you to read something more educational.

Being in the Hall of Fame is fine, but the most vital art forms always have one foot in the back alley. Shakespeare wrote for the Globe Theater, which was a raucous, bawdy place for commoners. Mozart's operas were written for low-class working folks. Bob Dylan wasn't thinking about the Nobel Prize for Literature when he wrote his guitar lyrics. He was just trying to channel something deep and ancient, doing it first and foremost for the crazy love of it.

Book: Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

Friday, April 19, 2019

Painting The American Flag

I'm back at the supermarket parking lot again, this time casting an eye skyward.

It's a cloudy day with a steady breeze from the south. The flag catches my eye, and I decide to paint it in gouache. I mute the colors and warm them, which means the blue is just a gray. I gradate both the flag colors and the sky colors toward an imaginary fiery orb behind the flag.

(link to YouTube)
As I say in the video, local colors become interesting when they are transformed by a system of illumination.  That's how you animate colors—modulate them according to a logic of light. That logic might be atmospheric perspective, light and shadow, or in this case, halation / lens flare / or color corona.
Check out the website of my pal "Big Jim" Mushett, who will paint a portrait of your favorite car when he's not rounding up your shopping cart.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Oscar Rejlander and Art Photography

Oscar Rejlander contributed photographs to Charles Darwin's work The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Published in 1872, the book was one of the first to be illustrated with photographs, and it was unusual at the time to see photos showing such expressions.

Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), 1863 by Oscar Gustav Rejlander
Oscar Rejlander took a carefully composed portrait of Alice-in-Wonderland author Lewis Carroll.

He provided reference photographs to assist painters such as Lawrence Alma Tadema. Finally, Rejlander pioneered an ambitious approach to art photography, producing in 1857 a moralistic photomontage called "The Two Ways of Life."

The Two Ways of Life by Oscar Rejlander, 1857

Oscar G. Rejlander: Artist Photographer
"This was a seamlessly montaged combination print made of thirty-two images (akin to the use of Photoshop today, but then far more difficult to achieve) in about six weeks. First exhibited at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857, the work shows a man being lured to paths of vice or virtue by good and bad angels. The image's partial nudity, which showed real women as they actually appeared and not the idealized forms then common in Victorian art, was deemed 'indecent' by some. Rejlander was also accused of using prostitutes as models, although Rejlander categorically denied this and no proof was ever offered. Reservations about the work subsided when Queen Victoria ordered a 10-guinea copy to give to Prince Albert." —Wikipedia
Wikipedia: Oscar Rejlander and Art Photography
Book: Oscar G. Rejlander: Artist Photographer

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Relative Color Temperature

Anand has some questions about how people talk about color temperature.

He says he understands how a yellow can be cooler if it leans more toward blue, and warmer if it has a red bias. But which blue is warmer/ cooler? One could argue that a blue with a red or violet bias is warmer because red is a warm color. But a blue with a yellow or green bias can also be regarded as warmer because yellow is also a warm color.

He also asks which is warmer, green or magenta? And is there a pure primary color on the dividing line between warm and cool? Finally, Which is the warmest color on color wheel of tube colors yellow or orange?"

Casein paint
Answer: Artists mean different things when they talk of color as warm or cool. A swatch of orange or blue standing alone can be described in absolute terms as a warm color or a cool color. Alternately, some artists use color temperature more as a relative concept to distinguish two closely related colors. For example, a green mixed with more orange might be regarded as warmer than a similar green that was composed with more of a blue-green hue. 

As you suggest, this relative approach to assigning color temperature can be confusing when someone is talking about blue, which could be made warmer with the addition of either red or yellow. I would agree with you that blue is the coolest color, so I don't think it makes any sense to describe a warmer blue.

Is there a primary color on the dividing line between warm and cool? Yes, greens and violets are on the dividing line, but artists don't always agree precisely where to divide the color wheel. Color theory historian David Briggs explains further how the color wheel has been divided between warm and cool through history.  

Which color is the warmest? I'd say a yellow orange, like a cadmium yellow medium is the warmest. But this is also a matter of debate. Keep in mind that warmth is not something you can measure with a thermometer. It's psychological. And the effect of a color in a given painting depends to a great extent on what colors you put around it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Remembering Alphonse Mucha

Alphonse Mucha's son Jiří (1915-1991), who wrote one of the best books on the artist, went before the camera in 1975 to share his recollections. He leafs through old prints and portfolios and tours the family home in Prague.

About 14 minutes into the video, he talks about the reference photographs that he discovered among his father's things. The photos were especially helpful for drapery. Mucha would not copy the photograph, Jiri says, instead he would just use it as inspiration. (Link to video)

He says that his father put the idea of the perfect women on such a high pedestal that he was aloof and even disdainful around his actual models. When his father was about 13, he fell in love with a girl his age, who died. Forever afterward, he cherished that childlike feminine ideal, and tried to recapture it in his work.

Another video that's well worth seeing is the slide lecture on Mucha given by Felicia Zavarella Stadelman. The vivid stories she tells brings the artist to life.  (Link to video)
Alphonse Maria Mucha by Jiri Mucha (1989-03-15)
Previous posts on Mucha

Monday, April 15, 2019


Zoungy asks: "What's the term for painting each area to completion, rather than painting the whole area broadly with pale washes and increasing the depth?"

 "Some people call it "window shading," especially oil painters. I usually call it "area-by-area painting" when it's in oil and "ink-jetting" when it's in watercolor.  

For example, I want to paint this diner in watercolor. I start with a pencil drawing to give a baseline scaffolding. While I'm doing that step I notice that a couple of the cars have already been replaced by new cars.

It has an active parking lot. Patrons stay inside for an average of 45 minutes (according to Google). I decide to paint the motorcycles first and then record the parked cars one at a time. 

The rendering grows outward from those finished areas. I can worry about the sign and the trees after I finish the parking area.

Ink-jetting is just another painting strategy that every painter should try and have ready when you need it, in contrast to the "overall approach" advised by Pissarro and others.  

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites

Today the National Gallery in Washington opens the exhibition "American Pre-Raphaelites: Radical Realists."

John William Hill, Bird's Nest and Dog Roses, 1867
watercolor, gouache, and graphite
The exhibit examines a group of American artists that were inspired by the English critic John Ruskin. Ruskin advocated that young artists should go to Nature ‘rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.’ 

Thomas Charles Farrer, Mount Tom, 1865, oil on canvas,
The show includes more than 90 works of art, including oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings, some never before exhibited. One of the American leaders of the movement was English expatriate Thomas Charles Farrer, who was instrumental in spreading Ruskin's philosophy of close observation of nature.

Oddly enough, the curators left out Asher B. Durand from the selection of exhibited artists. He was a central figure in advocating truth-to-nature philosophies and practices, at least as much as Ruskin was. Although Durand didn't mention Ruskin by name in his Letters on Landscape Painting, he exemplified many of Ruskin's philosophies in his careful studies of trees and landscapes, and he gave Ruskin's ideas his own American slant. Durand exhibited these studies to a rising generation of landscape painters at the National Academy of Design in New York, where he was president from 1845-1861. Contrary to the impression left by the catalog essay, which quotes critics accusing Durand of belonging to a "past age and a dead system," in fact he remained an influential advocate of close observation, celebrated and beloved by younger artists until his death in 1886.

Henry Roderick Newman, Study of Elms, 1866, watercolor, 17 x 19 in.
The catalog begins with seven essays examining roots of the truth-to-nature philosophies, the role of photography in their work, their interest in still life painting, and the iconography of American Pre-Raphaelites.

Charles Herbert Moore, Hudson River, Above Catskill
One of the authors devotes twenty pages to the idea that some of the landscape paintings contain veiled references to the Civil War, Abolitionism, and other hidden political agendas. For example, the boat pulled up on shore in Charles Herbert Moore's painting Hudson River, Above Catskill is described as a "wrecked or stranded boat emblematic of a foundered ship of state and the associated fears for and even a loss of faith in the American corporate enterprise during and following the Civil War."

While some artists were certainly painting landscapes with political overtones during this period, I'm a bit skeptical of some of these interpretations. In the case of the Moore landscape above, maybe the boat was there because someone just beached his rowboat above the high tide line (the Hudson River above Catskill is tidal).

William Trost Richards Corner of the Woods,
1864, graphite, 23 x 17.5 in.
I wish the catalog's editors had devoted less page space to political theories (why not publish those online?) and instead tell the factual and humorous stories of the artists. What logistical challenges did they face, and what practical methods did they use? There are a lot of vivid, first-hand accounts in letters and journals to draw upon. I also wish the editors would consult practicing painters and conservators to give themselves more of a grounding in the concerns the actual artists faced.

Or better yet, cut back on the text and devote more pages to reproductions of artwork.

John William Hill, Apple Blossoms, watercolor, 1874, 9 x 15.5 in.
Despite those quibbles, the 312-page catalog is worth the cost ($65 list, $42 on Amazon) for the 210 color illustrations. There are high quality reproductions of all the works in the show, plus several closeups.

Fidelia Bridges, Study of Ferns, oil on board, 10 x 12 in.
I was especially impressed with the 11 works by William Trost Richards and the six samples by Fidelia Bridges. The back of the book includes an exhibition checklist, a timeline, artist biographies, notes, and index.
Catalog: The American Pre-Raphaelites: Radical Realists on Amazon
Exhibition: American Pre-Raphaelites: Radical Realists will be up through July 21, 2019.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Gouache Portrait of Mickey & Friends

It's time to visit my friend Mel Birnkrant, who almost singlehandedly rescued the early image of Mickey Mouse. 

Minnie, Horace, and Mickey, gouache, 5x8 inches
Classic Mickey was nowhere to be seen between 1939 and 1973, because Mickey was replaced with the redesigned version).

One of Mel's cherished possessions is a set of one-of-a-kind sculpts of Minnie, Mickey, and Horace Horsecollar from about 1934. The rubber-hose style legs are made from electrical wire, and the heads are hand-carved from wood.

The painting is in gouache (white, raw sienna, terra rosa, and ultramarine blue) over a casein underpainting.

I'm using my homemade sketch easel at sitting height. Original Borden Dairy “Elsie” puppets by Bil Baird are in the background.
Saving Classic Mickey on

Friday, April 12, 2019

Chinese Tomb Guardians

Tomb guardians in ancient China from the 7th to 9th century A.D. served to protect the living from wandering spirits of the dead, and to protect the tomb from robbers.

Some of these molded earthenware sculpts were composite figures that included qualities of human and animal forms.

According to Wikipedia, the earth spirits had animal bodies "often including wings sprouting from the tops of the forelegs.

"The heads are often different, with one semi-human and another perhaps based on a snarling lion. Both have horns and crests like flames or huge cockscombs."

Unglazed face of an earth spirit of the semi-human type
Read more on Wikipedia: Tang Dynasty Tomb Figures

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Cadmium Pigment Escapes E.U. Ban

The European Union has thrown out Sweden's proposal to ban cadmium paint
"It’s hard to imagine painting without cadmium. The brilliant, lightfast pigment was discovered around 1820 and started appearing in artist’s red, yellow, and orange paints in the 1840s — just in time for Impressionist founder Claude Monet’s arrival in the world. They’re what gave us Monet’s haystacks, Van Gogh’s sunflowers, and Matisse’s red-drenched studio. The European Chemical Agency (ECHA) began considering a ban on cadmium after the Swedish Chemicals Agency submitted a 197-page document calling for one in December 2013. Cadmium pigment is made with cadmium sulphide, a toxic heavy metal. It is not technically classified as hazardous by REACH, the EU body that advises the commission on chemicals, and it makes up only .1 percent of paints. Nonetheless, the report argued that artists were polluting the environment by rinsing their cadmium-soaked brushes in the sink. The cadmium would find its way into sewage sludge that is spread on agricultural land and wind up polluting crops, and so increase the risk of cancer and other illnesses."
Read more at HyperAllergenic: Rejoice! The Red (Paint) Scare Is Over in Europe