Saturday, April 14, 2018


I love this very cool drawing of a tyrannosaurus rex by Ike, age 6.

I spotted it at an art exhibition at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

In response to my most recent post of a drawing by Ronald Searle, various commenters wrote:
I think that is the most important in any drawing, draw what we feel instead of what we see, connections and relationship instead of objects
 [B]rilliant! He draws the way the old man FEELS rather than the way he LOOKS.    
Ike may not be an experienced professional artist like Searle, yet he has done a wonderful job of drawing what he feels.  Get a load of those teeth! Unlike the standard "lightning bolt" line most people use as a shortcut for drawing teeth, Ike has lovingly outlined each tooth separately.  Each tooth has its own unique, scary shape.

Ike couldn't fit this many teeth in his picture if he was constrained like an adult by the conventional proportions of a T-Rex.  Because his patterns of perception haven't hardened yet, he was able to unhinge the jaw and expand the mouth to make it as big as the entire rest of the dinosaur.  It appears that when he wanted still more teeth,  he added a third row above the dinosaur's head.  Ike is a creative artist with strong priorities.

And it doesn't end there. Not content to draw the dinosaur's body with a simple contour line the way many people would, Ike intuitively draws a jagged body like the roar of a thunder lizard shown on an oscilloscope (or the shock to your nervous system when you see a dinosaur coming toward you).

Psychologists tell us that children's drawings exaggerate shapes in ways that reveal the child's inner feelings about their subject.  There is a purity to this kind of imagination, which is what causes artists such as Picasso, Dubuffet, Klee and Steinberg to forsake technical skill and struggle to recall the stem cells of art.

Monday, April 02, 2018


An elderly gentleman sitting quietly in his armchair reading a newspaper-- could there be a less exciting subject for a drawing?

Well, that depends on the artist.

Here's how Ronald Searle handles the topic:

Look how Searle has re-invented the human form:  posture in the shape of a question mark; a sagging mouth that exceeds the limits of the face by extending all the way down to the jawbone; and legs like matchsticks.

For another artist, those pants legs would be a straight vertical line.  Look how Searle chips away
with what may have been a bamboo stick, giving them the character of rotting timber.

The hands have no bones, yet the gnarly lines grasp the newspaper perfectly. 

Searle's drawings always contain valuable lessons, but the one I'd like to emphasize here is that the subject matter does not necessarily limit the quality and originality of form. 

In an era where so many artists are convinced they don't have to draw well as long as their concepts are cool, Searle is a welcome reminder of the opposite truth: that quality in visual form can stand alone, proud and tall.

Monday, March 12, 2018


After the recent school shootings in Florida, rival cable news channels and political factions chattered away day and night.  They spewed words of explanation or blame, words of solace or rage, words of hopelessness or words proposing solutions.  (For example, the mentally deranged executive vice president of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, proposed that school teachers pack heat, the better to shoot future gunslingers.)  It's doubtful those words persuaded anyone.

In all that noise, one silent image went viral: Norman Rockwell's classic painting of a school teacher, altered to make a point:

Clear as a bell, it wordlessly reminded audiences of what we are at heart, and what we risk becoming.

Here is Rockwell's original version:

In the same month, the Smithsonian Institution published a cover story about the changing state of America.  The benchmark it chose? Norman Rockwell.

 The Smithsonian asked four brave illustrators to try their hand at updating the themes in Rockwell's  famous "Four Freedoms." series.  (They did not do so well):

At the same time, the Chicago History Museum unveiled a prominent new installation showing  Rockwell's take on the legendary cause of the Great Chicago Fire: Mrs. O' Leary's cow which supposedly kicked over a lantern: 

The new permanent display, "Rockwell's Chicago."
There's nothing surprising about any of these uses for Rockwell's work.  Not a week goes by without some prominent publication or institution invoking Rockwell as a standard.

They know their audience will immediately recognize the reference.

In fact, forty years after Rockwell's death, there are still websites that collect dozens of new spoofs and commentaries on Rockwell's pictures.

Despite his lasting popularity-- or perhaps because of it-- we still hear the thin voices of postmodern art critics fulminating that Rockwell dealt in cliché. But if Rockwell dealt in mere clichés, his art would not continue to play such a significant role in today's vital discourse. His style may be out of fashion but his statements about human nature are undeniably true and enduring.  This is the difference between clichés and archetypes.  

Peter Viereck emphasized that archetypes must never be confused with stereotypes. Archetypes, he wrote, are the enduring values and traditions that have “grown out of the soil of history: slowly, painfully, organically.” These may be easily recognizable but they are very different from cliches or “the ephemeral, stereotyped values of the moment" that have “been manufactured out of the mechanical processes of mass production: quickly, painlessly, artificially."  

The great Herman Melville shared this "reverence for archetypes." He believed archetypes to be at the core of the classic architecture of the golden age of Greece, claiming they saved Greek art from "innovating willfulness." (Innovating willfulness might well be the slogan for our culture.)

Rockwell was hugely prolific, and sometimes resorted to clichés during his long career.  But in his stronger work he was an artist of archetypes.  We find ourselves borrowing the power of his silent archetypes when the clamor of our turbo-charged, 3D digital video presentations with Dolby sound cease to hold our attention.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of an "iconic" artist.


Wednesday, February 28, 2018


When Rembrandt declared bankruptcy in 1656, an official from the Amsterdam Insolvency Office showed up at his house at No. 4 Breestraat to inventory Rembrandt's possessions.

The possessions would have to be auctioned off to pay Rembrandt's debts.  Moving from room to room, it didn't take long to figure out why Rembrandt had gone bankrupt.  As Anthony Bailey wrote in his book, Rembrandt's House:
The house was crammed with pictures, stacked against and hanging from the walls.... [T]he collecting trait appears to have become an ungovernable compulsion. 
Bailey reports that these pictures included "bits and pieces," scraps and sketches that Rembrandt fancied by his contemporaries,  drawings from Italy, paintings from different periods in a variety of styles.
In part he collected... pieces that he could use in his works, not just for themselves but as pointers and touchstones.  [B]ut his collection of pictures was huge and diverse.  Rembrandt's collection was almost a museum.
I thought about poor bankrupt Rembrandt recently when I viewed the current exhibition at the Society of Illustrators of the art collection of the illustrator Peter de Sève. The exhibition includes work from greats such as Rackham, Searle, Kley, Frazetta, Frost, Sullivant, Disney artists, Winsor McCay and many others.

Unlike a typical museum exhibition organized by a curator or art historian, de Sève has assembled work that appeals to his artist's eye.

He includes working drawings that reveal the thought processes of the artist:

Jules Feiffer

Preliminary sketches that reveal the original spark of inspiration before the concept has been refined and diminished.


Another Frazetta.  Note how, even in this preliminary rough, each of the seven "green women" has a distinctive pose and role.  Frazetta doesn't lump them all together in the background.  This prelim contains all the DNA for the finished painting.

As one of the leading character designers for animated movies, de Sève seems to have a special interest in the evolution of sequential drawing, starting with the A.B. Frost's series of pen and ink illustrations in the 19th century...

A dog racing down the road...

...leaves disaster in its wake.

and moving on to Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur at the dawn of animation...

...before turning to great Disney art such as Preston Blair's famous hippopotamus ballerina from Fantasia and art from Lilo and Stitch.

There's strong pen and ink work by artists such as Heinrich Kley:

... and work by Arthur Rackham that reveals the artist's underlying sensitive pencil lines:
De Sève writes, "It's thrilling for me to see the half-erased pencil lines that reveal clues to the artist's thinking process and detours he or she traveled to get to the final artwork."

The exhibition also contains final work with interesting solutions by fellow illustrators:

Nick Galifianakis shows all we need to know about the child prodigy Mozart: the top of a wig and those tiny dangling feet.  Note how the artist draws our attention to those little beribboned shoes by making them red against a stark white background. 
And of course there are a number of examples by the master, Ronald Searle:

As fearless with watercolor as he is with ink. 
As an example of de Sève's irreverent eye, he displays the work of his young daughters side by side with the work of the world's top professionals, and for perfectly legitimate reasons.   He explains how he gains inspiration from both: "I know it’s a cliché to want to draw like a child, but honestly, look at the sheer inventiveness and variety in every heart on that page!"

Valentine from de Sève's daughter Paulina when she was five years old.

Paulina's picture exemplifies what makes an artist's exhibition so interesting.  De Sève isn't misled by the pretensions and superficial considerations that preoccupy so many curators and art historians.  Instead, he hones right in on the nutritional content; all marks on paper are judged on a level playing field.

At the entrance to the exhibit, De Sève writes: "The artist I've become is a result of the things I've learned, and continued to learn, from others."

When the Amsterdam Insolvency Office finally shows up at de Sève's door, you'll want to be there for the auction.

Thursday, February 22, 2018


I like this cartoon by Charles Barsotti of a committee of dogs deliberating a rubber ball:

From the inventory of Taraba Illustration Art LLC 

Barsotti is famous for his light hearted, spontaneous style.  He draws only the bare essentials, perfect for his special brand of humor.

There's no "over-thinking" in this drawing... is there?

When you look at the original, you see that Barsotti decided that some of those dog noses would be funnier if they were a fraction of an inch shorter:

And that round rubber ball... maybe it needed to be a fraction of an inch larger to balance perfectly against the dogs:

And as for those dogs... gosh, would the joke go over better if they had eyebrows for facial expressions?

Nope, I guess not.  Better white them out.

This airy little drawing about not over-thinking the nature of play contains ontological ironies:  It requires effort to be perfectly effortless.

Monday, February 12, 2018


This is my final example of an artist who drew in what might be called a slick, polished manner: Leonard Starr.

Like other artists we've observed this week, Starr could draw in a tight style:

And yet,  take a close and look you'll see that, like the previous artists I've featured,  he doesn't pursue realism slavishly. This zig-zag line in the man's hair, for example, adds a nice effect but could never be derived solely from tracing photographs:

Neither could Starr's restraint on the girl's face, or his tapered lines showing the volume of her hair.

Starr's drawing ability enabled him to stage his pictures in the most thoughtful or dramatic way. Unlike so many comic artists who are fashionable today, he was not hindered by a lack of skill.


Starr's figures were idealized, in accordance with the fashion of the times.

I suspect that many of today's audiences prefer a scruffy, unschooled style because it seems more sincere than idealized pictures by skilled artists.  Sophisticated audiences would rather be shown the dark underlying truths than the glossy surfaces.

But is such closed minded skepticism toward idealistic images warranted?  The ancient Greeks lived a harsher, more imperiled existence than we; feuding city states, corrupt politics and daily strife gave them plenty of reasons to be disillusioned about human nature.    Yet they still devoted major room in their culture for the "illusion" of idealized beauty.  (Clean lines, beautiful proportions, harmonious forms-- as Socrates said,  "In portraying ideal types of beauty we bring together from many models the most beautiful features of each.")   The parthenon, for example,  was intended to be perfect, the embodiment of clean reason and perfection despite everything the Greeks knew from the savagery they had experienced.

Their minds were supple enough to appreciate that art could be both realistic and transcendent,  both true and beautiful.