Wednesday, July 16, 2014

PAPER, verse 2

Millions of generations of trees have come and gone.  No matter how majestic or beautiful, they all disintegrated into the forest floor.  The forest neither mourns nor remembers a single twig of them.

You can bet that no lightning bolt ever hesitated over the beauty of a tree.  No termite ever suffered a moment's remorse due to a tree's nobility.  Nope, trees are destined for fertilizer and nothing more.

Yet recently (meaning over the past few thousand years) a select group of trees has been rescued from obscurity and given content and identity, as paper.

Through their role as paper, trees are able to achieve a discrete meaning.  Sometimes they qualify for a handsome leather binding with the name of their meaning stamped in an elegant font.  Sometimes they absorb a puddle of watercolor to make a stain of transcendent beauty.  Paper might even be enshrined in libraries and museums where conservators and archivists rush to protect it against its old enemies from the forest: fire, insects and decay.

Still, paper shouldn't get too cocky.  Conservators may do their best to keep paper immortal but in the end, the forest floor always triumphs (over both paper and conservators). 

Trees in the forest don't count as art because they have no frame.   (There's only one thing that all Art has in common: a frame that separates it from the perceiver.  The frame may be metal or wood or it may be purely conceptual, but it is an essential  perimeter that defines where the art ends and the rest of the world begins.) 

Trees and Monet both process sunlight, but trees process it in ways Monet only wishes he could.  Trees draw energy from sunshine through photosynthesis; their chlorophyll absorbs light from the red and blue portions of the spectrum but proudly reflects green for that lovely verdant canopy that the the sun illuminates like stain glass, and which Monet tries to replicate with his pigments.  Trees also use some of the same chemicals from the earth that Monet employed to make his paints; the only difference is that Monet must spread his chemicals on a palette, while a tree sucks the chemicals up through its roots, into its veins like ichor.   Artists remain stuck outside the frame of conscious perception,  imitating nature with graven images while trees work their miracles.

Monet stuck outside the frame, looking in

So which is the better fate, the paper or the tree?  Which is the preferable side of the frame?  Paper enjoys an identity and an extended life span, but our most optimistic notion of "permanence" is so fleeting, and our grandest concept of "significance" is so insubstantial, a tree might not be blamed for considering the path of paper to be a false path.  Is it better to to participate in beauty as art on paper rather than as a tree in the forest?  Paper with a momentary identity is still destined to rendezvous with anonymous trees on the forest floor.  What does that brief moment of purpose and consciousness gain us, besides awareness that our moment will be brief? 

As humans, we are stuck outside that frame of conscious perception until such day as we return to the great sea of indistinguishable carbon atoms.  But we consult paper as a helpful vehicle for inching up to the edge to see what we can.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

PAPER, verse 1

Paper is our staging ground between thought and physical reality.  Intangible concepts that we wish existed in real life (but probably never will) make their initial step into the physical universe on paper.

More than a thought but less than a fact

For thousands of years, paper has been the preferred delivery system for art, as well as literature and science; it is how we recorded and transmitted our greatest ideas.  Paper hosted Issac Newton's revolutionary ideas in Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica just as it hosted Michelangelo's sketches of the Libyan Sibyl.

But paper is more than just a host for content; its properties can participate in its content.

Detail from an illustration by Arno Sternglass (below)

Milton Glaser

Toulouse Lautrec

Paper has accompanied us on our human journey, enabling us to make our knowledge cumulative by preserving our achievements for the next generation.  So before paper is completely eclipsed by electronic visual displays, I think we owe it a little thought.  This week I will offer a series of perspectives about paper-- its origins, nature and supernatural qualities.


Wednesday, July 02, 2014


Many talented illustrators develop a style, find an audience, and enjoy a long, successful career catering to that audience.  But there is a special place in my heart for  illustrators who take their initial success and re-invest it in new challenges.  In my view, that's the highest use for success.

In recent years illustration has experienced an epidemic of skillful artists who devote their careers to refining images of barbarians or half-naked women for the insatiable fantasy market.  (Don't make me name these artists-- you know who they are.)

Greg Manchess easily had the technical skill to join this prosperous gang.



But Manchess turned out to be a true painter, one with the guts to explore a broader range of artistic challenges.   He ignored the easy formulas for photo-realistic faces and long legged nymphettes, and instead asked harder questions about the epistemology of paint, its texture and its colors.  Such questions made his job more complex, yet these studies of helmets ended up as confident as a clear trumpet blast:

Some contemporary illustrators have done well by repeating variations on pin up girl motifs.  Their primary creative choice seems to be whether the girl is wearing a black corset or a red corset. By contrast, Manchess opens himself up to the full range of issues presented by legitimate figure painting.


By making his next job harder rather than easier,  Manchess continues to mature as a painter at a time when many others are content to rest on successful recipes.

Image courtesy of our friends at Tor Books

 Ralph Waldo Emerson urged young artists and poets not to be content with the "low prudence" of success.  He said, "If ...God have called any of you to explore truth and beauty.... [e]xplore and explore.  Be neither chided nor flattered out of your position of perpetual inquiry."

In his excellent regular column advising art students on how to think about their work, Manchess made a similar point:  "You’ve made some progress at focusing and gaining some attention in the area that you are thrilled to be working in.... That's when you can broaden your scope. That's when you can use that voice to tame other areas of the industry and get them wanting your vision....
Was that so hard? You bet your sweet pumpkin it’s hard. This is Creativity, remember? It doesn’t come all shiny new out of a box." 

Saturday, June 21, 2014


This Calvin & Hobbes comic strip-- one of my favorites-- is taped above my desk to remind me of Thoreau's important maxim: "Simplify, simplify."

The strip contains only one word which is repeated once in each panel.  The word never changes but its meaning does.

I am so inspired by the crystalline perfection of this structure, and so filled with admiration for its simple beauty, that I am going to skip my customary bloviation and shut up right here.

Monday, June 16, 2014


When the very first art teacher commanded the very first art student to learn anatomy, it began a long, long search for shortcuts. 

Anatomical study from George Bridgman's life drawing class, 1911

Thousands of years later, art history is still littered with failed attempts at shortcuts on anatomy.   Artists have tried concealing their ignorance by using heavy shadows or excessive random lines or a soft focus.  They have tried concealing hands in pockets, or cropping pictures to exclude difficult parts, but their weakness shows through.

Yet, consider the drawings of Jack Kirby:

Kirby invented his own version of anatomy, and while it is often inaccurate, it seems just as persuasive as the genuine anatomy found in Bridgman, Vesalius or Muybridge.    

Contrast the following study of deltoid, bicep and elbow from George Bridgman's life drawing class...


....with the same body parts in Kirby's drawing:

Kirby's muscles don't connect properly-- he confuses the deltoids and the pectorals, his elbow wouldn't function, and his squiggly lines don't describe any known anatomical purpose.  Yet, this remains a powerfully convincing drawing.

And that's the way it is with Kirby; there is a confidence and virility to his figure drawing that repeatedly powers him through awkward anatomical questions.

Of course, bluffing as often as Kirby did, sometimes his bluffs failed spectacularly:

The fine lines of inker Vince Colletta betrayed structural weaknesses more than bold brush strokes did

I don't know whether Kirby actually understood human muscles, bones and tendons, but his work reminds us that the right attitude can enable artists to get away with expressive liberties that other artists cannot.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


Regular readers know that I am a big fan of the brilliant Richard Thompson.   I recently had the pleasure of working with five other fans to compile a book on the Art of Richard Thompson, available from Andrews McMeel on Amazon this fall:

As we get closer to the release date,  I will tell you about the book and its beautiful full color paintings and elaborate illustrations.  But today I'd like to focus instead on the preliminary sketches and doodles that we found littering the floor of Richard's studio like used Kleenex.  

You'll never get closer to Richard's happy genius than in these sketches, often discovered with footprints on them or crumpled and folded from being jammed into old boxes.

The following two sketches were for an illustrated version of Candide that never saw the light of day:

I am generally not a friend of cross hatching, but I have never seen anyone fling cross hatching onto the page with such  audacity. 

Whether a face has been caricatured a million times or never,  Richard's sketches seek out the most fundamental forms and designs from scratch: 

Making even white porcelain look dynamic...

…or a book on the floor look funny

Many a timeless truth is recorded on paper that would have to be upped 3 or 4 grades to satisfy federal standards for toilet paper:

Love comes 
Love goes

There will be time later to focus on Richard's large, finished works but I always feel closer to the DNA in drawings such as these.