Friday, July 15, 2011


Teachers:  Norman Rockwell, Al Parker, Jon Whitcomb, Ben Stahl, Stevan Dohanos, Robert Fawcett, Harold von Schmidt, Peter Helck, Austin Briggs, John Atherton, Fred Ludekens, Albert Dorne…
The Famous Artists Course.

“You can be a successful Artist!” —with a large exclamation point, screamed out from the inside back cover, sometimes the back cover, of my comic books month after month. So for a kid who had already spent a good number of years isolated in his room while his friends were outside wasting time on such mundane pursuits as catch baseball, riding bikes, sledding or ice skating in the winter (my fingers nearly fell off at forty degrees, forget that!), lying on the floor gouging pencil into paper, trying desperately to copy those incredible, action-packed interior pages rendered by the mysterious and elusive Golden Ink-Pen of the Gods, as a boy of twelve with the beginnings of what would be my own personal Devil’s Tower built entirely out of sketchbooks and any loose scrap of paper I thought to draw on and save, I was ready, damn-it! I knew how to draw, damn-it! And yes, I knew how to swear at twelve…damn-it!

So I found mom’s scissors and carefully disfigured one of my treasured twelve cent comic books to get that intriguing coupon promising FREE something-or-other from the “Institute of Commercial Art, Inc.”

I filled in my name, thought for a moment before crossing out the “Mrs., Miss” in front of the name line. I begged mom for an envelope and stamp. And after a lengthy discussion and much enthusiasm in showing her the advertisement with the now missing coupon, listening to her well-played argument about five-cent stamps not being free, but knowing she would eventually give-in because that was Norman Rockwell in the picture selling this FREE thing and she loved Norman Rockwell—she had shown me the magazines when they came in with his unbelievable paintings on the covers and I could tell by the joy on her face she admired this man.

She was also almost solely responsible for my art addiction from an early age (I’ve already told the gripping tale about her drawing happy faces for me as a two-year-old). At five I would kneel on the chair at the dining room table while she painted masterpieces of Alice in Wonderland and South American parrots just by staying in the lines and following some bizarre numbering system for her paints. For my tenth birthday she bought me Jon Gnagy’s Learn to Draw Set and I copied boxes in perspective, telephone poles and railroad tracks in perspective, and apples not in perspective without knowing what perspective meant, and I dirtied my hands, elbows, and everything within reach, in my first experiences with the raw charcoal stick. Now she just HAD TO LET ME GET THIS FREE, I repeat, FREE PROMISE FROM NORMAN ROCKWELL!

I had found my calling and all it needed was a stamp to shift into overdrive…well, at that age the analogy might have been akin to pedaling downhill to my destiny.

The mailman took the envelope—I know, I watched him—then I waited. Then I forgot about it until I could save another twelve cents for a trip to the drug store to chose my one comic. There was that glaring Norman Rockwell month after month with his paintbrush in hand and an expectant look that said, “So you gonna draw, or what?”

Sometimes it was Albert Dorne selling pretty much the same thing with the same promise, but I didn’t know who he was and his eyebrows sort of intimidated me at the time.

Eventually that day came. I had long given up hope of ever fulfilling my destiny due to a coupon wasting away in the dead letter office behind some postman’s wayward bag, with my mom’s five-cent stamp and her generosity wasted. I went on with my life as before diligently scribbling away, frustrated at not getting those Jack “King” Kirby characters to look the way the King drew them, but persevering nonetheless—I had inherited my father’s stubborn Irishness if little else.

I remember lying, my head and arms dangling over the side of my bed so I could draw on the floor, my head filled with blood and gravity and my fingers and arms about numb from the same, when mom came in and dropped the envelope on my bed. She smiled.

I immediately forgot whatever great new comic book character I was in the process of creating, tore open the envelope to find that my FREE destiny was a thin catalogue describing…

…the not-so-free, several hundred dollars paid in monthly installments plus the opportunity to buy their preferred oil painting supplies, correspondence course.

I didn’t bother to ask mom. Her smile tilted as she reminded me for about the thousandth time, “See, dear? Nothing’s free in this world,” and “You’re a wonderful artist anyway.” That's mom.

I would never ask her. Several hundred dollars to a working class family in 1965 would’ve been like me asking my parents to buy me a car at the age of twelve—that would be quite a few years later and I paid them back, because that’s how we did things back then.

Five years later I would ask to go to the American Academy of Art, downtown Chicago. I spent the summer after high school graduation working on a Budweiser truck, lugging cases of beer in and out of taverns and grocery store refrigerators, building my back muscles, in order to go to that school for a year. (I wasn't "of age" and not legally able to work the truck, but dad knew a guy....) The following summer I joined the military. I missed being sent to Vietnam by about three months.

It was many years later, I had finally gotten freed from the Air Force, I got my foothold into the world of drawing comic books for Marvel and DC, I had improved by leaps and bounds and was starved for knowledge. I wanted—no, I needed to be better. Not because someone told me I should be, but because that drive had been burned into my R-Complex—that reptilian brain of the basal ganglia hanging for dear life to the top of the spine. The drive had been burned there by over twenty years of struggle—and possibly reverse evolution—to improve, and now it would never relinquish me. I had too much to learn. I could see the problems with my drawing and painting and was growing but not fast enough. Never fast enough.

Then it happened. Lightning.

I was in the habit of buying anything I could find with art from the world of illustration. Bookstores became my habit. Used bookstores contained hidden treasures. The sale circulars with garage sales. I only looked for books.

One such sale was in a literal garage. A small warehouse of a garage, gray and dark and I picked through every box of the two-hundred-some-odd boxes and I found my treasure.

Three incredibly large, incredibly heavy bound notebooks, and on the cover the words, “Famous Artist’s.” I wanted to hug them.

I searched the darkened warehouse for the landlady, hoping she had not seen the look on my face when I found them, hoping I might be able to talk her down from whatever astronomical price she would demand for relinquishing them forever. I steeled my nerve and prepared for the worst. I formulated my debate, predicated on the decades of dust, dingy with scratches on the covers, the interiors were not pristine, she would have to take that into account. There was supposed to be a fourth notebook that was missing. I needed the full collection. I was prepared to walk away if the price was too high…no, I wasn’t.

I found the landlady standing in the doorway with her coffee and cigarette, talking on the phone to someone of absolutely no interest to me. I stood until she noticed me with my arms full of Famous Artists Course. She pulled the phone away from her ear. “Found something then?” she asked as if she didn’t know, couldn’t see the greed in my eyes, the desperation, smell my fear with all her feral instincts of the ocelot I knew her to be. A smoking, coffee-drinking ocelot.

“So,” I hid my nerves behind a professional actor’s mask, “What do you think you’d want for these here?”

“What’s that? Oh, those, I really loved those when I was younger.” I knew it! Here it comes! She knows I’m weak…. “How about forty bucks?”

“Sold!” I wonder to this day if she ever got my tire marks off the curb in front of her garage.

I still consider it the greatest buy of my life. All those names I mentioned in the opening, the greatest of the illustrators using examples from preliminary sketches and detailed drawings, giving me a peek into their “process.” Those books did what no other book in my large collection ever did. They taught me how to think like an artist. Hundreds of pages of not just how they painted, but the decisions they made before painting, why they made them and made the alterations to otherwise fine drawings and illustrations. Thousands of decisions and answers. Not merely a peek under the magician’s cloak, a month spent living in his closet studying his playbook, and him taking my hands to help move the magic through my fingers.

It was lightning and I’m still smoldering from the aftermath. I need to revisit those books every few years, reread, try to remember all because there is just so much stinkin’ information between those spines. But I am glad every time I do. And I'm still grateful for those original masters, Albert Dorne and Norman Rockwell who decided over a telephone conversation back in 1948 to take the time out of their busy schedules to create a teaching resource of this magnitude.

If you ever find this dusty lightning for yourself, grab it.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Transference of Emotion

Ah, making the intangible tangible. Emotion in paint is more than a reflection of ourselves in the faces of the actors, it works on our subconscious as well as our immediate understanding of mood and tone. It's an artist saying, come play with me.

If I can get you to think "inside" the box for a bit...
(For those unfamiliar, you'll find I use a lot of bad jokes, worse puns, mixed messages and typos to keep you on your toes, so don't say I didn't warn you. But I'll work on playing this one pretty straight.)

Sober values—bright or dark, pure or muddy colors. The heaviness or lightness of an object and how much of the painting the object takes up. Line—the hunched spine, the proud up-angle, a triangle created by glow or shadow, the completion of a circle or triangle. Composition. Telling us where to look, when to linger, how we should be thinking about what we are seeing.

There are literally hundreds of decisions that can be made in the construction of a single painting. Decisions made before paint ever touches the canvas. They are not random elements strewn for the sake of a pretty basket or an important newspaper headline. Every element contributes to the whole work. The collection of parts arranged, not only to tell the story, but for the sake of the composition. 

A near invisible circle to contain the eye, or an "X"—two diagonals whose purpose is force the eye to a particular moment of importance. In a complex composition where the viewer's attention is made to roam, the area of lightest light placed against the darkest dark will always pull the viewer back. The seemingly casual insertion of a child's doll may be placed in a way that pulls the eye into the composition like a river into a landscape.

The strategic use of negative space—one of the most important elements to any composition is a non-element. The eye needs a place to rest or we experience the uneasiness of claustrophobia. We will tire of the experience.

A large empty space on an otherwise cluttered wall helping to lift the mood of the viewer. Or a thin vertical element falling from that clutter, completing a square, containing the moment of importance and forbidding the eye to follow that corner clutter up off the painting.

Balance. The straight back of uncertainty mirroring the stiff lines of a wooden chair. All heads turned in his direction, eyes leveled like the horizontal lines of the flag. An otherwise casual human landscape, overcoat thrown into the foreground, the leaning chair-back to one side, dark object (umbrella) to the other, a solid ovoid working to contain the horizontal movement of the eye.

The obvious strength of a solid dark vertical. A more subservient "S" that might lead the viewer astray is thwarted by a near-perfect circle formed by the pose of the arms, and yes, even the sandwich pointing to the expression the artist wants us to share.

Somber colors, heavy with intent. A single white shirt for purity's sake. A tight circle of bowed heads within a rectangle (as circles tend to relax us overmuch) and a larger circle, figures cropped around the periphery for just such a purpose. Perhaps a touch of tableware, even knife handles pointing in to our moment of earnest.

A circle of joy overwhelming a subject.

Or raw, obvious emotion.

These, and many more, are the master artist's magic act, a slight-of-hand you may not recognize if you don't know where to look or what to look for; subtle psychological mind-strings all humans possess; needs screwed into our subconscious over thousands of years of evolution all awaiting that moment when you open your eyes in front of a real work of Art.

No one understood and used these rules of composition better than Rockwell. He was not just copying photographs, he was composing masterpieces of emotion.


I've barely touched the surface with my analysis here, and given time (like about two thousand pages) could lead you on a journey into and around each of these incredible paintings. But maybe I've gotten some of you interested enough for an exploration of your own. Have at it. The artist has invited you to play.


Art is Objective

Just a thought I felt needed restating here on the new page. (For my FB friends who have read this a while back, bear with me as I consolidate a few of my art-ish ramblings. As always, you have no choice. This is my Blog.)

“Art is Subjective” is a 20th Century construct.

Art has definition. Art has meaning. Art is communication. Art may be vague, Art may require thought to be fully understood, but Art is about heart and emotion. It is the most primitive and th
e most advanced form of communication. Art requires at least two participants, the creator and the viewer. And—


Therefore, by definition, Art is the Objective:

No one would read a novel if random words were strewn across a page.

—A book is judged on how the reader is effected and informed. Journeys we are compelled to complete. Characters we can understand and empathize with, lovers to pull at our hearts, haters to detest. We need to "care" in order to finish a novel and that is the author's primary responsibility.

No one would go to a concert where the musicians blasted out random notes under the premise of abstract musical theory and self-expression. 
(Someone might go but they would never return.)
—A good concerto will make you sigh. A great Requiem will make strong men weep.

No one would attend a ballet where the dancers just threw their bodies across the stage.
—We are moved not only by the story played out on stage but by the perfection of movement, choreography, acting and physical translation of the composer's intent in interpreting the music, either its theme, its tempo, its grandeur or subtleties. To be successful, dance requires the viewer's absolute attention and emotional involvement.

Each art form is judged by how greatly the recipients are moved, emotionally.

If one ascribes a value to a work of Art, that value must be drawn from the work and not from some abstract opinion of worth. If the success of a work of Art is to be measured, it must be valued on how well it achieves the above stated definition: how well it communicates emotionally. Simply stated, the more hearts a work of Art touches, the more successful the work must be valued.

If one admits that ART is an aesthetic and all art is open to interpretation by the perceiver, one must also question the broader definition of the word.

The reason Rockwell was the most popular artist in the country for over forty years was because he forced us to live in the moment of each painting and he effectively touched the most hearts.


Monday, July 11, 2011

A Random Life in Art

As if any of us need another forum for spouting off about things we deem important in our lives, here, I've thrown more words onto the screen.

This, the first post in my own war with words, is a perfect example of how apparently disjointed and seemingly pointless most of our thoughts are in any given direction, but you can all be guaranteed, I will do my best to describe the roadmap through the synapses, connecting the dots for you non-dot-connecting types, that lead back to the central theme of my life—Art.

(See? For anyone paying attention, you've just been given the purpose behind the title of this post.)

But in this case, "Random" is a word chosen more for my life's outward appearance, much like this Blog, than a literal description of who I am as an artist.  From those earliest memories of mom holding the pencil in my tiny fist, drawing smiley faces and whispering, "Eyes, nose, mouth," to the scribbles I throw down to pay the bills today, my life/career may have split, spiraled, slalomed and surged in disparate artistic directions over time—much due to my low threshold of boredom, or a wandering heart—but my aim has always been to expose my muse to the world, surround myself with creativity, and never stop absorbing the lessons laid down by the best inventive minds I can find. We all, each of us, are on our own journeys—all roads leading toward the same destination. I have chosen mine. I am the only one responsible for how mine plays out. And I can think of no better effort. I ever seek to grow until they shut my eyes, and please put a smile on my lips...just don't make it one of those creepy clown smiles. I hate those.