Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Diverse Rex Whistler

Illustration by Rex Whistler for
The Lord Fish endpapers.

Recently ran across this amazing illustration via author Katherine Langrish's rich blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles; in which she wrote about Walter De La Mare's short story, The Lord Fish.

But Sarmo, why had you never heard of Rex Whistler?
I quickly ordered a copy of the long-out-of-print book, and researched this peculiar (in the best sense) artist. Recently, a large volume has been published titled In Search of Rex Whistler: His Life and Work. I was glad of that title; it made me feel less bad about never having heard of such a prodigiously talented man.

The Cover of The Lord Fish.
Look at that fish-fellow on the spine! Okay-- here he is, larger and enhanced:

 Beautiful, evocative, creative, perfect!
Yes, I'm excited about discovering this, and am checking out other works by Whistler.

But why was he almost relegated to obscurity?
Matthew Sturgis, in his review, theorized:
"Versatility was at the heart of Whistler’s art. He painted murals, portraits, landscapes and conversation pieces; he created theatre sets, costumes, book illustrations, dust jackets and Christmas cards; he designed advertisements for Guinness and Shell, a Valentine telegram for the Post Office, an Axminster carpet, and a toile de jouy with views of the Cornish fishing village of Clovelly, among much else. This diversity has counted against him. It counted against him in his own day, when his most conspicuous works – magazine covers, sets for popular revues, advertising posters – could make him seem both frivolous and commercial, and at a time when artists were supposed to be serious and pure."

My question: Was it really the time period (my emphasis above), as Sturgis explained, or was it Whistler's diversity? The modern art world has certainly changed in that many more styles of art are available for purchase and perusal, but is the perception of what is "serious and pure art" any different? I think not.

 Buckingham Road in the Rain, by Rex Whistler
This is a beautiful and evocative work, for certain, and probably considered serious and pure by art critics in-the-know.

 The Mermaid, by Rex Whistler
This one, beautiful and evocative, may be considered serious and pure as well.

But I'm bugged. Leonardo DaVinci is celebrated for being a "Renaissance Man"; in his case, diversity was a plus. Same for Picasso. But not in Rex Whistler's case? Sadly, both in Whistler's world and in the contemporary art world, artists who follow a single "style" and path are seemingly favored . Even Maurice Sendak complained at one point in his career of being "hoplessly mired in children's books", meaning that he didn't feel free to diversify into theater design. Thank goodness that didn't stop him. (Of course, I suppose there are art critics who would still dismiss Sendak's output as "mere illustration".)
But for me, living in a culture open to fostering diverse creativity (and less labels) would be infinitely more rewarding and enjoyable.
 Ah, all the favors that pretentiousness and phony intellectualism have done for the arts and art lovers.
Rex Whistler's illustration for The Marsh King's Daughter.

Baker and Fireman, by Rex Whistler
 Wonderful stuff, huh? Some art critics don't know what they are missing.

Hope you like Whistler's work as much as I do. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Consummate Characters: Hatter and Humpty

 Of all the characters created by Lewis Carroll; the Hatter (in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) and Humpty Dumpty (in Through the Looking Glass) are my favorites both for their personalities and for their iconic portrayals drawn by Sir John Tenniel.

via www.tomsarmo.blogspot.com
 The Hatter is an unpleasantly bizarre fellow, but totally captivating. Tenniel gave him an elf-like proportion and a Bertrand Russell visage--spot-on nonsensical when combined with an obnoxious personality and unpredictable mood shifts. One minute he's curiously staring, the next offering a riddle; making rude comments, and then abruptly lapsing into melancholy. The madness of a hatter aside, this character's verbal jousts with Alice make me laugh out loud--especially his final interruption:
"Really, now you ask me," said Alice, very much confused, "I don't think---"
"Then you shouldn't talk," said the Hatter. 
There's quite a bit of wisdom in that madness.

When next we see him in front of the King and Queen of Hearts, his bravado has evaporated and he's nervously taking a bite from his teacup. Between Carroll's genius-writing and Tenniel's genius-illustrating, nothing more ever needs to be added--even though new interpretations continue.

via www.tomsarmo.blogspot.com
And then--phenomenally--there's Carroll's Humpty Dumpty. If the Hatter is obnoxious, this character is more than a match for him. In fact, he is downright surly and just as erratic. He irrationally assumes that Alice's inquiries are riddles, growls at Alice when she mistakes his cravat for a belt, and then responds with incongruous gaiety when told that he's holding an arithmetic problem upside down.
Humpty's conversation with Alice is too lengthy to copy here, but it's one of the most thought-provoking and entertaining dialogs in literature. Check it out-- it ends with a bang!  
Again, the images by Tenniel capture his personality with precision.

I love both these guys because I covet their wit and straight-up freedom to say what they're really thinking. Seriously though, real people like these two would send me bolting in the opposite direction.

And yeah, I can't resist sketching out my own versions, not because I'm trying to compete with transcendence, but because it's fun to mess about with such amazing oddballs. 
And so my latest (kind of moribund) version of the Hatter:
See more at www.tomsarmo.blogspot.com
The Hatter. Mixed media, private collection.
 Lately the toned paper has been getting a workout; in this case along with brush, ink, pen, gouache, and acrylic.

Thanks, as always, for the visit!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Character Drawing--Ol' One-Eye

via www.tomsarmo.blogspot.com
One-Eyed Wizard sketch. Mixed media on paper.

I'll be teaching some upcoming workshops--one of which will be on drawing characters. (I hesitate to call it a "character design" class because I don't want to conjure the ubiquitous images of cute mice and big-eyed princesses.)  Because of the workshop, my daily practice-sessions have been all about studying and drawing a variety of figures.
Not that drawing characters hasn't filled my days in the past, but I've a renewed curiosity about the process and so am thinking more about the sequence as I sketch.

Detail from One-Eyed Wizard sketch via www.tomsarmo.blogspot.com
I can only imagine the processes of other illustrators, but I'd like to know more. My approach varies, depending on whether it's for a finished work or simply a practice sketch. 

For this fellow and his buddy (and most of my sketches), I constructed the figures out of  forms very roughly, from my head. Then I detailed them up with a sharper pencil and outlined them with a Pentel Pocket Brush  http://tomsarmo.blogspot.com/2013/03/mobile-art-supplies.html
Because I was goofing off with this in the living room instead of the studio, I used a black prismacolor for the shadows and a white one for the highlights. I generally avoid like death any kind of pencil shading, but they were in the box by the couch and I was too lazy to go get my pen and ink.

The coffeepot and lantern were drawn from memory, although I had just been sketching the old things the day before--from life. The lantern was embellished a bit. You can see a close-up of it here if you want

Any techniques you want to share are always appreciated--feel free to comment or email me.
Thanks for reading!

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Cannonball from Zim

Pirate sketch via http://tomsarmo.blogspot.com/
 This little fellow was inspired by a new issue of an old book by Eugene Zimmerman--the great comic artist.
If you've followed my blog, you know that the "little guys" feature prominently here and in my art. This book is not only full of those fellows, it is packed with fascinating writing and helpful advice for artists.

From Picture This Press, the Lost Art Books series "collects and preserves the works of illustrators and cartoonists from the first half of the 20th century". Definitely a publisher worth supporting.
Spent the weekend reading and learning from Zimmerman's humor, philosophy, and art tips. Like Loomis' Fun with a Pencil, this book is full of powerful stuff cloaked in humor. It might seem quaint in delivery, but Zimmerman's wisdom-waters run deep and refreshing.

  And the little guys he drew are some of the best!

Thanks for the visit--hope you found it interesting

Friday, July 12, 2013

Lantern Fascination

Lantern sketch via http://tomsarmo.blogspot.com/
Lantern sketch. Brush and ink, watercolor.
I notice recurring motifs in artist's works--Heath Robinson drew lots of patches and pitchers; Rackham had his pollard oaks.
Not putting myself on their level, but I noticed lanterns show up frequently--not really consciously--in my pictures.
So I dragged all my sketchbooks to the couch--even ones from my youth--and proved that beyond a doubt. There are a lot of them.

 Maybe the fascination comes from this one:
Great Grandpa's signal lantern from when he worked on the railroad. He gave it to me before he died--I loved him and treasure it. Not sure that's enough of a reason to include them so often though.
At any rate, I've posted some lantern sketches before, as prelims for a project,   http://tomsarmo.blogspot.com/2013/06/illustration-construction-part-one.html but here are a few more, past and present:

 One from art school years.

One from my younger days.

In thinking about the symbolism of lanterns in literature and art, I figure they most likely represent truth, or the light of God, or wisdom. But I'm guessing. Most of mine were drawn without really thinking, and without resource.

From a older watercolor illustration (unpublished).

From a random sketchbook page.

Gave in and googled "Tarot symbology of lanterns". This from the Tarot Reading Psychic: http://tarotreadingpsychic.com/tarot-symbolism-the-lantern/
"Power of intuition, truth and courage; hope, healing and the quest for new found enlightenment through spiritual wisdom; new found awareness; a reminder that every dark path has a light" (Really?)
via http://tomsarmo.blogspot.com/
Another simple oldie

via http://tomsarmo.blogspot.com/
Can't remember the title of this one. From the 90's--this pic came from the 
catalog I think. I remember working hard to come up with the face on the lamp.

via http://tomsarmo.blogspot.com/
 Always liked this pen and ink sketch.

Detail from a watercolor done about three years ago.

A sketch fragment

Detail from One-Eyed Wizard via http://tomsarmo.blogspot.com/
From a sketch done this week. Lanterns lend themselves to the anthropomorphic pretty well--this one's from a Welsh miner's lamp in my collection.

I've never been much for analyzing my works and the motifs that recur, but I think it's a pretty safe bet that the lantern fascination goes hand in hand with my admiration of the past, and the feeling of being born into the wrong century (or nostalgia for a past life?).

Leaving you with a quote by W.B Yeats:

 “People think  I am merely trying to bring back a little of the old dead beautiful world of romance into this century of great engines and spinning Jinnies. Surely the hum of wheels and clatter of presses, let alone the lecturers with their black coats and tumblers of water, have driven away the goblin kingdom and made silent the feet of the little dancers.”

I can relate. Nothing wrong with shutting off the glare of a computer screen and letting a bit of soft lantern light and a couple of goblins into the room, is there?

As always, thanks for the visit.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

TreeMan's Looking at You

TreeMan sketch via http://tomsarmo.blogspot.com/
TreeMan sketch, graphite.

Talking trees are common in folklore, and Tolkien's Ents have become the most popular variety in recent years.  Maybe there are people who don't feel an intelligent presence while walking through a forest, but not me. Anthromorphic anythings appeal, and trees are no exception.
While on a sketching trek recently, I saw this broken tree. It wasn't much of a leap to humanize it a bit. Not usually into shading with a pencil, but it was all I had with me.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Demo Painting at Creator Mundi

Traveling St. Francis. Mixed media on wood, private collection.

I'll be doing demo painting (all day tomorrow, July 6th) in front of the Creator Mundi Gallery during the 2013 Cherry Creek Arts Festival.
Creator Mundi is at 2910 E Third Ave (between Milwaukee and Fillmore on Third).

 I'd love it if you'd come by and say hello

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Cruikshank Characters: Real and Refreshing

By George Cruikshank via http://tomsarmo.blogspot.com/
From A Comic Alphabet by George Cruikshank

I love character illustrations and character design, especially those that seem, like Cruikshank's, as unaffected and unpretentious as a sketch. I don't know much about his work process, but the figures seem drawn more from imagination than a reliance on resources.

Now I am all for using resources and do it all the time. It's an essential part of illustration. But there is something about work that springs direct from the artist's brain. Somehow, it reads Genuine.

I've always been intrigued by that, and also ambivalent--I mean, research and resources help make an illustration more convincing, right?  Still, this quote by the great illustrator Larry MacDougall resonates:
"What I like best is when the artist is making it all up straight out of his head, without the aid of reference or photographs. Drawings done in this way are the real thing, clear windows into the spirit and character of the illustrator."
(From the book Witching Hour:  The Art of Larry MacDougall  

I think that's why I love to sketch, and why other artist's sketchbooks fascinate way beyond their finished paintings. For me, it is during the sketching process that the internal critic is silenced--when it's not about what an imaginary (or real) someone might like or dislike or criticize.

But I digress. This post is mostly about a fellow who managed to make characters that seem to be "clear windows" into authenticity. I know these aren't Cruikshank's sketches--they are engravings made from his drawings--and that his original drawings were given over to the engraver for printing. But somehow they still retain the freshness of sketches direct from the head.

A figure from The Streets
It is oft written  that Cruikshank did not have much knowledge of anatomy, or even how bodies were put together. Maybe that's the reason his works seem so unpretentious.

Detail of an illustration from Oliver Twist
Look at the stance of Oliver!  It's got no trace of formula--doesn't need it.

Fagin in His Cell, from Oliver Twist
Probably my favorite Cruikshank. Perfect in every way.

Check out more of Cruikshank's work here http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/cruikshank/ 
and check out the work of Larry MacDougall, too.  Here's a link to his blog:

Thanks for reading!

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