How do you keep on getting better? It’s something every artist and many others must ask themselves. Where is that next step coming from? How can I become able to do what has always eluded me on previous attempts. Alas this doesn’t mean I am going to unveil a spectacular advance, far from it. We are lucky as painters to be involved in a craft that has potential for improvement until the body and grey matter give out. Dancers and athletes must give up their trade far earlier and teach others. One thing I do find that improvements are very erratic, often coming when least expected. Another thing is that they seem to come after a period of being in the doldrums, though when I think carefully that is just a feeling I have with little evidence to substantiate it. Another funny thing about getting better, it doesn’t raise the level of your work as much as you might think. I can look back at earlier work and think, blimey that’s not half bad. But when you look at the way the hits and misses are spread through the years what has been gained mostly is consistency. You are a little less hostage to fortunate chance than in earlier less expert years. Improvements are also helped by competition and influence of and with your peers. This may seem shallow but it does supply impetus to “up your game”.
What has prompted these ponderings is a deliberately offputtingly named site called deviantART which is quite the largest site devoted to people’s work that there is. It is popular with the very young, Manga freaks, comic fans, comic pros and everything else including the world and any passing oysters. The sheer volume of material is bewildering. There is a huge majority of the just plain inept, unformed and often dreadful, there is no kinder way of putting it. Frequently the creators have this sad belief that their outpourings must be special, well because they are special… aren’t they? Ah well, we all feel that. Then there are acres of derivative often technically capable work. Demons, fairies, guys with huge swords, girls with huge swords who forgot to dress that morning, manga cuties with big dewy eyes, robots, vampires, huge sci-fi vistas, steampunk machines, pinups and old fashioned landscapes. As if that weren’t enough, I am there too now. I signed up this week.
It would be nice to feel that all their stuff is kids stuff and mine somehow more worthy. Indeed that is just what the proponents of various styles and schools tend to do. I cannot in good conscience dismiss all these weird and wonderful works. I don’t have much desire to paint or draw such stuff now, but for many years I did and I still remember the excitements of creating the fantastic fondly. In a way painting the mundane is very much the new kid on the block. A look back through history shows the fabulous to be pretty much the norm. From Egyptian Gods with jackal heads to elephant headed ones further east. Cave paintings don’t seem to deal in the imaginary, but as soon as you get civilisation the imaginary and fantastical abounds in created imagery. This is pretty much consistent right up to the 15th century when the Flemish painters started to do little scenes of everyday life. It is odd that now those that feel themselves the preservers of good taste and sophistication scorn such recent imagery, yet they will admire the Sistine chapel which is easily as thematically daft as any sword and sorcery fan art.
I’m not quite sure why I gave up fantasy work. As a teenager I adored Marvel comics and read Science Fiction until my eyes bled. Comic book artwork was easily the biggest influence in my early development, much of my efforts were aimed at becoming competent in that arena. That soon led me to see the work of Frank Frazetta, Alex Raymond, John Prentice, Milton Caniff and others. These artists are very fine draughtsmen, not only that the amount of material they had to produce in the course of their work is astonishing. Below is an example of Alex Raymond’s work, remember this is just one panel in one comic strip amongst many.
There are I feel lessons to be learnt from a drawing like this that can be applied to any arena of art. The economy of means is incredible. Only black and white is used, the only hatching is to describe the fur coat, we know her purse is sequinned. Compositionally it is extremely clever and tells us a huge amount about the events occurring and potentially about to occur. Now imagine keeping this up frame after frame after frame… it’s no wonder they got good.
Side by side with this I had the influence of my Mother, who took up painting in her fifties and became really very good. Due to her I was introduced to the Impressionists and classical art. Not knowing any better I didn’t really distinguish between Rembrandt, Impressionists et al. and Comic book artists. It was just stuff that inspired and ranking it in terms of artistic credibility never occurred to me. That was to end with the arrival at art college. I was soon disabused of the notion that such work could be equal, commercial illustration was very much second class to”real” art. To like Arthur Rackham, for example, was to attract scorn from the tutors. But when I encountered Roy Lichtenstein’s work I couldn’t help but notice that he was rubbish compared to real comic artists, indeed he just copied them stiffly and directly. I even brought the drawing above to show my tutor, but he was adamant, the Lichtenstein was art the Raymond was not. That really formed my first suspicions that the art establishment/history world was somewhat odd and not entirely rational, or even irrational in any interesting way.
It was only later in life that I thought about this question more and tried to work out why the Illustration/Fine Art divide occurred. Historically there is no real doubt it did occur. In Leonardo’s time no distinction was made, all artists were “commercial” artists and produced work to order as required. Leonardo did designs for parades and later Holbein designed candlesticks and such. Daumier wasn’t considered less of an artist than Delacroix or Corot, indeed Corot thought him a marvel and bought him a house when he later fell upon hard times. It wasn’t thought demeaning for artists like Lautrec to do commercial work. Nor by the Bauhaus or the Art Nouveau groups… so when on earth did this division occur and why?
I think there are two strands that might have caused the devaluing of illustration. One is the rise of “Modern” art in the fifties and sixties in America they (or their theorists) were the first, as far as I can tell, to put the term “mere” in front of “illustration”. Presumably in a (successful) attempt to raise the relative status of their own work. The aiding and abetting cause was the arrival of mass market printing of images, original illustrations took on some of the cheapness that the printed images had. Nonetheless illustration remained and remains today a more influential force on society than what is termed “fine art” or what I term “art for its own sake”. There would be a pretty strong argument that Rockwell had a far greater influence on the American psyche than Pollock ever did and is therefore a more important artist, I might also note that Rockwells can fetch $15 million or more. The same thing could be argued for the many wonderful artists who produced imagery for Disney and Coca Cola. These artists influenced the visual world of billions of people, far more than any modern art icon. Andy Warhol would be the best the fine art world could offer and then he only really had influence due to the commercial sales of his posters. The same would be true today, the unsung games artists and film artists fill the aesthetic world and trigger “appreciation of art” in far more people than any Brit Art type does.
Now for something I find a little odd. There is quite a strong movement to return to “skill” in art. Also there are healthy ongoing traditions in impressionist painting and watercolour that have never really stopped. Strangely both these groups seem to have often inherited much of the post war attitude to illustration, which considering their rejection of Modernism, Conceptual and such is a little surprising. This affects me as I am sometimes tarred with the illustration brush as a subtle put down. Well, I am proud of my illustration influences and am not minded to deny them!
Back to where I started, the kids and no longer kids on DeviantART. The statistics are scary it has 19million members, 45million visitors a month, 100,000 bits of imagery uploaded every day and it is growing exponentially. Yet I doubt any art historian or critic even knows it exists. It isn’t mentioned in any serious art publications, again I don’t think they know it is there. Don’t imagine that it is all dross either, many professional and influential artists are there and have been members for ten years. At first it is quite hard to find good work, but the ingenious way the site has been created allows you to add work to your favourites list. So if you come across an artist you like then you can see what they like and in turn what the people they liked like and so on. There are a 100,000,000 images stored, so you won’t run out of avenues to explore. Just by comparison the Saatchi Online says that there are 800,000 people involved in making “fine art” world wide of which between 2500 and 5000 have gallery representation yet, as I have mentioned before, this small group has by far the largest public funding and also controls publicly funded art education worldwide. If you just counted the curators and gallery owners, they amount probably to only a few hundred individuals worldwide. Some more statistics, Saatchi Online has 12,000 visitors per day and has a world’s website rank of 30,644. DeviantART has 2,124,000 visitors per day and ranks 130 in the world. Just think all those budding artists bouncing off each other… there is no doubt many of them will get seriously good, indeed a fair few already have.
So influential art movements in the 20th to 21st century… Conceptual Art or Manga… ? Come on now, conceptual art isn’t even remotely in the frame. Marvel comics or Abstract Expressionism? In the 20th and current century, the latter is a mere footnote, a small quite interesting elitist eddy in the cultural flow of the human race, the other drives and influences huge swathes of ongoing 21st century visual language and culture. When it comes to influential artists of our era I would put my money on Jack Kirby not Mark Rothko!
Sorry for all the guff, I don’t know where it all comes from, that’s a fact. Some paintings to lighten the mix.
A studio painting inspired by my recent expedition. This is Staines A 1/2 sheet Arches Rough.
Another from the same source, this is the Thames at Shiplake. 1/4 sheet Arches rough.
This is from an outing with the Brass Monkeys, the last of the season. The subject is Abbey Creek near the River Lee. The day was very flat and grey so
finding subjects was tricky, I walked a fair way before settling on this. This is 16in by 10in, I have just built a pochade to take this size, for the nerds a
picture of it in action is below!
For the technical minded it can house 4 wet 16in by 10in panels.
This is part of the Lee, no let up on the clouds but this was fun to do. I find in this sort of light getting the tones balanced is very hard with very few strong
contrasts to draw the eye.
A dawn raid on the river at Greenwich, it was very lovely but I couldn’t seem to wake up properly. The painting doesn’t seem to have suffered from my
semi-consciousness which might be a lesson! I’m off to Dorset and then to Windsor next so I should get more paintings and less drivel into the next