Felice Varini

Felice Varini
Felice VariniFelice Varini is an artist who paints on or in architectural elements in a way that creates the illusion of a flat pattern or object where one does not actually exist.

The illusion is visible only from one specific angle; when viewed from other points, you can see the fascinating series of markings that make up the piece. He paints on the outside of buildings, inside of rooms, in corridors, across walls, skylights, doors and archways, often creating the illusion of a physical object in space in the middle of an open area. His patterns are frequently optical patterns themselves, creating a sensation of Op Art by way of Christo.

At first it looks as if the pattern might be Photoshopped onto the image until you see the views from other perspectives; then the remarkable finesse with which Varini has created his patterned spaces becomes apparent. This work in particular is remarkable for it’s scale (not quite Christo scale, but pretty amazing nonetheless) in which he creates his illusory pattern across the space of a city street using painted markings on multiple buildings.

I learned about this from the gravestmor blog, which has a brief overview with a few sets of images. The Felice Varini site itself is harder to navigate, but worth the trouble. See my “Site Quirks” notes below.

Link via gravestmor.


Jon Foster

Jon Foster
Jon Foster’s newly updated site is still a little skimpy on background, and I don’t know a whole lot about him, except that I’ve admired his paintings in the Spectrum collections, seen some of his comic covers for DC and Dark Horse, and I like his work.

He sometimes works almost (but not quite) monochromatically, sometimes in a painterly approximation of duotone, and sometimes with a rich palette. His style can be brusque or refined, ephemeral or textured with the grit of reality, but is always visually captivating.

His site includes a nice selection of his illustrations, some sketches and even examples of sculpture.

There was a book of his work called Progressions; The Art of Jon Foster, but it’s unfortunately out of print. A new book, as yet untitled, is due in the coming year.


Saul Steinberg

Saul Steinberg
I tried really hard not to use this particular image to represent Saul Steinberg’s work. I really did. Everyone’s seen it, and it’s not like there aren’t a multitude of wonderful and memorable Steinberg images to choose from: the clock with all of its numbers replaced with the word “Now”, the days of the week leaping, marching and crawling across the page in approximation of our emotional response to them, the dog making colorful visible screeching on a violin, the venetian blinds that reveal a man and woman behind them to be on different planes of existence, the man standing at the convergence of the visible lines that make up his life (labeled: latitude, longitude, February, 4pm, doubt, duty, etc.), the artist painting by water that reflects the entire scene, including a reflection of her painting of the reflections,… the list goes on.

But this image, Steinberg’s image of the world as seen from 9th Avenue in Manhattan, regardless of how many posters and cards and prints and shower curtains the damn thing appears on, no matter how familiar it is or what a cliché it’s become, this image still grabs me every time. I love it.

It doesn’t just make a wry comment about the Manhattan-centric view of the world that New Yorkers have; it says something about all of us and the way our brains map out the world: the familiar and near vs. the remote and inconsequential. It’s a magical image. But then, many of Steinberg’s images smack of magic, or at least of some remarkably magical view of the world and our place in it.

Saul SteinbergBorn in Romania and educated in Bucharest and Milan (philosophy, literature and architecture), cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker in 1941 while he was waiting for his visa to enter the US. His witty, imaginative, uncannily perceptive and deceptively simple images appeared on the cover and in the pages of The New Yorker for nearly 60 years. Despite his successful gallery and museum exhibitions around the US and across Europe, Steinberg never stopped doing illustrations and cartoons for the magazine. He just loved the printed page and the printed page loved him back.

In a number of his drawings Steinberg made use of one of the conventions of comics: words coming out of people’s mouths, to brilliant effect, substituting lines, shapes, patterns and visual symbols for words, and giving us a graphic impression of speech and verbalization. (Here is a brief article that goes into more detail about that.) He also gave us wonderful graphic impressions of the sounds of different musical instruments. Many of his drawings (most, in fact) show a fascination with “line” itself. What is a line, where does that line go, and where (and how) do you draw the line? If Hirschfeld is “The Line King”, Steinberg is “The Line Mage”.

There is a Saul Steinberg Foundation devoted to the study of his work that includes a small gallery (I love the woman in the bathtub).

For a better overview of his work, there is a nice section about Steinberg, along with many images, on the New Yorker’s Cartoonbank site. Here a link to the covers. (I wrote about the Cartoonbank site in August of last year.)

There is a new book by Joel Smith: “Steinberg at the New Yorker”.


John Picacio

John Picacio
John Picacio started out with a degree in architecture, moved into comics, then comics covers and then to science fiction book covers. He has illustrated books by Michael Moorcock, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Lucius Shepard and many more. He has received the Chesley Award, the World Fantasy Award and was a finalist for a Hugo. His work has also been featured in Renderosity: Digital Art for the 21st Century and several of the Spectrum collections.

He works in a combination of graphite, acrylic and oil, sometimes supplemented with the collage-like use of photographs and digital manipulation. His images often contain areas of abstract texture intermixed with figurative elements and held together with large patterns of vibrant color.

Here is an interview from the SF Site.

A book of Picacio’s work entitled Cover Story: The Art of John Picacio is due in May of 2006 from Monkeybrain Books.


Barry Windsor-Smith

Barry Windsor-Smith
Barry Windsor-Smith is a British comic book artist and illustrator who initially made a name for himself in American comics with his art for the Marvel Comics’ adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories in the 1970’s.

Windsor-Smith (often simply referred to in print as “BWS”) was heavily influenced by the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Nouveau and he was the first bring those sensibilities to American comic book art in a significant way. His fluid penwork and hatching style also shows the influence of pen and ink illustrators of Authurian legends like Howard Pyle.

In the years since his Conan debut, BWS has illustrated a number of notable comics stories for Marvel, as well as well as some lost gems. (A personal favorite of mine is a 4-issue run on a series called Machine Man, that had terrific coloring as well as ink work by Windsor-Smith.) He has also done work for other comics companies like Valiant, Malibu and Dark Horse, where he created an oversize format series called Barry Windsor-Smith: Storyteller. He has published prints and drawings under his own imprint, Gorblimey Press. He was also a member of the legendary Studio in New York that included Jeff Jones, Berni Wrightson and Michael Kaluta.

Fantagraphics Books is publishing a beautifully-produced multi-volume set called Opus, that showcases some of Windsor-Smith’s best work over the course of his career.

Another of his lost comic book gems was a one-shot story in Marvel Fanfare #15, featuring The Thing from The Fantastic Four, that is probably one of the best stories ever done with that character. BWS has created a new Thing graphic album due from Marvel some time this year. There is a brief preview of it on Comic Book Galaxy.

There is a fan-created Barry Windor-Smith Unofficial Blog (in Spanish, Google English translation here) that follows BWS activities.

You can also find some nice drawings by Windsor-Smith on the Artistic Interpretations of Literary Figures site, which I profiled in October of last year.


Alphonse Mucha

Alphonse MuchaAlfons Mucha, whose name is usually Anglicised as Alphonse Mucha, was a Czech painter and graphic artist. While living in Paris in he late 1800’s he adopted a style that was to to become what most of us think of as Art Nouveau (orginally referred to as “Le style Mucha”). Mucha disliked the term “Art Nouveau”, saying that art was eternal and never just “nouveau”, and tried unsuccessfully to distance himself from the label for the rest of his career.

After years of difficulty living as a proverbial “starving artist”, Mucha achieved acceptance and fame as the result of his posters for Sarah Bernhardt and other theatrical figures of the day.

His work has been very influential on other artists. When illustrators or comic book artists today do their version of “Art Nouveau”, they’re basically doing their take on Mucha. Illustrators notwithstanding, I think his influence on the course of art, design and our culture in general is dramatically misunderstood and undervalued.

In an age when the industrial revolution was making mass-produced goods available, it also seemed to be increasingly making them ugly and diminishing the role of the artist/craftsman in society. Art Nouveau was a revolt against this uglyness and there is a strong social component to the work that we no longer see.

Printing technology had just changed and the artists associated with the Art Nouveau style believed in bringing art to every aspect of life, removing the dividing line between art and commerce, between beauty and utility, between “high art” and “low art”, and most importantly, between the elite and the public, making art available to everyone, not just the rich.

Mucha designed labels for champagne, liquors, biscuits, perfume, even cigarette paper (much to the delight of counterculture types in the 1960’s, when Mucha’s work experienced a revival).

Mucha was a brilliant designer as well as an artist and his style also broke down the barrier between art and design. His drawings blended inextricably with the design elements of the work. His elegant curveuliear forms and Byzantine surface decoration extended into, and became part of the drawing.

Most of us have grown up taking Art Nouveau for granted as “pretty” or “decorative”. It’s difficult for us to realize what a revolution in design Mucha’s style was at the time. It’s also difficult to get a feeling for the turnabout in the place of art in society that Art Nouveau represented.

The art Nouveau artists were contemporary with the Impressionists. (Surprised? I was.) Mucha shared a studio with Gauguin for a while. Our fascination with Impressionism, combined with our modernist-induced snobbery and “Art for Art’s sake” elitism, prevent us from seeing the contribution of Mucha and the Art Nouveau movement to our culture.

Alphonse MuchaMucha spent the last years of his life creating the twenty monumental canvases of the Slav Epic, a history of the Slavs that he considered his masterpiece. If you think you know Mucha from his posters and labels, but haven’t seen his painting and drawings, you’re missing out.

The official Mucha website is maintained by the Mucha Foundation and has a good sampling of his work. The Art Renewal Center has excellent reproductions of Mucha drawings and paintings as well as posters and labels. There are also good images in the imageNETion gallery, and a good biography of Mucha here.

Mucha published two books to make his style more available to graphic artists and others, Documents Decoratifs and Figures Decoratifs (Amazon links to Dover editions), the latter is full of drawings of figures and draperies in pencil, pen, charcoal and chalk. Dover also publishes inexpensive editions of other Mucha drawings as well as a nice Mucha Postcard book. For better editions, though, look for “Alphonse Mucha” by Sarah Mucha, or (even better but more expensive), “Alphonse Mucha : The Spirit of Art Nouveau” (Victor Arwas, Jana Brabcova-Orlikova, Anna Dvorak).

[Update March 2011: See my more recent posts Mucha update from 2009, with more links and resources, Mucha on Gallica Digital Library and Mucha’s Slav Epic from 2011.]