Monthly Archives: November 2006

Alex Gross

Alex Gross
Alex Gross is an illustrator and gallery artist whose work is a fascinating amalgam of images and influences, rendered in a highly crafted and meticulous style that gives his compositions an uncanny feeling of authority.

He creates large scale and sometimes highly detailed paintings that are filled with iconic images that may or may not be allegorical. Snakes, birds and butterflies are placed in odd contexts. Faces are often dour or troubled in a manner somewhat reminiscent of George Tooker’s monuments to isolation. Clouds take unusual forms, sometimes as patterns, occasionally as actual objects like falling airplanes, a repeated theme in several images.

There is a kind of delicate and careful eerieness to his more recent gallery paintings, which feel like allegorical portraits, contrasted with a more energetic play of imagery in his older paintings (which I have to say I prefer).

Gross’s canvasses can have a certain Gothic formality about them, as if time has been conveniently stopped and elements of reality carefully mixed and arranged in some kind of cosmic diorama before being carefully recorded by the artist.

There is a feeling of graphic nostalgia in almost all of his work, recalling early poster art, mixed with elements of pop surrealism, bits of American and Japanese pop culture and dotted with the iconic butterflies and other weird symbolism — a sort of retro-future nostalgic pop-classical synthesis. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Gross studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and in 2000 travelled in Japan for two months on an artistic scholarship, collecting examples of Japanese gallery art and commercial art. Part of the collection was published by Taschen as Japanese Beauties (Icons). There is also a beautiful new hardcover collection of Gross’s own work, The Art of Alex Gross: Paintings and Other Works from Chronicle Books.

Suggestion courtesy of Jack Harris.

 
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Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin

ChardinIf I were to say “Think of a great landscape painter.” or ” Think of a great portrait artist.”, you would probably have a few names spring immediately to mind. If I were to say “Think of a great still life painter.”, chances are better that you might draw a blank, or at least have to think for a bit to come up with a name.

Still life, though a respected form of painting, just isn’t very glamorous. It’s been a staple subject of artists for centuries and many artists today are doing wonderful work in the area; but historically, artists who paint still life and something else are usually remembered for the something else. Well, here’s a name for your list, even if it is a long hyphenated one: Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. (I think the French just loved long hyphenated names so they could outdo the British at something else.)

Chardin was one of the great painters of the 18th Century. His unsentimental portrayals of his subjects, strongly influenced by the Dutch masters, were in sharp contrast to the opulently decorative and playfully erotic canvasses of other Rococo masters like Boucher and Fragonard. He was renowned for his portraits and genre paintings (pictures of everyday life), but in his case it is the still life subjects that get the attention.

Though the subjects are humble, often pots, ladles, jars and simple kitchen utensils, Chardin paints them with a richness and tactile vibrancy that is outstanding among all still life painters. He was particularly a master of texture, whether of beaten and polished metal, scuffed wood or the rough surfaces of walls and tables. You can feel the objects in his paintings, pick them and hold them in your mind, even though the way he represents them is painterly and not photorealistic. He often laid in parts of his paintings with rough chunks of color, smudges and and scumbling, letting the surface of the paint itself provide some of the texture.

If you have the opportunity to look at a Chardin painting in a local museum (see the listing on Artcyclopedia), you may find that you’ve unknowingly walked by it several times. Like most still life paintings, Chardin’s don’t scream for attention, but they do reward it. Contemplation of a Chardin still life can be an almost Zen-like exercise in the appreciation of the humble and immediate as sublime.

Don’t ignore his portraits or domestic scenes, he was a superb painter in all areas, but it’s his magically tactile still life subjects that are most memorable. You may come away with at least one name for your mental list of great still life painters.

 
 
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Joshua Middleton

Joshua Middleton
Joshua Middleton is a comics artist who works in mainstream American comics, but whose work feels outside of that world in many ways.

Middleton draws in an open lined style, with few spotted blacks, that feels to me like it carries more influence from Japanese and European comics than major American comics. Nonetheless, after a stint on Crossgen’s Meridian and a short run on his own creator owned project, Sky between Branches (image above), he went to work for Marvel Comics, creating covers and sometimes interior art for titles like NYX, New Mutants and X-Men Unlimited. He did a bit of work for Udon and Dark Horse and then Moved to DC, where he has done a number of covers and the full mini-series Superman/Shazam: First Thunder (with writer Judd Winick). Middleton seems to have settled in there as a cover artist for Vertigo titles like American Virgin.

Middleton’s site features galleries of his work from various projects, arranged by covers, comics pages and sketches & character designs, including some concept designs for Serenity’s “Inara”. He started a blog this fall in which he posts unpublished work, sketches, news, notices of originals that are up for auction and sometimes some YouTube style vids of images as he works on them.

Middleton often does the complete artwork for the pieces he works on, pencils, inks and colors, again more in keeping with European and independent comics than the normal approach of major American comics companies, which is based on a team model (or assembly line if you want to be cynical).

His ink rendering style utilizes a fine outline, with little variation in line weight, also like the European ligne claire comics style or like inks for animation. His color feels almost like cartoon cell painting, with broad areas of relatively flat color laid against one another with few gradients or painted effects except in backgrounds.

He works with lots of subdued, neutralized colors, particularly blues that are pushed almost to gray. It’s an unusual approach for mainstream comics coloring, although it has some characteristics in common with coloring for some American comics that are very manga influenced. The difference is that Middleton does it with more aplomb and a firmer knowledge of anatomy and geometric form than the color artists for many of those titles.

Overall, though, Middleton’s aim seems always to be in service of the emotion of the story, whether in characters faces or the emotional effect of color and tone on the scene as a whole. I hope his success as a cover artist doesn’t keep him from applying that approach more sequential work; telling stories, after all, is what comics do best.

 
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John Howe

John Howe
Fantasy artist John Howe is best known for his illustrations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s works, creating illustrations for editions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit and related calendars in the early 90’s. Peter Jackson tapped him, along with Alan Lee, to be lead artists on his large scale movie adaptation.

Howe also worked on the film The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and is presumably involved in other movie projects. Howe was born in Canada, studied in France and is now living in Switzerland. He has illustrated numerous other books in several countries, primarily but not always in the fantasy and medieval genres.

Despite having a bio page, his site doesn’t have much in the way of a quick introduction, instead it seems to assume that you’re already aware of his work and are back for more news. Someone with more time/patience than I could probably find more background info by digging through the pages devoted to news, travels, FAQ and fan forums.

There are plenty of images, though. They are pulled from a database, so you can view them by various categories, like topic, most viewed, highest rated, newest, etc. Some, like “Elves & Dragons” (image above), have links to very large versions and even preliminary sketches.

There is a supplementary site here, apparently for an exhibition of his work in conjunction with a cultural event of some kind in 2007. (I haven’t had time to try to translate this for more details.)

Addendum: The site for this event, Saint-Ursanne, La Fantastique, has been updated and is now available in English, as well as French and German. The event takes place in a medieval city that was the inspiration for many of Howe’s paintings for The Lord of the Rings. A description for the site reads: an exclusive exhibition of John Howe paintings in the cloisters and cellar gallery, fantastical installations all around the city, classical and Celtic concerts, medieval festivities, encounters around J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels, documentaries and evening cinema in the reconverted factory “Fours à Chaux”.

 
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MUVA

MUVAMUVA (Museo Virtual de Artes – El Pais) is a virtual art museum for contemporary art from Uruguay. It’s been on the web for a number of years. I’m not sure exactly when it debuted, but it predates the virtual spaces in virtual worlds like Second Life by a good bit.

The museum is an online gallery, with rotating shows of various artists, that is arranged in a 3-D virtual space that you can “walk though” using links in the interface. Hovering your mouse over parts of the interface, or on control buttons, allows you to navigate through the gallery spaces in which previews of the works are arranged like paintings hanging on the virtual walls of the museum. Clicking directly on a work allows you to view a larger image of the work in much the same way you would in a standard online gallery. A small map in the interface shows you your position and orientation within the museum’s floors and galleries.

There is a relatively new Flash version now to compliment the original HTML version (shown here). Try a little of both to see which you prefer, depending on the speed of your connection. Both versions are offered in either Spanish or English. When in doubt, there is a help feature at the bottom of the interface and if you become impatient, use the Site Map.

This arrangement is obviously not as efficient as regular thumbnail-and-enlargement online galleries, but sometimes, particularly when viewing art, efficiency is not the point. The 3-D environment is convincing and consistent enough to give you a feeling of taking some time to wander through a real museum, with it’s attendant “Let’s see what’s in this gallery.” sense of exploration.

Overall the effect is clever and entertaining in it own right, leading you to perhaps spend some time with some artists that you might not be familiar with or seek out under other circumstances.

 
 
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J. C. Leyendecker

J. C. LeyendeckerIf you were to ask most people to name the most successful American illustrator of the first half of the 20th Century, who was a classically trained artist and master craftsman, who was in large part responsible for the popular image we have of Santa Claus, who created the notion of using a baby to represent the New Year in illustrations, whose productive career spanned 50 years, who basically invented the look of 20th Century magazine cover design, and who painted more Saturday Evening Post covers than any other artist — the answer would invariably be “Norman Rockwell”, an answer that would just as invariably be wrong.

In fact, this is a description of Joseph Christian Leyendecker, whose position of relative modern obscurity compared to Rockwell just boggles my mind. Leyendecker was a fantastic illustrator whose paintings are marvels of design, draughtsmanship and the beautifully controlled application of color.

At a time when illustrators of his stature were treated like current day rock stars, Leyendecker led a very private life, perhaps to keep his relationship with Charles Beach, his model, manager, assistant and companion, out of the public eye. His creations became stars in their own right, though.

Leyendecker’s most famous illustrations were the series he created for Arrow Shirts featuring the “Arrow Collar Man”, an elegantly dapper guy who received thousands of fan letters and marriage proposals from swooning women, and who set standards for what was considered a masculine ideal at the time (sort of a male version of the Gibson Girl). The campaign was notable as being one of the first to deliberately sell a “lifestyle” instead of just a product.

Leyendecker also set new standards for illustration art. He and his brother Frank X. Leyendecker, also a terrific and under-appreciated illustrator, studied in Paris at the famed Académie Julian when William Bouguereau, the Academician’s Academician and a superb painter, was its director. They attracted much attention even then as talented art students among the best in Europe, in sharp contrast to their current lack of attention. Frank receives even less attention than Joseph, apparently in his brother’s shadow in posterity as well as in life.

Norman Rockwell was a great admirer of Leyedecker, who he considered the ideal for which he aimed when he began doing Post covers. He eventually became friends with the Leyendecker brothers and a chapter in his autobiography is one of the few personal accounts that exist from those who knew them.

Leyendecker had a tremendous impact on other illustrators. His work is dazzling in its technical proficiency, beautifully composed and designed, and drawn with the kind of flair and refined skill that only comes to the best of the best. He would make the application of paint (supposedly with a secret proprietary oil painting medium) appear as part of the design, with strokes of color defining the form in his paintings the way hatching is used in drawings, and often allowing parts of the underpainting show through.

He was also a genius for finding “the straight within the curved”, and his figures have a sharp, crisp geometry that makes them really snap. Seemingly simple things like folds in cloth became wonders of painted design, zig-zagging valleys of carefully controlled color, highlighted with those amazing strokes of color hatching.

Leyendecker reportedly worked in stages, creating many small-scale studies from which he would then construct the whole using the traditional technique of “squaring up” to transfer to the larger canvas. The American Art Archives site has a great page of his studies that is not to be missed by anyone interested in the techniques of one of the great illustrators.

I mentioned Leyendecker in my post on Thanksgiving two days ago and Shane White left a comment about a current Leyendecker show I wasn’t aware of. For those fortunate enough to live within reach, there is a Leyendecker exhibit titled J. C. Leyendecker: America’s “Other” Illustrator, at The Haggin Museum in Stockton, California that continues through the end of December.

J.C Schau’s monograph J. C. Leyendecker (cover shown at left, bottom) is long out of print, as is The J. C. Leyendecker Collection: American Illustrators Poster Book by Frederic B. Taraba, though you may be able to find them with used book searches through Amazon and elsewhere. There is a good chapter on Leyendecker in Susan E. Meyer’s America’s Great Illustrators, a terrific book that can be found used for under $15. If nothing else, look for them in libraries so you can get a feeling for how great his work looks in print.

I’ve assembled what resources I can find for you below. American Art Archives is the best, but I would love to know of others I may have missed. Maybe if enough interest is generated from the show, and a little buzz gets going on the web, we might be able to convince a publisher to cough up a new book on this fantastic and amazingly underappreciated artist.

 
 
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