Antonello da Messina (Antonello di Giovanni d’Antonio)

I will persist in my assertion that the early masters of oil painting were the special effects wizards of their day, astonishing those who viewed their works with the rich colors, brilliant luminosity and uncanny level of detail made possible by the new medium.

Not that there aren’t wondrously beautiful works done in tempera (Botticelli leaps to mind), but oil painting was a different painting technology, and allowed effects that were previously impossible.

Antonello da Messina, (which simply means Antonello of Messina, the town in Sicily where he was born, his family name was Antonello di Giovanni d’Antonio), was painter of the Italian Renaissance who combined the fanatical detail of the Flemish masters of oil painting (see my post an Jan van Eyck) with the openness and simplicity of the Italian painters.

His paintings often exhibit a remarkable sense of space, whether in the open, spacious skies behind his many unique visions of the crucifixion, or in voluminous architectural spaces, as in the amazing St. Jerome in his Study (above), in which Antonello plays with our sense of space and pulls us into his invented world.

(View the image larger by clicking on the preview image on this page on the Web Gallery of Art, and then clicking on “100%” at the top of the viewer window, or view the same image here, from this post on the French blog, La Boîte à Images which prompted me to do this post. There is also a highly zoomable, but watermarked, image on the site of the National Gallery in London, where the painting resides.)

Antonello invites us to step through a trompe l’oiel doorway, its reality emphasized by the tactile details in the way he represents the texture of stone, and reinforced by the carefully rendered birds and brass bowl in the foreground.

Once inside, our eye can wander through the fascinatingly divided space, through passages of dark and light, over the minute details of the objects arrayed on the shelves and platform on which St. Jerome sits at his study. We can gaze at the underside of the dimly lit curves of stone arches, and let our eyes pass across the intricate patterns of the tiles floors, through arches, doorways and colonnade and finally out through windows at the far side of the building, to the broad sky and distant hills of the landscape beyond.

What a remarkable journey Antonello has taken us on in the space of an 18 x 14 inch (46 x 36 cm) wood panel.

As I said, a master of special effects.


Ito Shinsui

Ito Shinsui
Ito Shinsui was a Japanese printmaker who, like his contemporaries Hiroshi Yoshida and Kawase Hasui, was part of the Shin Hanga movement in the early 20th Century. (In writing these artist’s names, I’m using the Western convention of putting the given name first.)

Shin Hanga was essentially a revival of the art of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the previous century (see my post on Hokusai), often combined with influences from Western art. Interestingly, one of the major European influences on the Shin Hanga artists was that of the French Impressionists, who, in turn, had been dramatically influenced but the brilliant colors and subtle compositions of Ukiyo-e prints.

Unlike Yoshida and Hausi, who, in keeping with the majority of the Shin Hanga artists, concentrated on landscape and scenes of life in towns and cities, Shinsui focused on the depiction of people, in particular beautiful young women.

His elegant compositions, in which the negative space is as vital as the primary shapes, are often 3/4 length figures with minimal space around them in the the frame. His beautifully dressed subjects, their decorative robes flowing about them in graceful waves, are frequently engaged in the application of makeup or preparation for the bath, and are warm with an understated eroticism. His forms are delicately modeled, with fine lines delineating areas enlivened with rich but subtle color.

You can see some of the influence of European art in certain prints (in his later years, you can even see the influence of cubism), and the strong traditions of Ukiyo-e in others. Though his depictions of women are his most notable subjects, Shinsui also created beautiful, brilliantly colored landscapes, which are not to be missed. He was at one point awarded the status of “intangible living treasure” by the Japanese government.


Edmond Alexander and Cynthia Turner

Edmund Alexander and Cynthia Turner
Even within the illustration community, which is itself often dissed by the fine arts world, medical illustration, like botanical illustration and architectural rendering, just doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

Good medical illustration, to my eye, can be as exciting and visually fascinating as the most far out science fiction illustration or movie concept art and as bizarre and intriguing as the wildest surrealist imaginings. The striking thing about medical illustration when viewed in this light is to remember that it is essentially realism. It is realistic depictions of things that in many cases can’t be viewed with the unaided eye, but a form of realism nonetheless.

I’ve found medical illustration to be a vastly underappreciated branch of illustration, but I’ve always liked it. (I’ve even done a bit myself, in a way, in the form of the illustrations and Flash animation for The Interactive Body feature in the Gift of a Lifetime web documentary.)

Edmond Alexander and Cynthia Turner, who share a studio under the name of Alexander & Turner, have been notable names in the medical illustration field for over 20 years.

Alexander seems to specialize in envisioning biological processes at the cellular, and sometimes molecular, level (image above, left). He utilizes intense color relationships and dynamic contrasts of value to make the processes snap into clear relief in a way photomicrography can’t. The result can be dramatic compositions filled with fascinating forms, often intertwining in dramatic relationships.

Cynthia Turner works more often at the macroscopic level, portraying organs or other parts of the human body that need to be diagramatically sectioned or otherwise have elements accentuated, again in the service of making things clear and dramatic that would be difficult, if not impossible, with photography. Turner tends to work in a way that feels more traditionally illustrative, and I’m particularly fond of the illustrations in which she brings part of the painting or drawing to a high degree of finish and leaves other parts to blend out into the recognizable lines of the initial sketch (image above, right).

The Alexander and Turner site has short bios of each artist and a gallery of their work. Unfortunately, like many artists who have posted their images on the web, and particularly those in the field of medical illustration, Alexander and Turner have felt compelled to mar their larger images with watermarking, in the vain hope that it will somehow protect them from being swiped.

At the risk of being repetitive, I feel I have to point out again to artists on the web in general, that this will only protect images from the laziest of image swipers. If your work is in print, anyone with a $50 scanner can produce higher resolution files of your images that you will ever post on the web.

I tend not to feature artists on lines and colors whose web based work is watermarked, but I found some unblemished examples of Alexander and Turner’s paintings on the Medical Illustration Source Book site for you to enjoy.

When approaching medical illustrations as artworks, particularly those of microscopic terrains, try thinking of them as abstract at first, then let them resolve into realism. In the case of Turner’s work, look first at the drawings around the edges, in those images where where she has left them as part of the composition, and then move to the more rendered forms.


Shaun Tan

Shaun TanShaun Tan is an Australian artist who creates and illustrates “picture books“, which in his case usually means wonderfully bizarre and imaginative flights of fancy that look, at least at first, like somewhat dark children’s fantasy, but are often aimed at both younger and older readers.

He sometimes works with a writer, as in the award winning The Rabbits (image at left, bottom), written by John Marsden, and sometimes writes the stories himself, as in The Lost Thing (image at left, top), which is also a theatre production and in development as a short animated film (more information here).

Tan starts his paintings with thin layers of acrylic over white lines on a dark background, working from dark to light and continuing with oil for the final rendering. He also works in other media, including sctatchboard, pen and ink , pastel crayons, gouache and watercolor, collage, assemblage and digital media.

You can see the multi-media and assemblage techniques in many of his illustrations which employ a stratified and multi-planed approach, with areas broken into smaller images within a larger whole, unified by textures and patterns playing across their surface.

Tan also mixes design elements with more painterly areas, and also works in a more straightforward painterly approach at times, creating a fascinatingly varied array of work.

Tan’s books have been translated into multiple languages and have received book awards in several countries. Tan is also involved in other interesting projects, including murals, theatre productions and a children’s “Art Trail”.

Some of his books, like The Red Tree (image at left, middle), feature experimental narratives, or absence thereof, leaving the reader to wander amid the images and form their own narrative, almost like a Surrealist collage-novel.

Link and suggestion courtesy of Jesper Svedberg

[Update, 2011: See my more recent posts on Shaun Tan.]


Adam Rex

Adam Rex
Adam Rex is an illustrator living here in Philadelphia who does fantasy themed and children’s book illustration for clients like Harcourt, Penguin, Knopf and a number of periodicals. Rex received the the Jack Gaugan Award for Best Emerging Artist, named for the noted Science Fiction artist, in 2005. He has also done a number of imaginative illustrations for Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering collectable card game.

He often employs brusque textures and mottled patches of color to give his images a rough-hewn appearance. Edges are deliberately left ragged and thin layers of color are scumbled against background colors. At other times, when the subject calls for it, the finish is more refined, though never to the point of being without some suggestion of texture.

His fantasy genre paintings frequently feature complex compositions with intricate backgrounds and multiple figures, and often carry a suggestion of Renaissance settings as in “Novice Griffin Rider” (above).

The galleries on his site feature examples of his work sorted by genre, Kids, Bigger kids, Teen/Adult and Fantasy. There are additional illustrations on the page that lists some of the books he has illustrated. (You can also find many of them with an Amazon search.)

Rex works mostly in oils, often over acrylic and opaque ink backgrounds; but he occasionally uses gouache, brush and ink, scratchboard, even Sculpey modeling, and a few digital touches, as in his bestselling children’s book, Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich (which is actually titled Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Other Stories You’re Sure to Like, Because They’re All About Monsters and Some of Them are Also About Food. You like Food Don’t You? Well, All Right Then).

His work for children’s books, including Tree Ring Circus, another for which he is the author a well as illustrator, carry forward that feeling of rough edges and also seem to have a hint of strangeness, as if to say that life has rough edges and we should revel in it rather than denying it with glossy fantasy.


Thomas Paquette

Thomas Paquette
When I first saw Thomas Paquette’s small gouache paintings on the web a couple of years ago, my initial thought was that I wanted to see them bigger. I didn’t realize at the time that I was looking at them almost life size.

His gouache paintings (image above, bottom row) tend to be quite small, in the range of 2×3 inches (5x8cm), even smaller than the postcard size paintings that are becoming more common with the advent of the “painting a day” phenomenon. Even so they feel remarkably rich and detailed; not in the sort of forced or artificial detail sometimes found in miniatures, but more like sketchbook paintings that have been fully realized. The size and shape of them, once I knew how small they were, seemed oddly familiar. I eventually realized that they are of similar size and proportion to many small etchings I’ve seen.

The etching comparison is an interesting one, in that Paquette’s paintings deal with line, but in an oblique way. He doesn’t actually use drawn line in the paintings, as many artists will do, but his areas of color are often discreet and sharply defined, sometimes with a dark edge that forms a line against another color.

That characteristic of highly defined edges of color, which may be a natural extension of the flat color areas for for which gouache is noted, has been carried over and developed in Paquette’s larger works in oil (image above, top). The result is a painting style that has some of the intensity and rich color of impressionist technique, blended with the visual charm of the line and color combinations of Japanese woodblock prints or certain styles of illustration.

I missed my chance to see Paquette’s work in person the last time he had a solo show here in Philadelphia, so I was glad I caught the recent American Arcadia group show at the Gross McCleaf Gallery (also featured in the current issue of American Art Collector).

This show didn’t feature any of his small gouache paintings, but I had the chance to see several of his oils, large and small. It may just be because I had so recently been to see the Daniel Garber show at the Academy, but I couldn’t help but see a comparison, particularly in the surface of the paint. Close up the texture and appearance of the paint on the canvas, in both Paquette’s and Garber’s work, reminds me of the rough mounds of oil paint, rich with the physical sensation of paint as a three dimensional substance, found in some modernist work.

Paquette’s oils are often broken up into a sort of latticework, composed of paint edges and the lines of the natural forms he is painting, tree limbs, the dark spaces between rocks, or rough seams in serrated bark. He seems to find suggestions of line everywhere, even though he rarely uses line in an overt way. Frequently, the effect is the result of an under-painting, often in a complementary color, the edges of which are allowed to show; another area in which I couldn’t help but make the comparison to Garber.

Paquette’s web site has examples of his oils, large and small, and his small gouache gems. A beautiful small book has been published, Thomas Paquette: Gouaches, in which the images are printed very close to the size of the original paintings.

Those in the Philadelphia area may be able to catch the last couple of days of the American Arcadia show at the Gross McCleaf, which ends tomorrow. Beyond that, the Gross McCleaf is one of the galleries that represents Paquette on an ongoing basis; there in a selection of his works on their site.

Paquette lives in upstate Pennsylvania, which is the location for the majority of his recent work. In addition to shows, he is also represented by galleries in Maine and Colorado.