George Inness

George Inness
At a time when his fellow Hudson River painters were searching for the most wild, untamed and and dramatic landscape subjects they could find (or sometimes combine and invent, in the case of Frederic Church), George Inness chose to paint settled and cultivated lands, the farms and fields in which both God and man had made their mark.

Inness started his career painting in a style in keeping with the other Hudson River School artists, but his trips to Europe exposed him to the artists of the Barbizon School of France, which changed his palette and approach. Inness eventually eclipsed the Hudson River School painters and was regarded as the finest American landscape artist.

In his later career, he was exposed to an influence of another kind that also changed his painting dramatically. He became enthralled with the theological philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist, philosopher and Christian mystic who believed (among other things) in a direct relationship between the natural and spiritual worlds. Inness took Swedenborg’s model of “as above, so below” to heart as a belief that the divine could be revealed by contemplation of the natural world, and attempted to convey that divine essence in his paintings.

His later work is loose, fresh, painterly and shares characteristics with the Barbizon School, some of the Symbolist painters, and even the Impressionists, but is uniquely his own. Although he disliked Impressionism, Inness shared some of their immediacy, attention to nature, qualities of paint handling and enthusiasm for working en plein air, although Inness finished his works in the studio.

The paintings from his later career diverge from realism and have a poetic quality that is hard to describe. Inness searched for the emotion in the scene before him and tried to represent that, more than the mere reconstruction of the scene’s superficial appearance. There is often a feeling in Inness paintings of something impending, waiting to be revealed, as in the image above, Early Autumn, Montclair, which I’ve had the pleasure of “growing up with”, seeing it often over the years at the Delaware Art Museum.

George Inness’ landscapes are not so much pictures to be looked at as invitations to look deeper, or what Inness called “the visible upon the invisible”.


Archie’s “new look”

Archie comics
OK, everybody knows Archie, right? That wonderful comics character with round bulges on top of his head to suggest large curls of bright orange teenage hair, eyes drawn with simple arcs and dots, a mere suggestion of a nose, and those bizarre checks on his head, as if he’s been sleeping on a waffle iron? Archie! Sure! “America’s typical teenager”!

And those girls! Betty and Veronica! Wasp-waisted, large breasted icons of corn-fed all-American teenage girls, somehow simultaneously suggestive and innocent, that share that same dot-and-arc eye shape, even less of a nose, sometimes just a tiny ellipse, and those wonderful lines across the bridge of the nose that make no actual sense in terms of form, but somehow do a delightful job of suggesting the tops of rosy young cheeks… Archie pursued Veronica and Betty pursued Archie, and except in the wonderful Mad parody by Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman, Archie never noticed that if you switched their hair styles, they look exactly the same! How could anybody not love these characters?

Well, evidently Archie and his “Pals n’ Gals” aren’t getting enough love here in the 21st Century. After more than 60 years of existence as metaphorical and literal icons, the Archie characters are about to be made over in what Archie Comics calls a new “dynamic art” style in an attempt to bring them, kicking and screaming, into the the modern world. (Sigh.)

There has been an attempt to modernize one of their second string characters, Sabrina, with a manga-style makeover by Tania del Rio, but this remake, the initial debut of which will be in the Betty and Veronica Double Digest #151 (image above, right) to be released in May of 2007, is taking their main characters and rendering them in a more realistic, mainstream comics style, drawn by Steven Butler.

Butler is a comics veteran who first came to light as the artist of First Comic’s The Badger, went on to work for Marvel comics titles like Silver Sable and Web of Spider Man and has been doing Archie Comics’ Sonic the Hedgehog titie.

OK, I can understand their thinking. These characters were created in the 40’s by Bob Montana, drawn in a wonderful heavy-outline cartoon style (image above, left), and later redefined in a finer lined but still cartoon like style in the late 1950’s by Dan DeCarlo, and have been going pretty much unchanged since. How can they be relevant in this day of hyper-kinetic video games, Saturday morning anime, Glitz-O-Rama Barbie and Pokemon-infested toy store aisles?

They’ve tried “modernizing” the characters at times by writing in topical subjects, but the look of the characters, that can’t-miss-it, unmistakable Archie style, was consistent, and wisely so.

I’m sure the new versions will have a certain appeal, Butler does nice work on the page of pencils I’ve seen, and I wish the company well in their endeavor to attract more readers, but I think they’re missing the point. The Archie characters are the style, the style is the characters!

Scott McCloud has pointed out in his treatises on the nature of comics, that the more iconographic a character is, the easier it is to project more of ourselves into it, without being put off by some detail that “isn’t us” because it’s too specific. The very cartoonyness of the style is the major part of its appeal.

Archie comics, though they say “teen” all over them, aren’t for teens, they’re for pre-teens who desperately want to grow up a bit and move into that stage of life that seems so much more glamorous than being “not quite a teen”. The cartoon style makes that ability to project your imagination into that other phase of “who you want to be” so much easier. Plus, it’s that defining look that makes the Archie comics, well… Archie Comics.

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Addendum: According to continuing coverage over at Drawn!, Archie Comics is responding to a distinctly negative reaction to their plans to make over the characters, emphasizing that the remake in only being tried out in one title at the moment and the other titles will continue in the “classic” Archie style while reactions (and sales) are monitored. The post on Drawn! also provides links to coverage on Wired’s blogs.


Sergei Aparin

Sergi AparinSergi Aparin is a contemporary Russian painter currently living and working in Belgrade.

Unlike many of the newer artists who are often classed as “Pop Surrealism”, Aparin is working firmly in the vein of the classic Surrealist artists like Dali and Magritte. In particular his work shows the influence of the Spanish Surrealist, but not just in the expected ways. Many artists who have been influenced by Dali have tried to capture his startling ability to rearrange reality, but Aparin goes beyond that to a deep appreciation of Dali’s mastery of old master painting techniques, particularly those of Velazquez.

Aparin shows the influence of the hyper-real landscapes and hallucinogenic skies of Dali’s later work. There are also nods to Magritte, Ernst and the other major Surrealists painters, but the ultimate synthesis is Aparin’s own.

His themes often involve villages that are ships (or ships that are villages), objects that emerge from or are displayed on stone, repeated forms that suggest connection between very different objects (pomegranates and planets, insects and aircraft, dirigibles and fish), images of clocks and particularly clockwork mechanisms and pastoral lakes and streams with other worldly shores, all brought into sharp focus by an intense magic realist painting style.

One of the interesting things about Aparin’s images is that they often include observers, images of people in the foreground of the painting with their back to you, who are evidently looking at the same scene as you are. Some of these are possibly representations of the artist himself, others are children (some of which may again represent the artist at a young age), others are obviously not the artist but may have meaning beyond the obvious.

His images seem laced with dream-like phantasms, arcane symbols and psychological inferences, which put them in the tradition of true Surrealism.


Alina Chau

Alina Chau works as a 3D character animator, storyboard artist and concept artist. She also teaches CG animation classes at a university. When she’s not doing that she’s… drawing.

Her blog, Ice Cream Monster Toon Cafe, seldom features her professional work but is, instead, focused on the drawings and designs she does for the joy of it. These are often ink and watercolor sketches of everyday scenes around her adopted home of Los Angeles and travel sketches, as well as the results of her frequent participation in the Illustration Friday exercises.

You will also find life drawings, sketches for personal projects, cartoon drawings, and fanciful doodles of all kinds. The pieces I like best, though, are her quick, breezy sketches from life, whether from her immediate everyday surroundings or from her travels.

She has just released a book of her travel sketches, Alina’s Travel Journal, that collects her sketches of places like Las Vegas, Disney World Florida, the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree State Park, San Francisco and San Diego, as well as scenes closer to home in Los Angeles.

I don’t think there is a specific “preview” of the book except in the form of the existing blog posts among her other designs and images.

Some of her designs show the influence of Chinese ink painting, and you can sometimes see the character of her concept design work, but her sketches from life are mostly straightforward, a quick ink line and watercolor capture of her immediate impressions of a scene. Her ink lines are accented, more than filled, with bright splashes of watercolor. Her colors are applied in a loose manner that suggests a quick impression rather than rendering, giving them a feeling of immediacy and informality.


Giovanni Battista Piranesi

In spite of the fact that he grew up in the fantastic city of Venice, Giovanni Battista Piranesi was even more fascinated with the amazing city of Rome. He moved there in 1740, when he was twenty, and the city itself became his subject and inspiration. In the course of his career he would create more than 1,000 etchings of Rome’s monumental architecture.

Piranesi studied architecture, engineering and stage design. He is best known for his “capricious inventions”, a series of 14 etchings of invented prisons. These were architectural fantasies, essentially of stage prisons, with large scale walls, aerial walkways, helical stairways and drawbridges (image at left, top and detail, middle). Real prisons of the time were actually small dungeons that bore little resemblance to his imagined architectural fancies, which were actually inspired by his fascination with Rome’s fantastic classical ruins.

As interesting as his etchings and engravings of the imaginary prisons are, with their tiny figures silhouetted against the large structures to give the feeling of grand scale, I’m most impressed with his actual images of the ruins of ancient Rome, the structures of which really are on a giant scale (image at left, bottom).

It’s difficult to understand from pictures just how large and imposing the monuments of Imperial Rome are. When you see them in person, the feeling of scale is dramatic. The Coliseum, with its grand arches that were once filled with sculptures; is as large as a modern sports stadium; and when you stand in the shadow of the enormous pillars and columns at the far end of the Forum, you feel like you’ve been exposed to a mad professor’s shrinking ray.

Piranesi spent his life fascinated with the scale, complexity and grandeur of classical Roman architecture. Spend some time with Piranesi’s etchings and engravings and you may see why.


Stephen Gjertson

Stephen GjertsonStephen Gjertson is a contemporary realist who paints portraits, genre scenes, still lifes, landscapes and biblical themes.

Interestingly, his detailed and sometimes elaborate paintings of biblical themes seem more modern in feeling and execution than his contemporary portraits.

His portraits and quiet domestic scenes, often centered on mothers and infants, have a feeling of subtle formality and painstaking draftsmanship that carries echoes of French neo-classical masters like David and Ingres.

Gjertson’s still life paintings often involve complex depictions of flowers and the glossy surfaces and elaborate patterns of porcelain. His contemplative landscapes also show a great devotion to detail and craft, and are sometimes compared to the style of Russian artist Ivan Shishkin.

All of his works have a careful attention to composition that seems to give them a certain gravity. Where many contemporary artists will grab you with drama and flash, Gjertson uses the force of stillness and the weight of detail to draw your focus. His subjects seem imbued with a feeling of importance by the the obvious attention he has invested in portraying them.

There is a collection of his work, “Timeless treasure: The art of Stephen Gjertson” (Annette LeSueur) and he is the author of a monograph on Richard F. Lack, who he studied with: “Richard F. Lack: An American master” (Stephen Gjertson).