Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book Review: J.C. Leyendecker

After seeing the Leyendecker exhibit last summer, I was thrilled to learn a new collection of his work was soon to appear in book form. I received it off my wish list last month and have been devouring it since (thanks!). First off, these aren't so much X-out-of-Y stars reviews. If I'm talking about it here, it's good, and if I was already eyeing it, it has great art. But there's still plenty to discuss.

The book fills a much-needed hole in having Leyendecker's work more exposed and better reproduced. It doesn't, however, fill the hole as much as I'd hope. Over the years, his junior contemporary Rockwell had 2 ginormous collections of art printed (and many smaller ones): one was an oversized beast dedicated to his Saturday Evening Post covers, the other to his art in general. Both are gorgeous, out-of-print, and much-cherished parts of my collection. Leyendecker needs similar.

In the meantime, this book has some wonderful reproductions of his work, and a gallery of supposedly complete images for every Post and Collier's cover he produced (and a few other series), in chronological order. This same format was used in the aforementioned Rockwell book, and though it means most of them are small, it's still very good for getting a solid grasp on the man's career and progress. There are charges that one 2-page spread actually reproduces a forgery, which is interesting.

I confess I went in not knowing a ton regarding his career timeline and the details of his work outside of his Post and Arrow illustrations. I learned more at the exhibit, and the book sets it together in context. His early work looks very little like what he became known for. I had always assumed that he had developed his trademark style in his 20's sometime. But as I look it over, it looks like he was about 35 or so when that look really started to take hold. That was fascinating to learn, being a 34-year old struggling to molt into an ever-better artist.

At the same time, it was interesting to notice something else: it seems that his work seemed to peak around the age of 50. Perhaps this is an issue with people who work in stylized manners--you can hone that stylization to a super-sharp edge, but then what? Some artists seem to deal with it by changing to a new style and beginning the growth process again. But when looking at his colleague/competitor Rockwell again, you see someone who started out in the shadow of Leyendecker eventually becoming an artist producing ever-better work even up through the 1960's when he would've been in his 70's. Part of this was due to Rockwell's change in venue and concepts, but his technique as a realist continued to improve and improve, and he largely left behind the sort of caricature that was popular in Leyendecker's heyday. Not that that is anything to be ashamed of--if I could become that good, and have the string of non-stop hits Leyendecker had, I would have no complaints at all. Oh, who am I kidding, I'd probably still be unsatisfied with myself.

The text provides wonderful insights into the world of Leyendecker's heyday, and is a great portrait of illustration in its Golden Age. What is perhaps unfortunate is that the text does come off as...strident? The authors are definitely champions of Leyendeckers work, and are frustrated that he has not attained the reputation they think he deserves. That's fine--it takes that sort of attitude to put in the work necessary for a book of this sort. However, it's a little unfortunate that the text at times reflects a "sour grapes" attitude with regards to Leyendecker not getting the credit deserved for innovations--for instance, a strong case is made for switching the spotlight away from Haddon Sundblom with regards to the modern portrayal of Santa Claus. At other times, the authors take pot-shots at contemporaries who would've been Leyendecker's friends in their time. With work this good, it is enough to simply bring it out of the attic and make it available again, with biography. I'm convinced that the work is so good that just seeing it is enough to make a new generation of fans. Had Leyendecker had a champion for his work after his death, an estate that was caring for his reputation, the entire situation the book is trying to ameliorate would not have been.

So, where the text is plain biography, it's fascinating, but beyond that it requires a little salt. I thought I might have been unusual in my reading of the text, but it appears many others have noticed these things as well, going on to point out factual inaccuracies and such where they regard the works of others. Still, this is the best Leyendecker book I've seen, and is a must-purchase.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Goodbye, Andrew

Outside of this mad genre I work in, one of America's greats passed away today. Andrew Wyeth, the 91-year old son of famed Brandywine painter N.C. Wyeth (a favorite in my mad genre), and father to famed painter Jamie Wyeth, has taken leave of us.

"Christina's World" is probably his best-known work.

At once incredibly realistic and "fussy" while at turns abstract and spontaneous, I've always found Andrew's work to be a little haunting somehow, even though I think what I've responded to is the quiet, unvarnished and ephemeral private moment. I could begin to wax poetic here about the depth of infinity in the capturing of the present, but I'll spare you. Let's just say that Andrew's paintings evoke the same sorts of feelings that old photographs of strangers do.

The New York Times has a very good article about his life and work, so I'd recommend reading it for a catch-up.

Andrew's work helped to teach me that there need be no tension for an artist who enjoys both loose and spontaneous work as well as tightly rendered stuff. Often there is a battle between the two camps, each side accusing the other of missing the point, of being lifeless for being tight, and being lazy for being loose.

"One's art goes as far and as deep as one's love goes. "--Andrew Wyeth

Friday, January 09, 2009

On a Whim

One thing fantasy illustration doesn't often require is portraiture. While you may paint characters, even from models, you have complete liberty and are encouraged to depart from your model. You may and should improve upon it or change it to match an illustration brief. But I like portraiture, and wish I could fit in more of it.

So I was watching Episode II again the other night, which prompted me to take a bit of time out to paint a small portrait of Padme, which I finished a couple hours before this post.

6x8" oils on canvas

It was fun, a bit over 4 hours. No pencil, just moving paint straight onto the pre-primed canvas. The results are ok--I worked off my laptop screen. Once I could scan the piece in and put it side-by-side, I could see the little errors here and there more clearly. Smaller nostril needed, eye angle a touch off, needs a rounder jaw. Portraiture is made of such little things, and missing them even by small amounts quickly degrades likeness as they accumulate. The smaller you work, the smaller your margin of error, since a 2 milimeter difference at 25% scale equates to 8 milimeters of displacement in real life, for instance. Had this been commission-critical, I'd have done a full drawing first, and ironed out those issues in pencil first. Or I'd just spend another 4 hours tweaking it. But, it's time to get back to work!

As an aside, I'm unsure if this is connected at all to my current reading of the new J.C. Leyendecker book. Of course he did tons of lovely oil studies on grey primed canvas. But I did have the desire to try this, didn't want to deal with priming something, and had some sludge-grey primed canvas ready to go.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy 2009

I have a difficult time conceiving that the decade is nearly over. Well, we're not done yet, so let's get to it!

R: Times Square, fun but never again.

First off for the New Year is exit within v.3. Version 1 was a sort of default Blogger template. v2 had me hacking away at it to make it gel better with my website, and had it move off the servers.

I started in on v3 a little while ago. I increased the width of the blog as most of Daydream Graphics is growing to accommodate the now-standard 1024x768 minimum resolution, and made a couple of other small tweaks. However, I've overhauled the template again, using Blogger's newer tools. It looks mostly the same, but the sidebar is much more functional.

For starters, the archives all work again. I've broken out the categories to their own menu. There's a lot of content on this blog now, so if you wanted to read everything posted under the heading of "running" for some reason, you can now do that. If you don't like me yapping on and on and just want posts with art in them, click "art" (just for you, db!). If you haven't subscribed to the RSS feed, that's easier to do than ever. If you have already done so, you'll have to delete the feed and add it again. Sorry. If you want to give a shout-out and "follow" the blog, give that a whirl, and let others know you're representin' exit within. For realz. If you think exit within is the best thing ever, there's an Amazon wishlist. There's been a blogroll for awhile, but it will now tell you when the sites listed were last updated. Every artist there is fantastic, and I know them all to a greater or lesser degree--I highly recommend you check them out if you like this sort of stuff. I guarantee they all write less than I do.

There's been one more URL change. The old one will just bounce you here, but you can now arrive at exit within by pointing yourself or others to Yay--I know that makes your lives much easier when you name drop this blog to all your friends!

One last change, the most tentative but potentially interesting of all. A couple weeks back, I thought it'd be fun to doodle a stick figure trying to draw a stick figure. It wasn't the best thing ever or anything, but it occurred to me--I write a lot. Some folks love that, some folks think artists should speak in thousand-word picture chunks only. When I'm in text mode, why don't I take a little time out to create a quick illustration for my own words? It would add to the art content, certainly, and give you guys some exclusive stuff to see. But can I pull that off, adding it to my blogging habit? Time will tell--I certainly wouldn't do it every week.

For now, welcome to 2009! You only get one of them, so make the most of it!