Friday, March 5, 2010


In my opinion, illustration art has a brand of potency unrivalled by any other school or genre of art.




N.C. Wyeth

I defy you to find images with greater vigor and assertiveness in any art museum.

The difference in visual impact between illustration art and traditional painting is not simply a question of subject matter. Plenty of fine art depicts military battles, murders, rapes and other lurid or violent subjects. Yet, the difference in vitality is apparent:




Nor can the difference between illustration and gallery painting be attributed to vigorous brushwork. Twentieth century action painters such as de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline used violent brush strokes to convey raw emotion, yet even their most extreme work lacks the particular force and thrust that can be found in some illustration.


de Kooning

Abstraction somehow just doesn't seem to produce the same "pop." Perhaps part of the secret lies in the fact that illustrators capture motion as wild as a ballet leap or a spear thrust, yet contain it in a form that is sufficiently controlled to be representational. That tension adds a coiled strength.

Hale (detail)

Phil Hale-- in my view, one of the most powerful and talented painters in this genre today-- talked about the importance of a contrast between two elements:

"I like the (almost stupid) blunt immediacy crushed up against some good painting." Hale says he respects both sides, even the blunt, "stupid" part: "that slightly ridiculous side is actually quite genuine and human and worth including."

I suspect another reason for the distinctive character of illustration stems from its heritage. For more than a century, illustrators have refined the characteristics that make pictures stand out on a crowded magazine rack or book shelf. Through a long incubation period on the covers of lurid pulp magazines in the 1930s, comic books and women's magazines in the 1950s, illustrators learned what makes an image jump out and grab a casual reader by the lapels, and what aspects of traditional pictures were superfluous.

This peculiar flavor to illustration does not make it better or worse than gallery painting, but for those who enjoy the virility of art, illustration is the place to start.

Some pictures may whisper to you, while other pictures may sing. These are the pictures that gasp through clenched teeth, on the final downstroke.