Sunday, November 08, 2015

More thoughts on illustration and why exactly the work of Sophie Blackall is so bad

The flip side of criticizing bad work like that of Sophie Blackall is appreciating good illustration. The New Yorker will reliably present at least 5 or so really great covers each year (they publish weekly) that demonstrates what good illustration is all about. I've liked some so much I've gotten framed prints of them.

Unfortunately now that I've stopped getting hard-copy versions of the New Yorker I often don't even notice the covers most of the time - they are online - sometimes they are even animated (?!) but mostly I access articles now via posts on Facebook, and it's a whole other experience from having a magazine in your hands. It's a shame. On the other hand, if it weren't for the Internet I wouldn't have this blog. It's always a trade-off.

When I criticized Blackall's subway card a few years ago, one of the commenters said:
...I mean, it's really absurd to want all illustrative artwork to be representationally accurate, in terms of perspective, proportions etc. Haven't you heard of artistic liberties?
The commenter appears not to have read what I actually wrote, and their comment was out of Art Appreciation 101, but it's probably reflective of many people's attitudes - the only real issue in art is whether or not something is representationally accurate. Of course it is not, and that's obvious from my critique of the subway card - it isn't that she can't draw people realistically, it's that Blackall doesn't make consistent stylistic choices, and the choices she does make are ugly. I mean what the hell is the point of drawing a group of people like this?

This isn't about lack of realistic representation, this is about making aesthetically repulsive choices, and quite possibly sheer laziness. I already discussed what is wrong with this portion of Blackall's art card, but I can't help yet again being repulsed by the fact that the second face from the left seems to be a conjoined twin. Let's zoom in, shall we?

Now if the drawing had been cropped vertically down in the center of the blue-helmetted skateboarder you would assume the face at the skateboarder's chest was part of an entire figure - but since Blackall went to the trouble to extend the background of the subway car seat, with under-shadow, and the floor all the way to the end of the drawing, we can see there is no body!

Why would you do that? To be "clever" somehow? Because you're so unobservant (not a good trait for an artist) that you didn't even realize you extended the background while forgetting to provide a body for the head there? No matter what the reason, it's just plain ugly. Art isn't always about realism, but it should have some aesthetic value, or it isn't good art. It's bad art.

Of course there is no accounting for taste, but for those who don't get why the work of Sophie Blackall is so bad, just viscerally, just by looking at it, perhaps I can break it down for them even further, by comparing it to some good work by New Yorker cover artists.

First let's look at one with a completely unrealistic representation of the human form:

This New Yorker cover by Tom Gauld displays a virtual stick figure. Nobody would mistake this for an actual human being - but it's clear this is a stylistic choice. The figure's arm is a geometric curve, not a real elbow - but that's fine because the face is just a circle with a dot for an eye and a triangle for a nose. This stick figure by itself would not suffice as a satisfying work of art. But it is part of a beautifully balanced composition. There are only two bits of orange in this image, the figure's dress and the leaf in the window. And the position of these colors on the two-dimensional plane are perfectly balanced. The orange area of the leaf is much smaller than the area of the dress, but it is contrasted against a stark white background, which gives it more power in spite of its size. And then there are the books. The artist did not try to realistically portray stacks of books as they would look in real life - all the books stacked on top of each other to impossibly high heights are at an angle, in two different directions. This is the artist's choice, not because the artist is incapable of drawing a book along the spine - obviously since the books in the shelves are showing spines - but to give a unified appearance. 

Composition is one more of Sophie Blackall's artistic failings. If you look at the image from the children's book from yesterday's blog post you'll note the right-side candle is not only a fire hazard, it demonstrates Blackall's bad composition choices.

She apparently decided there had to be three candles on the table, but she couldn't figure out how to have both a candle and the girl slave on that side of the composition. She could have just left out the woman whose back is facing us - nobody would care if there was one fewer person at supper. That would have been the much better solution, compositionally - she could have lined up the candles along the horizontal axis. Instead she sticks the right-side candle, nonsensically, near the edge of the table - so this candle is a fire hazard for two reasons: the red fan cord grazing it; and because it could be easily knocked to the floor. Although if it burnt up that unnecessarily busy geometric-pattern rug and they had to replace it with a solid crimson rug to balance all the crimsons at the top of the image, that would be a big improvement.

Blackall has a terrible time with positioning objects in three-dimensional space. She could solve this by making compositional choices in which she doesn't have to worry about it - the Gauld cover doesn't bother trying to represent the walls of the library - and that works perfectly. The artist isn't going for a three-dimensional look. Blackall is going for a three-dimensional look and failing. And there's no reason for it. Instead of leaving out the left wall entirely, she crammed it in there with a badly-drawn table, and not only does she fail at perspective she ends up portraying what must be one of the tiniest dining rooms in all of the antebellum South. The room barely holds the table - it's about the same size as the dining room we had in our house when I was a kid - and I did not grow up in a Plantation-era mansion.

In this Tomine cover, the perspective is drawn beautifully. But even so, the color palette is more limited than in Blackall's dining room. Realism is no excuse to ignore abstract values like color and composition. And then there's the portraiture aspect, another thing at which Blackall fails. She really doesn't do individualized faces. She has a template - including round rosy cheeks, not only on all the  men, women and children but on all people regardless of skin tone. Why? Why would you make that stylistic choice? And she doesn't just do this for childrens' books - she did it for the subway art card too.

I have nothing against art for children, by the way. I adore the work of Heidi Gonnel, as I blogged about here.

The Tomine is not only beautifully drawn with excellent color and composition balance, it's an editorial piece as well - usually that's an aspect of this artist's work that I don't enjoy, because the editorial he usually expresses is some tiresomely wry commentary on life in the big city. But in this case, it's a very specific moment in history: Mayor Bloomberg at the end of his term, with an extra-large beverage cup - which he had banned during his administration. Notice the big cup is the only thing with red in it. That isn't realistic - but it is a good artistic/editorial choice.

And you don't have to have hard edges to have a beautiful illustration as this Drooker cover demonstrates. This is a painterly image, and quite realistic - it could easily be a photo tweaked by Photoshop - but it works for abstract qualities of color and composition.

While I was looking at New Yorker covers I came across this one. It isn't my favorite, artistically, (although it's much better than anything by Sophie Blackall) but I was fascinated - although it looks straight out of the 1970s, this image of women wearing sleeveless pantsuits with wide pants legs and bright colors and big hats and bangly bracelets and coordinating sandals standing confidently at a bar is from 1933!