Monday, September 1, 2014

Spectrum Exhibition III

The third Spectrum Exhibition opens September 2 at the Society of Illustrator's Museum of American Illustration. Curated by Irene Gallo and Gregory Manchess, each of the Spectrum shows have been the largest, most comprehensive, most inclusive, and highest quality displays of fantastic art in the United States. Artists and collectors from around the world have lent their art for this event; the previous two exhibitions broke museum attendance records and were among the most popular shows held at the Society's historic New York City headquarters. The show will run through October 18.

Irene and Greg have shared these photos of the show in the process of being hung. The Opening Artist's Reception will take place Friday, September 12 beginning at 6:30pm. You can find out more about the show, directions to the museum, and information about attending the reception by hitting this link.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

It’s not about you (probably, except for when it is. Sometimes)

The Connoiseur, by Norman Rockwell

David Palumbo

After reading Lauren’s recent post regarding online criticism, I found myself thinking quite a bit about the broad subject of taste.  Beyond art, we all tend to have a quality standard for anything which we are even marginally interested in.  The good, the bad, the forgettable.  Whether music, movies, books, clothes, or even just the best places to get a taco, I believe that we all have a personal dividing line somewhere in that mediocre middle where a things is just plain bad.  Where it has failed at being whatever that thing could have gloriously been, and especially when it has failed to a spectacular degree.  I don’t know if I’m so cynical to believe that most people enjoy witnessing failure (anyone who has ever watched a live performance tip just a bit off the rails knows the feeling of an audience collectively holding their breath and hoping that the performer can pull it back) but, to put it charitably, it certainly seems that people enjoy demonstrating their intelligence and good taste by pointing out where they feel efforts have failed.  I saw a photo series online just this morning which had an interesting premise and then, in my opinion, severely botched execution.  Half-assed concepts woven with bad technique.  I REALLY wanted to point my finger and say “that was 100% terrible!”

I didn’t, but I wanted to.  Instead I read the comments of other people who did it for me.  This only furthered my frustration though as, despite largely sharing my opinion that it was bad, they felt it was bad for all of the wrong reasons!  It was like seeing a movie you were really excited for but then it had massive plot holes which distracted from the story and a horrible third act which didn’t make any sense at all and afterwards your friend turns to you as says “that was an awful movie!  There were almost no musical numbers at all!” This is the realization that not everyone is looking for the same satisfaction.

I think most artists of any stripe come to understand that you really can not please all the people all the time.  Some of us can accept this, some will understand it but struggle with the reality of it, and some will struggle to even acknowledge it by continuing to try to please everyone.  But they can’t of course, no one can, because we don’t all want the same thing. 

The rare things which are generally agreed to be the greatest are always compromises in my opinion.  Not that they were executed as compromises, but their "best of" title represents a compromise of varied opinions.  I don’t think the Mona Lisa is the “best” painting in the history of art and I don’t think that either Pat’s OR Genos have the “best” cheesesteak in Philly.  I also don’t think those are controversial opinions to share because, despite often being cited as such, most people who actually have considered, thought out opinions on either topic will probably agree with me.  But that is the nature of mass-audience favorites: sifted crowd-pleasers which are known, acceptable, and non-offensive.  The “best” song by the “best” band could easily be something along the lines of Hey Jude by the Beatles.  Yes, it’s a good song, a pretty great song, but I’d wager it probably isn’t your (speaking to you!) favorite (all time everything) song.  I am certain that it actually is the favorite song of very many people, but odds are that it isn’t yours.  Whatever your favorite song is, it probably has something about it which many people would dislike if they even know it at all and some people would even find a reason to dislike it that had nothing to do with what it even sounds like. 

And the nice thing is, everyone is right.  We’re all right because we all get to like things and dislike things for our own highly personal and highly irrational reasons.  It’s not about logic, it’s about love.

Oh, but when other people like something we don’t like, that can be obnoxious.  How can people be so stupid to actually like that junk!  Or maybe they’re pretending to like it so everyone will think they’re smart but obviously nobody really likes it!  These are injustices that demand sharing online!  Of course, you can’t really convince someone by arguement they don’t like a thing anymore than they can convince you that you actually do (you don’t).  Never the less, we all too often feel compelled to try.  Or at the least to make it known that we’re not like those fools liking all that idiotic mess.  We have standards.

As a human, I struggle with these things.  As an artist, I am sensitive to the fact that most creative work is the result of an honest effort and I respect courage and labor.  As your average asshole with an opinion, I know that my opinion is the best one. 

To be serious though, this does have a point.  My opinions on certain subjects can be very strong and, no surprise, visual art is among them.  I know what I like and I know what I don’t.  For many years, that was all I needed.  I would be frustrated by the success of peers who clearly did not deserve it or by schools of painting which were transparently unapologetically bullshit (ok, I might still twinge a bit on that one) and lament that others of promise were overlooked.  Even leaving out the larger Art World, I felt the same irritation in the broad spectrum of illustration.  I remember my first time seeing an annual exhibition at the Society of Illustrators which, at a time at least, was generally perceived as, well, not overly enthusiastic on the whole “fantasy art” scene.  “Half these guys can’t even draw!” was probably a fair approximation of my open-minded verdict.  And so my opinions went until, a few years later, I took a position as an art director for an indie publishing company.

My perception did open up a bit right away as I began matching artists to upcoming projects.  Initially I had imagined that I would try and just hire my favorite painters as often as I could get away with, but I realized pretty soon that they often were not really right for whatever the next title on the list was.  The true lesson did not really land for a few months though. 

I won’t name names here, those involved will know, but I had a cover on the schedule which seemed to me an ideal fit for an artist who’s work I greatly admire.  On top of this, I was able to get the jacket design to be handled by a designer who I think is positively brilliant.  We didn’t have much budget so this was pretty exciting, particularly being that both were my first best choices for the job.  The author’s previous books (of a different publisher) had what I would only describe as a consistently dull, uninspired, generic look.  There was an exception that I found which was pretty good but was later told that the author had never much liked that cover.  But that is post script.  At the time of commissioning, I was excited to do something much more visually exciting, interesting, and dynamic which was also a perfect indication of the tone of the story.   No big type and stock photos, but a beautifully painted and designed cover with The Right People hired on to see it through.  When the work came in it was, in my opinion, everything that I’d hoped and expected.  Because I was working from Philly and the publisher was in San Francisco, our communication was all phone calls and emails but the editors seemed pleased and it was job well done.  Then, a bit down the road, the image released online that the authors fans began to comment.  The fans were not happy.  As more and more comments accumulated, the tone grew progressively more blunt and then progressively more offensive.  Of course I stayed out of the discussion, but I read every single post.  I had a handful of tiny victories as an occasional reader would voice their approval, but overall it was very very bad.  At first I was annoyed and then I began to get really angry because the comments were getting rude and half of them didn’t even come close to describing what the cover actually looked like.  I hope with all of my heart that the artist never saw them (though I know the designer did).  Ridiculous critiques were given on technique, unfavorable comparisons were made to other artwork and styles which bore absolutely no resemblance, and in general it felt like they were all insane, small minded trolls.  And then I read one comment which made me completely re-evaluate how I have looked at commercially oriented creative work ever since.  This is not a direct quote, but it was along the lines of:

“I would be embarrassed to be seen reading this”

And first of all, fuck you.  But second of all, ohhhhhhhhhhh.  The clouds parted and I really, deep down in me, understood the importance of all of the different disciplines of illustration.  All the many flavors.  Those boring covers in this author’s back catalog were the sort of covers that the bulk (or at least the vocal contingent) of the authors readers really enjoyed and felt comfortable with.  I would never in my life have wanted to art direct a cover like those until I understood the purpose which it served.  It wasn’t lazy.  It wasn’t because of budget constraints.  It wasn’t even because the publisher had no interest in art.  It was because the people they were marketing to liked it.  They saw something in it which they genuinely responded to and that helped them buy those books.

After this, I began understanding all kinds of illustration styles which I’d previously written off (mostly anything that wasn’t painted realism) and, even more than that, beginning to see their value in the industry.  I was beginning to see their quality as artistic expression.  In some cases, I was even beginning to see their genius.  Art is not Good because it took 200 hours to execute.  Art is Good because it makes a connection with its audience.  And if people are connecting to art and you think it sucks, the odds are pretty good that it just was not created for you.  Get over yourself.

There are still many schools of painting which I have difficulty connecting to.  When I visit museums, I know where I will spend most of my time and where I will likely skip when my feet get tired.  I’m ok with that because it is unreasonable for a person to genuinely enjoy everything.  I do my best to understand and not to dismiss, I look for the entry point so that I can find my own connection if it exists, but I save my enthusiasm for the work that I am passionately head over heels for.  It is a mistake to confuse taste with quality.  The world doesn’t need more small minded haters, it needs enthusiasts who can accept that the whole of art was not created for their benefit.  So the next time we feel the urge to point out how something popular is really just crap, we should have a discussion and try to learn something instead.  Or, failing that, do something useful with our energy like enjoying and supporting the work that we love and leaving others to theirs.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Wrong Track that Leads to the Right

by Greg Ruth

I was approached by Irene Gallo to do a piece for's WHERE THE TRAINS TURN by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen, and as typical to my previous efforts, (and despite my swearings to be cured of this method) I ended up doing two. Overall I have always railed against this double work as a poor and time consuming way forward. "Why not just thumbnail it first, you dolt?" is the usual refrain when it comes to confessing this as a recurring event. And I thought for a while that it was true. That my impatience to get right to the piece itself was causing this. But as it turns out, this is not the case. So, I have decided to hug this as a legitimate part of the process, and celebrate its necessity rather than try and undo it. So, in full confession mode, here's the deal as representative of deals to come and deals long past, and why it's maybe not such a bad thing.

TRAINS thumbnail
So since this was assignment was also coupled with a second piece for another Cabal installment, and we were in the height and heat of vacation time, I thought sketching an initial notion out would be the best way to make sure I wasn't entirely lost. Really this is the normal way of things, but for Irene and myself, it stood in for my usual approach to either provide a written concept before charging into the final, or simple just going whole hog into the endgame. Sometimes this nailed it right off the bat, other times... well it just didn't. 

Having come back from Maine where I did a series of Panetoid photographs, I was energized to bring this new series into the piece. It all made sense thematically, it seemed right, even the sketch seemed to confirm we had a good way to go. Easy, right? 

TRAINS first attempt final drawing
Sadly... no. I ended up executing the drawing as sketched- and as you can see it was entirely close to the proposed notion. By every measure this should have been a mechanical process locked and on it sway. It was just about doing it right and I quite liked this as a piece. However... there was something not entirely right about it. The composition I liked, the approach to do something very a-tonal was on track... but nevertheless, it wasn't working. Looking at it now I can see the focus was wrong. The drawing is well done I suppose, but what was it representing other than my pre-ordained desire to bring those spherical planetoid images into a project? So much of this story is about the boy's direct experience and fear of the trains that he was certain sought to jump their tracks solely to chase him down. That sense of the story was missing completely here as was any sense of character. This is a fine piece of drawing, but a book cover can't just be whatever we want to draw- it has a function to fulfill: it must grab the reader's attention, be of and about the story without spoiling it. Covers are the frontal face of any narrative, and this first impression is essential. While at the time I didn't know why, I did know it wasn't working... so began to wonder what else to do. I stepped away from it for a day or so and let it sit, when of course as usual a new direction came to me late int he middle of the night. I emailed Irene right away before she even had a chance to chime in on this one, warning her off doing so in lieu of this new direction I was certain she'd also prefer. Stay tuned I said with all the false confidence I could muster. 

Final orignal graphite drawing 
So confident was I in this new approach I jumped full bore into it. Now for the record, these types of graphite drawings are extremely tedious and slower to execute than my usual ink and brush style. And jeez louise... what a self  wounding fool I was to surround this floor of the scene with pebble dash. It literally took me as long to draw all those little rocks, and shade them correctly, as it took to draft the entire rest of the piece. But, I was confident this would work, and never for a moment thought otherwise. The train that was the spooky forest, the moon for its headlight, the boy frightened and hiding on the track, the centralized composition... it had all the singular earmarks of a good and proper cover image. I wanted to make sure that while I intended to add a bit of color to the final piece, I was committed to make the original drawing as fully rendered as possible, if not entirely. This meant making my brain doing a few pretzel twists to provide the illusory sense of space int he woods and keep to the identifiable form of the train itself, and getting the lightening and chiaroscuro right meant really taking it slow. One of the side benefits was finding that in order to exact the right level of darkness where needed, I had to dig my Blackwing Palomino deep into the thick of the paper, causing small grooves and textures to form. Which of course was a total delight, and I think brings a pressure-printed quality to the original piece as a result. Making the graphite or ink do things it's not supposed to do is my latest endeavor, and this struck that bell perfectly.

FINAL cover with title treatment
 And so it ended up being even more than I had hoped. This moment is something I find rarely occurs with a single image piece like this, and is usually reserved for my comics work. With comics there's a built in tipping point when all the images are put together and connected with the words or narrative. I never really know what or how the page may work until I see it working, or not. When it does though it's a sheer delight, as if someone else had done it for me and I get to see it for the first time. Single image work like this just lacks the mechanical complexity to bring this moment out regularly, but when it does, it's pure magic. The sense of space, the setting of the train and woods and most especially making sure to get the boy's fretful expression correct was the axis upon which this whole thing spun, and it came off nicely. To me the moment I can look at an appreciate a piece of work as if I were an outsider is a rarely achieved goal. But when it happens, I can see the thing objectively and without ego.

And here's the thing I discovered at the end: I couldn't have made this piece, without having also fully executed the former go at it. The certainty and wisdom gained from doing it wrong the first time is entirely what informed this final far more successful piece. Recognizing that sometimes, and in my case apparently all the time, the need to get lost in order to find the way home is the most important take away from all of this. That all failures contain a solution within them is a lesson well learned from this. Also trusting the gut of experience doesn't hurt either. I can now look back on the original effort and dissect why it wasn't working, but at the time I couldn't at all. It simply just felt wrong, and trusting that was the smartest thing I could have done. And I now have two drawings where I would normally have one. At the end of the day, the struggle to get there fades and your just left with what you did or didn't do. Way I see it I got a bonus piece out of this, and a reconciling with my nature I couldn't have otherwise achieved. I'm better at what I do and can do for the next job as a result, and by working the previously erroneous method as a vital part of the whole process means I'll know hoe to make time for that in the future. We as a species have a total inability to learn from our successes. Our mistakes thought, are an orchestra of learning. Whether it's a holdover of our survival instincts going back to our monkey times, I can't say. Somethings are best left as mysteries, even though they are as tangible and valid as any lesson learned.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


Cover of Spectrum 21 by Rebecca Guay
by Donato

This past month has seen quite a few announcements come across my desk for competitions to enter artwork within and share what we do with a broader audience.  Most of these competitions require a fee to enter and offer no guarantee of inclusion, even if you spend hundreds of dollars on submissions.  Thus at first glance the decision is easy, why spend money on a chance to advertise when we can take that cash and turn it into a definite form of outreach.  Why go through the headaches of filling out forms and preparing images with arcane submission guidelines and forms and uploading our jpgs with our last_name_first_firstnamelast_title_yearcreated_dropline_not-dash-size-birthdate-creditcardinfo-750pixelswideby800pixelstall.jpg.tif.RGB.CMYK_ARGH!!

Yes, I am put off by some requirements as well!  But, there are many major benefits that competitions bestow upon us even if we never get in.  While at FantasyCon in Salt Lake City this past July, a panel of professional artists touched upon this topic, and I was able to clarify both to the audience and myself why entering competitions has been so beneficial in my career.

Here a few of these thoughts:

1.  Money very well spent.  The relatively low cost to many of these competitions may expose your work to a much larger and diversified audience than what you could have ever pulled off with a similar level of cash outlay.  A basic fee of $20-$30 per image means you may reach 10,000+ viewers.  If you tried that with postcards, the mailing alone would reach $5,000 (mostly postage).  You could of course stay digital, but even emailing 10,000+ individuals effectively would cost you hours upon hours of labor better spent in the service of your studio and art.  In the end the labor costs alone make competitions a great bargain.

2.  You commit to yourself.  I believe one of the greatest benefits to entering work occurs just before you hit the send button or mail out the envelope...that you make a commitment to an image or set of images that represents who you are as an artist and will reflect work in a style or kind which you would like to potentially be commissioned again for in the future.  By preparing work for an entry,  you first need to commit to finishing that piece you've been dying to show off.  Then you have to polish it so that it displays your abilities to their present best.  Which brings up the third reason:

3.  You meet a serious deadline.  Yes we all would like another week or two to make it perfect, but by committing to a competition, you have to send in that art as is and learn to live with all the little mistakes you know are there, but which we see as just a part of your technique.  The more often you make these kinds of commitments, the more confident you become in your decision making process, technical skills, and time management. This allows you to move forward with each project more confidently and speedily, leading to the fourth issue:

4.  You become more prolific.  As you enter more competitions, and meet more deadlines, you will be inspired and confident to produce work which you want to have seen by that larger audience.   This also leads to creating more art of the type you wish to have in your portfolio. Speaking of portfolios, the fifth issue:

5.  You assess the art in your portfolio.  This to me was the greatest benefit I received from entering competitions like Spectrum, the Society of Illustrators, and Communication Arts in the early years of my career.  In the process of deciding what to submit, I was forced to spread out all the art I had created in the past year, the good and the bad, rushed and the slow, inspired and the hated.  There it all was, the productivity of my career as an artist, the results of my passion for art making. And early on I realized most of that art was not me.  It was not reflective of the images I wished I could create, nor knew I had the ability to create.

The greatest benefit in entering was that I had to come to terms with the art I had just produced, which then redirected my future commissions into those forms and types of images which I wanted to create.  I began to become more assertive with my clients and more passionate about projects, pushing my labor and commitments far beyond the expectations of my clients'.  Pay was not an issue on many of these.  My goal was to create images I hoped would make it into exhibitions, be seen by other professionals, and would be the art I wanted to known for and in the end become the art that I would receive future commissions based upon.

Oh, and that last reason you enter competitions:

6.  You get in and get seen.

Some of the forth coming competitions you may wish to enter.  These are a small sample to consider, pending style and genres you feel your art fits within:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

John Cleese

-By Jesper Ejsing

I recently stumbled on this old lecture or talk, if you want, by John Cleese. He clarifies something I had a vague idea of: That my studio space is extremely important. I think most of us, who paint or draw, realize how fast we get into the right mood by simply showing up at the same spot or table over and over, day after day. When you are all of a sudden forced to draw something out of your everyday environment, lets say at a convention or at the kitchen table or, God forbid, out in nature, it seems harder and strangely off.

John talks about the open and closed mode and how important it is to set a place for yourself in which you can be creative. His talk also very precisely explain to me, why I have a hard time painting great paintings under pressure or stress. Please take the half an hour it takes to listen to mr. Cleese, and I promise you will look different on the way you work after. Or you´ll be self secured in that what you doing is right; win win... Creativity