Wednesday, November 26, 2014

J.C. Was God

In the first part of the Twentieth Century there was an artist whose work could be seen everywhere.  He graced multiple magazine covers, book illustrations, advertisements.  He was the highest paid illustrator of his time.  His skills were held in awe by fellow artists and his style was aped by many.

No, it wasn't Norman Rockwell, but Joseph Christian Leyendecker-- known as J.C. Leyendecker.

He was born in 1874 and lived until 1951.  If you want more biographical stuff head on over to Wikipedia.  This is Maine-ly Painting, not Maine-ly Biographies after all.  What I want to show are some of his beautiful paintings.

Last year I took a trip to a Newport, Rhode Island to visit a museum called the National Museum Of American Illustration.  They have work from Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, many Maxfield Parrish's, several Rockwells but it was a painting by Leyendecker (and they have many of his) that made my jaw drop.  I knew of his work, but seeing his colors, design and mastery of technique in person was an almost religious experience.

Leyendecker did not use photographs.  He painted from models only.  He made countless preparatory sketches and full-size studies before he tackled the painting.  He was not at all above trashing a painting and starting all over if he felt his first (second or third) attempt wasn't up to snuff.  That habit drove his art editors nuts, but they lightened up when they saw the finished work.  Work like this:

Take a closer look at that horse:

No one else did it like Joe!

No muddy colors on that one!  Every brushstroke was loaded with just the right color, chroma and value. 

Do yourself a favor and click on these to see how he incorporated his underpainting with the final color application.  You can see how he danced and played his local colors on top and around the umber color lay-in, then finished with perfectly tasteful highlights.  It looks super easy-- it is not.

I mentioned his countless studies a moment ago.  Here are a couple that show his thought process not only of the painting, but the best way to approach the subject.

I love this one-- The guy inadvertently looking like a Roman Emperor as he hails a cab.  Look how Leyendecker noticed he didn't have Caesar's right hand positioned correctly to hold the umbrella, so he painted a correct note there on the right of the canvas.  Above that you can see him working out the most effective way to have the guy's finger point to sell the joke.  Leyendecker always gridded these oil sketches so he could transfer them accurately onto another canvas.

Here's another stunning sketch showing his decision making:

Hhmmm... what works better?  The peeling knife pointed up?, at an angle? What about the thumb position-- would that work better?  Should I show the peelings falling into the bowl? It's this amount of prep work that he did that bought him fame and the mansion on the hill that was the envy of the other illustrators.

Along with many others, Norman Rockwell idolized Leyendecker.  But unlike most, Rockwell developed a friendship with the great master.  In his delightful book My Adventures As An Illustrator, he tells of his years knowing both J.C. and his illustrator brother Frank when they all lived in New Rochelle, New York in the 1930's.

There's more to Leyendecker's fascinating story; How his paintings became synonymous with the Arrow Shirt Man, his homosexuality, his dysfunctional relationships. But I'll leave that for you to find out.  Eventually, it was Leyendecker's iconic style that brought about his own down-fall. By the mid 1930's advertisers wanted something fresher and more realistic-- not associated with the Naughts and Roaring Twenties.  You know, more Rockwell-like.  Leyendecker got fewer and fewer commissions as a result and died penniless, alone and forgotten in 1951.  A sad end to a proud and extremely talented man.

Or is it?  Recently with the upswing in interest of paintings from the Golden Age of illustration, his work is fast becoming more and more desirable.  Studies like the ones I've shown here could have been yours for a couple of hundred bucks just ten years ago.  Now they fetch tens of thousands, and his finished paintings done for the Saturday Evening Post go for much more.  There is a whole new appreciation for the Artist that once upon a time everyone thought was the greatest of them all.

J.C. Leyendecker


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Whoa Nellie!

Racing The Load

I've never really been sure if indecision was such a bad thing.  I had spent a number of weeks rounding up props, models and various ephemera for my next painting.  I had taken photos and had worked out a pretty complex preliminary drawing and everything.

And then a completely different idea popped into my head.  It's the painting I'm showing here, Racing The Load. I had no idea where it came from, but sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.

One hundred or more years ago logging was a Winter activity.  Before large trucks and heavy equipment came on the scene to easily strip thousands of acres of trees off the land, it was done by man and beast.  Winter was considered the best time to do it for a couple of reasons.   One was that it was easier to get man-power at that time of year.  Many of the lumbermen did this as their Winter job, and spent Summers working as hired hands on farms.  The second reason was that snow and ice was easier to move the logs over than mud.  Spring, when the snowmelt swelled the rivers and streams, was used to float the logs down-stream to the mills.  So logging camps were set up in the forests, and the men went at it until the Winter broke into Spring.  Nowadays, we tend to romanticize those times.  You know, camping out in the woods, working in the clean mountain air.  Coming back to camp and having a nice meal and camaraderie around the fire.  Ahhh... that was the life!

In truth, it was brutally hard work in severe and often frigid conditions. It was also decidedly less than sanitary-- to put it mildly. Imagine a few dozen or more sweaty, stinking men who hadn't had a bath in weeks or months jammed together in small poorly ventilated log huts; You could smell a logging camp long before you saw it...

And the wood had to get down the hills to the rivers.  That's what this painting is about.  Quite often, an unlucky team of horses got run over when the load they were pulling down an icy hill came down faster than they could run.  The logs would roll over the poor beasts like a bowling ball, sending the teamster flying off into the woods, battering and breaking bones of all involved.  They could patch up the teamster if he lived.  No Veterinarians helped the horse.

I wanted to show that frantic, frenetic motion of a team running for their lives-- crashing through the snow, darting through the shadows of the remaining trees, plummeting down toward the dark bottom of the hill like an avalanche. To do that, I tried a couple different tactics.

First off was my point-of-view. Where are you (the viewer) positioned to see this scene swirl past you?  Up in a tree?  The next hill over?  Don't know, do you?  This is a nod to the "All omnipotent" point of view that the illustrators of the 30's and 40's used.  For instance, check out this illustration of Houdini by Tom Lovell:

Yup, there he is, leaping off a bridge-- but where are you?  Look again.  You are suspended in mid-air over the river to view this scene.  Yikes!  So it is with my horses; You are a part of my scene as a viewer, but you're not quite sure where you are.

Another way I tried to impart a sense of emotion along with motion in my picture is through the brush-work.  I will be the first to admit that I am a lover of well refined detail.  But if I had lovingly painted every rock, twig and log in my usual tight, crisp splendor it would have stifled the flow.  So in this case, to keep things in suspense, I went with loaded brush and knife to swirl and splatter the paint in thick impasto.

One last thing about this painting.  No photographs were harmed in the making of it.  That's right-- this is purely from my imagination.  Lord only knows how many years it's been since I did something that didn't have me sweating over a photo, trying to copy every last detail... But it's been awhile!

So there you have it, another Americana painting in the books. I think this makes about a dozen, and one thing I know--

I'm not reining them in!