Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Herb Kane on Art Training and Portrait Subjects

In the previous post I presented some works by Herb Kane, master illustrator of Hawaiian history.

The present post is devoted to some of Kane's views on art training, illustration and dealing with portrait subjects, as presented in his book Voyagers. Kane attended the school at Chicago's Art Institute and pursued a career in illustration in that city for several years before moving to Hawaii and taking up the depiction of Hawaii's past. I'm presenting his views because I agree with them and thought readers might be interested in hearing them from a different source.

In high school, storytelling through painting became my great interest. I was inspired by the work of American regionalists Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. After serving in the Navy, I enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, but discovered that representational art which conveyed a mood or message was no longer labeled as real 'Art,' but as 'mere illustration.'

With the death of regionalism, art faced the new requirement of being 'universal.' Craving acceptance from my peers, like any twenty year old, I applied myself to learning formulas for what then passed as advanced theories of painting; that year it was abstract expressionism.

Of all possible subjects, Homo Sapiens has always held the most interest for Homo Sapiens. Artists who represent the human figure with skill and sensitivity will find larger and more interested audiences than artists who do not.

There have been great painters of landscape, still life, and natural history subjects to be sure, and in the last century some outstanding painters of non-representational art; but the history of art is largely the family album of humanity. Ironically, of all subjects, it is the human figure, the one subject with which viewers are most familiar and critical, that proves the most difficult. Learning to draw this figure with authority has allowed competent figure painters to surmount this difficulty, but then competent figure painters have always been a minority.

That minority is smaller today than it has been for centuries. Learning to draw, which is learning to see clearly, requires a laborious effort in which there is no instant gratification. Drawing classes have always been unpopular with art students, which may be why they are no longer required by art schools or university art departments, where the primary concern seems to be keeping up enrollments. The assumption is that drawing is not fundamental to to current art theory.

Kane goes on to mention that the Art Institute in his day had a few hard-nosed traditionalists who provided the training he needed. When he went to work in an illustration studio, he found that "Here, alive and well, was the ancient master-apprentice system, only superficially different from the way it had operated since the Middle Ages" -- another good thing for his development.

I'll finish with some of Kane's views regarding portrait painting that you might find entertaining:

Women of middle age are the most difficult portrait clients if they have not yet become resigned to their years. In her mirror, each still sees the girl in her twenties that she once was. No honest likeness will please them, and they can easily find others who will agree that the artist has missed his mark.

Most men will not object to features of age that may add character to their faces. They are usually less interested in handsome appearance, but more interested in portraiture which conveys some impression of their status. Everyone who has passed forty seems to think of himself as a young person. Nobody can know how he or she is seen by others. This is why the portrait painter is often frightening to his sitter; and why each may find the other so difficult and sometimes so impossible to forgive....

I think it was Sir Joshua Reynolds who said that when faced with a difficult female subject, he always painted the most beautiful face he could imagine; then added only those adjustments necessary to make it resemble the sitter.

Quotes are from the third (2006) printing, pages 12-17 and 142.


dearieme said...

"Drawing classes have always been unpopular with art students, which may be why they are no longer required by art schools or university art departments, where the primary concern seems to be keeping up enrollments. " That's a dominant motive in many disciplines. If, let us say, civil engineering students don't want to bother with surveying, and if their future employers don't care, then the civil engineering departments would drop the subject. Note that what really matters is the view of the future employer. That, after all, is why so many undergraduates study easy, empty subjects - if employers are happy with any old BA, why bother with a demanding subject?

So presumably students of the fine arts must have decided that their future customers wouldn't care about skilful drawing.

Donald Pittenger said...

dearieme -- In modernist and postmodernist circles, it's essentially expected that an artist creating an image of a real object should produce a distorted, crudely drawn version of that object. So not having to learn how to draw is a feature, not a defect, so far as art training is concerned.

(I notice that my old art school does have classes in drawing, and private art schools teaching rigorous drawing have been emerging in recent years. A ray of hope and sanity remains.)