Wednesday, July 06, 2011

naïve, or just bad?

I read this article yesterday and it really annoyed me. Not so much because it implies that Ben Shahn was a bad artist : "Shahn couldn't (or chose not to) draw very well. At all." ... because I think it's pretty obvious to anyone with half a creative brain that Shahn's drawings are in fact, quite amazing and no less so for being non-representational (I mean, Picasso's cat/dove etc. sketches aren't exactly in a realistic style, but everybody loves those). What really annoyed me was the opening paragraph; "Recently a friend who shares my passion for illustration sent a note. He'd been perusing one of those massive volumes that collect and showcase "some of today's hottest young illustrators." In his opinion (and I have tremendous respect for this particular friend's opinion) he thought it was crap. Full of "faux naïve stuff, or just plain bad drawing." This is a complaint I hear often - both in the comments section of this blog and from (commercial) artist friends I respect and admire. "What the hell is wrong with this generation of illustrators?" they ask. "Why have they not been taught the importance of learning how to draw well?"
     It really irritates me when people assume that illustrators who draw in the so-called faux-naive style do it because they can't draw "properly". What they don't understand is that the majority of those drawing in this style choose to draw in this way because it works for them- a simple drawing can say so much more than an overwrought pencil sketch... and it's actually quite difficult difficult to portray a form using a minimum amount of lines. Folks think it's easy to draw in a childlike* style, until they actually try it themselves. * Childlike, not Childish. I've frequently been told that my drawings "look like a three/four/five year old's" - well, I look at that as a compliment. Five year olds draw without presumption, intuitively, naturally. It's only when we start telling them, "You must draw in this style" that they start adhering to preconceived ideas of the wrong/right ways to draw.
     I spent my high school years, and the first year of college, trying to draw in the way I thought I "should". I drew cartoons, too, but in sketchbooks and essay paper margins, on posters for school fairs, in my church's newsletter (I did a page called "Kids Korner" - yes, I know, very Kool - for ten years. It was a mixture of stories, puzzles and drawing. I've always thought of illustration as part of a wider context- in a magazine for example, tying in with the other content rather than being something completely separate and inaccessible.) I didn't consider my funny little doodles to be "real" art, they were just something I did, naturally. I was good at english and art, an introverted bookworm and avid reader of my dad's Gary Larson "Far Side" anthologies. I had a group of friends who were like me, quiet and reserved, maybe a little geeky, but funny and intelligent. We'd make up characters and funny songs, draw comics, write down the silly things we overheard other people saying (one advantage of being an introvert is that you're good at listening and therefore eavesdropping) - my friend Rachel and I even invented elaborate personas for a pair of Denby salt and pepper shakers that we sold in our department (Home) at our boring Saturday job at Debenhams... their names were Vip and Bob - they had a song and everything. Unfortunately, I was moved to Lingerie after the managers decided that we weren't doing any work. But I digress...
     High school art lessons involved sketching still lives in 6B pencil, painting big self portraits on giant boards, or experimenting with mark-making techniques. I'm glad I did all this- I'm not saying that schools shouldn't teach these vital skills. I continued to draw observationally through college (and I still do)- I attended life drawing classes- I am actually pretty decent at drawing in a realistic style. I believe that it absolutely underpins every illustration style. Being able to draw well gives one the freedom to draw in any medium, in any style. My work is about narrative and context, beyond simply drawing. All good illustration conveys some kind of message, that's the very point!
Anyway, isn't every illustration style equally valid? If everybody drew (or painted, or collaged... etc) in the same way, it would be very boring. And I include the naïve style in this statement. Yes, a lot of illustrators do draw in this way these days and yes, it is somewhat trendy - which is why I admire any young illustrators who choose to work in a completely different (and therefore presumably untrendy) style. On Formspring recently, I received a question from a concerned student who wasn't getting much attention (ie. Tumblr notes, Flickr favourites and all the instant gratification that comes with being Internet famous for 5 minutes) for his/her artwork because it was detailed pencil drawings. The question asker wondered if he/she should give up. Of course I said no- in my opinion, I'd rather see young illustrators doing different things, trying so-called "old fashioned" or unfashionable techniques, instead of following the crowd. I often find my work blogged on places like Tumblr, and yes, it's nice to get lots of "notes" but it's not the be-all and end-all. It's so much more important to enjoy what you do- it will show in your work.
     I'll shut up now, I have some faux naive drawing to do.

42 comments:

Natalie Emma Mills said...

Bravo! x

Emm@ said...

I absolutely agree. As with English, you have to know the "rules" before you can break them.

Mr. Spoqui said...

we agree with you, Gemma Correll!

Lizzy Stewart said...

nice post gemma! I agree. I think the people who draw in what is, irritatingly, referred to as a 'naive' style are often the people who can and have drawn more classically in the past. simplifying objects and people is difficult and its by understanding how to draw them 'properly' that you can go on to draw them all wrong (which is a lot more fun anyway.) For me, someone who draws as you do, or Ben Shahn did is far more interesting than someone who replicates reality over and over. The joy of being an artist is breaking things up and rebuilding them your way, showing people how you see. Yes to that i say!

emma rowe said...

1000%, agree. I went to art college to learn how to draw/paint/think like a nob jockey and graduated with the intention of doing it my way, many years from now I'll stand on a bar table and sing as Frank would say I DID IT MY WAY. Dolly Parton said it takes a lot of money to look this cheap, well it takes a lot of talent to look this naive. I wrote my masters on the American art scene in the 1930's, art intellects? always look down their noes at that era in American art, Shahn works captures something very special, his neighborhood, people, place , time with a LOVE that is his.

Ninotchka said...

Great post! I especially love what you said about drawing like a child and also just drawing what makes you happy, no matter your style or the latest fads. So true!

Dianne said...

This is a great post with so many valid points. Good call! x

RahRah Repeats said...

I enjoyed reading this Gemma. I wrote my dissertation on this subject so it's interesting to re visit it 6 (argh!) years later. Like Emm@ so perfectly said, you need to know the rules before you can break them. It's naive to think otherwise!

Daniel Fishel said...

Gemma, you took the words out of my mouth or atleast the words from my fingertips. I remember reading this article a while ago and also got really really really heated by it.

It sucks to see a ton of old dudes complaining about naive artist when around the time Ben was cranking out work, so was Lorraine Fox and Charlie Harper. Both Revolutionary in their styles in their own right during the 50's and 60's. If we could just appreciate art and stop complaining about how something isn't rendered out and realistic, we could do so much better things. Maybe even evolve our visions further of how art/illustration looks...

PencilCase said...

Well done!

jim bradshaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jim bradshaw said...

I am always drawn to art that is child like. There is something earthy and real about it. And it isn't as easy as it looks so I totally agree with this post, Gemma. Thank you!

hellojenuine said...

when i read that post yesterday, i felt it was odd that someone who likes & blogs about illustration could seem so close-minded to the fact that people draw in so many different ways, including what is referred to as "bad". i would have thought it was clear to anyone with any interest in the subject that creating images in this way requires a lot of skill, & a skill that perhaps took many years of drawing "properly" to aquire. of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it certainly isn't a bad thing that illustrators are dipping their toes into "uncharted waters" - that should be celebrated!

Anonymous said...

Anyone who says naive is bad drawing and not a developed style should try it sometime. Anyone can draw poorly. Naive isn't easy.
The style is all about innocence. Adults don't have innocence and kids don't have education (be it in design, humor or just life.) Anyone, who can gently mix innocence with experience is an amazing artist.

vee love gee said...

i'm really suprised that 'naive' is something that older illustrators have a problem with. it's in the same vein as my parent's opinion on illustration (two loveable but completely uncreative people); they stare blankly at my usual work but one time i drew a realistic picture of a dog, they loved it & told all my family how skilled i was...?
the most exciting thing about 'naive' is the imagination involved, tackling visual problems of simplification where a representational illustrator wouldn't need to stretch their brain that far.
i could write so much more, but i agree with you 100% gemma, it was great to read your response!

●• Thereza said...

ace post Gemma. i agree with how Lizzy puts it: the joy of being creative is taking things apart and rebuilding them your way.

KERRY said...

Hear hear! I’m quite shocked that a person writing an illustration-based blog could be so closed-minded. Ben Shahn’s drawings certainly aren’t ones that just anyone could scribble out. They are full of emotion and movement. Quite the genius, I think.

Celine said...

I very much agree; I was looking at that post last week and thinking "but, uh, it's obvious Ben Shahn CAN draw. He clearly gets spacial relationships, his lines are that of someone who is really observing his subject----it's not naive at all, if a five year old drew this in front of me I'd freak out!"

If old white dudes aren't complaining about how great the 50's were (for them, and for no one else), they're complaining about the death of art at the hands of photoshop, or at the hands of these young upstarts who are too lazy to render everything in oil paint, no matter how inappropriate the subject would be for the medium.

And you know, it also betrays a certain amount of passive racism and classicism (not to mention euro-centricity). Rendering in a realistic style, particularly in oils, is something that historically stems from white upper class european culture, those men who could afford to attend royal academies. It really smacks of privelege when some white guy bitches and moans about the degredation of technique in the industry. It's just completely sweeping away the legitimacy of all other styles of art, the creators of which didn't have access to those schools in the past: women, generally, who have a rich history of folk art to draw from in the form of quilts, embroidery, etc. and then the religious art of nearly every non-white, non european culture. I'll take a thrilling Mughal painting, or a japanese print, any day over a f***ing Alma-Tadema.

Jessie said...

Hear hear!! I've just tweeted and FB'ed this because it's something that's needed to be said for a while. Thanks Gemma for doing it for us. :)xx

Jessie said...

Oh, and I love Emma's quote,'Dolly Parton said it takes a lot of money to look this cheap, well it takes a lot of talent to look this naive.' - brilliant!x

Rhianne said...

I see a lot people writing similar things about photography styles and it really winds me up when I know its a lot harder than it looks - it goes past criticism to just plain rude.

I'm really amazed that that post is so closed minded as well. One of my art teachers always tried to stop me from being abstract as he wanted me to understand how something looks in reality before you abstract it. So I always assumed that all the amazing illustrators that I love who had unique styles(yours included) could draw well as to form such beautiful work they would have to understand their subject completely to be able to then express their vision of it... does that make sense? I hope so.

Julia Guthrie said...

As someone who is pulled to the 'neater' & more perfectionist side of drawing, I am often quite envious of people who can draw in that naiive style.

It does have a place, in all forms. And I love lots of it!
However I can't help but wish that galleries/art/illustration mainstream wasn't so 'all or nothing' about a style.
Yes, it does seem to be trendy, to the point that other work does get ignored.
I long for the day when we can all be counted alongside eachother :)
xx

Jane Eccles said...

you are absolutely spot-on Gemma- well said.

M.M.E. said...

This was exactly what I needed to hear today. For years I thought I would never make it as an artist because my style is not 'in'. I'm one of those silly traditional style artists. I wished I could draw as (seemingly) freely and effortlessly as the 'faux-naive' artists. But, now I've come to embrace my style as the extension of myself. I'm an old fashioned weirdo. :)

Leif Peng said...

Gemma; when I first saw your tweet about my Ben Shahn post it annoyed me. Calling my efforts 'stupid' sounded immature and narrow-minded. Not to mention it suggested a shallow reading of what I had proposed for discussion. When I followed a link back to you work I initially had an "aha' moment. You were clearly the kind of 'faux naive' stylist my friend David Roach was griping about and your tweet was evidence that you'd had your feelings hurt by, perhaps, seeing something painfully true in that post on Shahn.

Now that I've read your post here I'm heartened that you do in fact believe in the importance of good foundation skills and can and do draw from life. More than that, I think you presented a very reasonable rebuttal to my post (despite the fact that you missed my point - as did so many of your fans/commenters).

What's perhaps the most distressing and saddening is the vehemence and disrespect of your commenters to an opposing voice that asks a question and presents another perspective. We are "close-minded" "old white dudes" - even "passive racists" (!) Did any of you even bother to read the comment section of that post? You couldn't ask for a more engaging, thought-provoking (not to mention civil) discussion on an interesting topic.

By contrast is the mob mentality of THIS comment section! Is this the enlightened, OPEN-minded alternative to what you people claim to protest? Look in the mirror - your unwarranted, nasty remarks ought to shame you.

Since 2005 I've been blogging almost daily, presenting a multitude of long-forgotten illustrators (yes, Daniel Fishel - hundreds and hundreds of artists, including Lorraine Fox, Charlie Harper, Robert Weaver, Jack Potter, Phil Hays, and many others who were the avante-gardes of their time).

To have my efforts dismissed and disrespected by the likes of you narrow minded hypocrites is absolutely infuriating.

Gemma, in the future, why not join the conversation instead of rushing off to rally the troops to your cause? You seem like a reasonable person and could have brought an interesting perspective to the discussion. You still can -- I'll be publishing my follow-up post shortly. I hope you'll choose to participate - your perspective will be welcome.

Nan and B.A.G.S. the pug said...

Amen! Perfectly said!

Celine said...

Leif, calm down, and stop mansplaining to Gemma what she can and can't do on her own damn blog. It is perfectly ok for Gemma to talk about her reaction to your post on her own blog, and it says nothing bad or close minded about her if other people agree with her. She's not trying to censor you, she's not rallying a mob, as if a bunch of people going "hey, I like painting and good draftsmanship, but I also really enjoy naive art" is a MOB.

I did get the original intent of your post; legitimizing Ben Shahn's approach to art by showing all the influential artists who list him among their influences. I mainly took issue with you saying in the first place that he can't draw, or chooses not to. If you're looking for a naive artist who really breaks all the rules, Ben Shahn is not really the best example.

And I stand by my other statements. I'm not calling YOU a racist. I'm just pointing out your position of privelege, (one many of us share) and making the argument that your statements support a kind of passive, unthinking racism, one that with a little bit of re-examining usually vanishes in otherwise intelligent people like yourself. It wasn't aimed solely at you, though, it's an attitude I find with a lot of traditionalists, all of whom seem to be from the same generation and racial/cultural background. That draftsmanship and technique you hold so dear? It isn't the end all be all of good art, and the education often needed to accuire it is either unavailable or irrelevant to a large number of artists. We've all got to own the things that blind us to the situations of those different from ourselves, and even when you generously go on to say "Ben Shahn, and naive artists like him, aren't crap artists, look at how many people are influenced by him! He clearly has a grasp of good draftsmanship, he can stay." it kindof smacks of an academic boys-club. Don't be surprised if some people take issue with that, and don't contain it in just your comments section.

Daniel Fishel said...

Leif, My major rift is with the angle your blog post opened up about whether Ben Shahn's work was in fact bad drawing and thus the cannon of future young illustrators to continue making bad drawings. Which is surprising considering that I've been following your blog for the past 3 years and you have shown a variety of work throughout the history of illustration. Including Lorraine Fox, Charles Harper, Robert Weaver, ect.

Opening up the cannon question to me is a valid question for your blog that talks about the history of illustration. A history that isn't talked enough about beyond Rockwell, leyendecker and Pyle. Though there are commenters that get it, and appreciate Ben Shahns work, there are few that also disregarded it purely as bad drawing.

I'm not trying to say that there are not some commenters here that have gone to far, which they have. I'm trying to say that you opened up a discussion saying one thing and your trying to say it means another.

Windsor Grace said...

Amen

emma rowe said...

Well said Daniel Fishel. And Ben Shahn is poor poor choice, why not the Regionalists (of Ben's time) like Thomas Hart Benton, a lot easier to dislike

lamina @ do a bit said...

Great post!!! I think people who make stupid comments like that obviously have absolutely no idea and they temselves are a bit naive!

I love the faux-naive stlye I think it is so simple yet so expressive! I wish I could draw like that :)

Thank you for sharing a little bit of your young world life.. sounds like it was loads of fun :)

Adam Larkum said...

Ben Shahn is a wonderful artist and a fantastic inspiration, why would anyone ever pick him out for attack, he's one of my biggest inspirations.

Tia Eastwood said...

you couldn't have said it better!

Åsa said...

Yes, totally agree!

He missed a point: is illustration about drawing techniques or about communication?

How fun would for an example David Shrigley be if his drawings were perfect realistic drawings?

Maybe there are more illustrators who focus on what they communicate and making sure it actually does instead of the quality of the line work?

What do you add by replicating reality? Just showing your amazing skill, then what?

As long as you communicate something and make people think or feel something then I consider it great work.

HAJiME said...

I actually agree with the article you linked to - but I don't disagree with you in that it doesn't inherently mean the images created are bad. But there are too many people drawing badly and not enough people actually bothering to learn and try and work on an image for more than what looks like 2 seconds. And it annoys those of us who are trying to learn and value representational image making, especially when education disregards it completely. It's a joke.

Sofia said...

so good and well written!

etc, etc said...

Monsieur Baudouin, you remind me of the Abbe Cossart, curate of Saint Remy in Dieppe. One day, having mounted to the organ loft of his church, by chance he depressed a pedal with his foot; the instrument sounded, and the Curate Cossart cried out: "Ah! Ah! I'm playing the organ; it's not as difficult as I thought." Monsieur Baudouin, you have your foot on the pedal, and that's all.

Diderot on Art

Liz Mooney said...

I don't think there is anything wrong with questioning the range of an artist's skills. The problem is not with the questioning, but with the conclusion made after... That because someone chooses to draw in a child-like way it means that it is "bad" or less-valid.

I would actually argue in the contrary that many artists that draw in a child-like way or, perhaps, more "stylized" way do not know how to draw successfully in a more "traditional" sense. However, it doesn't really matter. Good art is good art. Perhaps most of the trouble comes from people having too narrow of an opinion about art...

Santoke said...

Regardless of what convention of expression, faux naive, naturalistic, etc, one develops; they are all reliant on basic visual literacy. The only visual standard we have to hold ourselves against is the natural world, and that is a justification for rigorous study from life. Someone that cannot draw is someone that demonstrates a lack of understanding in their work, and that has nothing to do with how rendered or representational their piece is. There is a difference between making an efficient translation of what is normally complex, and translating it with poorly conceived symbols because you have not acquired the requisite experience and knowledge to do better. Whether you render something to completion or choose to leave it at its most basic state is irrelevant if you don’t fully comprehend what it is you’re making. Without the fundamental understanding, you are incapable of describing the essential points of drawing that make simplicity, concision, so valuable. Those forces of the past generally considered to have worked in a traditional manner as well as many of the early forces working in nontraditional manners did not draw to create "art," they drew to understand.

To my eyes, the illustrator in question does not present a distillation of actual knowledge, but rather an arbitrary effusion of visual ignorance. This is not on my part a distinct preference for "naturalism", or "rendering", but only to the sincere acquisition of craftsmanship and knowledge. I treasure skill and technique, but those terms do not apply strictly to one drawing adaptation or another, it is in the information the artist delivers by their drawing, the understanding that can only come from the rigorous pursuit of knowledge. I'm not positing an opinion on the original post, or any other opinions on Ben Shahn or his influence on contemporary illustration, but I feel a need to clarify what traditional drawing is. It is related only to enjoying, experiencing and understanding the world around us.

Elysia said...

I completely agree and admire you for writing about this ... I LOVE work like yours and I wish I could work more intuitively, more freely...
I don't really get any attention for my work but I will take what you've said and just try to enjoy the ride ><

Thank you for posting this, I'm going to follow your blog :)

Elysia

gemma correll said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gemma correll said...

Thanks everybody, for all of the interesting comments.

I respect all forms of illustration, even those I don't like them all that much. I don't personally particularly like very digital, shiny, work- but that doesn't mean that I think the people who work in that way have no talent! I don't feel the need to belittle artists who work in a certain style.

Leif Peng, This is hardly a "Mob", it's on my personal blog. You gave your opinions, these are mine. We're obviously never going to agree on the matter, so there's no real point in arguing about it.

Hajime, I've seen your posts about the subject all over the place and I think you have an extremely narrow view of what Illustration is! It isn't fine art! It doesn't all have to be realistic, or perfect- that would be very boring indeed.

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