In 1923, C.B. Dodson of Richmond Virginia entered this painting in a competition for young illustrators:

Alas, he came in second and nobody ever heard of him again. Of course, nobody ever heard of the first place winner either:

C.B. and Florence took their places in that long, long line of anonymous artists who yearned for a whiff of artistic immortality.

It is easy to spot such artists. They're the ones who remain hunched over a drawing board or computer, continuing to work on a picture even after someone was willing to buy it.

For some, this dedication paid off.  Norman Rockwell traded away his personal life for his art, often working twelve hours a day, six days a week on his paintings. Near the end of his life he observed, "The story of my life is, really, the story of my pictures." Rockwell may not have spent much time playing with his kids or lingering in bed with his wife on cold New England mornings, but he could feel warmed by the knowledge that future generations would remember his name and respect his achievement.

Rockwell's fame is the exception, not the rule.  For most artists,  every artistic decision that seemed so important at the time-- every crucial brush stroke or color choice-- will be erased forever.  When artists arrive at that final destination, they understand that all those extra hours they robbed from life to invest in their craft, hoping for some future return on their investment, is equity that will never be repaid.

It's not as if the gods hid the price of glory. Long ago, the gods made it clear to Achilles that if he wanted to be remembered, he would have to sacrifice his life.

From The Iliad by the Provensens

If he fought in the Trojan war, he would be killed but his name would live forever in glory. On the other hand, if he turned and sailed for home he could enjoy a long, happy life surfing internet porn and playing Wii in his bathrobe but no one would remember his name.

You can bet that Achilles loved playing Wii just as much as you or I, so he raged against the unfairness of this choice. The pain in his famous soliloquy remains fresh today, thousands of years later:

The same honor waits for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death, the fighter who shirks and the one who works to exhaustion.... Two fates bear me on to the day of my death. If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy my journey back home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the home I love, my pride, my glory dies, true, but the life that's left me will be long....
When his hour of decision arrived, Achilles chose to sacrifice his life on the hardscrabble soil of Troy. (If he hadn't, we wouldn't still be talking about him now).

In some ways, Achilles got a better deal than poor C.B. Dodson. At least Achilles received a guarantee from the gods that his sacrifice would be repaid with eternal glory. Artists get no such guarantee. They must gamble their lives away like a poker chip at the Casino d'Art. There are plenty of talented, hard working artists who die anonymous deaths, and plenty of untalented hacks who hit the jackpot and become legends. Who would play a slot machine with such terrible odds?

Unlike the fortunate Achilles, our choice is beset by our human limitations. We are surrounded by our mortality on one side, which requires us to make haste with our commitments, and total uncertainty on the other side about whether those commitments (and their accompanying sacrifices) will have any meaning whatsoever.

As a result, we are forced to work harder to find solace than Achilles did. The glory of our work is different from the glory earned by Achilles. Ours is sadder, more poignant and more fragile. But I am convinced it is no less glorious.

" Fear is Huge"

My most recent painting as seen in Ashawagh Hall Gallery in East Hampton. The theme of this 50 artist exhibition was "Fear". Rather than pursue the obvious themes such as fear of global warming, fear of terrorism, etc. I wanted to create a more personal, vulnerable piece:

"The greatest fear that all artists share is the fear of having their entire life's work end up in obscurity and eventual ruination -or worse yet, show up at a yard sale! This work shows a deeply fractured surface, as if the painting were carelessly left outdoors to eventually rot with the help of nature."

Title: "Fear is Huge"
Materials: acrylic paint, bronze pigment, wood, crows.
Size: 60" x 84"

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At some point-- I'm not sure when-- traditional drawing skills seem to have become unfashionable.
  • Perhaps it's because artists today see no percentage in competing with 1,000 years of talented draftsmen.
  • Perhaps it's because photography and other technical crutches have made the parlor tricks of drawing less inspirational.
  • Perhaps it's because illustrators have seized the license of fine artists who cast off traditional skills.
Whatever the reason, other ingredients of art (such as concept or design) have become so dominant that today many artists don't even pretend to be able to draw. (Consider the talented cartoonist Garry Trudeau who has drawn like crap for 40 years. You'd have to try mighty hard to avoid picking up at least some skill in all that time.) Some contemporary artists seem to go out of their way to draw in a crude or naive style, perhaps to avoid any comparison with traditional artists.

That's one reason I take pleasure in the work of Peter de Seve, an excellent, decisive draftsman who draws with great character and imagination.

Note de Seve's eye for the details of personality, for body language, for animated facial expressions and revealing gestures. His drawing ability enables him to give form to these insights in a way that many other contemporary illustrators cannot. He integrates these ingredients seamlessly using a loose, energetic line.

In an era when the greatest demand for images seems to be CGI in movies, computer games and similar venues, I find it interesting that de Seve's timeless powers of personal observation and old fashioned pencil drawing have become an essential building block for major animated movies such as the Ice Age trilogy or a Bug's Life. He contributes the flavor to character designs which (so far) no computer has been able to emulate.

A New Blog - Drawsigner

New "Drawsigner" blog.

My first venture into blogging happened May 29, 2005. I wasn't sure when I started if it was a waste of time or a practical way to communicate with others on a new level. Thankfully the later turned out to be the truth. (At least for me that is)

Needless to say technology has changed and it's time to say goodbye to the antiquated ways of Blogger and move my blogging over to a brand that better suits my work and the audience I communicate with.

So this post will be the second to the last one I'll make on the Art Backwash blog. It'll remain active moving forward, but all my new content will be posted to the my new blog called Drawsigner.

I'll make one last post announcing when the new blog is live and provide the exact address at that time. Thanks to everyone who has made this blog so much fun and I hope you'll enjoy the new format and look even more.

- Von

Background Noise

Homomonument area, Amsterdam, Holland

The 'special edition' of my Dutch book Big Bad City, with mini print, is now available to buy here. Be quick though, there are only a few available.

A print of the above installation, Background Noise, is also available from Andipa Gallery in an edition of 5.

A big 'Haaj!' and 'Dankzij!' to everyone who I met at the book launch in Amsterdam!

Cornelia Parker

Why clip the wings of an industry that is soaring? It’s a false economy to cut the arts     

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