Sunday, January 16, 2011

Alex Kanevsky and Tom Richmond

Two artists that I've been studying this week are Alex Kanevsky and Tom Richmond. It's hard to imagine two artists with less in common than these. Alex is a Russian immigrant who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and makes deeply layered paintings. Tom is a Minnesota caricaturist who works for MAD Magazine. So, maybe I'm a bit schizophrenic, but my study time this week has been split between a painter and a caricaturist.

Alex came to my attention because he was the juror for a national juried exhibit of drawings at UNC Asheville. I looked up his web site and was tremendously impressed. Alex's figures are beautifully done with a combination of accurate drawing and loose brushwork that I find fascinating. They are individuals with a story to tell, although these are not narrative works at all. They're real people, filtered through Alex's head and many layers of paint. Many times, I've seen this "filtering" process filter out every ounce of the subject's individuality, but that does not happen here.

On Friday evening at UNCA, Alex gave a presentation about his work. It was a great opportunity to see inside his process: how he came to a particular subject, how he worked through it, how his paintings developed, and what he experienced. One comment really got my attention - I have to paraphrase it here - "painting on the edge of incompetence". The idea is that if you're working within your familiar bounds, you're boring, not learning anything, and just producing widgets. If you're painting outside your familiar bounds, you're incompetent: almost by definition, you don't know what you're doing. But if you're "painting on the edge of incompetence", then you're pushing your own boundaries, still having a bit of control but running the risk of having it crash and burn. And by definition, your boundaries just expanded ... regardless of whether the painting is a success or failure.

That applies to so much more than painting, doesn't it? I draw a parallel to downhill skiing. When I was first learning to ski, we had about a half day of training on the bunny slopes. Then we went right up to the top of the mountain, where all the slopes were intermediate or above. I fell a lot on the way down, but I learned a lot, too. Had to. I was on the edge of my incompetence the whole way, and had to invent for myself a way of skiing that would keep me upright for more than 15 feet at a time.

Alex's paintings may sometimes look simple, but they are far, far from it. In one section of his website, he shows how some of his paintings progressed from the first block-in to the final signed version. I was blown away by how radically the paintings could change from one stage to another. One stage would show a well-rounded, warmly-colored figure, while in the next the whole painting would be hidden beneath a cool, flat wash of color, with the figure barely discernible. Few artists dare show how their paintings develop, but Alex does.

So this was my introduction to Alex Kanevsky. For more insight into him, his work, and his techniques, read this interview with him on the Truant Johnny blog. It's worth your time.

Also this week, we got this caricature of our daughter-in-law. It's brilliant, actually. Trust me, this is Julie! So I got to thinking about caricatures. What is it about them that work? Everything about them is an exaggeration, which means they can't actually resemble their subjects, but still, we look at a caricature like this and instantly say "Oh, my gosh, that's Julie!"

I did some study of cartoons and caricatures many years ago, and came to the conclusion that good portraits and good caricatures are not that far apart. In both cases, you have to know what it is about that particular face that makes it unique: the shape and placement of the eyes, the tilt of the nose, the way a mouth curves, the way each part relates to every other part, and much more. Both portraits and caricatures have to have all these things right, plus that indefinable "something" that captures the inner character of the sitter.

So I started poking around on the net and quickly found Tom Richmond's website. Tom is an unbelievably talented and skilled caricaturist. One glance at his subjects, like Jon Stewart, and you know exactly who you're looking (and laughing) at. Tom now does most of MAD magazine's celebrity caricatures ... and in this world, there is no higher honor, except maybe the New Yorker.

What's just as impressive as his skill is his willingness to share what he has learned. His blog is a must-read for anybody interested in caricatures, or who wants to learn how to do them, or wants to know the business of cartoons and illustration. For example, if you go to the "pages" section and click on "tutorials", you'll find a five-chapter program that goes into caricatures in great depth. I mean great depth, better than any other book on caricatures that I've ever seen. I hope the guy puts it all together into a book, because it'll be in my reference collection as soon as he does. Because, as I noted earlier, the difference between a good caricature and a good portrait is not that great, and the things Tom tells you about in the tutorials can apply to a painting as well as an illustration.

So. Two very different artists. Two very different approaches. So much to learn, so little time!

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