Thursday, 9 March 2017

Under the Influence

N.C. Wyeth, from Treasure Island, 1911

The comments this blog receives are part of its flavour. In the main, they are well-meant, amusing, and thoughtful. I realise most visitors to most blogs avoid reading comments, and with good reason: without sensible moderation, they can be as toxic as the calls on an unregulated phone-in. But I think no-one need fear the comments here. Blogger does not allow one to edit them, so it's a case of either in or out. By and large, I'm happy to choose in; I don't have enough readers to alienate regulars by suppressing their occasional digs at me or their questionable opinions. But I do reject any comment which violates any one of a dozen subjective and variable criteria. And occasionally, it seems, I lose a few, for which I apologise.

In many ways, though, some of the most interesting responses I get to the work I put out in this blog happen "privately", that is, from people who email me directly, rather than submit a comment. For example, this email from a long-term regular reader:
I’ve been reading a book I just received titled Matisse/Diebenkorn that explores the acknowledged influences Matisse had on American painter Richard Diebenkorn. And it brought up a question I’ve held back from asking you for a long time about influences that may have been important in informing your photography. I don’t mean to pry – well, maybe I do in some respect (but not in terms of “secret sauces”) – but I have always seen the vibrant color palette in your photography very much akin to painting rather than photography. For starters, there is no question that your photographic style, the way you use color, is unique and quite beautiful when compared to other contemporary color photography that I have seen.

To me, your color palette in some way relates to that of American painter/illustrator and member of the so called Brandywine school, N.C. Wyeth. I had always held his illustrations, and those of a few other Brandywine School artists like Howard Pyle (Wyeth’s teacher) in high regard. In fact I used to collect books that Wyeth illustrated. I get the same “feeling” from his colors and the sense of romanticism (some call it realism) that I do from your work. 

So, if you’d care to consider this unsolicited inquiry, I’d be very interested to know if there are influences from painting that have been important to you. Of course I won’t be offended if you reply that this is none of my damn business! 
It's an interesting (not to say flattering) question, and not one I'd given much thought to. Most of us who share work publicly probably prefer to erase all trace of "influences", mainly out of pride, but also to avoid any ensuing lawsuits in the unlikely event of hitting some financial jackpot ("where there's a hit there's a writ"). It's all very well for whoever-it-was to say "talent borrows, genius steals", but genius can generally afford better lawyers. Influences are inescapable, however, and not always as obvious as they might seem. So, if I may give myself permission to take myself a bit more seriously than usual, I have some thoughts on the matter, which you may or may not find interesting.

I've said before that I generally favour the aims and techniques of "illustration" over those of "fine art", and by far the most powerful influences I'm aware of must be the illustrations in the reading material I pored over in my childhood. There were comics; Victor and Hotspur were my weekly reads, with the occasional copy of War Picture Library and ‒ the ultimate treat ‒ American comics picked up on summer holidays. There were my sister's battered copies of Mad, weekly colour supplements and occasional magazines; the '50s and '60s were the heyday of an evocative, sketchy-but-realistic graphic style, typified by Bernie Fuchs. There were illustrated books ‒ not least natural history identification guides ‒ and encyclopaedias (see this post from 2010). When you have a hungry eye, even the "exploded view" instructions to a model kit are a feast of graphical know-how, and model box-lid illustrations were a wonderful, absorbing art-form in themselves.

Airfix 1:72 WW1 Bristol Fighter, artist Roy Cross, 1960s

The main legacy of this vast body of ephemeral graphical work, for anyone with eyes to see, is an appreciation of line, volume, and drama, often supplemented by the limited but subtle colour palette enforced by the mechanics of cheap printing. An illustrator is an artist who believes everything that needs to be said can be conveyed by the way someone holds a drink, who cares about the ways different surfaces reflect light, and who knows which details to leave out, and which to dwell upon.Whatever happened, I wonder, to all those people who could really draw? Can you imagine Tracey Emin (Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy Schools, 2011-13, and not an influence) illustrating a kids' book about cars or cookery? The pleasure of those recently repurposed "Ladybird" books (Ladybird books for Grown-Ups) is all about the way their innocence can be subverted with new captions, but this is only possible because of the expressive clarity of their painted illustrations.

Like my questioner, I am a fan of that "Brandywine", turn-of-the-century school of illustration; in fact, I can see a reprint of Wyeth's illustrated Treasure Island from where I'm sitting. However, I came to these artists later in life, as illustrated children's books did not figure much in my childhood. In the 1970s there was a revival of interest in this sort of "realist/romantic" illustrative work, along with British antecedents and equivalents like William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Arthur Rackham, whose particular weaving of textures and near-monotones into an English other-wordliness influenced a generation. I suspect this was because such pictures reward the sort of unwaveringly rapt, child-like scrutiny that a young adult in the grip of certain intoxicants will bring to a picture; what we might call "the stoner's gaze". I have written before about the "dressing-up box" mentality of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and these evocative and lively paintings of pirates, elves, American indians, and Arthurian figures ‒ nearly always derived from children's books and intended to stimulate the imagination ‒ were a perfect match.

I didn't want to turn this post into a simple list of "artists I have liked", so I looked for some common threads. An obvious one is Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which share that same graphical emphasis on boldness of design, subtle and pure colours, and economy of line, all held within a flattened, strongly-framed picture-plane. In effect, you might say they are comics for an adult sensibility (very adult, in the case of the notoriously erotic shunga prints), and indeed were regarded as ephemera by their native audience, to the extent that woodblock prints by the likes of Hokusai and Hiroshige were used as protective wrapping for pots exported to the West. You can imagine the delight with which these crumpled freebies were discovered by the artists of late-19th century France, and the impact of japonisme on Impressionism and subsequent movements in art was profound. I have a particular liking for "post-impressionist" colourists like Vuillard and Bonnard, with their flattened, patterned, child-like shapes and improbably gorgeous palette of colours. A photographer like Saul Leiter (also a painter and illustrator) has clearly taken these same influences on board.

Pierre Bonnard, Nude in the Bath, 1925

While thinking about this, I found it helpful to distinguish between "systematic" influences and partial ones. For example, when I came across the French artist Henri Rivière (initially, I think, on holiday in Britanny, where much of his work is set) I felt the urge to explore further, and the more I looked, the more I liked what I saw, culminating in the discovery of that fine series of prints, 36 views of the Eiffel Tower. He became a "systematic" influence, an artist whose whole body of work I found rewarding, and whose available work, especially work in print, I actively sought out. As to "partial" influences, the example of Leonard Baskin comes to mind, whose work stimulated by the poems of Ted Hughes, especially Crow, still ranks very highly with me, but whose wider oeuvre doesn't carry the same charge. Similarly, David Hockney's early prints, such as the illustrations to the Grimms' fairy tales, which blew my mind* when I first saw them in a Sunday colour supplement in 1970 and which I still find amazing. But, for me, the majority of his later work is rather less compelling.** A more recent example would be Josef Stoitzner (1884-1951), an Austrian artist who produced some very attractive Henri Rivière-like images of rural Alpine landscapes, boldly graphical with the limited colour palette associated with posters and print-making, but whose stock-in-trade turned out to be rather forgettable "genre" oil paintings. Often, of course, it can turn out to be just a single example of an artist's work that has caught my attention – usually something seen on a website and clipped for future reference using Evernote – but which then turns out to be completely untypical of the work as a whole.

Henri Rivière, Enterrement à Trestraou, 1891
(notice the Japanese-style red artist's stamp)

I suppose I probably am, in many ways, a print-maker and illustrative painter manqué. At primary school, my work used to be entered for – and win! – national painting competitions, but once at grammar school "art" was relegated to the level of metalwork and carpentry – something to occupy the less academically-able boys – so I was reduced to tinkering around at home. I did have vague thoughts of going to art school, but my teachers had grander plans for me, and I was hazy enough about my goals in life to be talked out of it (thankfully). Photography became my passionate interest in my 30s, but those earlier influences always made themselves felt; for example, in a liking for the flattened perspective of a short telephoto lens, or the clarity of the colours and even distribution of the tones in low-contrast lighting conditions. So it's no surprise that, when it came to the wider range of possibilities opened by digital colour photography, my eye led me in certain "painterly" directions.

In fact, I actually dislike most colour photography. There's a sort of heightened glossy verisimilitude ‒ a pure photographic "look" aspired to by many ‒ that I find unattractive, especially when applied to the landscape and portraiture, as if these subjects were just another application of "packshot" techniques. I'm tempted to suggest that the reason for this is that so many photographers lack influences other than photography itself, and generally only recent photography of the most banal sort. Obviously, if you aspire to nothing more than record-shots of scenic spots at "golden hour", and have mistaken technical business for aesthetics, your pictures will look just like those of everyone else who has made the effort to rock up at the Old Man of Storr on Skye at the "right" time. Well done, you! But if you know your art history, and have looked for interesting work across all genres and all time-periods, and developed your personal preferences and allowed them to influence your own seeing, then you're at least in with a chance of producing something a little different, but also ‒ and I now think this is very important ‒ something with a recognisable ancestry other than the pages of Amateur Photographer.

Pinax of Persephone and Hades
Locri, Calabria, 5th century BC

* Still a thing in 1970... When you're 16 and obsessed with being able to draw well, it is liberating, empowering, and  yes  mind-blowing to be given permission to draw "badly" but expressively.

** During my stint at Balliol College, Oxford, I held the elected JCR post of "Mr. Picture Fund", which gave me a small budget to spend on new artwork to add to a collection of pictures which could be borrowed by students to hang in their college rooms. Consequently, I was able to have close, hands-on, "stoner's gaze" acquaintance with an actual early Hockney etching, "Myself and My Heroes", and the original of one of Ralph Steadman's large pen-and-ink illustrations to Alice in Wonderland.


Zouk Delors said...

"Talent borrows, genius steals"

Anonymous said...

I remember that when I was about nine years old, my mother gave me several illustrated books - some sort of scrap book, the text was about travels to other continents, the pictures were glued into the book at marked positions. She told me that she got these books from her stepfather when she was young, and they were actually something like advertising material for certain brands of cigarettes or margarine. I think one had to buy the book, the illustrative pictures came with the product (I believe they're called cigarette cards in English). Anyway, I was fascinated by them - very much like the natural history book my parents had, with illustrations of the Cambrian sea or the Carbon age forests. They contained entire worlds for me! The fact that the pictures weren't photographs seemed to make them even more powerful in this regard.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


Yes! I should have thought of that -- in the 50s and 60s a brand of tea, Brooke Bond, used to specialise in series of those little cards ("British Birds", "Wildlife of Africa", etc.), and I was an avid collector, sticking them into the printed albums with flour and water paste. They were painted by top wildlife artists, too.

In fact, at primary school there was a whole cult around cigarette / tea cards, involving elaborate "swapping" sessions. Quite old ones from the 1930s would turn up, inherited from earlier generations. Later on, collecting American-style bubble gum cards was the craze, including a series about the American Civil War that were quite gruesome, and included a very convincing facsimile Confederate banknote in various elusive denominations.

In my kids' day (90s/00s) it was stickers... Premier League teams, dinosaurs... Then Pokemon and Star Wars cards... I've just been clearing out a lot of their junk, and stickers and cards are everywhere.

Oh well, another post in there!


amolitor said...

I am on holiday so will have all the details wrong, but the narrative thrust, as it were, should be correct!

At one point only the dutch really knew how to make marbled paper, so naturally the British taxed the crap out of its import. The clever entrepreneurs began than to user it as packaging for other products. Porcelain figurines, I think, which certainly ought to have been taxed into oblivion, but that's government for you, wot?

The paper would then be flattened out and sold to book binders.

So perhaps the Japanese wood block prints were being smuggled to the round eyes!

Mike C. said...


It's certainly possible. Though I prefer the scenario of some dealer unpacking a crate, straightening out some sheets of crumpled rice paper, and thinking (in French, obvs):
WTF?? $$$$$$!!


Omer said...

It seems many photographers started out as painters and illustrators. I did, but the artiste atmosphere was beyond my pretense so I opted for the craftsmanship of photography. I don't mean Adams territory, just that photography then was not a high brow thing.

Still, Cezanne, Paul Klee, Robert Motherwell and the like were the lights and the end of the tunnel for me. But when I learned of Robert Frank in the early '70s (who flipped my understanding of photography,) the others dimmed and it's been photography since. Atget, Chambi....

PS. The pantheon of good photographers is really big considering that photography was invented like, yesterday. Yeah?

Mike in San Diego said...

Wonderful blog post - lots to explore and think about.

Mike C. said...


Interesting point about the "pantheon". Mind you, if we look at the roll call of truly major painters, say, since 1850, or even 1950, it puts the achievements of photographers into a different light, I think. After all, how long a medium has existed isn't really a determining factor in its successful use -- Film (movies)? Lithography? Acrylic paint? Yet another post, perhaps...


Thanks -- it seems appropriate to acknowledge that it was your comment that sparked the post, so I'm very grateful!


Gavin McL said...

Those repurposed illustrations in the adult ladybirds are like wormholes in time - one look takes me straight back to childhood bedrooms, school rooms and my favourite reading corners at grandparents houses

Mike C. said...


Yes, those childhood hangovers are the worst... ;)


Martyn Cornell said...

There's something seriously wrong with that illustration of the Bristol Fighter - the Brisfit's lower wing wasn't flush with the fuselage, if hung below it on four small struts. And the tail structure doesn't look qjuite right either.

Mike C. said...


I have had your comment forensically examined for signs of irony, but the lab report is negative. Who'da thought it?

I imagine SS-GB was *completely* spoiled for you by the wrong, later mark of Spitfire landing next to Buckingham Palace in 1941 (as any fule kno, apparently, it is a Spitfire Mk IX, not designed until 1942, and not brought into use until 1943)?


Martyn Cornell said...

Well, I WAS hoping I was taking the piss out of myself, that 55 years on from spending too long in my bedroom with a tube of glue, I was still able to remember what the model aircraft I used to make looked like.

Mike C. said...

As indeed you were, Martyn, as was I. I shall have a word with the lab...

You were quite right, though, and I suspect that is not the aircraft claimed. Serve me right for pinching stuff uncritically off the net, a mistake no old-school journalist would make (and I am emphatically NOT taking the piss there...).