Wow -I fell in love with that, of course. It’s interesting that of all Disney’s works available at the time, “Alice in Wonderland” was richest in landscape, as well as characters. And what a landscape it was! Lush parks, deep forest, the Walrus and the Carpenter’s moonlit beach, the White Rabbit’s house and garden, the Mad Hatter’s tea party garden, the Queen’s maze and croquet lawn – what richness of imagery and color Disney unleashed on the world in that movie!
I know most people prefer “Cinderella”, but for me “Alice in Wonderland” was definitely the tops, and I think that had a lot to do with the landscape settings, especially Tulgey Wood, which somehow totally hooked me in. Even today, pictures of the Tulgey Wood scenes have a powerful appeal and bring back some very strong memories.
Apart from Elleston Trevor’s “Deep Wood” tales which I loved, I didn’t have much experience of forests – none at all of real forests, that is. So there’s no obvious, immediate connection. Perhaps it’s relevant that while the Tulgey Wood settings were based on forest reality, the colors and shapes of the trees had an other-worldliness that generated an enormous fascination. And while they were kind of wild, they were also orderly and groomed. Not full-on wild, like the forests I came to know later in New Zealand.
Tulgey Wood invited further exploration, without being too threatening. You could see pathways and openings that beckoned. This forest has depth. And of course the ‘extras’ – the owl, the frogs, the horn ducks and the momeraths – all of these added enormously to its appeal. And the art was great. The super-realism of this tree trunk setting is something else:
And then – maybe it was the Elleston Trevor books, or even that old “Sherwood Forest” thing in the blood. One of the meanings of the surname Howitt or Hewitt (we have a double dose – both surnames are in the family) is thought to be a topographic derivation from the Olde English ‘Hiewett’ – which translates as ‘a place where trees have been cut down’.
Forest dwellers? Foresters? Who knows? I think we carry more programming from our ancestry than we give credit for. Here’s something that surfaced from my subconscious many years later :
On top of my CD towers sits a little stuffed Disney Cheshire Cat toy that I found lying in the street a few years ago, shortly after our local McDonald’s opened its doors for the first time. They were giving away little toys to kids. Sadly, some child was the poorer for my gain – but I’d like to think he came into my hands because in the long run, he carries a whole lot more meaning for me than he could for any child in today’s world of ever-changing toy fads…
The cartoon movie stills in this post are all Copyright Walt Disney Corporation. Thanks mainly to Lenny at Alice in Wonderland.net .
Apart from the straight Disney content, there was one other cartoon strip in Mickey Mouse Weekly that I came to rate just as highly – a cartoon called Strongbow the Mighty, illustrated by another real master of his trade – the London-born illustrator Ron Embleton. Ron created a huge body of artwork pretty much single-handed, in a really short space of time.
Ron was in a league of his own, and it shocked me since to find out that at the time he was doing Strongbow, he was only in his early twenties, having started illustrating for comics at the age of 17 – amazing. I still have 37 Strongbow comic pages stashed away and kept over the years because I admired his work so much, and once I get my scanner going again, I’ll put them online, because I notice there doesn’t seem to be anything much out there about this particular comic strip.
Meantime, I’ve set up a page at Patricia Howitt.com with one or two Strongbow images, which I’m sure will be relished by those who remember the cartoon – and by anyone with an eye for outstanding graphics. Here are a couple of them:
I loved Strongbow for Ron’s marvellous, crisp black and white images, his detail, his strength of line and composition (again!), the brilliant accuracy of his men and horses, and above all his total mastery when it came to capturing power and movement.
My dad and I used to pore over his pages, marvelling at his rendering of horses and men, often frozen in a split second of violent action, but fluid, powerful and graceful nonetheless. Very, very powerful stuff.
Now I’ve had the chance to see more of Ron’s work, I’ve a sneaking feeling that the Strongbow era might have been one of his favorites, because the images he created for it are so complete and so satisfying. Ron captured the spirit of that period so vividly, that it’s hard for me to realise that he was also engaged with Biggles (another of my favourites), American Wild West, science fiction and Playboy magazine. What an artist!
Strongbow, as far as I remember, was only ever a black and white comic strip. I saw some of Ron Embleton’s color work in comics recently when I searched him on the net, but to be honest, I think black and white conveys his mastery of comic strip work far more effectively. Having said that, he also had brilliant control of tone and color, and produced many individual images that are truly breathtaking. It was a real joy to me recently to find a great body of his illustration work for book publishers that I previously hadn’t known about – see above.
The other thing that appealed about Strongbow was the “Robin Hood.”quality of the story. As I’ve said before, Sherwood Forest has some deep resonances in our family history, that I wasn’t even aware of at the time. That will surface later, though.
Michelangelo didn’t limit himself to drawing from life. In 1492 at 17 years of age he put himself in serious danger by dissecting dead bodies in the mortuary of the Santo Spirito monastery in Florence.
The penalty for interfering with human remains was death. Why would he do that? To understand how the human body is constructed and how it works – and that is what gave such unprecedented life and movement to his paintings and sculptures.
Drawing – Making Line Live
I’ve come to appreciate that though I never went to art school, I did get a pretty rigorous training in drawing and in making what I created truly express the reality. This came from my dad’s critique, which harked back to the good old basics of looking hard at one’s subject-matter, understanding it and capturing it.
If what I drew or painted didn’t look like what it was meant to be, and didn’t have life, I GOT ROASTED. If the technique was weak or fussy, I GOT ROASTED. About that, more later.
So I came to value clarity of line, especially when it expresses 3 dimensional mass and movement economically.
The Second Principle : Strength of Composition – Design
Composition is arguably THE most important element of a painting – sculpture too, though it’s more complex in three dimensions. If there’s one thing that really puts me off, it’s a painting with a number of elements scattered around the space, without real consideration for the overall layout of the composition as a whole. No design! And that happens more often than you might think. And the average person doesn’t see it.
Look at frames from Disney cartoon movies, and see how all-pervading good composition and design was in the huge array of Disney’s animations – masterly! Given the number of artists working for Disney at any one time over the years, maintaining such consistency is a huge achievement in itself.
Taking the subject of composition a little deeper, here’s something most people are totally unaware of. It was clearly explained in a book called ‘The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art’ by Charles Bouleau, which I have among my texts. The book is out of print now, but people on Amazon are crying for a reprint. I really can’t improve on this short excerpt from a review by T Campbell:
“This is the art history text we all should have had and didn’t. It is the only book I have found in several years of looking into what has been printed on composition/design in the 2-D arts that actually shows the manner in which artists in a number of Greco-Roman to western traditions managed their space. It was certainly not the “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach that is so common now. The great ones then, and to a certain degree even now, were very well educated in their traditions, which included mathematics, especially geometry, the application of which to image making was connected to their faith, as well as being an expression of their genius.
“Bouleau carries his argument into the 20th century and shows that respect for geometric spatial division to establish harmony is not dead. It still works, even with completely nonrepresentational art.
“This is a stunningly informative look at the visual arts in the European traditions and is the only book I have found that informs me on how the “old masters” and some contemporary masters built their paintings.”
Below are works by 2 relatively modern artists, showing their use of geometric principles in composition. “Miserere” by Georges Roualt and “Composition ll in Red, Yellow and Blue” by Piet Mondrian:
Don’t be misled: this is not a case of art being forced into a geometric matrix to suit some theory. Just as mathematics underlies much of our world (think of music, for a start), it is inescapably true that artworks whose composition or design complies with certain geometric principles, are more powerful and satisfying.
Hence the value of basing your studies as an artist on the very best of traditional and contemporary masters.
We lived first in a semi-detached Army villa in the suburb of Seafield. At the bottom of the street was – is – a small park called Johnstone Gardens built around a rocky landscaped stream, surrounded by paths, shrubberies, flower beds and rock gardens, with tall trees as a backdrop. I was given my first little camera and shot many photos – now lost – in that park.
My mom took me there often : it was a ‘wild’ landscape in miniature.
I’d just got a serial comic – it was Odham’s “Mickey Mouse Weekly”. My folks enjoyed it too, but I’m sure my dad was looking for artistic quality in what he chose, and I’m really grateful. I looked forward to that comic, and devoured its contents. It wasn’t all Disney though – many of the other cartoons and illustrations were of a different quality and appealed less. I found myself gradually getting a preference for the Disney style of artwork.
Two principles stand out in Disney’s works, and I’d like to think they are a good training ground for any artist. Firstly, clarity of line. The Disney line is stylish in its boldness. Eye and hand are coordinated to produce a highly polished, clean result.
The First Principle : Clarity of Line (ie Draftsmanship)
In today’s art world it’s kinda cutesy and clever to leave your viewers guessing. “Is that a fish or a bird?” “Is that a person standing in all that murk or is it an elephant?” Hmmmm. Too many people are getting away with bad draftsmanship because their creations are regarded as “innovative” or “thought-provoking”. We are putting a premium on gimmickry rather than solid grounding. Art is becoming cerebral instead of visceral in its appeal.
Maybe the fact that the Universities have got in on the act of training people to be artists has something to do with it.
I admire Prince Charles for stepping up to the plate and founding The Prince’s Drawing School. It’s time someone stood up for the real fundamental values in Art. There’s nothing ‘old fashioned’ about it – these fundamentals apply to digital art just as they’ve done to traditional art through the centuries. For more information see also Wikipedia on The Prince’s Drawing School.
Photographs are definitely not art
Right now, photography is doing its darndest to take over the Art space. Many would say, “If you can get a good photograph why go for paintings?” And that, of course, provides another excuse for the current trends in Art proper. Well, I’m sorry, photographs (even manipulated, Photoshopped ones) won’t ever compare, and that’s because they lack involvement of the hand, eye, brain and understanding of the artist – the true creative process. And I mean involvement with the subject-matter, not the photographic process.
About which, more next time
They earliest thing I can recall about doing art was drawing a kiddy house as a square with a pointed roof, four windows and a door. The usual standard tot’s drawing.
When I drew the pathway as two straight parallel lines going downwards from the door to the bottom of the page, my dad showed me how to draw a winding path in perspective, wider at the bottom than the top and with a couple of sinuous bends on the way – looking like it was lying on the ground and not sticking up in the air.
What a revelation, at that young age! What a foundation for future interests in architecture, model houses, and landscapes, haha!
So began a long “collaboration” on art between us. And though there were times when I was right properly irked by his input, I know I owe my dad an enormous debt for what he passed on to me over the years. Where HE got his knowledge from, I have no idea.
Art at School
When we moved from Chelsea Barracks to Kennington, London, I attended the girls’ side of the boys’ prep school for Dulwich College for a short time. It’s a pity that in those days kids were not encouraged to keep their artwork. Hopefully things are different today – it’s important to start building your portfolio as young as possible, and.parents need to know this, too.
Anyway, the one piece of art that sticks in memory from that school was a shaded pencil drawing I did of a goose that was sent off somewhere to an exhibition and to be critiqued by the mysterious “powers that be”. I was told it got awarded some kind of distinction, but I got no record of it, and the work never came back to me. Wish I had it now.
Real, live animals didn’t come into the equation in those days – living the nomadic army life doesn’t lend itself to relationships with pets, or long-term friends either, unfortunately.
I’m sure thousands of army brats (gee what a phrase – who ever got to be a brat with a Guards RSM, or any other army NCO for a parent?) know exactly what I’m talking about. On the one hand, you get enough exposure to the wide world to kill parochialism stone dead for life (thank goodness!). On the other hand, you find it hard to conceive that ANYTHING (especially friendships and relationships) can be lasting.
It’s a lonely world, especially if you’re an only child and forbidden to play with “ranks’ kids”. In my early years, I had only one real friend – the son of one of my dad’s NCO associates. Nowadays, animals are some of my favorite subjects, as well as my best friends. And it’s that goose drawing that stuck in memory over the years.
The Movies – Walt Disney
Movies were another major influence. Just off Piccadilly Circus there was a small picture theater that ran continuous Walt Disney cartoon movies. Whether it still exists, I really don’t know. At any time of the day you could buy a ticket and wander in there and stay as long as you liked watching Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. We went there quite often and I can still vividly recall watching Donald Duck especially – oh man that attitude and that voice! It wasn’t until I got real live ducks of my own only a few years ago that I realized what a great duck impersonation Donald really does.
It was all just entertainment.. At six or seven years of age, there was for me no critical appreciation of what we were looking at – the colorful antics on screen were just something to laugh at and enjoy. But this first brush with Walt Disney was going to develop into a relationship that would impact on skills to come.
About which, more next time!