Monday, March 19, 2012

Jack Kirby and Pablo Picasso

Image by WonderBros
 "If only we could pull out our brain and use only our eyes. " -- Pablo Picasso

I started reading comic books in earnest in the early1980s, a good time for comics. I was introduced to the work of John Byrne, Walt Simonson, Frank Miller, Michael Golden, Bill Sienkiewicz, John Romita Jr., and other, then young, creators of the time.

A friend of mine who was more of a comic book guy gave me an education on who was cool and why. He then introduced me to some of the more established guys: Neal Adams, John Buscema, Gil Kane, Ross Andru, John Romita Sr., and others.

What struck me was how all of these artists were doing vastly different things. They had their own styles. I remember liking to see how a given artist would handle drawing The Hulk. They were all so different and all great.

But one artist I could not get into was an old guy named Jack Kirby. His stuff was so blocky. Everyone looked to be carved out of stone. I remember another kid and I having a field day laughing at Kirby’s work.
But I was lucky because for some reason I had a trait that still serves me well – I had the desire to learn and I would listen to folks who knew more than me. If someone is older than I am, or more studied, my first inclination is assume they know more than I do until they prove otherwise. As I get older I see that this is a rare trait. (I’m not taking credit for the trait in myself – it was just there.)

I don’t get Picasso. I know I’m not supposed to say that because somehow it reflects on my intelligence, but I’m going to come clean here. I do not mean to say that Picasso wasn’t a genius; I am honestly saying that I don’t see what others see when they look at his work.

You should understand that when it comes to art I do not pretend to understand things if I don’t. I think this fear of feeling like we are intellectually deficient can make us fake knowledge instead of actually gaining knowledge.

In the story The Emperor’s New Clothes people pretend to see what they do not because they have been told that those who cannot see the Emperor’s beautiful clothes are stupid and unworthy of their station. As in the story we are all afraid to admit what others claim to see eludes us.

In the case of Picasso, I believe the Emperor in indeed wearing clothes because too many people I admire are in awe of his work. But it is important for my own personal growth that I actually see what others see before I say that I do.

With Kirby, what I did first was ask my artist friends what they saw that was so great. I did not judge their answers but rather I tried to see through their eyes. Whenever I read an interview with one of the many professional artists who were influenced by Kirby’s work, I would look for any bits of wisdom about his work.

I also looked to see what the artists I liked had in common with Kirby. Still, I could not see what others saw. I looked at Kirby’s work for years, and after about five or six years I started to see something of what people were talking about. I could see the energy and power in his work – it was kinetic.

I started to notice some of his innovations, like what my friend Scott called “Kirby dots.”  (Some people call the technique “Kirby krackle.”) It is a bunch of dots that somehow miraculously communicate energy – raw cosmic energy. Everyone uses them now, but Kirby thought it up. I saw that many of the things that had become standard comic book technique were Kirby innovations. Once I saw that a whole world opened up. This guy I had once made fun of was becoming a genius in my mind.

I also saw that his visual storytelling could be amazing. He could do in one panel what took other people three. This is one of the many things I saw John Byrne apply to his work.

I was once talking to my friend August Wilson about Picasso and how I just didn’t get it. August nodded and said, “Have you ever watched him paint?” I told him that I hadn’t and he said, “Watch him paint.” So that’s what I did. I watched him on YouTube.

For a long time I saw nothing. But I watched for years. The way that I learn to “see” is to look. I keep looking until I see. That can take years, or it might take a lifetime. But, like one of the “Magic Eye” pictures that were so popular in the late ’80s, if you look long enough and hard enough, a 3-D picture will emerge.

There's a bird in this image that you'll find if you look hard enough.

So I continued to look at Picasso. And look.And look. Every now and then I would go to YouTube and watch him paint. I started to see flickers of what I had been missing. It was him drawing rather than his painting that I started to see. I saw that he made no mistake. I mean that there were no mistakes. Like a good improviser he took what came. Every line was an opportunity. You can see it in his speed as there seems to be no thought only action – one line leads to another, leads to another, leads to another, without the slightest hesitation. There was no barrier between his subconscious and his hand. It’s balletic.

 Several months ago I had the opportunity to spend a few days with the legendary animator, and great guy, Glen Keane and I was telling him about what August had told me. Glen had never watched him paint so we pulled it up and watched. Glen’s eyes were fixed on the screen as he watched. After a moment he said, “Look where he’s looking.” I looked but didn’t see what Glen saw. He said, “Look at his eyes – he’s not looking at the line he’s painting. He’s looking at the middle of the image he’s working on.” He was.  But I didn’t know what that meant.

Glen told me that his mentor, Ollie Johnston, would say to him that every line in a drawing only exists in relationship to every other line in the drawing. Glen said that it took a while before Ollie’s words made sense to him. But after a few years he got it. And he could see in watching Picasso that he got it, too.

Sometimes I ask a student to read a particular thing or watch a particular movie and after they do they will come back and say that they didn’t get it. They will not read or watch it again. They are done. On that first look they think they have seen all there is to see (or not see).

But every now and then, a students trusts that I see something that they cannot and they will look until they see what I see. I had one student who watched Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and did not know what I saw in it. He watched it again and again and like with one of those magic eye pictures something emerged – something so clear that he didn’t know why he hadn’t seen it before. Now he marvels at the film, the same way I marvel at Jack Kirby.

I’m still looking at Picasso, because I still don’t fully get his work. Not as well as I would like. Maybe in a few years I will. Maybe I never will, but I will learn something just from looking.

My advice about learning: Keep looking.


... said...

Great post, it's all about the invisible art behind what we see :)

Brian McD said...

Thanks, MrFogg.

Chris Oatley said...

Great stuff.

I loved Picasso as a kid. I read biographies about him and studied books of his paintings.

Then, at 17, I started art school where I learned just enough about classical drawing to get myself into trouble with Picasso.

...meaning, I decided that though I respected his concepts, I found his execution lacking (basically, his drawing skill). My primal love for his work that I had as a kid was compromised.

And then a friend showed me some of Picasso's early drawings. They are aesthetically gorgeous and demonstrate the classical strength my ignorance and prejudice had led me to believe he lacked.

His "bad" drawing ability was a deliberate choice. For me, that was what one might refer to in the parlance of our times as a "WTF?!"

Because I've always loved him, it was easy to accept. It was EASY to assume that Picasso knew something I didn't (although he shouldn't have had to prove himself to me by doing traditionally "good" classical drawings in order for me to arrive at the following conclusion...)

It all clicked right away - though I've spent countless hours pondering him and these concepts ever since.

Picasso chose to make marks the way he eventually did (post "good" classical drawings) because he wanted us to see something that we can't see with a camera. We can't see inside his mind's eye with a camera. We can't see people and objects from multiple perspectives at once when looking straight through a camera. We can't select, enhance and isolate color and texture through a camera. ...and we certainly can't experience Picasso's FREEDOM, his own creative PLAY TIME with a camera. We can't experience it first hand either because we don't know him personally and he's dead. But his "Picassoy" paintings are the closest thing we have to ANY of that. And they are pretty good.

Picasso's work IS the lens. It is a filter through which we can observe... Well, everything if we pay enough attention to his work. ...but at LEAST the subjects he painted.

The traditional, classical RULES of art-making ARE present in his "bad drawing" work (which now I know isn't poorly drawn at all... ...that's a whole 'nother conversation though.) It's where he chooses to deviate from tradition that is his choice and that signifies his "lens".

Mr. Fogg is right. With Picasso, there IS the immediate, aesthetic image. And I "LIKE," no, "LOVE" his aesthetic. But there is a whole new dimension that becomes visible when you start to think of his paintings as the lens through which he chose to observe the world at that time.

The question is not as much "Why would anyone make a painting that looks like that?" (Although that may make for an interesting discussion) but rather "What does he want us to see?"

Then, the question "why" becomes useful. "Why" in regard to the "Picasso Lens" can generate new conversations about life and relationships and literally everything we take for granted... ...from a coffee pot to our spouse.

Am I making sense?

Brian McD said...

You do make sense. Thanks for the comment. But I want to make sure that people do not focus on either Kirby or Picasso when they read this post. They are only examples used to illustrate the bigger idea of looking at everything more deeply so that we don't miss things that are not always visible to us at first, second or third glance.

Unknown said...

Well said! This really is such an important lesson to learn. The moment it finally clicked for me was several years ago when I decided to broaden my musical taste. In the case of one artist in particular, I was immediately drawn to some of his work but couldn't even bear to sit through a good portion of it. The tracks I disliked seemed amateurish and unintentionally comical. However, people smarter and more experienced than me had great things to say about the music, so I stuck with it until I learned to appreciate it. Now many of those songs are my personal favorites, and the musician responsible for them is without question my favorite artist. As a rule now, I try to remember to give everything another chance. Sometimes it's easy to let preconceptions get in the way of learning and growing. It really disappoints me when I try to share the art I enjoy with others but they refuse to even attempt to appreciate it because it's different. Thanks for reminding us to keep looking.

Brian McD said...

Thanks for sharing your story about learning to appreciate a particular musician and how it relates to personal growth.

Tom Dell'Aringa said...

Hey Brian, great stuff as always. I couldn't find any contact info for you, so I wanted to leave a message for you here. I am reading Invisible Ink and just loving it. I'm only on page 46, but every page seems to have a revelation or an important lesson - lessons that I really need to learn as a storyteller. I've recognized that I have problems in my own comic's story but I wasn't always exactly sure what they were. Now I am beginning to understand.

Thanks for writing such a great book. I always look forward to your blog posts as well.

Have a great one.

Brian McD said...

Thanks you, Tom. How could I not 'have a good one' after a glowing comment like that? Thank you very much for letting me know that the book has helped you.

Good luck with your comics!

Thanks again for the note.

-- Brian

jean said...

The more I read this post, the more I am impressed with its wisdom. Years ago I bought a pocket microscope and the beauty and mystery and drama it revealed was truly stunning. Something as simple as a leaf became an intricate tapestry. That little microscope taught me not only to look at things more closely, but to appreciate the mystery and wonder in the everyday. But that's a habit that is easy to fall out of, thank you Brian, for reminding me of its importance.

Brian McD said...

Thank you, Jean. And thanks for your insightful story about your microscope.

Stormy Lynn said...

Thanks Brian. I love your blog. I am in a screenwriting class right now and it is an extremely difficult craft for me to wrap my head around. Its great to read your blog and books. You have amazing insight and I find your vision really inspiring. Thanks for helping my though a challenging semester.

Brian McD said...

Hello Stormy,

Thanks for writing. And thank you for the kind words. Glad to know I’m helping you with your understanding of screenwriting.

If you are struggling with understanding some of the concepts in you screenwriting class don’t worry. I have found that my students who get things quickly are not usually the students who get things deeply. Struggling just means that you are trying to understand a concept fully. Don’t be afraid of the struggle, it’s a good sign.

Good luck,

-- Brian

sam said...

Brian I just finished The Golden Theme and Invisible Ink by the recommendation of Chris Oatley and I can't thank you enough for these books. I'll be reading them again to sound down what I've found in them. Once just isn't enough. I found it encouraging that a lot of my story choices were good ones, but even more so to see the fog lift a bit from the troublesome spots I'm dealing with. Your insights are so revealing and examples, spot on! I've been tweeting excerpts all weekend! I want all my creative friends to find you! Thank you for putting into words so articulately what I've been only able to peripherally glimps. I'm getting it!

Eufrosina Miţura-Spasmode a III-a said...


I`d just like to say this: you`ve managed something quite unique, in as much as your blog is not only a delightful read but also avoids becoming a means for procrastination since it actually pushes me to my work desk, eager to get some work done.

Waiting (and keeping busy :P) until your next post.


Brian McD said...

Hello Diana,

Thanks so much. The irony is that writing the blog does help me procrastinate. I'm only half joking.

It does get my mind working before I get to work on a project to sit down and write a post.

Anyway, I'm glad it helps others get work done too.

Thanks for reading and taking the time to write.

-- Brian

Pablo hasan said...

Picasso is someone I was not interested in before I began to create and draw and then paint. Now? He and Van Gogh are two artists whose works I love to look at for everything.
in them. Nice paintings, Beth!
Pablo Picasso

Guillaume Blackburn said...

Hi Brian

I have read your books last week, after reading through the Paper Wings podcasts. So, I would first thank you for all this very well organised writing, because it lifts a big part of the heavy veil in front of our storytellers' eyes. Things just get easier when they are presented in a well organised fashion.

I'd secondly like to make a comment about that post, which strikes many times the question why Picasso is so great. I'm sorry, but you kind of ask for an answer there. And since I do appreciate Picasso very much, I will try to give a simple organised answer of my own appreciation.

When I went to life drawing the first times, I was trying to find the simplest geometrical shape, all lines working together to show that specific shape. I did it to represent, say, a leg flexed to the torso in forshortening, or any other part of the body. I tried to do so for every single part of a specific pose, and soon realised that there was a shape, sometimes many, representing a whole pose. I found it grew out of the line of action concept or the composition of the image for a whole scene, because this simple shape could be applied to anything, even a whole scene. I later figured that some artists, including Picasso, are exactly looking for this specific challenge: representing something, a hand, a person, an animal, a building, an illustration, a whole sentence, in its most simple form, each line being needed to represent it completely in the simplest manner.

I think Picasso found simple ways to represent ideas, and he also found ingenious variations to represent the same ideas. On my own work, I relate to Picasso the most when I play with shapes to find interesting designs. The rest is just furnishing by applying perspective, anatomy, and other crafting rules.

I hope that will help you understand i bit more of Picasso's ingenuity.


Brian McD said...

Hello Guillaume,

Thank you for taking the time to write and thank you for your complements on my work.

Thanks, too, for your insights on Picasso. Everything you say makes sense. But for myself I have to move beyond the intellectual understanding of his work. I have to know in my gut why Picasso’s work is good. I just have to stare at until I have an epiphany. And I’m okay with that even if it takes my whole life.

- Brian