The (Annotated) 2002 Jihn Arcudi Interview – Part Twenty-Four

Stout’s annotations are in italics.

FINE ART VS. ILLUSTRATION

ARCUDI: I think a lot of people look at landscapes and look at wildlife paintings and they don’t have any trouble with applying the phrase “Fine Art” to what they’re looking at. You paint as close to realism as a person can get. But I think people are really resistant to looking at a painting of a Trachodon eating marsh grass and calling that fine art.

STOUT: Incredibly resistant. In fact, they don’t.

ARCUDI: Do you?

STOUT: I tell you I’m always laughing at myself, especially when I consider what I do as fine art. Within the huge realm of representational fine art there is this tiny slice of that pie called wildlife art – a speck on the butt of representational art. Actually, domestic animals or hunting scenes with animalsanything in which people are exerting or attempting to exert dominance over animals — are considered a proper theme for Fine Art. As soon as you paint wildlife, you’re an illustrator. If you paint a cow, you’re a Fine Artist. But if you paint a buffalo, you’re an illustrator.

Anyway, within that narrow slice of representational art called wildlife art, there is dinosaur art or “paleoart”, which is a microscopic slice out of the wildlife art pie. It’s a footnote to an asterisk. But if you think that sounds obscure, I do Antarctic dinosaurs, which is – well, you just can’t get more obscure or find a smaller market for your work. If I were to set out wearing my commercial hat, saying, “You wanna paint wildlife. Okay, if you want to make money at this business, the one thing you don’t do is ‘dinosaurs.’ And if you’re going to do dinosaurs, for God’s sake don’t do Antarctic dinosaurs. At least do North American dinosaurs, where maybe there might be a small market among the U. S. museums.” But I don’t always think logically that way. I follow my heart and my heart led me to painting prehistoric and contemporary life in Antarctica. I don’t consider that work illustration. Believe me, I know the difference. I have to say that I take an absolute Fine Art approach to whatever I do, illustration or fine art. But I draw a distinct line between illustration and fine art.

ARCUDI: So what’s the difference?

STOUT: In a nutshell, in illustration you do the best art you can possibly do within the time allotted. There’s always a deadline with illustration. With fine art, you do the best art that you can possibly do. Period. If that requires going back to the picture in a year and painting some more on it, then you do that. There is no deadline. You finish the picture and make it the best possible picture you can, if it takes a week, if it takes two years. In addition, there is usually a difference in depth. Fine art is deeper than illustration. It has to resonate for a long, long time. It stands on its own, regardless of whether you’ve read the text that goes with it or not.

ARCUDI: If you go back far enough, to someone like Van Eyck, The Annunciation, for instance, he really is illustrating something, and he probably had a deadline, but would anyone argue that that’s not fine art?

The Anunciation

STOUT: An even more popular example is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling murals.

It’s a mural and a series of pictures that tell the story of God’s creation of man and other aspects of the Bible. Obviously, on one level it’s illustration – it’s pictures telling a narrative story. But there’s so much nuance, depth and heart and soul poured into that work that it transcends the mere fulfilling of a commercial job for his client, the Pope.

ARCUDI: I don’t want to beat this to death, but are you saying that it’s the talent of a Michelangelo, a Van Eyck, a Bernini, a Leonardo that makes their commercial work transcend commercial work and become Fine Art? Or has there just been a change in the perception because of the distance of time of what Fine Art is today? Do you really believe it’s the talent that makes it transcend the commercial nature of the job?

STOUT: I think it’s a mixture of both. I think the enormous vision those men had that took them beyond the mere fulfilling of an assignment had a lot to do with it. But also we have the benefit of history and hindsight. There were thousands of artists back then, and the artists we revere are the ones whose work had the staying power and has stood the test of time. I’m sure there were thousands of guys doing the same subject matter for whom, to them, art was just a way to make a living, just a job. Their stuff was competent, especially by today’s standards, but is now forgotten.

History has a tendency to color things in different ways. I think there was no doubt in N. C. Wyeth’s mind that he was an illustrator, up until the point where he wanted to change over into what he considered Fine Art. Yet there’s something… Wyeth put so much of himself into his best illustrations, that to me, a lot of his illustrations, even though, yeah, he’s illustrating a certain chapter from Last of the Mohicans or Treasure Island, somehow the quality of the paint application, the design, the color, the subtlety of the way he expressed himself – to me, that takes that particular painting into the realm of Fine Art.

Kidnaped illustration by N. C. Wyeth

Tom Wolfe made an interesting observation in his book The Painted Word. He presented the theory that the nature of Fine Art and Illustration have switched. It used to be that in order to fully understand an illustration, you had to read the text it was illustrating. Fine Art stood on its own. Now, however, you need to read a contemporary Fine Artist’s manifesto to understand their art, while most of Illustration stands on its own with no need of explanation.

There’s another difference, though, between illustrators and fine artists. With Fine Artists, you judge them by their entire body of work. Illustrators, you judge by the best 25% of what they’ve done, discounting the rest for the time limits of deadline pressures, the limited scope of some of the work that was demanded by the job, the interference of art directors, and other things that may have affected the quality of the work. You have to cut illustrators a lot more slack than you do Fine Artists who should be allowed no slack at all. Not everything that N. C. did was great. I’ve seen a lot of stuff that was pretty bad. But I don’t know what was happening to him at the time. Maybe the magazine needed a painting in a day. That’s certainly happened to me.

ARCUDI: And so, to make the obvious connection, Andrew Wyeth is certainly considered to be a Fine Artist by most people who know his work.

Andrew Wyeth landscape
Andrew Wyeth-influenced dinosaur painting by Stout

Those people who know his and his father’s work still consider Andrew Wyeth the “Finer” artist of the two painters in the sense that Andrew was painting “art-for-art’s-sake,” whereas N. C. Wyeth, even at his best, was just an illustrator. You agree, or disagree with that?

STOUT: I bristle at the phrase “just an illustrator.” I think at least as much if not more high quality contemporary “fine art” has been produced by illustrators as has been produced by fine artists. On the whole, though, I agree with what you said. Again, to compare Andrew and N. C., you have to compare the entire body of Andrew’s work, because he is considered a Fine Artist, with the best 25 percent of N. C. Wyeth, and that’s kind of unfair right there. N. C., because he was trained as an illustrator, had a different set of values and goals with his work, I don’t mean moral values, but techniques, devices, and methods to convey his passions.

For the most part, N. C.’s pictures couldn’t be anywhere near as subtle as Andrew’s – they wouldn’t have satisfied the job. Most of N. C.’s work demanded an immediate impact with the public to sell a book or a product. So N. C. loses out there.

A lot of times N. C. would try to advise Andrew to change something so that it would have a greater emotional impact. He didn’t really get what Andrew was going for, that Andrew was not going for the greatest emotional impact, which is almost invariably what you do go for when you’re doing illustration. You’re trying to connect with your public in an immediate, forceful way. Andrew was going for something subtler, something softer, more contemplative, maybe more spiritual. His father didn’t — or couldn’t — get that. So, yeah, Andrew really is a Fine Artist, and N. C…. I think some of his work is as good as any Fine Art that has been done, but essentially, he was an illustrator. But he was way more adventurous with color than Andrew has ever been. Which shows you how unimportant color can be in art.

ARCUDI: Which of those two artists has had a greater impact on your work in Fine Art?

STOUT: Oh, without a doubt, N. C.; not that Andrew hasn’t had an impact.

“Saltwater Ice” by Jamie Wyeth

I’ve taken a lot of stuff from him and from his son Jamie, who I consider a combo of his two predecessors, but if you’re going to learn color, you don’t go to Andrew Wyeth to learn it. You go to N. C. to learn color.

N.C. also is interesting to me, because he broke a lot of design rules. The big one that he broke is the one you hear over and over again: Never put the focus of your painting in the dead-center of the canvas, and he did that constantly – and pulled it off.

Captain Nemo by N. C. Wyeth

It doesn’t bother you. It looks just fine. Plus, N. C. had a great impact on Frank Frazetta, and Frazetta was one of my main influences early in my career.

N. C. Wyeth Barbarians
Frazetta cover for Bran Mak Morn

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