Stylization and Primitive Artwork: What’s the Difference?

Above are two examples of illustration we see these days. One is an example of stylized artwork, the other an example of primitive artwork.

First, let’s turn the clock back to, say, 1985. The artwork on the left would be regarded as stylized. It would’ve worked back then as a serio-comic solution to a depiction of “Eve”, and would’ve been accepted as having been done by a professional artist. The artwork on the right wouldn’t have been accepted for print at all.

Now let’s vault ahead to present day. The artwork at left is still viable as a professionally done piece of artwork, but the one on the right is also acceptable as having been done by a professional. Why is that? What changed?

You tell me.

Stylization has been recognized in illustration for many decades as a way to add whimsy to otherwise realistic drawing. The proportions in stylized artwork are exaggerated to a point where everything—such as features on a face, or hands and feet on a figure— still has recognizability and familiarity of the basic forms of, in this particular case, anatomy. Stylization has uniformity of style: the curves and lines of all the forms look and feel natural to the characterization of the total figure.

On the other hand, primitive art has no such cohesive properties. All of the above descriptive issues are missing in primitive art. The artwork at right looks and feels as if it were done by a 5-year-old. And yet, readers, it was used in a recent issue of a well-known publication, The New York Times Magazine.

Stylization in illustration requires an understanding of basic forms in nature, man-made objects, and yes—anatomy. Anatomy of all creatures, animals, birds, and humans. That basic structure is what makes stylization possible, what makes the departure from that basic anatomy work.

Jazz musicians, even rock musicians, understand that improvisation—stylization in their discipline—has to have the basic form, the basic structure of melody in any tune or song, in order for it to exist. That basic melody is underlying everything they do, maintaining a cohesive unifying theme.

So it is with stylization in artwork, in illustration. And yet, here we are, watching primitive artwork, as done by what are now referred to as “professionals”, get published in reputable publications.

I don’t know when the departure from realism or stylization to primitive artwork began to take place in print. Using childlike depictions of people in serious thought-provoking articles is baffling to me, to people with any intellect. Children don’t read these articles, nor would they comprehend their meanings.

We celebrate—as a society—accomplishment in any discipline, be it playing a musical instrument well, cultivating a beautiful garden, making a delicious meal. We don’t reward clumsy or awkward endeavors. But here we have a well-known national publication using—and paying for—crude artwork.

That example at right does not reflect—to any degree—a professional’s hand in its creation. And yet by using it in a magazine like The New York Times, the publishers were actually celebrating its primitive appearance—its crudeness—as being a style.

And that, readers, is the real difference. Because, whether it was done by a “professional” or a 5-year-old, it doesn’t matter. It looks like it was done by a 5-year-old, and a 5-year-old doesn’t know what style is.

Does The New York Times Magazine know?

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(I recently wrote to the president of a well-known art and design school, to ask if anatomy and realistic figure drawing were being taught at that school. It’s been several days since I sent that email and I have a strong feeling I won’t get a response.)

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