Artists have been making marks on surfaces for centuries, as any art history major knows the first evidence of such mark making is found near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc at the Grotte Chauvet in southern France. Dating back 32,000 years these cave walls display hundreds of animal paintings depicting at least 13 different species, including those rarely found in ice age paintings—all done in the limited palette of red ochre and black. Also, rather than depicting only the familiar animals of the hunt these walls are covered with predatory animals: lions, panthers, bears, owls, rhinos and hyenas. Figures are a rarity, one represents a woman’s legs and genitalia, another the lower body of a woman and the upper body of a bison. There are also a variety of red ochre handprints along with other abstract features of dots and lines.
What makes the caves near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc so interesting is the preparation of the surface. Time was spent chipping away the rock to make a smooth and much lighter background. It also made it easier to incise lines around selected images drawing them into the foreground. In a certain light these figures have a three dimensional quality. This was no passing fancy, the intention was clear: to represent their day and time, the why is the mystery. Many feel there were spiritual or shamanic reasons for such paintings. The fact that they’ve lasted for centuries without abuse, without modifications, additions or deletions gives them a power all their own. Once their mark was made it stayed.
Even as young children we are compelled to use our hands to make art, to describe visually what is around us. Long before we are able to write we draw. Our first feeble efforts may be nothing more than scribbles on paper; later efforts add circles, oblongs and squares. Our primitive drawings are meant to portray family, friends and basic elements of our environments. Backgrounds are minimal. Perhaps a simple horizon line, a tree, a house with mom out in front and a few clouds against an otherwise blank sky. There is no perspective, things are flattened, one-dimensional. There is no shading, things are filled in in flat colors or left blank so the paper shows through. There is no directional lighting; frontal full lighting is the style of these early drawings. As children we’re strictly two-dimensional.
Artists have always searched out surfaces to draw, paint, carve or etch. It could be wax or clay tablets, silk and later papyrus and finally paper. The preparation of these surfaces could be a process in itself. Take papyrus for instance, a thick paper-like material is made by weaving the steams of the papyrus plant then pounding the sheets with mallets and then gluing them together as scrolls. Introduced in Egypt’s First Dynasty, the actual evidence has been traced back to 2400 BC. We have the Han Court eunuch Cai Lan to thank for developing the first papermaking process in the 2nd Century AD. The use of paper spread from China through the Islamic world, where the first paper mills were built, and entered production in Europe in the early 12th century. The mechanized production of papermaking in the early 19th century caused significant cultural changes worldwide, allowing for relatively cheap exchange of information in the form of letters, newspapers and books for the first time. In 1844, both Canadian inventor Charles Fenerty and German inventor F.G. Keller invented the machine and process for pulping wood for the use in papermaking. This would end the nearly 2000-year use of pulped rags and start a new era for the production of newsprint and eventually all paper out of pulped wood.
Whether made from papyrus, parchment, or paper in East Asia, scrolls were the dominant form of book in the Hellenistic, Roman, Chinese and Hebrew cultures.
The first written mention of the modern codex book format form is from Martial, in his Apophoreta CLXXXIV at the end of the century, where he praises its compactness. However the codex never gained much popularity in the Hellenistic world though the Christian community embraced its use during the third and fourth centuries. The reasons: the format is more economical as both sides of the writing material can be used, it’s portable, searchable and most importantly for the Christians, easy to conceal. The Christian authors may also have wanted to distinguish their writings from the pagan texts written on scrolls.
Before the invention and adoption of the printing press, books were copied by hand, which made books both expensive and rare. In the Middle Ages, monasteries, even the largest ones held a mere 500 volumes while it is said that the papal library in Avignon and Paris library at the Sorbonne held only 2,000 volumes. Bookmaking was laborious, each copy was made by hand by an assembled crew made up of five types of scribes: Calligraphers, who dealt in fine book production; Copyists, who dealt with basic production and correspondence; Correctors, who collated and compared a finished book with the manuscript from which it had been produced; Illuminators, who painted illustrations and Rubricators, who painted in the red letters. The parchment had to be prepared, then the unbound pages were planned and ruled with a blunt tool, after which the text was written by the scribe, who usually left blank areas for illustration and rubrication. Finally, the book was bound by the bookbinder.
The Arabs revolutionized the book’s production and its binding in the medieval Islamic world and became the first to produce paper books—sewn with silk and bound with leather covered pasteboards with a flap that wrapped the book up when not in use. The production of books became a real industry, walk down a certain street in Marrakech and you’d find more than 100 bookshops. Other advances included moveable type, first introduced in 1045 AD by Chinese inventor Pi Sheng who made the first moveable type from earthenware followed by metal movable type invented in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty around 1230 AD. But it was Johannes Gutenberg who is credited with inventing movable type in 1450 AD along with innovations in casting the type based on a matrix and hand mould. Book production increased as the cost to produce the book went down. Books were no longer treasure but an object to be read and treasured.
The artist has always contributed to the visual imagery of text throughout the ages whether it was a 15th Century woodcut illustration, a 16th Century engraving or the advent of lithography in the 18th Century, there were artists, illuminators or illustrators—mostly anonymous—who told stories through pictures.
What may have started as a cave painting is today found on every surface and screen in the world. While the Golden Age of illustration may have come and gone there is a renewed vigor in the sources and styles of illustration we find today. The younger generation has found new life in this profession and the examples are as varied as the artists themselves.
One never likes to talk about style, after all what is style? It sounds so trendy and can be. True style is really a personal vision that the artist has that is his or her own. No one can claim the rights to any one style other than their own. Each is unique. Impactful. Realized. Emphatic. It comes from within, from a person’s culture, his background, surroundings and influences large and small. No truer example of this is the work of Gary Taxali. Born in Chandigarh, India in 1968 the Taxali family moved to Toronto one year later. His father worked for the Ministry of Transportation but also liked to draw and paint and write poetry and would be the first to encourage Gary’s early drawings. Drawing since age four, Gary’s focus never varied graduating from the Ontario College of Art and Design he began a fruitful career as an illustrator/artist.
What distinguishes Gary’s work is his use of surface. While other artists gravitate towards a clean, smooth surface of vellum or paper or canvas Taxali searches out found papers, old textbooks, and antique books to draw upon. Purposefully leaving the marks that come with age and not resorting to adding textures commonly found in today’s Photoshop, there is certain spirituality to the work surfaces. Someone before this artist has made their marks—dates, signatures, addresses, stains, doodles, which force the artist to be sensitive to their presence thus keeping his additions minimal. While the source of the book or paper isn’t important to the concept of the drawing it does import a sense of the past not found in other artist’s drawings or illustrations. There is a sense of history and reflection in this work, a reliance of things past—comics, advertising ephemera, graphics, typography, icons—you sense the gravitational pull of the pompadoured Bob’s Big Boy. There’s a bit of Barney Google to his portraits, the comic feel of the Katzenjammer Kids in his toys and a sense of Everyman in his figures just as you find in the works of Saul Steinberg or Jean-Michel Folon. Yet there is no specific date to his work, you don’t look at it and think the 30s, 40s or 50s, though you know it wasn’t done yesterday, or was it?
Like the ancient artists in the Grotte Chauvet, surface is key. But Gary’s work is the antithesis of their approach, Taxali would be more likely to leave the drawings alone and simply add his figure and hand-drawn type as homage to their ancient marks. He would revere their touch to the surface yet make it his own.
Charles Hively, publisher, editor and design director of 3×3, The Magazine of Contemporary Illustration, New York, NY.