What you see before you is the cover of Petar Meseldzija's Book, The Legend of Steel Bashaw. It is one of the most exceptional paintings I have seen in my lifetime.
Like many of you, I first saw this image in Spectrum 9 where it dropped a nuclear bomb on my brain. Never before had I seen an image that so clearly articulated every feeling that I had ever hoped to communicate in art. And never had I seen one executed with such earth-shattering beauty. It was flawless, riveting, and the more I looked at it, the more and more I was drawn into it.
Now you will say, "Justin, calm down, it's just a picture. It's a dude, and he's on a horse. You're getting carried away." But this is more than a dude on a horse. It is a diatribe against mediocrity and an air raid call to the pursuit of excellence in art. When I saw this painting it gave me the same desire it has given many other artists who see Petar's work, it made me want to change everything.
Not only did it instill in me a fervent desire to learn how to paint, but to make images that were worth meditating on, and not disposable imagery destined to be lost in the vast sea of imagery we exist in.
For a long time I had believed that it was essentially hopeless. The attention span for visuals shrinks as digital photography and digital displays increase and lead to a greater proliferation of imagery. In this new digital world the best images are those that are the most simple and the most brief. People are conditioned away from lingering for very long on a single image in the marketplace. There are so many other ideas out there, so many other things to consider that it becomes almost morally wrong to create something that demands a person dwell on it exclusively, instead of moving directly on to the next idea. Meditating on a single idea becomes an anathema. Even movies find that in order to keep up with the shrinking attention span, they must make scene changes faster and faster to keep audience interest. But in the pursuit of communicating a quantity of ideas we seem to lose the ability to meditate on the quality of a single idea.
This image was one I got lost in and never quite made it back out of. It defied the technology-perscribed cultural direction that I sensed was to be the inevitable demise of narrative illustration. After seeing this image I knew that I wanted to make images that were mediations on ideas, and not just flashcards of them.
On top of being a artistic philosophical turning point for me, it was also a technical one. If you haven't already noticed, this painting is a city-crushing, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla of technical achievement. It is first extremely precise, with profoundest care taken in the focal points, such as the horses thrusting hoof, which focuses the action there for a brief moment as the eye moves through the composition. And then in the areas that are not meant to fight with the focal points, such as the body of the tree and the rocks beneath, there is an elegance and economy of brushstrokes that show a care in execution that borders on perfection. These subtleties are gorgeous upon examination but slip passively into the background when any of the focal points are examined. One might perhaps think that the success of this painting is the result of chance, that these are not mortar bombardments of awesome-ness but are rather just a few lucky strokes, the result some secret medium that he mixes on the panel before applying the paint.
The truth is more devastating.
I had a chance to visit Petar in 2009, and while there he took the time to show me some of his drawings. I had always considered myself to have a passable drawing ability and felt that I knew a thing or 2 about the craft. I was a professional after all.
When he pulled out his preliminary drawings that he did for his paintings, I saw the greatest drawings I had ever seen in my life and I blacked out. And while I was blacked out, I had a vision. It was Judgement Day, and I was giving an accounting of myself before the angels and saints. My art was being brought out and passed around. I learned that it was to be compared against Petar's art, which someone had decided was to be the standard by which all drawings from the era were to be judged. The saints and angels wore grim, unimpressed expressions as they shuffled through my pages of scribblings. Then they started watching the recordings from my life of me playing video games instead of working on my drawings and I woke in a panic.
I smelled coffee. (Petar makes a turkish coffee so strong that the mere smell of it would wake a hibernating bear who was frozen in a block of ice under 40 feet of snow and who had just taken 12 Ambiens and was listening to Blue Danube by Strauss.) He handed me a cup and asked if I was OK.
As we looked through the rest of his drawings I realized that his paintings are not just the result of an excellence in the ability to apply paint, but that they are also the result of rigorous practice in drawing and extremely meticulous planning in the draft stages where he seeks to resolve the visual problems in his image. I realized that Petar is a genius. I felt like I was looking at the blueprints for the invasion of Normandy. While I could not expect to ever be so flawless in my approach I realized that if I was serious about this I would have to take drawing to an entirely new level that I had never even considered before.
If you have not already, check out his book, The Legend of Steel Bashaw from Flesk. In the back are included some of the drawings for the project. If they don't nuke your brain, they will certainly knock your socks off. It is one of the most valuable books for the practicing artist to come out in years. Check out the rest of his work on his website here and his new blog here.