Yes, I love Big-Eyes art. And yes, I’ve recently tried to create some big-eyes characters of my own. And no, I’m just not very good at it.
By the way, happy new year! OK, on with the story…
I guess I’ll start from the beginning. While my own big-eyes obsession began with Ryden, Barr and Blythe, the first great Big-Eyes painter was Margaret Keane, creator of the Big-Eye Waif motif of 1960s pop art. Kean began painting Big-Eyes early in the decade, and her husband of the time, Walter Keane, famously claimed her paintings as his own, mass marketing them and making a fortune. Margaret sued Walter, and there was a courtroom “paint-off” to determine who the real artist was. Of course Margaret won (it turned out Walter, who touted himself as an artist, could not paint at all). Recently Tim Burton did a movie about the trial, starring Amy Adams as Keane.
One of Margaret Keane’s Big Eye Waifs, from her website, http://www.margaretkeane.com. When I was young, these paintings seemed to hang everywhere.
I guess that the Keane Big Eye Waifs, and her imitators (and there were many) inserted themselves into my childhood art aesthetic, waiting to spring full force into true love as I meandered through adulthood.
1960s Big Eyes art by Eve, one of several artists inspired by Keane during the mod era.
I guess my own Big Eye obsession came on with a girl named Blythe. She won my heart in a very big way; quite a feat for a girl who stands only a foot tall.
Blythe was a big-eyed doll created by the Kenner Toy Company in 1972, hard on the heels of Margaret Keane’s waifs. She was released for sale as a competitor on the Barbie market. She had four sets of eyes: by pulling a string behind her head, her eyes would change color and orientation.
Sadly the world of 1970s girls was not ready for Blythe. She had a huge head, enormous eyes, and a string hanging out of the back of her head. Children were terrified of her. After she became a miserable financial failure for Kenner (the company ended up being bought out by Hasbro), Blythes were being given away in department store sales promotions. Even for free, no one wanted her! Talk about a big eyed waif! Thousands of Blythes that could not be given away were warehoused, many of them suffering damage over the next two decades.
Above, a 1972 Blythe in perfect condition; below, the book This Is Blythe by Gina Garan.
Then in the late 1990s, a TV and video producer named Gina Garan (https://www.facebook.com/gina.garan.7) was given a 1972 Blythe doll, because a friend thought the doll looked like her. Garan was trying out a camera she’d found in an apartment she’d moved into, and started photographing the doll as a test model. She would travel often for work, and she began taking Blythe everywhere she went. Chronicle Books published a collection of Garan’s photos as This Is Blythe in 2000. That year the Japanese toy company Takara reissued 1000 Blythe dolls based on projected sales of the book and a gallery show of Gina’s photos: their stock of 1000 dolls sold out in the first hour Neo-Blythe became available. Takara now produces twelve new Blythe models a year (differentiated by hair color, eye color, skin tone and clothing), and the original 1972 dolls, which once could not be given away, sell for upwards of $2000 on eBay.
If you’re curious, just type Blythe into Pinterest or Flickr and watch tens of thousands of photos appear. Or type Blythe into eBay and watch your life savings disappear!
1972 Blythe TV commercial.
My own affair with the girl began when I became aware that people were customizing Blythe. By removing three screws and carefully opening her enormous head, one could embed unique hair into her scalp, exchange her eyes, and carve her face to reshape it into new looks and expressions. I saw the work of a Spanish Blythe artist named Picara (http://www.theroguedolls.com/) whose Blythe creations are amazing. I decided to try one myself. I found a scratched up Blythe on eBay for fifty bucks, and got to work. (Yes, Blythe costs more than fifty bucks. Most Neo-Blythes go for between $100 and $500).
Camille, one of my custom Blythe dolls.
Since then I’ve customized about half a dozen Blythe dolls. Given very little encouragement I take every opportunity to name them off and show their pictures to strangers. I’m like a cat lady, except I’m male and they are creepy dolls.
As the millennium rolled on, I became aware of the work of a group of West Coast artists who embraced pop culture and outsider art in a movement called Pop Surrealism. Several of these artists were inspired, as I had been, by Margaret Keane’s Big Eye Waifs, and were creating their own Big Eye characters. Among these were Mark Ryden, Caia Koopman, and Glenn Barr, who became three of my favorite Pop Surrealist artists.
Above, a waif from Mark Ryden’s Snow Yak collection (http://markryden.com/); below, a piece by Glenn Barr (http://www.glbarr.com/). (Art used here for demonstration: These artists retain all rights to these works).
Caia Koopman is another of my favorite big-eyes pop surrealists. http://caiakoopman.com/
Recently I was inspired by the work of a fellow Deviant Art Dot Com artist, Lea Barozzi (http://lea5000.deviantart.com). Her big eyes characters are amazing:
Elowyne by Lea Barozzi.
So I decided to take a shot at creating my own Big Eyes characters. I would be inspired by the girls I knew when I was a young guy in the Hardcore Punk scene in New York City, and by the artists above. How difficult could it be, right? I will warn you: my stuff is nowhere near as good as the artists above, In fact, it’s pretty bad. It turns out this is not at all easy.
I started with some character sketches, getting a feel for proportions and anatomy as I developed a character. I used Blythe dolls, inspiration from the artists I’ve mentioned, and my own knowledge of anatomy to guide me…
The sketch above, characterizations of girls I knew in New York’s East Village, became the basis for a couple of (pretty bad) paintings…
The painting above is acrylic, the one below watercolor, two versions of the same scene.
Above, this one is perhaps my favorite of the bunch, in acrylics. These girls carried lunch boxes as purses, and wore shabby vintage dresses. Really. The painting is still not what I had hoped for.
Above, “Die! or The Stromboli’s Pizza Incident,” watercolor. It’s a true story, which I suppose I’ll tell someday. Below, “Chelsea Morning,” in which I feel like I’m getting somewhere with this character. At least I’ve incorporated my normal style into a Big Eyes character. Still not quite there, though.
“Kate, St Marks place, 1982” sketch. The actual Kate never had a dog as far as I know, so I have no idea how this one got into the sketch. Come to think of it, she never would have worn that outfit either.
So that’s where my efforts stand at the moment. It’s somewhat discouraging. I am taking a break from Big Eyes characters for a bit to work on some story illustrations, but I’ll get back to them. And I’ll try to create some East Village Big Eyes waifs that I’m happy with. Wish me luck… Till then, thanks for reading. Please follow and comment.