The Paintings and Drawings of Clark Ashton Smith

Dennis Rickard

A fragment of Smith's notes toward the planned but uncompleted Cthulhu and Others in Stone showed that his "fantastic drawings preceded carvings by 19 years." His experimentation with painting and drawing was generally confined to the first half of his life, especially in the decade of the '20s. During this time he turned out hundreds of watercolors, pen and ink drawings, and sketches. His later interest in rock carving almost completely superseded his painting.

He apparently began drawing seriously a short time after the publication of The Star-Treader and Others in 1912. One of his earliest dated sketches was done in 1916. Smith never had formal or in-formal art training beyond any that he may have gotten in grade school, so, as with his writing, he was a self-taught artist. His early efforts were done for his own amusement, and he would usually include small sketches in correspondence with friends like Steling.

Smith developed his drawing style very quickly. In his own estimation, he did some of his best work in painting before hearing of Lovecraft in 1922. Perhaps the majority of his drawings and paintings at-this time dealt with weird, imaginative creatures. These were no doubt largely inspired by the nightmares associated with his poor health. These drawings were usually heads, and raged from humorous to terrifying. Apart from the eldritch beings that he was so fond of drawing, Smith's subject matter included relatively normal human heads and figures, various characters from the various mythologies of many different cultures, portraits (including several self-portraits), and a great number of landscapes, usually imaginative and other-worldly. These became his primary choices for subjects during most of the Twenties. The chief constituents of his landscapes were various types of vegetation-elaborately detailed and vividly colored foliage of trees, effulgent and sinister blossoms, and plants that seem to be merging with the animal kingdom. They are often mountain scenes with sheer peaks in the distance, capped with towering clouds.

There were many lesser avenues of themes found in theses paintings. Classical literature, especially when dealing with superstitions, and the more recent writings of Poe, Baudelaire, Flaubert and others are often reflected. The people and scenes of ancient Egypt and Babylon, and still more ancient Atlantis and Lemuria, -served as subjects. Indeed, the style of many of his drawings suggests incredible age, as if they were uncovered papyri from a buried city. Some of his landscapes are of different worlds altogether, and show his fevered conceptions of lunar wastes and poisonous Saturnian jungles.

Smith gained a close friend, correspondent and supporter in the person of H. P. Lovecraft. Both of these men were possessed of a truly cosmic range of imagination, and the association that they shared was a valuable one for both of them. When one of their mutual friends, the poet Samuel Loveman, showed a few "Ashtonsmithic" paintings to Lovecraft in 1922, Lovecraft declared that "Smith is beyond a doubt a genius," -and he immediately dashed off a letter to Smith expressing his admiration for them in glowing terms, lauding "the world of opiate phantasy & horror that is here unveiled." It was only later that he was introduced to Smith's poetry.

In 1923, Lovecraft arranged for Smith to do the illustrations for a story of his, "The Lurking Fear" that was to appear in the magazine, Home Brew. Smith produced a number of pen and ink drawings for what was to be the first mass reproduction of any of his graphic works. The four sets of drawings that he produced showed much unevenness of quality. Certain of them, including one entitled "Gryphon Gazing on the Gulf" (not used in the magazine) which was singled out by Lovecraft shows a great degree of artistic control. Of another done for the short, H.P.L. wrote, "that drawing is wonderful, not only in the staggering conception, but in the almost diabolical technical skill..." However, others of the drawings, as well as those which were unaccountably used to illustrate the story, showed little of the refined technique of which he was capable.

In 1925 and 1926, Lovecraft made several efforts to gain a wider and, perhaps, more sophisticated and appreciative audience for Smith's paintings. In 1926, he arranged for a sampling of twenty paintings to be shown to the distinguished writer and critic Benjamin de Casseres, in New York, in the hope that he could "bring them to the attention of some art authority of adequate standing." Apparently, this came to naught, or nearly so. Smith again gained a fervent and lifelong admirer in de Casseres, but a subsequent letter from Lovecraft commiserated with the artist on the difficulty of establishing a name for oneself in artistic circles, and on the poor sales of paintings in New York, even at very low prices. Smith did manage to sell a few in California, but the amount of money that he received from their sale was disappointingly small.

Lovecraft gave Smith another sort of assist, and, in a sense, used him for his own purposes as well. Smith and his art are mentioned in several stories by Lovecraft. In "Pickman's Model," references are made to "the trans-Saturnian landscapes and lunar fungi that Clark Ashton Smith uses to freeze the blood." Lovecraft revised a short story by Hazel Heald, entitled "The Horror in the Museum." The story concerns a wax museum containing a number of fearsome and hideous effigies, of which "the wilder paintings of Clark Ashton Smith might suggest a few." "At the Mountains of Madness," one of Lovecraft's longest and most serious works, talks of the blasphemous and maddening Necronomicon and "Clark Ashton Smith's nightmare paintings based on the text." The inclusion of these references served a dual purpose. It was a sort of tribute to a friend and colleague that called special attention to his artistic abilities, while, at the same time, Smith's artistic achievements were used as "verification" of the Lovecraftian "Cthulhu Mythos." He and others who have written stories in the mythos, including Smith, usually rely on allusions to certain books, people and events, some real, but most fictional, that taken together form a tight pattern from which terrifyingly real stories were written. The mention of Smith's paintings in conjunction with the imaginary Necronomicon made Smith himself a part of the mythos. Lovecraft also gave Smith prominent mention in a long and penetrating essay on "Supernatural Horror in Literature," applauding his paintings and drawings as well as his prose and poetry.

During the middle '20s, Smith began to experiment with painting on fabric. These were generally landscapes on silk, satin or similar material; often black, done in colored and metallic inks and water-colors. These combinations would result in some what Japanesque scenes of great beauty. His choice of painting-and later, carving-material and media was severely governed by his financial limitations. George Haas, a close friend of Smith's, feels that the fabrics used in these paintings probably came from his mother's discarded dresses, since he could rarely, if ever, afford artist's canvas. This also accounted for his use of cheaper drawing and painting materials such as crayon, pen and ink, pencil, poster paints and watercolors, with only the rare use of oils. In most cases, he drew on cheap paper and paperboard, except when able to purchase better quality drawing paper, and age is beginning to tell strongly on many of his works.

Probably the widest audience that Smith was to receive for his artwork-came during the thirties, via Weird Tales magazine. He had begun to write short stories in weird, fantasy and science fiction veins at about the time of the Depression. The main market for his prose was this and a few other pulp magazines that dealt with this genre of literature. Many of his own stories were illustrated by his own pen and ink drawings. This offered the almost -unique situation of having stories involving boundless reaches of imagination illustrated by the same hand that set them down. They complement each other to form a powerful effect on the reader. It was a happy circumstance for Smith to have a dual demand for both his writing and artistic skill.

During the early and middle part of the thirties, Smith began to taper off on his drawing and painting efforts and began carving figures out of rock. His output of paintings fell off rapidly, and although he continued to do occasional portraits and landscapes in later years, the carvings began to take precedence until the production of them was eventually to become more important than even his fiction. In several cases, Smith tried the same subjects both in paint and stone. Each medium had its limitations, and Smith worked to circumvent these.

Compared to his style of carving, many of Smith's paintings seem to be intentionally primitive, because others exhibit an incredible ("diabolic," according to Lovecraft) degree of graphic and technical skill. Part of the reason, of course, is that he taught himself to paint, necessitating much experimentation. He expressed himself freely and directly without the sometimes inhibiting influence of artistic training. Some of the primitive aspect is also due to the nature of the subject matter-a mere terrestrial's glimpses of trans-stellar life, and representations of mankind's earliest gods and demons. Smith's landscape paintings, however, show a high order of sophistication. His masterful use of color in trees and flowers has been compared to that of the French artist, Odilon Redon, who was renowned for his lavishly colored flowers. Foliage is finely detailed and brilliant. The trees and plants appear to sway in the wind, and motion is implied in the rivers and clouds. Many of the scenes suggest the vegetation and terrain of the Sierras around Auburn, yet they are idealized and altered to the point that they are not of this land or this time. Hence, his paintings have such titles as "Sunset in Lemuria," "The Witch's Wood," "Scene in Atlantis" "Hyperborean Landscape" and "Outland Hills."

It would be difficult and futile to attempt to estimate the number of drawings and paintings executed by Smith in his lifetime. Certainly he produced several hundred. Samuel Loveman alone owned some 400. Smith probably gave away the greater part of them to friends and correspondents, although he did try, with less success than he had hoped, to sell some for living expenses, asking no more than five to twenty dollars. Today, some command prices into the hundreds of dollars. What probably began as an effort to express graphically the reaches of his imagination in a way apart from writing, developed into a unique style of painting. Their value is greatest, however, when considered as a complement to his prose, poetry and sculpture.

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