Tuesday, November 24, 2020


The thumbnail preliminary sketch is where artists first attempt to capture a spark of inspiration.

Before the layers of refinement have been added,  before the details and finishing  touches, before the mistakes have been corrected, a concept takes its initial raw form in a thumbnail.  Sometimes it's fun and educational to look at pictures in their embryonic state.  

Different artists use thumbnails for different purposes.  Some seek out the basic poetry of a picture:

Saul Tepper thumbnail

John Singer Sargent's thumbnail for his portrait of the Wyndham sisters

These sketches wouldn't serve as a roadmap to anyone but the artist.  Other artists manage to squeeze in an amazing amount of detail, working out a miniature blueprint for the picture to come.

Harry Beckhoff

Frank Frazetta's tiny sketches for his Canaveral series contained all the DNA  for his finished pictures.  

Thumbnails can be dense with questions, bad instincts, alternative choices. The artist can afford to be fast and loose because thumbnails require less commitment than any other kinds of picture. They are the most promiscuous form of art, with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages. 

Illustrator Robert Fawcett drew six tiny thumbnails on a single card:

... before settling on the composition for this 1953 illustration:

Even in rapid, miniscule sketches, Fawcett was able to record numerous decisions such as the tilt of a head, the angle of a hat, the weight of shoulders leaning on elbows, and the role clouds might play.

Note how quickly he indicated the compositional role that might be filled by tree branches:

As he tested different possibilities, he used his wealth of knowledge about shadows, clothing, anatomy, rocks, etc.

Next we see illustrator Dan Content experiment with alternatives for an illustration of a couple in a carriage... 

Apparently settling on that third version, he reduced it to ink... again, in miniature.

In the next set of thumbnails we can see how Content strengthened a composition he liked.

Content sharpens the geometric shapes of the objects in the foreground and the designs on the robes and carpet.

Thumbnails by the classic illustrators often demonstrate a strong sense of priorities and a sharp eye for key details such as the shape of the vase on the table.  But the key strength of thumbnails is that they always imply so much more than they show.  In many completed pictures the original concept is diminished.

More from Saul Tepper:


Thumbnails are tiny but inch for inch they can be more revealing than the finished picture.  Good things can come in small packages. 

Monday, November 09, 2020


I like John Cuneo's witty, wicked drawing of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 12.

Was that alligator ever really sincere about the music, or was he merely using it for nefarious purposes? And what in the world motivated the other three members of the quartet to create art with a predator? For that matter, is the creation of beauty ever compatible with ugly motives?

These are all important questions, but today the question that preoccupies me is: what's the deal with those 18 frogs littering the floor of the recording studio?

Picasso said, "Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” If that's true,  Cuneo must've felt each of those frogs was necessary.   They are tiny (only 1/4 inch) and yet each one is distinctive and beautifully drawn.  Each required powers of observation. 

We see differences in personality...

...and differences in color:

The frog next to Cuneo's signature even contributes a little music:

These frogs required serious effort.  I have enlarged them here for you, so that you can give them the attention they deserve.

Now about those birds...

Tuesday, October 27, 2020


 Regular readers know that I'm a big fan of the work of Phil Hale, whose strange and powerful artwork has earned him an international following.  Hale is an artist well worth following because he continues to grow and evolve in interesting ways

I've just received an advance copy of Hale's beautiful new book, Use Music to Kill, a collection of his work from 2004 to 2018. 

The book shows three types of work: paintings, drawings and photographic assemblages.  Each is interesting in its own way.  

Paintings: In addition to examples of Hale's well known character Johnny Badhair, the book shows us Hale's more recent work, including several of his gallery paintings.  

Some of the new work is dark, some of it carnal (my personal favorites) 

but all of it is interesting.  One of the illuminating pleasures of the book is this double page spread showing Hale's brush strokes up close.  

For decades, most fans have only seen his paintings reproduced whole and at a safe and respectful distance. 

Drawings: Hale's drawings have a different spirit than his paintings.  They don't seem as vigorous or dynamic, the mid-air leaps and car crashes are rendered in something closer to controlled diagrams to establish what Hale describes as "angles, points in space, proportions."  

Still, the drawings don't end there.  They sometimes seem closer to paper sculptures; some are folded, cut, or taped together with cellophane tape which is clearly intended to be part of the picture.  They are drawn on selected papers from vintage books and magazines in a various shades of cream, taupe, or tapioca.  The paper may have textures, random stains or wrinkles, or an occasional stray bit of text.

Photography:  Like his paintings, Hale's photographs often have an ominous undertone. 

Hale says, "Photography has been a huge part of my practice since I was a teenager, for all sorts of reasons.  Some are not so obvious: I love it, in part, because it removes some of the more technical considerations and lets me deal directly with image-making...   But also, so wonderful that photographs include information you don't choose; you don't get to decide. Not just content/subject but also composition, coloration etc. I get to collaborate with reality, rather than operating in my self-generated zone."

Despite the different character of Hale's paintings, drawings and photographs, he has designed this book to combine them in clusters, as if the individual works are building blocks for some larger conglomerate work, or atoms in a more complex molecule:
Double page spread

Right now, Hale's book is still available on kickstarter.  It won't be for long.  His work is not generally published in other formats, so if you want to see what he is up to and you can't make it to one of his gallery shows in London or New York or Beijing, this book is your best opportunity.  It is a solid, handsome book, 272 pages, 11 x 11. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

A LAST LOOK AT THE BRIGGS ARCHIVES, part 5: painting in retirement

In the 1940s, Austin Briggs was desperately trying to break away from the comic strip field and win illustration assignments, which he believed would be more challenging.

Look magazine featured a monthly illustrated series called "American Heroes." Each episode told the story of an American soldier in World War II.  When Briggs was assigned an episodes, he was delighted.  However, when the Art Director suggested that Briggs mimic the style of a popular illustrator of the day, Al Dorne,  Briggs flatly refused:
[The Art Director] told Austin to look over the jobs from the same series Al Dorne had done and for him to get a little of Dorne's stuff in his pictures.  Austin's answer to this was simple and direct, that [the Art Director] had Dorne's telephone number. 


Briggs' illustrations for Look magazine, done without regard for Al Dorne's style 

Despite his stubborn attitude, or perhaps because of it, Briggs became one of the preeminent illustrators in America.

Briggs' wife (left) discusses one of his award winning illustrations with the wife of Al Dorne and the wife of Robert Fawcett at a reception at the Society of Illustrators

Living the lifestyle of a famous illustrator of the time, Briggs built himself a mansion in the hills of Connecticut, with a separate art studio and guest house.

Toward the end of a long and successful career, Briggs was diagnosed with leukemia.  He sold his house and his studio and went to spend his final days living and working in Paris.  

There he married Agnes Fawcett, the widow of illustrator Robert Fawcett (in the picture at the Society of Illustrators, above).

He shared some good moments with local Parisian tradesmen.  Like them, he prided himself in earning a living with his hands.

Most of all, this last period of his life set him free to create pictures any way he liked, with no editors or art directors.

Briggs' new wife, Agnes, at breakfast with flowers

Briggs passed away in 1973.