Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Some artists produce mediocre work because they just can't do any better. Others produce it because they're able to get away with it.

Jack Davis is a highly talented artist who has done beautiful work over a long and stellar career. He also churned out enough lame, half-hearted work to decimate an entire forest.

Davis' talent was obvious from the start. Note the confidence, humor and strength of the brush work in this early contribution to MAD magazine:

Davis was still producing excellent work for MAD decades later.

During those decades, his distinctive style became wildly popular. His work appeared everywhere, from the cover of Time magazine to cheap advertisements in the back of local newspapers.

Davis worked at lightning speed, and apparently did not believe in turning down assignments. He obviously knew the difference between good and bad drawing, but you might not know it from some of the work he pushed out the door:

Every artist is born to confront this same temptation. Artists need to eat and deadlines are remorseless. If a client will pay for a hasty, second rate job, why should an artist ever do more? A great deal depends on how an artist answers this question.

I've previously quoted the great illustrator Robert Fawcett, who was no stranger to this temptation. Fawcett fought back:
The argument that "it won't be appreciated anyway" may be true, but in the end this attitude does infinitely more harm to the artist than to his client.
Ben Jaroslaw, who worked with the famous illustrator Bernie Fuchs, recalled how Fuchs responded to the opportunity to coast along doing repetitive, lucrative work:
All the local art directors kept calling up saying, I want Bernie! I want Bernie! But Bernie got tired of doing pictures of people holding drinks and just said, "shove it."
Another illustrator who worked with Fuchs, Bob Heindel, made a similar observation:
I know Bernie has tried to choose his assignments, and I know he has done some work he is not so proud of....That's how you learn. But you learn to protect yourself, and mostly if you care about it you learn to protect your work. Bernie was always very protective of his ability. Not that he was vain-- quite the contrary. But he knew what he had. And he always wanted the opportunity to do his very best.
Jack Davis has had a wonderful career, but his legacy would be different if he had been a little more protective of his great ability.

One of my very favorite cartoonists, Leonard Starr, once said that writing and drawing a syndicated daily comic strip was like "running in front of a train." He laughed,"you'd be surprised how good a drawing starts to look at 3:00 in the morning." The pressures are real. So where does an artist draw the line? When facing similar temptations, I often think back to this wonderfully instructive passage from Starr's comic strip, On Stage:

We are all entitled to lie down a little, but make sure you know how to count to nine.


Jack R said...

Sometimes it is simply a matter of putting food on the table, and there are illustrators whose work spans the gamet from dreck to divine out of economic necessity. I did once read a funny story about how Jack Davis went fishing the weekend before a deadline. He had to resort to painting the piece at night in the light of his car's headlamps and using water from a creek to mix his watercolors. He recalled how the water gave the colors an odd cast but the editor liked the effect (not knowing how it was achieved).

Brian said...

Illustrators aren't much different in this respect from other jobs where this stuff happens all the time. It just seems odd that an "artist" would violate the unspoken creed to always devote life and limb to quality.

BTW, fine artists do this too.

David Apatoff said...

Brian, I agree on both counts. The moral of the story applies to everyone. But I think it is a lot easier to tell when a worker on a factory assembly line has scrimped on quality. When an artist says "this is the best that my talent and imagination can produce," it more difficult to hold that artist accountable (at least in the short term). It becomes a debate between the artist and his or her conscience.

lotusgreen said...

boy, he's so recognizable. i knew him from the first panel. not by name but by magazine!

nice ending too

Mick said...

There is probably no greater 'haunting'than to look back on past work and think what might have been.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of defending mediocre work I think at the core of this problem lies is the twin banes of an illustrators existence: time and money.Both of which seem to be rapidly dwindling these days.

A few days ago an art director phoned me up and asked me for a piece of work and it was needed "immediately, like now." I told her it takes time to produce an illustration. I have to first come up with an idea, then draw it, ink it, scan it and then check over it to make sure it is printable. At the very least this would take several hours, longer if she wanted me to do a decent job. She became very agitated and told me that this was "unacceptable", she needed the work without any delay. I had no comeback, and I explained once again that it takes time to make a picture. I can't just press a button and it will magically appear. What she was asking was impossible for me. Her response was to slam the phone down. Quality or potential was not relevant. It was a matter of plugging a hole in a page for X dollars in X time. Although this is an extreme example it is not an isolated incident and seems to me to be indicative of the route illustration is currently traveling down. Ten years ago I was routinely given two or three weeks to produce an illustration, today I am lucky to get a week.
Add to this the fact that fees are actually dropping, not rising. I recently did a job where I was paid $1750 for five spot illustrations and a 1/4 page. Ten years ago I was paid $2000 for four spot illustrations -for the same magazine. So to simply maintain a decent living wage I need to raise my workload. This means allocating even less time to an image: cutting corners, not observing properly or recycling.

Another worrying trend is that many media outlets are actively shying away from thoughtful or involved work. I have been told several times recently to avoid producing overly conceptual or engaging images. The reason for this being that readers (or rather bystanders) are now so accustomed to absorbing information through the internet (as you are doing right now) that their attention spans have dwindled down to virtually nil. Only the most basic, brightest and obvious images have a hope of catching anyone's attention.

So the question has become not: "how great can I make this picture?" but "given the constraints imposed on me, how great can I make this picture?".
And if you can forget about the time it takes, the money you are getting paid or the intellectual compromises you are being asked to make the better chance you have of producing a piece of work that you can proud of. But if you can keep these bonds on and still produce something amazing, then you are can be triumphant! a master! But in the end it is still only being used to plug a hole in a page, but at least now it is plugging a hole with integrity.

Anonymous said...

Well anonymous, that just sucks.

Seems to me that if you are an illustrator these days you might as well attempt to get into videogame design work or if you can film design work. The days of illustrated books seem to be over unless they are "art of" a movie or Alan Lee. Even the fabulously successful Harry Potter series is not illustrated at all.

Kristen McCabe said...

Woah, the inking on those first 3 are gorgeous!

Kyle Baker said...

I thank all of the Jack Davis art looks fantastic. People often believe that a simpler drawing style means less work, when the opposite may be true. Jack is a huge fan of Disney animation, and has been influenced by the cartoony simplification of animation. The Pete Rose drawing is very funny and solid, the only difference in technique is that he was using a crayon for the shading instead of a brush. The soccer drawing is also very funny and entertaining despite being inked with a pen and rendered with washes instead of the heavy brush style you prefer. A cartoonist's FIRST goal is to get laughs, rather than dazzle with fancy brushwork, and sometimes a cruder technique is funnier than a beautiful slick style. All of the drawings you posted are funny, while only some are pretty.
Wally Wood used to wish aloud that he could draw like Charles Schulz.

Kyle Baker said...

It also occurs to me that the MAD job you like (I think it's Kane Keen) was inked over Harvey Kurtzman's layouts. Many MAD artists did their best work over Harvey's layouts. I've always preferred Wood's MAD work over Harvey to Wood's solo work, and this may be the case with you and Jack Davis. I can think of a number of MAD artists whose work was enhanced by collaborating with Kurtzman.

An illustrator needs to focus primarily on the emotion he wishes to generate in the viewer. While C.D. Gibson or Leonard Starr use beauty to inspire warm romantic feelings, Saul Bass may use jagged rough strokes to create fear or suspense in his Hitchcock illustrations.

Jack Davis is all about the laughs, and more beautiful lines won't necessarily make a cartoon funnier.

David Apatoff said...

Kyle, I agree with you 100% that "simpler" is often better (note last week's posting on the human cheek, where I prefer the simple crayon line of Austin Briggs to the tight rendering of Alex Raymond, or my earlier posting on David Low). I also agree that different art has different objectives, and if the artist's goal is to get laughs, you have to measure their success on that basis.

Finally, I recognize that Jack Davis is a beloved icon in this business and I think he is extremely talented.

Having said that, I think there were many jobs where he was simply phoning it in. I did not collect these examples at the time, and they aren't the kind of work that has been preserved on the internet, but his drawings showed up on everything from local newspaper ads for TV weathermen to back-of-the-magazine mail in coupons for cheap products. By that time in his career, he certainly did not need to do this kind of work for the money. I suspect he did it because he just couldn't say no.

I would not begrudge Davis for doing this kind of work if I did not admire his ability. My point was that over the years, he diluted a brand name that was really worth preserving. I wish he had followed the path of some other illustrators who, when they reached a certain level of financial security, became more selective and dedicated themselves to doing the best work they could possibly do.

David Apatoff said...

Kyle, I should also note that I am a big fan of your work; I am fortunate enough to own several of your originals and was planning to do a posting about them someday. I'm honored to have you participate in our little dialogue and hope you return again soon.

leif said...

Haven't had a chance to visit in a while, David, so its a treat to go through several of your always thought-provoking posts at once. This one really hit home for me on several levels --- as a huge JD fan from way back and as an illustrator VERY much in the same boat as anonymous above.

As I write this I'm supposed to be working on 10 roughs for a textbook client who gave me the work on a reasonable deadline - then called back after I accepted and shortened it by three days "because everybody wants to square this away before going on vacation."

It was made clear that I had no choice but to work faster. If the results look shitty it will still be my fault.

I won't go through all the excellent points anonymous made, I'll simply say "DITTO!"

I too find myself regretfully defending mediocre work more and more...

Sadly, mediocre is the new "good" if you want to maintain any quality of life in the illustration business these days - especially for those of us with families.

No, that surely was not the case for JD - but then I have to agree with Kyle on most of what he says in defense of JD's seemingly slipshod work.

Commercial art is is about communication first and pretty pictures second and Davis represents a unique example - because of his history as a comic artist - where the priority is storytelling first and pretty pictures second (a concept lost on many younger comic artists).

David is, to me, a prime example of the mercenary commercial artist - something I have a lot of respect for - something a lot of peop-le might call a "hack" (though I despise that term).

He completely understood and accepted that his principle job was to communicate a message on behalf of his client AND never miss a deadline! And if time allowed and the desire was there, to make the picture pretty.

leif said...

Oops! - "Davis" - not "David"

I really should proofread more. ;-)

David Apatoff said...

Leif, I feel your pain. When I made a living as an artist, I struggled with the very same kinds of unreasonable clients and the same kinds of trade offs. I can't say that I always acquitted myself with honor.

Imtiaz said...

Sometimes it is simply a matter of putting food on the table, and there are illustrators whose work spans the gamet from dreck to divine out of economic necessity. I did once read a funny story about how Jack Davis went fishing the weekend before a deadline. He had to resort to painting the piece at night in the light of his car's headlamps and using water from a creek to mix his watercolors. He recalled how the water gave the colors an odd cast but the editor liked the effect (not knowing how it was achieved).

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daydreamer said...

Great! Read. I don't know this artist,but after what I have read I feel I know him now and would be interested in reading more about him. Thanks

sandra said...

i think everything on this blog is nice but all those naked pictures should be more securely put to last cause there are some children going on this blog.but its nice and everyone pls learn how to count to one to nine.

Kliph Nesteroff said...

I think the examples of Davis' "weak" art are not good enough examples. The Pete Rose drawing looks fine. You're being too harsh or failing to show us enough examples of his weaker work.

Kevin Dougherty said...

I have to give Jack Davis a pass on this one. I think he's the best and some inconsistencies are to be expected in a career that spans 50 years. I think some of the examples you cite as lacking are perfectly fine. Most illustrators start their career investing way too much detail in any given drawing. Some of them simplify and the art suffers, but some of them end up getting to the essence of what makes it work. When I see portfolios from students the most common critique is just plain overdoing it. Learn when to just walk away from a drawing. Hmmm...maybe I could learn the same lesson about long-winded blog comments.