Sunday, August 10, 2008


During World War II, the illustrator William A. Smith was sent by the OSS to China, where he spent time behind enemy lines working on the propaganda war. It was an eye-opening experience for a boy from Ohio, and he drew everything he saw.

He drew soldiers on a bumpy flight in the back of a C-47 aircraft. He drew Chinese children playing in the street. He drew vanquished japanese prisoners in camps. You can see his thirst for knowledge in these wonderful drawings.

I find it uplifting that, in the midst of war, an artist retained such curiosity about the world around him and such sensitivity for his subjects. There is a lot of humanity in these drawings.

It is especially interesting to contrast Smith's personal drawings with the propaganda drawings he was doing at the same time (caution: some of these are a little raw).

Smith's personal drawings were clearly an educational process. He learned a lot from keeping his eyes open. On the other hand, his propaganda drawings demonstrate none of the same effort. Great art enriches us by exposing us to the complexity and nuance of life, but in times of war complexity and nuance can be a hindrance.

These twin sets of drawings are a good example of why William Butler Yeats said, "We make rhetoric out of arguments with others but we make poetry out of our arguments with ourselves."


Blogger Tom said...

These are terrific drawings by Smith, and thanks for posting them as large files. Are you familiar with an excellent west coast illustrator name Howard Brodie? He was an official war artist, and went into combat with a pencil and pad, during WW 2, Korea and Viet Nam. He did illustrations from life for the sports section for the S.F. Chronicle newspaper, during the 1930’s. His
WW 2 sketches particularly, remind me of William A. Smith's sketches on today's post. A book called "Drawing Fire" shows many of Brodie's war drawings, published in 1996 by Portola Press. Like Smith, he could be very academic and clearly define form, and when time was limited, he would very effectively simplify and suggest. IMO that is the acid test of a truly competent draftsman... not drawing or painting from staged photographs.

Excellent posts David, and I always enjoy your knowledge and your comments, as well as your viewers comments.

Tom Watson
(retired illustrator)

8/11/2008 1:52 AM  
Anonymous Denis said...

and what do you think about Paolo Ongaro's illustration...?

8/11/2008 6:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This guy is pretty cool. He had a great eye for drawing and its amazing he did that during the war. I followed the link to Leif Peng's blog to read more about him. He's great.


8/11/2008 1:41 PM  
Blogger =shane white= said...

Wow, that last one...heck all of them are wonderful.


8/11/2008 8:00 PM  
Blogger Laine said...

I love the contrast between the two sets of art. Both are technically apt, but one is full of emotion and the other is souless.

8/11/2008 10:20 PM  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

While I hate propaganda generally, there is a very simple honesty to some of his propaganda work, especially the one with naked woman and the caption 'Soldier!!! WIsh you were home?' I suspect that there is a also a pretty competent design decision in his propaganda and it certianly isn't souless.

8/12/2008 8:15 AM  
Blogger Matt J said...

The observational drawings are fantastic-& the photos of him sketching are interesting. Great post.

8/12/2008 12:00 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Tom-- I agree with you about the test for draftsmanship. I also know Brodie's work-- I have some of his old tearsheets from Yank-- and like it very much.

Denis, I have now checked out some of Ongaro's comic art on the internet. Is there particular illustration work you would like to point out?

I agree, anonymous/adam-- very cool indeed.

Shane if you like that last one (the beheaded man) you have strong tastes!

8/12/2008 2:05 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Laine. I do think Smith deadened himself to a lot of the possibilities of the world when he did that propaganda. He had a mission to perform, and could not be distracted by all the random provocations that the world presents to an artist.

8/12/2008 2:08 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Matthew Adams, that sure is a striking piece, isn't it? There's only one force in the world powerful enough to lure men away from killing each other, and Smith knows exactly what that force is. He's obviously not taking any chances that the viewer might misconstrue his point.

I have scans of a few other drawings like the "Soldier!" one. I figured that one example would suffice for this post, but if you want to see them, write me at and I will send them along.

8/12/2008 2:17 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

MattJ, I should have added that all of the drawings you see here are in the collection of Smith's family, who lovingly preserved them and who were kind enough to show them to me. I am very grateful.

8/12/2008 2:18 PM  
Anonymous denis said...

in this site there are some nice illustrations...

8/12/2008 3:57 PM  
Blogger Kim said...

It' great to read people's commentary on Dad's work. Our family is exceedingly heartened by the response that both Leif Peng's "Today's Inspiration" and David's "Illustration Art" has provoked. I've been particularly (actually, once again)involved in the archiving of the enormous number of drawings from the China era, especially since Leif's blog starting March 31st of this year. It has once again led me down old paths with new turns with much to explore. I appreciate that people leave links to work we all might enjoy.

In Kunming, where my father was stationed during the war for the OSS, he worked with an American journalist, Elizabeth MacDonald, Shao Ting, a renowned Chinese cartoonist, and a Chinese journalist, Ma Guo-Liang, to produce the propaganda you see in the scans. The story of this whole operation in Kunming is fairly humorously recounted in Elizabeth MacDonald's (now MacIntosh) "Undercover Girl", written right after the war.

Kim Smith

8/13/2008 10:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post, great work. He was doing what he was supposed to do in the propaganda, David you should check out what the Japanese of those times were doing to the Chinese.

8/13/2008 3:18 PM  
Anonymous Tony DiTerlizzi said...

I hate to be an echo, but thanks so much for sharing these wonderful histories and insightful posts, they're really a joy to read!

8/15/2008 3:45 PM  
Blogger mrs. sarah ott said...

i like what Laine said; that sums up my view pretty well. there is a definite contrast. but "the poetry" (Yeats reference), thank God, helps us to see what he was really thinking. i like the repetition of the open-eye you used to describe his art/experience. his personal drawings are raw and really capture humanity so well.

8/15/2008 4:20 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, anonymous and Sarah.

Tony, that's the kind of echo I love to hear (and more importantly, I'm sure Smith's family enjoys hearing about such responses to his work after all this time).

8/17/2008 4:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. Impressive work.

8/17/2008 4:28 PM  
Blogger Chuck Pyle said...

beautiful range of marks and use of mediums, a great eye for character and structure. How did he get inside a Japanese prisoner of war camp for the drawing of ol' "Blackadder"? I have yet have another reason for my students to look at yur site!

8/20/2008 3:33 PM  
Blogger quasivoid said...

Wow, this a whole new way to get a perspective of a trying time and experience that doens't involve reading a history book. Great compilation...he really told a story.

8/20/2008 6:37 PM  
Blogger Kim said...

In response to Chuck Pyle's question about how Dad got into a prisoner-of war camp, I'm happy to say that he was part of a group who liberated the internment camp at Weihsien, Shantung Province, just after the surrender of the Japanese. Technically it was not considered a prisoner-of-war camp (I don't know why, except that it had been a religious compound, and I believe that many of the people interned had been living on the compound, with the addition of Blackadder and ilk. You can read about this internment camp in the book "Shantung Compound" by Langdon Gilkey.

My understanding is that after the liberation, many of the Japanese guards kept their guns and just guarded the camp from other interlopers. They were generally quite friendly, probably glad it was over like everyone else. My Dad did a gouache of one of the Japanese guards holding his gun from the inside of the watchtower, and several drawings of other soldiers. Accounts written my my Dad, with many of these drawings were published in the magazine "Asia and the Americas" in April of 1945 and, I believe August or October of the same year.

Kim Smith, Number One Daughter

8/21/2008 12:39 PM  
Blogger Chuck Pyle said...

Kim, Many thanks for the illuminating comments and the book recommendation!

8/21/2008 4:36 PM  
Blogger illustrationISM said...

Gorgeous Drawings! Yes, the challenge to do these in the midst of war is amazing! Reminds me of Searle's early, P.O.W. camp drawings.
Thanx for sharing... . .
. ... . . mark jaquette @
illustrationism &
bammgraphics !

8/29/2008 2:12 AM  
Blogger Roberto Zaghi said...

Wonderful post on this excellent artist, thanks for sharing.

9/02/2008 1:21 AM  
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5/13/2009 9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The drawings of the "soldier" eating/drinking are of my grandfather. Just wanted to clarify that he posed for these drawings while working in DC for the OSS, probably where he met the artist. My grandparents had been interned in camps like other Japanese living on the West Coast during the war. He and his family were allowed to leave early in order to take this job in DC translating Japanese propaganda material.

7/29/2013 2:37 AM  
Blogger Kim Smith said...

"Anonymous", I would love to talk to you. I am the artist's daughter and continue to do research on this era of Dad's life. My Email is:

8/27/2014 1:39 PM  

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