Thursday, October 23, 2008


Those of you who are sick and tired of hearing how much I love the drawings of Noel Sickles are in luck, because today I'm going to talk about how much I love his paintings instead.

Sickles was one of the best natural-born draftsmen around. He earned the respect of his fellow artists for his almost supernatural ability to understand and draw what he saw.

Although Sickles is respected for his drawing, a recent excellent collection of his work reminds us that Sickles also painted with the wisdom and control of a zen master.

Zen painters believed in long, slow meditation before a brush touches the paper. Only after the artist understands the essence of the subject and reduces it to its most profound simplicity does the artist proceed to paint--quickly, decisively and with the minimum number of brush strokes. The following enso is a classic image for ink brush painters: a circle painted in a single breath, accompanied by vigorous and confident calligraphy.

I admire how Asian brush painting requires the artist to make the maximum commitment using the minimum touch. There's no room for mistakes; the hard labor of eliminating extraneous details and exploring alternative approaches is worked out in the mind of the artist rather than on the paper.

Sickles painted the following illustration when he was 60. Note the distinctive way he handled the smoke from the tires:

It probably took no more than 5 seconds for Sickles to capture that smoke by scuffing his brush across the painting. However, if he screwed up, the whole painting was ruined. (Believe it or not, o best beloved, once upon a time before photoshop enabled unlimited takeovers, artists had to make choices and were accountable for the results.)

Smoke like that doesn't take 5 seconds to paint, it takes 60 years.

Or look at this splendid cover for Life Magazine:

Sickles was an artist who had pondered elusive subjects such as clouds and mist and ocean spray, so that when it came time to depict them with a brush he was able to move quickly and decisively, and that quality transforms his paintings:

The new book about Sickles is worth buying for the drawings alone, but don't skip over the paintings.


illustrationISM said...

THANK YOU DAVID for a wonderful story AND lesson on
drawing from the 'soul'. I see it in my kids! The 'younger' they are - the less they 'think' how to paint something.
Noel Sickles was quite a master.

mark jaquette @

Anonymous said...

I still like his drawings best, but there is no doubt that Sickles is an underrated genius. The best.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

I think that Zen-like quality shows even more in his drawings. Especially in the choice and quality of line. His drawings really *feel* like that michelangelo quote on sculpting, but then applied to drawing: it's as if the lines were already there, and he just made them appear.

On the other hand, the painting examples you gave to me feel more like the result of experience and confidence. They are beautiful, but to me have a bit less of that meditated quality.

Kagan M. said...

Yes, always cool to see drawings with that kind of confidence. I can see the meditation thing helping, nothing's more frustrating than making a bold stroke and getting it wrong. I'm totally guilty of adding a photoshop layer to move a nice stroke into its correct position!

David Glassey said...

Yes, Noel Sickles was incredible. I don't really get tired of his drawings either.

Karine said...

"Smoke like that doesn't take 5 seconds to paint, it takes 60 years." -AMEN!

Love your blog.

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Paolo Rivera said...

Noel Sickles is quickly becoming one of my favorite artists. I first heard of him on Today's Inspiration and quickly bought the new book when it was featured there. As soon as I showed it to my roommate, he had to buy it as well. It's now a constant source of inspiration. Thanks for the post... I'm happy to see so many people discovering his work.

looka said...

Yes, what a word!

Drawing is not just happening in that one picture youre working on -all the drawings beforte sum up in it. They come out from the library you collected looking at all the details of the things around you.

I love those insights you discuss here!