Sunday, May 17, 2009


The great Joseph Clement Coll (1881-1921) drew like he was conducting a symphony orchestra.

From the Kelly Collection of American Illustration

Note in the following close up the range of effects Coll employed-- the difference between the fine pen lines and the broad brush strokes; the difference between the accuracy of the eyelashes and the almost abstract wiping of a dry brush on the cloak; and notice how Coll achieved the value he wanted for the background by first painting it with ink, then scratching it with a blade:   

Coll's line was vigorous and varied and confidently rendered.  No simple, monotonous shading here.  Look at how his line curls and twists and plays in ways that would not be visible to the reader of the printed page in Coll's era, but which nevertheless contributes to the overall vitality of the drawing.    

James Montgomery Flagg, another talented pen and ink artist, gave a good description of his superior, Coll:
There is no doubt that he was one of the few masters of pen and ink in the world.... He found romance in a story and doubled it, lavishly, prodigally.  He gave himself in his work instead of selling his signature on half-heated stencils. In short, he was a great artist.


Anonymous Brian said...

This guy was one of the most incredible draftsmen I've ever seen. I can't say enough good things about his work, and it's a shame that he is largely forgotten (partly because the artwork is black and white only).

A true master. Thanks for posting on this artist and his work David!

5/17/2009 3:27 PM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

Joseph Clement Coll to Diogenes: "Here I am!"

5/17/2009 5:15 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Coll is my single biggest influence in this medium. I only wish I could be half as good.

5/17/2009 6:05 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

Coll was the absolute pinnacle of his craft. Although these details show an admirable, even awesome command of the medium, what is not shown is his stunning originality in pictorial composition. In an era of great penmen, J.C.Coll stood at the top.

I devoured him when I was younger and he was very influential in his technique...not so much the pen work but in the visualization. He would sit at the board and pull his jacket over his head and begin to constuct a scene as if it were on the stage. He'd move the characters and the lighting and when he found what he liked, he essentially burned it into his brain. Then he'd flip back the jacket and there, for a few minutes, the image was "projected" onto the paper. That was enough time for hime to get the essentials down...essentially tracing it.

I had read of this method being used over the centuries and when I tried it, I was amazed that it worked. The more you do it, the longer the "projection" remains. It is part of my standard repertoire, thanks to this great illustrator.

5/17/2009 8:53 PM  
Blogger dfernetti said...

I'm one admirer of Coll, if only I have met a few of his drawings by an old book on Howard Pyle contemporaries. Anyway, I always liked these sort of pen drawings, many of them appearing in pulp magazines of the 20s and 30s, when everything was mistery and exotic places. Hell, even "The Shadow" had wonderful brush drawings here and there. Coll is the best of those crafstmen. BTW I'll try to do that trick of pulling my jacket over my head to stage a drawing. Let's see what other people say about it...

5/18/2009 7:38 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

while it seems almost arrogant to criticize such incredible draftsmanship, i often notice a tendency to over-render in illustrators of this brilliance, resulting in a rather bitty, difficult to read image. a little restraint might have helped, perhaps.
i don't think the composition is helping things either... everything is sort of floating around.

great blog by the way. i've just discovered it today and there is so much to go back and read !

i've left a comment on the Montgomery Flagg post about the same topic (pen and ink rendering).

5/18/2009 9:57 AM  
Blogger M.M.E. said...

Coll is one of my favorites! Gibson and Gorey are up there too for me. They're the reasons I became a pen and ink illustrator.

5/18/2009 12:29 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Brian, I have always been struck by the disparity between Coll's originals and the flawed reproduction of his work in cheap periodicals of his day. I think that if more people saw scanned originals like this, his name would be a household word. (The fact that he died so young didn't help his reputation either).

Kev and Mark, thanks. I share your views.

Rob, I have never heard of that technique before, but I will certainly try it. I fear that if someone comes along and sees me with my jacket draped over my head, they will assume I have passed away and bury me before I can object.

5/18/2009 1:44 PM  
Anonymous Carlos said...

wow! Wonderful post. Thank you David.

Rob Howard - Could you please point a source where I can find more of the Coll's working methods? I am very curious about his techniques. The only book I have about him is "A Legacy in Line" by Flesk Publications.

Laurence John - Sometimes I think the same thing about his images but, I don't think is right to analyze his imagery using our 21st century eyes. These complex, and most of the time, cluttered compositions are ok with the visual standards they are used to at the time.

5/18/2009 2:05 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

dfernetti, let me know if you figure out exactly how long you are supposed to stay under there for this to work.

Laurence, I understand your concern. We've had a number of discussions around here about the importance of restraint in drawing. I imagine when an artist is so damn good at making lines, it's hard to know when to stop. But the good artists-- such as Coll or Gibson or Lowell or Drucker-- maintain control even if their pictures look a little busy at first glance. There are a number of lesser pen-and-ink talents who worked in a similar style whose drawings were weighed down by excessive lines (such as Reed Crandall)but the best artists prioritize their lines.

5/18/2009 2:08 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Bernie Wrightson (also a render-fetishist) said almost the exact same thing about 'projecting' the image onto the paper from inside his head, in a filmed interview (i can't remember the name of the interview but it was 'masters of comic boook art' or something similar). Perhaps he got the idea from Coll ?

it makes perfect sense to me that if you can visualize a scene as clearly as possible in your head then producing it on paper becomes easier.

5/18/2009 2:19 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I also use the Coll technique, which is also the Pyle technique, Dunn, Walter Everett, which is also the Frazetta technique, etc... You don't necessarily need to put a hood over your head, or a towel. Sitting in warm room on a sunny day with the drapes closed on a comfy couch with your eyes half-closed will do the trick. Essentially, you get yourself into a semi-trance state in order to be as much in touch with the visuals provided by your imagination as the visuals provided by the world.

Once a strong image comes, the idea is to hold it fast and memorize it and essentially sketch it off onto paper as if tracing it off your imagination.

It may be either in the Walt Reed book or the Pitz American Artist article.

5/18/2009 3:41 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

Laurence, of all the artistic media, pen and ink suffers the most in online reproduction. Indeed, the difference between the original pen drawing and the way it prints has some disparity in quality. You'd think that straight line work wouldn't suffer in print, but it does. Many years ago I visited Al Capp's studio and the artists used a highly diluted carbon ink which, if laid out in large brushed areas, was a greyish wash. The lines were varied because of the diluted ink. Obviously, one never uses India ink with pen drawing, but even the inks without shellac tended to gum up and thus the use of diluted inks. If you see any of Frazetta's original drawings you'll see that thin washy quality. He was working for Capp at that time. I don't know if he was diluting the ink before Capp or after.

Coll's originals are beyond reproach. They are done with taste and restraint and definitely not over-rendered...not at all. Perhaps you are confusing his athleticism with over-rendering. Then again, de gustibus and all that. The composition of that double-truck illustration of the canoe, done for The Lost World, stands as a monument of energetic and inventive page design.

Carlos, very little is written about Coll's working methods. He died at an early age and left only a few partially finished pieces behind. Walt Reed (as always) wrote the definitive book on Coll, The Magic Pen of Joseph Clement Coll published by North Light in 1978. There have bee editions since then but they are distinctly inferior printings. Insist on the 1978 edition. There is a brief description from his daughter of how he'd read and contemplate on a manuscript, throw a shawl over his head and remain undisturbed (today, that means turn off the cellphone, no music, etc.) and be able to draw the most elaborate scenes from imagination.

Drawing from imagination seems to be a real sore spot for most of today's artists.It used to take about six months to teach it to students.

5/18/2009 5:10 PM  
Blogger Jack R said...

I have to agree with L. John. I've seen a number of Colls' as they appeared in the original magazines and in a number of cases they are technically overwhelming. I don't know if it is his a consequence of his amazing precision, the limits of printing technology or some combination, but the details begin to muddy up in more than a few cases. Too bad there weren't large format magazines where his work could be seen at greater scale. I also don't think there is any comparison between Coll and the likes of Wrightson (whom I also admire). The more you zoom in on Coll's images the more variation you see, almost like a sort of Mandelbrot set. Wrightson's line was far more repetitive, a sort of faux woodcut.

5/18/2009 10:02 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Wrightson, though he loves Coll, was far more influenced by the great Franklin Booth, who had formed his style as a pen and ink artist as a youngster thinking that the woodcuts he was viewing in magazines were actually pen and ink drawings. So he set about forming his beautiful formal inking style to duplicate woodcuts. Booth's formality is the source of the formal line quality in Wrightson's work. Coll's line is really informal by comparison.

5/18/2009 11:22 PM  
Blogger Jack R said...

Hi Kev,
I'm glad you filled that in because I was thinking of Booth but blanking on him. To me it's the difference between a mechanical (but impressive) line and a fluid, flowing line.

5/19/2009 12:00 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Rob, i'm not doubting the compositional strength of some of his other works. I just think this one is lacking.
the close-ups are impressive. but the whole thing is confusing due to the amount of high contrast information... you have to look hard to see what certain areas are meant to be.

5/19/2009 7:55 AM  
Blogger dfernetti said...

Well I tried the "jacket over head" approach. Noot bad, as a mean of isolating you from the distractions of the enviroment, and it DOES work in the sense that from then on, the enviroment (people, pigeons, landlords) prefer to leave you isolated, preferably in an institution.
Anyway, it's something that can be done without a jacket and more concentration, but useful to counteract the "blank page fear" syndrom.

5/19/2009 10:11 AM  
Blogger Don Cox said...

There are two books on Coll from Flesk publications - "A Legacy in Line" (as mentioned above) and "The Art of Adventure". Both contain some reproductions from original artwork, and some from printed copies. Excellent books, well worth buying in my opinion.

5/19/2009 6:37 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

>>>Anyway, it's something that can be done without a jacket and more concentration, but useful to counteract the "blank page fear" syndrom.<<<

Something I have noticed with people buying paint mediums is, before they spend the time to learn their properties, they immediately begin to mix them into "custom" mixtures. I suppose man is afflicted with the desire to improve before understanding.

In the case of the visualization method -- a few minutes or even an hour is not enough background to have you begin making changes in the system. Much as it is a great swallowing of ego, just stick with it as written until you get the promised results of...not getting over fear of a blank page...that's just simple testicular fortitude...hang with it until you can actually see images projected onto the paper, board or canvas and until they are so burned into your mind that you can trace them accurately. At that point, make your improvements, although I must say that after all these years I have yet to improve upon the original method.

5/19/2009 8:44 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

I picked up the book The Magic Pen of Joseph Clement Coll back in college, very powerful stuff. Hopefully I'm recalling this right, but I remember being impressed by a reproduction in that book of an incredibly detailed charcoal drawing he made prior to doing the pen and ink finish. Evidently this was his usual way of working. He would carefully solve all the compostion and value issues there first before going on to render in ink. This is not so surprising, except for the amazing detail in the preliminary drawing. It was almost like doing the illustration twice in two different media. And yet, even after doing that kind of labor the pen and ink is as fresh, loose and spontaneous as David's example here. He was a master.

5/19/2009 9:28 PM  
Blogger william wray said...

I remember when nobody knew about Coll and the like Blogs have changed evrything...Frazetta was my biggest Influnce with pen and brush but
co;; was a true original.

5/23/2009 10:15 PM  
Blogger Veronica said...

How lovely and almost effortless :)

5/23/2009 11:56 PM  
Blogger Kagan M. said...

What I love about this is the number of different kinds of lines - so much variety. It's one of the best drawings I've ever seen.
I don't agree with Laurence at all.

Thanks for scanning!

5/25/2009 11:38 AM  
Blogger elena s said...

Thank you for posting the drawings of this artist.
I personally love black and white and can't think about the reason why black and white treasures like the ones by Coll get lost during history...

I do lots of black and white projects myself and found inspiration with Mervin Peake's artworks :) check out my posts and drawings on my blog,

6/14/2009 2:11 AM  
Blogger BACKGROUND said...

This site is pure magic...

Huge SS art in high res detail... It's like looking at the originals.

As a pro. illustrator, I really love great art, fine art, commercial art... It's the image quality that counts in the end.


2/27/2010 5:32 AM  

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