Sunday, October 17, 2010


At some point-- I'm not sure when-- traditional drawing skills seem to have become unfashionable.
  • Perhaps it's because artists today see no percentage in competing with 1,000 years of talented, obsessed draftsmen.
  • Perhaps it's because photography and other short cuts have made the labors of drawing seem less inspiring.
  • Perhaps it's because illustrators have seized the license of gallery painters who proved that you don't need traditional skills to sell a picture.
Whatever the reason, other ingredients of art (such as concept or design) have become so dominant that today many artists no longer even pretend to be able to draw. (Consider the talented cartoonist Garry Trudeau who has drawn like crap for 40 years. You'd have to try mighty hard to avoid picking up some skill in all that time.) Some contemporary artists seem to go out of their way to draw in a crude or naive style, perhaps to avoid any comparison with traditional artists.

That's one reason I take pleasure in the work of Peter de Seve, an excellent, decisive draftsman who draws with great character and imagination.

Note de Seve's eye for the small details that create personality, for body language, for animated facial expressions and revealing gestures. His drawing ability enables him to give form to his insights in a way that many other contemporary illustrators cannot. He integrates these ingredients seamlessly using a loose, energetic line.

In an era when the greatest demand for images seems to be CGI in movies or computer gaming, I find it interesting that de Seve's old fashioned pencil drawing have become an essential building block for major animated movies such as the Ice Age trilogy or a Bug's Life. He contributes the flavor to character designs which (so far) no computer has been able to simulate.


Blogger Nell Minow said...

I love his New Yorker covers, especially that heartbreaking one he did just after 9/11, with the Manhattan children trick-or-treating, all dressed as fire fighters and police officers.

10/17/2010 11:20 AM  
OpenID snoringdogstudio said...

Oh, you spoke to the choir, here, David! I agree with you completely. This issue has annoyed me for so long. Yes, technology can give one an excuse to avoid the underlying skill of good drawing. It seems that lots of artists are getting very skilled at drawing skulls and swords, though. Fortunately, I've noticed some young and upcoming illustrators who do seem to get it about drawing. Eric Hancock and L. Filipe dos Santos are two of them. And they aren't afraid to draw hands and feet! Thank you for introducing me to this artists lovely drawings.

10/17/2010 12:58 PM  
Blogger TREVOR Simonsen said...

Preach it brother!

10/17/2010 1:49 PM  
Anonymous MORAN said...

I love de Seve's work. His success shows that good drawing is not obsolete.

You're right about Trudeau too. He is hilarious but he shows you can draw like shit and still be a success.

10/17/2010 2:00 PM  
Blogger Kyle T. Webster said...

Yes, yes, yes! Great post, great points.

10/17/2010 2:00 PM  
Blogger Thomas Denmark said...

Peter de Seve is one of the greats! But I do think some of the most amazing draftsman are living and working today. Iain McCaig, Drew Struzan, James Jean, and so many others.

And many of those who don't the "crudeness" of their drawing ability is intentional in order to achieve a certain charm in their work that is often lost under academic training. (for example, I think The Far Side is more entertaining because it is so "badly" drawn)

10/17/2010 2:21 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

What a draftsman.

10/17/2010 4:51 PM  
Blogger Jesse Hamm said...

Lovely drawing. Reminds me of Denis Bodart.

I disagree that Trudeau hasn't improved. His work is still no great shakes, but it's far more sophisticated than it was when he began. Compositions, lighting, perspective, anatomy, background detail, line weights -- it has all improved. In the world of comic strips, there are plenty of folks who have improved less than Trudeau. Mell Lazarus, Cathy Guisewite, Brad Anderson...

10/17/2010 6:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter de Seve got rich by drawing and painting. It gives the rest of us hope that it can still be done.

10/17/2010 10:53 PM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

The cat playin' the fiddle stole Cousin Eeire's outfit!

10/18/2010 10:17 AM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

Eerie (but you knew).

10/18/2010 10:19 AM  
Anonymous Myron said...

This post is why I love this blog so much. So much of what is popular in illustration these days feels like an amalgamation, very distant from concept to completion. There is something great about the directness of pencil plus paper, instrument plus audience, with no tech in between. Watching a true draftsman wield a pen or pencil on paper is always magic to me. There is no app for that.

10/18/2010 11:15 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Nell, I think a lot of people were touched by that New Yorker cover, which displayed one of de Seve's key strengths: he has an understanding of people that resonates emotionally with his audience. His prototypes are recognizable the way Norman Rockwell's were.

snoringdogstudio, Trevor and Kyle T. Webster, glad that you see what I see in these drawings.

MORAN and Jesse Hamm, for me Trudeau is an interesting case. I find his drawing absolutely dreadful, but his writing is so great that he can get away with absolutely anything. Can't draw a president to save your life? Well, then make up a joke where the president is symbolized by a feather or a helmet hanging in the air (or easier yet, just draw the outside of the White House again and again). In a way, Trudeau is like the antithesis of Mort Drucker, who has an uncanny ability to draw all of the things Trudeau cannot, but who has never had writing or concepts worthy of his great talent. Jesse, I do agree with you that Trudeau has made some marginal progress, although I think some of those improvements are more the result of technological enhancements in the color printing process than any lessons learned by Trudeau. I would also say that anyone who draws everyday for 40 years should have made a lot more progress than that.

10/18/2010 1:14 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thomas Denmark wrote, "the "crudeness" of their drawing ability is intentional in order to achieve a certain charm in their work that is often lost under academic training."

Thomas, I agree with you 100%. It used to be that academic drawing skill was the ticket for admission as a professional artist. I am glad those days are long gone, and I have often talked on this blog about many wonderful artists who deliberately draw in a crude or distorted fashion. But I also think that many of those artists who I admire most draw that way out of choice, not out of lack of ability. They learned to draw accurately and kept on going.

10/18/2010 1:31 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन, it looks like ol' Cousin Eerie has worked his way through some kind of psychological catharsis. He seems far more benign and jovial now.

10/18/2010 1:39 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Richard and Myron-- many thanks!

10/18/2010 1:42 PM  
Anonymous raphael said...

oh, i like peter de seves drawings :)

i agree with thomas denmark that iain mccaig is another source of amazing pencil drawings. also, there are podcasts and tapings of lectures of him that show him to be so passionate about what he does, its really amazing.

i am also very fond of claire wendling. i recently bought her book "desk" - there are some awesome big cat drawings inside!

10/18/2010 2:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This drawing is nice but it's too sentimental to lose Michelangelo any sleep.

10/18/2010 4:24 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- I agree that de Seve is not in the same league with Michelangelo.

However, before we become too ossified in our thinking, I would note that Michelangelo had some bad drawing days like everybody else (despite the fact that he destroyed as many of his reject drawings as he could) and I would prefer my favorite de Seve drawing to my least favorite Michelangelo drawing.

10/18/2010 5:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't advocate ossification.

10/18/2010 5:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I mean, whatever the relative merits of de Seve compared to the giants of drawing, I'm not sure a Disneyesque drawing is the best argument for good old-fashioned quality draughtsmanship. (Is there a non-sexist word for that?)

I like the drawing of Kaethe Kollwitz for example. She can draw "correctly" but is also all about feeling - real, powerful human feeling, not kitsch little birds and violins.

If anyone contemporary is doing something comparable to Kollwitz, I'd be happy to hear names...?

10/18/2010 6:02 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I understand-- and even agree with-- your general point. In this particular case, de Seve was illustrating a story by Mark Twain, which called for a folksy treatment. I am sure that if de Seve were illustrating the Last Judgment for a chapel wall centuries ago, he would have adopted a different approach.

I adore Kollwitz's work, just as I adore Michelangelo's work, and I have written about both of them in fawning prose on this blog. However, I think we need to guard against our tendency to believe that art about a serious subject matter is somehow superior to art about a light hearted subject matter. Kollwitz's graphic work is powerful in part because she lived and worked in hellish circumstances and her pictures are dark and brooding and filled with shadows. But in my opinion there are pictures of "little birds" out there that are every bit as creative and lovely and important and talented as Kollwitz's art. You can find them in Picasso, in Hokusai, in Ronald Searle. It would be a mistake, I think, to discount the work of Disney or de Seve as something less than "serious" art just because their subjects don't have serious expressions on their faces.

10/18/2010 7:26 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

On the subject of Garry Trudeau, an extremely knowledgeable source contacted me off line to say he believes Trudeau now hires somebody else to draw Doonesbury for him. That would certainly make sense economically, and would also be consistent with the notion that Trudeau's heart is not in the drawing part of the job.

If this is the case, Doonesbury's failure to evolve artistically would not be the result of Trudeau's lack of peresonal growth but rather his failure to update the specifications on the contract with his ghost artist.

10/19/2010 3:26 PM  
Blogger Jesse Hamm said...

From the Doonesbury site:

"Trudeau writes the strip alone, and then does tight pencil drawings. The drawings are then either shipped or faxed to his assistant Don Carlton, who traces over Trudeau's finished drawings in ink. The rumor that Trudeau no longer draws the strip was started by Entertainment Weekly. When the magazine subsequently learned that the writer of the piece had wildly exaggerated Carlton's role, it printed a retraction and apology. By then, of course, the damage had been done,...."

(Trudeau could be lying, of course, but the track record of anonymous experts inclines me to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

10/19/2010 3:49 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Hi David "However, I think we need to guard against our tendency to believe that art about a serious subject matter is somehow superior to art about a light hearted subject matter."

I agree, I don't think the subject matters that much at all. A really good draughtsman can make anything interesting. If it were the right subject that made the art, being an artist would be an easy task. It is how the subject is developed, that is what grabs our attention and where the power of art resides. Fragonard, Boucher and much of France’s art has dealt with lighthearted subjects with great artistic power. Or as Henry James said of Sargent, he can make a shirt collar interesting.

10/19/2010 9:44 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Love de Seve. Such a natural ability to capture character, much like Rockwell, Davis, and Drucker.

I think Doonesbury could increase its regular dose of irony ten-fold if it started looking more like Hagar.

Is the quality of an artwork in any way connected to its profundity?

10/19/2010 11:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trudeau writes and pencils the comic strip himself on an unusually tight deadline, and it's inked by a long-time assistant. No one would say Doonesbury is the best drawn strip out there, but if you think Trudeau has not made huge strides in its draughtsmanship, you really ought to go back and look at the arc of his career.

10/19/2010 11:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear David, thanks for your blog.

Im writing from Italy, where I noticed that the trend now amongst many young illustrators (children books, magazine editorials etc)is to go for very simple, very stilized figures,with big round heads and usually floating in some metaphisical context, engaged in activities such as embracing big hearts and so..

These illustrations are supposed to please kids and fill adults with a sense of poetry, but for me they are just one dimensional,self explanatory and show limited skills.

I 'll rather have Gustave Dorè or Heath Robinson and the works of the old Italian masters!!!

Ciao, Ed

10/20/2010 8:01 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm and Anonymous-- thanks for the additional input on Trudeau's working habits. I certainly didn't mean to slander him. I already admired his brilliant humor, and now I also think better of him from a manual labor perspective as well. At this point in his career he could easily afford to staff Doonesbury the same way Baldo Smudge staffed his strip. It is to Trudeau's credit that he does the physical drawing.

Having said that, I don't give him much artistic credit for those drawings. They are so lame, I would almost think better of Trudeau's personal artistic talent if the strip was being drawn by a ghost artist.

As Anonymous suggested, I went back and took a look at the arc of Doonesbury. It seemed to me that the drawings in Doonesbury have gained a lot of certainty: the line is more confident, the word balloons are much stronger, and Trudeau has now added silhouettes and close ups to his tool kit. And printing technology now permits gradations and shadings in color. However, I personally don't see much progress in the quality of the drawing. The linework seems no more sensitive or insightful or varied or descriptive than it was in the 1980s. The compositions and designs don't seem any stronger. There are no signs of any great advancement in technical drawing skill-- perspective, anatomy, etc. There is no visual mood or personality conveyed-- for example, no great vitality of line, no strong graphic opinions (the way Trudeau's words convey marvelously clever and strong opinions.) Doonesbury in the 1970s was more scruffy and amateurish, but Doonesbury 40 years later seems to me to be like Archie comics, flat and repetitive stencils of characters.

10/20/2010 9:36 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Tom-- I agree!

Kev Ferrara-- I would only add Dorne to your list of Rockwell, Davis, and Drucker as the top artists who understand how to draw character and personal flavor. I agree with you that de Seve is definitely in that tradition.

As for your question, "Is the quality of an artwork in any way connected to its profundity?" I assume you mean the profundity of its subject matter, as there are many ways a picture might be visually profound. While I think that form and content are different, I am not sure that you can ever separate the two entirely. That is one of the special challenges of illustration, which is more tied to content than other art forms. I suppose illustration can be elevated or lowered by the subject that it illustrates, but I have seen brilliant pictures of laundry detergent, brilliant in spite of--not because of-- its subject matter.

10/20/2010 10:16 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Ciao, Ed-- I love those old Italian masters too. My sister married an Italian (she went to Florence on her junior year abroad and fell in love with a really cute guy...) and I use that as an excuse to get over there to see those Italian masters every chance I get.

10/20/2010 11:31 AM  
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10/20/2010 11:57 AM  
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10/20/2010 12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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10/22/2010 5:33 PM  
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10/24/2010 8:19 AM  
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11/04/2010 5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Slightly off topic:

I thought you'd be interested to know that Disney's coming out with a Pooh movie that's not 3D or computer-generated. According to the news, it's gonna be hand-drawn; so how about an insight on that? :-)

11/09/2010 11:46 PM  
Blogger Ger Apeldoorn said...

One explenation for the disappearance of craft in art was given in an article by a Dutch columnist last week in the NRC newspaper. Describing the history of art, he said that art had always been sponsored by those in power and therefor was used to show the benefits of 'working hard'. In music, the abillity to do intricate scales was promoted and overall 'excellence' was most important. Then artists got a bit bigheaded and started making their own agenda, trying to get free from 'the man' and started celebrating the opposite, the benefits of wild freedom, of the unskilled and impulsive, which lead us to the situation we are in today. The point of his article was, that because of that, today the only standard which is left is 'that which is liked by most people'. Art is not only what sells, but even worse, what the majority of the people sees as art. Even there all possibillity for progress has been cut off.

11/14/2010 3:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just bought his book but before that was looking at his drawings on internet and stopped at this one, called my 10-year-old son over and said..."look at this, it's a caricature, and it is also a Beautiful drawing..."

12/09/2010 1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, this thread is almost two years old and probably no one will ever read this, but I have to step in and say "WTF?"

Please tell me what daily cartoon strip is better looking than Doonesbury? What current daily cartoonist puts more thought and effort into the composition, lighting, and artistic flow of each strip?

What other daily strip has evolved visually so much over its run?

Was Peanuts better looking at the end than it was in the beginning? Calvin & Hobbes?

No, Trudeau is not Mort Drucker. But Drucker didn't draw a daily strip. And Drucker, like Jack Davis, Wally Wood, and most other lionized cartoon artists I can think of, got lazier and sloppier over the years - not better in any way.

But if anyone disagrees and would like to unload some "horrible" Trudeau art to me at reasonable prices, please let me know.

9/20/2012 1:44 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I wasn't trying to go out of my way to slander Trudeau or demean his great accomplishment. I was just trying to speak soberly about his strengths and weaknesses. He does not have to be Mort Drucker (who did draw a daily strip, Benchley) or Jack Davis or Wally Wood. It's fine if he wants to be Trudeau and draw in his own eccentric style. I would just say that personally I don't find much in that style. All of his brilliance seems to be invested in the script. For me, his line is a monotone, with no variety or sensitivity or character. It lays down a mark, like a rapidograph line, sufficient to convey where one shape ends and another begins, but it conveys none of the information-- or poetry-- that better artists convey. His compositions strike me as serviceable, at best-- I don't see any adventure or creativity or design, the way you'd see from artists who spend time thinking seriously about such things. Colors are the same. He takes a lot of shortcuts (such as drawing the outside of the White House, or drawing a feather floating in the air) that are common to people with poor drafting skills. I am not asking for "realistic" drawing-- there are plenty of strips with simplified, eccentric figures and faces (Gary Larson's Far Side, Jim Unger's Herman) that I would say are wildly successful. Trudeau's are not among them, as far as I am concerned.

I would not mind unloading "horrible" Trudeau original art, except the strips have market value because of the "brilliant" Trudeau content.

9/20/2012 2:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow - I can't believe I didn't know Drucker ever did a daily strip. Then I looked at it and understood why I'd never heard of it. THAT'S what you want to hold up as an example of superior art? It looks more like the work of an art student influenced by Drucker.

You're certainly entitled to you personal opinion regarding Trudeau, but your assertion that you're basing it on some sort of objective criteria such as "line" or "draftsmanship" seems clearly belied by facts.

I collect comic and cartoon original art. I see lots of forgeries, some of which are almost impossible to determine as such except by examining provenance. Schulz art, Watterson art, and Larson art, for example, is not too tough for a talented artist to duplicate pretty convincingly, and such forgeries show up (and sell) on eBay and at auction with depressing regularity.

I have yet, however, to see a Trudeau forgery (from his post-sabbatical period) that could come close to fooling even a casual fan. That's because his style, "eccentric" though it may be, is not at all easy (in fact, I'd say almost impossible) to duplicate.

Now, you may not personally like his art. I myself am left cold by the work of such artists as Frank Frazetta, Neal Adams, Windsor McCay and Alex Raymond. But I would never assert that they lack artistic skills.

I think what Trudeau accomplishes on a daily basis is amazing. After his sabbatical he basically reinvented the visual vocabulary of the newspaper strip.

And by the way, if his "monotone line" irks you, remember that he doesn't ink the strip. Check out some of his pencils in:

9/21/2012 12:49 AM  

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