Tuesday, December 16, 2014


It's possible that Jack Davis turned down an assignment once, but I never met an eyewitness who saw it happen.  During his prolific career, Davis probably accounted for 47% of all the spot illustrations in America.  Not all of those illustrations were done with care, and that helped shape the public's impression of his stature.

But now that Davis has announced his retirement at age 90, it's a good moment to focus on his genuine strengths by looking at some of his originals close up. 

Davis did excellent fine line work.  He didn't fall into the common trap of letting excessive lines turn his subjects rigid and heavy.  Despite all that cross hatching, his pictures remained flexible and sprightly:  

Illustration from Humbug

Even in his fine line work, Davis maintained enough variety in his line to preserve priorities (for example, the banker's chin and belly).

A master of the pen, he was also a fearless inker with a brush.  Look at the way Davis transforms a man into a splatter beneath that sledge hammer.  That effect could never have been achieved with his fine line cross hatching style:

From MAD no. 5
Davis could also simplify his style effectively with markers or washes:

Note the simplicity of the shading on the father's face

At age 26, Davis began working at EC comics.  From the beginning, his draftsmanship enabled him to squeeze complex scenes into small panels that were already crowded with text:

Even at that early stage, Davis was able to combine thin line and thick brush stroke to bring drama to his pictures in a way that only Neal Adams and perhaps a few others have been able to match.

Finally, Davis had a wonderful sensitivity for color.  You didn't always see it in his numerous low budget spot illustrations, but when Davis got serious, there were few better.


Jack Davis has been a brilliant artist and an important voice in American popular culture for decades. As he steps down at age 90, he has a great deal to be proud of.  


Katherine Thomas said...

This was such an informative, inspiring post. I like the idea that this artist used minimal line constraints, and applied the shadings in a way that suggested life and movement. That really struck a chord with me. Something to think about!

MORAN said...

I forgot how could he could be. Thanks for the examples.

Tom said...

Great drawing, Davis seems to understand the forces of nature. how things and bodies react to gravity, pressure and emotion

Anonymous said...

I thought he was great composing crowds. In his advertising art he always seemed to render the product with integrity but still compatible with the figures but my favorites were his vignette action compositions of people kicking, screaming, running, catching etc.

It's been a while since I said, "thanks". Your posts have been very entertaining and educational! Thanks to all of those who comment regularly also!

Tim Langenderfer

Donald Pittenger said...

Thank you for giving Davis praise. Maybe not everything he did was great, but keep in mind that some of his major deadlines (Time covers, for instance, if memory serves) had extremely short fuses. I usually find his stuff fun to view.

David Apatoff said...

Katherine Thomas-- Thanks for writing. Yes, simplification is a real test.

MORAN-- Davis probably did enough excellent work to fill any normal career. It's just that he also did three other careers worth of lesser work.

Tom-- I agree. He had a natural aptitude for drawing such things.

David Apatoff said...

Tim Langenderfer-- Thanks very much, it's good to hear from you. I agree, Davis' crowd scenes were a thing of beauty (such as his poster for "It's A Mad Mad mad Mad World.")

Donald Pittenger-- Davis was famous for being lightning fast. There are legends about how he would go on camping trips and dash off an assignment using the headlights of his car and water from a local stream.

Jordan Faris said...

Jack Davis had, from the very beginning, his own style (that over-used term, which means to me the gift of grafting an instant imprimatur on your consciousness that barters in visual impact first, and dazzlingly adept rendering second (not that he couldn't outshine the best of them in his finest pieces). Jack Davis developed a sort of graphic shorthand that made you invest full belief and buy-in to his vignettes in a way few other artists have ever achieved. I default back to that famous early Mad magazine cover (issue #2) where the baseball player feels the evil eye trained on him--the contorted pose, the isolated source of the "evil eye"--the befuddled expression on the player's face, all of it limned with a comedic grace that belied the careful detail in the uniform's wrinkles, the simple, powerful compositing of figure against backdrop, and the rich cavalcade of deranged expressions in the crowd below. While Jack Davis may have churned out workman-like fare for a good stretch of his career, it is an understatement to state that his "mediocre" would have been many another artist's masterpiece. Retiring at 90...would that we all could flourish in our labors to such a stage!

David Apatoff said...

Jordan Faris-- I agree, Davis developed a distinctive, recognizable style at a young age. Even his hasty, lesser work showed that style, and many 20th century cartoonists would have been pleased to take credit for his lesser work.

mindsnax said...

America's best political cartoonist, Michael Ramirez offers his tribute to the late Jack Davis: