Monday, December 14, 2015


Leonard Starr's attic contained dusty stacks of original comic strips with drawings of complex and subtle facial expressions.



Two frosty expressions that are very difficult to capture



Starr put a lot of effort into crafting thousands of facial expressions over the decades. Today there's not much demand for such skills. We've put them in our cultural attic, along with other unwanted artifacts.



Starr was able to capture the most delicate expressions, such as an encouraging gaze:

The size restrictions of the comic page didn't seem to daunt him. The smallest faces in Starr's backgrounds could be used to reveal significant feelings:

Few of today's popular cartoonists and graphic novelists even try to draw such facial expressions.  In this recent New Yorker cartoon by Ruben award winner Roz Chast...

...the faces of the three characters are  supposed to show irony, sarcasm and passive aggressiveness, yet their expressions all seem identical-- kind of a demented rage:

If not for the labels, her faces would tell us almost nothing. Like many of her peers, Chast relies on words instead of facial expressions.  When Starr wanted to convey sarcasm, his viewers never needed a label saying "this is sarcasm."


As I noted, Chast is hardly alone.  Several top  cartoonists and graphic artists today substitute words for pictures because their facial expressions are indecipherable:

Alison Bechdel's version of an "abject and shameful mien"
Kate Beaton's version of "consumed with lust"
Artists from Garry Trudeau to Chris Ware have mastered the art of drawing smiles and frowns, but beyond that their drawing ability cannot keep up with the sophistication of their concepts. 

I should emphasize that my point has nothing to do with a preference for loose or tight drawing. In previous generations, even loose, freely drawn faces could be expected to add value to the underlying concept:

William Steig

William Steig

Our generation does not seem to place as much value on the skillful treatment of faces. One reason may be that much of skill and accuracy in drawing can now be simulated with cheap software. If tight, observant rendering can be purchased from Adobe, it seems less admirable.

But the old sketchbooks piled up in the corner of Starr's attic help explain how he wrote and drew those faces into his strips for all those years.

Starr's preliminary drafts contained very specific comments about facial expressions. He noted when he wanted "wry acceptance" or a "sweet nostalgic smile." More importantly, Starr's drafts show that as he zipped along at lightning speed he was able to summon up these expressions from his finger tips.

"Modest smile"

Part of Starr's ability comes from drawing a lot.  Also, his sketchpads reveal that Starr formally studied the muscles and bones of the face.

Facial expressions are one of the rare phenomena in the universe that tie together the physical and the non-physical worlds: they are physical manifestations of non-physical emotions.  Scientists believe expressions are rooted in what makes us distinctly human.

For example, many anthropologists believe that humans developed facial expressions when our ancestors became the first (and only) primates to lose our fur and live in nearly naked skin.  According to Dr. Nina Jablonski, head of the anthropology department at Penn State, we had to lose most of our body fur to make possible the evolutionary enlargement of our brain, which is our most temperature-sensitive organ.  But losing our fur meant we could no longer use fur to communicate, the way all lower mammals do, "from raised hackles indicating aggression to coat patterns that help members of the same species to recognize each other."  Concludes Jablonski: "one might even speculate that universal human traits such as social blushing and complex facial expressions evolved to compensate for our lost ability to communicate through our fur."

Our brains and our expressions emerged simultaneously and today expressions are one of our most subtle and eloquent means of communicating feelings and thoughts.  That makes them a potentially rich tool for artists capable of mastering them.  Our current trend of replacing these important visual cues with text makes life easier for artists with poor draftsmanship skills, but it comes at a price.

When you hang around a cold attic long enough, you start asking yourself odd questions.  My question was: why do so many graphic novelists who can't draw facial expressions elect to draw faces instead of just writing about the underlying emotions?  Why choose this medium?  When we see drawings of faces, perhaps we should ask ourselves, does this drawing contribute anything to the written concept? 


kev ferrara said...

Wow. You really nailed it about Starr's ambition to narrate with his faces. And you even have the "rosetta stone" to prove it; an amazing record of his storytelling concerns. Fascinating post.

Smurfswacker said...

Have you found the finished strip that corresponds to the sketchbook page? It'd be fascinating to see how Starr's notes evolved into final art.

MORAN said...

Those recent drawings are fer shit. Who draws good expressions today IYO?

Gunnar said...

Starr's skill here is amazing, a real master. You may be right that this is to some extent a dying art in the comics field, but then again, few were ever as good as that.

I also want to pipe up in defense of Beaton, who I consider a very talented cartoonist. She's not in any way the student of anatomy that Starr was, and the facial expressions of her characters are not as subtle or specific as his, but she is capable of conveying emotion and personality very effectively when she wants. For example, I think this is at least the equal to the Steig samples, art-wise:

(Whether it's also funnier is of course subjective, but for me it has them beat by a mile.)

James Gurney said...

What a rich topic with beautiful examples. And your characteristic eloquence: "Facial expressions are one of the rare phenomena that tie together the physical and the non-physical worlds." The beauty of Starr's work is how simply and elegantly he did it, with so few lines, especially on a young woman's face. Starr's mastery recalls of all the great masters of expression looking backward: Drucker, Rockwell, Gibson, Lindsay, Daumier, Menzel, MacMonnies, Carpeaux, and Hals. All is not lost today, though, because animators are the keepers of the flame—they really know exactly what muscles to tweak to get subtle emotions. There's an excellent book on Facial Expression that came out a few years ago by Faigin -- highly recommended.

Jan said...

I'm not sure what You mean by the paragraph about young whipper snappers not drawing facial expressions properly, supposedly because of cheap software.
First off - cheap software? Adobe stuff is among the most expensive out there.
And buying Photoshop doesn't magically give you tight rendering either, I still have to make the lines like I would with a pen or a brush.
I was going to post a selection of faces I've drawn recently, but realized it's not a good idea. (the project is under NDA) They were done in one of these soulless pieces of software and I'd like to think I'm at least trying to convey emotion or story through expressions in them.
I think expressions are extremely valuable tools, and that yes - some artists are not using them a lot.
But I'd contest the notion that it has anything to do with working digitally. It's exactly like anatomy, perspective or composition, things you can do well or poorly in any medium.

In the end, You're (slightly insultingly) asking: "Why are today's cartoonists bad? They should've become writers instead." Which is a bit unfair, as there always had been varying levels of skill among different artists.

(I'm sorry if this reads too hostile, I was nodding up until the last few paragraphs.)

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Thanks very much, I'm glad you share my interest in the background materials that led up to the finished works. I've now seen Starr's typed plots for his stories (which are careful, smart and literate) and his handwritten / drawn preliminaries which take the plots to the next stage. Looking at these materials, it's obvious that Starr cared a lot and had very high standards-- kind of an old world craftsmanship-- but once the strip was published, he tossed everything into old boxes or bags and stashed it out of the way in his attic. He never looked at it again.

Smurfswacker-- I agree that would be interesting to do. There was such a mountain of old drawings and sketchbooks and the light in the attic was sufficiently dim that I put that goal aside for another day. Someday I'd like to circle back and make some of those connections.

MORAN-- I think cartoonists today (and perhaps audiences today) just have different priorities. I've written about illustrators working today who I think are excellent with facial expressions. Richard Thompson, Peter de Seve, John Cuneo. (Cuneo's series of drawings on "Why I Quit Drinking" includes a drawing of a man urinating on a vagrant sleeping in an alley, and the man's facial expression is so gleeful, I laugh out loud every time I see it.) I think for an artist to be good with facial expressions, they have to be part psychiatrist.

David Apatoff said...

Gunnar-- Thanks for your response. I didn't mean to suggest that the contemporary cartoonists I mentioned are not "talented cartoonists," only that their talents don't seem to lie in the area of facial expressions.

There are hundreds of awful cartoonists who can't draw expressions, some of them young and starting out. It wouldn't be fair or kind to single them out here. Instead, I chose highly successful cartoonists who've prospered because of other strengths and who don't need to be concerned about my opinions. Roz Chast just won the Ruben award and has legions of fans who don't care if she can't draw facial expressions. I think her book, "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant," is more touching and poignant and personal than anything I've seen from Starr. Because of the subject matter, we can't help but be moved by her drawings of her mother on her death bed but viewed as drawings I think her work is kind of a mess. Alison Bechdel's book "Fun Home" is also good enough to overcome her limited drawing ability.

I've heard Kate Beaton speak and enjoyed her lively humor but personally I think her humor, her literary/historical themes, and her ability to relate to her audience, rather than her drawing ability, are responsible for her great success. I think she draws the way that many internet cartoonists of her generation draw-- their line is commonly a monotone (with none of the variety, character, sensitivity or vitality that were prized by previous generations). As far as I can tell, it is her content, not form, that distinguishes her.

I don't think Starr's mastery of expressions comes from being a "student of anatomy" so much as being an observant student of human nature and psychology, with the power to draw accurately. Beaton's characters may frown when talking about "alcoholic dickbags" but it seems to me she lacks the arsenal to portray "wistfulness"or "nostalgia" or "modesty." Perhaps it doesn't matter because her audience doesn't care.

James Gurney-- Thanks for the recommendation-- I've ordered the Faigin book. And thanks too for the inspiring line up of great masters of expression. All of them are worth a serious look. I agree with you 100% about Starr's simplicity. Artists such as Lindsay and even Mort Drucker relied upon a lot of lines but Starr's brush distilled those features to their essence.

David Apatoff said...

Jan-- When I say that software is cheap, I mean in comparison to the years that earlier generations spent acquiring technical skills. As Chaucer lamented,

The lyf so short, the craft so long to learne,
Th' assay so hard, so sharp the conquerage

Today Photoshop (and other softwares) have instantly given everyone a minimum level of competence. Everyone can do technical drawing without learning to use a T square or triangle. Everyone can draw with perspective. Everyone can scan a photograph of facial expressions and transform it into a line drawing with the push of a button. Everyone can letter professionally. This deludes a lot of people who have not paid their dues into thinking they are no different from artists. And, I think, it causes audiences to think less of technical skill. Today the uneducated public looks at Bouguereau or Norman Rockwell and assume anyone could do that with the right gadget. Do you have another explanation for why artists with skills are dismissed, while simplistic artists with little or no apparent skill are so wildly popular?

I certainly agree that artists working digitally can master facial expressions. I am a big fan of artists such as Bill Mayer and Denis Zilber who really know how to draw. But we are living in an era of "photo-illustration," where facial expressions are a matter of appropriating the nearest photograph.

zoe said...

Today Photoshop (and other softwares) have instantly given everyone a minimum level of competence. Everyone can do technical drawing without learning to use a T square or triangle. Everyone can draw with perspective. Everyone can scan a photograph of facial expressions and transform it into a line drawing with the push of a button. Everyone can letter professionally.

Oh dear. If only it were so. Hang around on ConceptArt and other digital art forums and you will find that software does NOT provide any sort of instant "leg-up". There is nothing inside of Photoshop or any other software that produces technical drawings or perspective in an automatic way. In fact, artists often complain that achieving a proper straight line in Photoshop is often MORE difficult than working with a ruler or drafting triangle. There is nothing in Photoshop that is the equivalent of music's AutoTune.

I'll give you that photo manipulation (transforming a photo into a sort of line-drawing look) is possible with the touch of a button, but it's surprisingly uncommon to see that in published or professional work (even if that work is otherwise extremely hackish). You see it in amateur work or in the fake canvas prints that are sold at shopping mall kiosks, but not often in an editorial illustration or graphic novels.

António Araújo said...

I don't think there is a general lack of interest in learning how to draw properly. There was a tendency in some academia to let go of realistic drawing, but that is being retraced in many places - its getting better, not worse. And the desiase never really affected all that much the many people working in commercial art, especially in art for games, (most) comics, movies, or in scientific illustration. Like Zoe said, go on conceptart and you find hundreds of people earnestly trying to get a hang of classical drawing (with pencil and pixels both). Now, there are very few Starrs over there, and a lot of tasteless drawings of monsters and buxom wenches with guns, but that is lack of taste and lack of raw ability, and lack of training - there was *always* a lack of Starrs. It is simply very hard for most of us common mortals to become a Starr; but that has very little to do with a lack of interest or with the availability of computers, I think. And you will find in there a couple of really good artists - few, yes, as in every other age or place.

As for interest, the very fact that books like Faigin's excellent tome keep coming out is a good sign. And I get the impression that Gurney had no trouble selling his beautiful book on color and light. I don't remember either of them having a chapter on photoshop. :)

On perspective: for three years I've been teaching a course on art & maths where I teach, among other things, how to build a Durer device and how to use it to make anamorphoses; how to solve curvilinear perspectives, and so on. There's always an audience. Some of them use software (geogebra, mathematica, etc) to plot the curvilinear perspectives. It helps to make the lines clean, but the software will *not* think for you. The greatest hindrance to learning perspective is, as it always has been, bad teaching and bad books. Availability of software is not a negative factor: it can help, if properly used. I just sent out a paper ( on how to plot a 360 degree perspective with ruler and compass (a generalization of Barre and Flocon's 180 degrees spherical perspective from the 1960s). The computer calculations helped me get the hang of things to the point where I could do it with ruler and compass (and then freehand). So it directly contributed to the development of another small piece of rather classical freehand drawing technique.

The computer is what you make of it, in short. If not for it, you could hardly share with us all the wonderful findings in that attic, and great would be the loss to our artistic education, no? :)

ps: also, these things vary geographically. I have a couple of students from Moscow, and they draw like goddesses. In 30 minutes I had them draw in spherical perspective. "Of course, it is just logical" - one of them let out. No postmodern bullshit at Stroganov Moscow state uni, I can tell ya! :)

David Apatoff said...

Zoe wrote: "There is nothing inside of Photoshop or any other software that produces technical drawings or perspective in an automatic way."

Well, 30 or 40 years ago, commercial artists used a T square, triangle and circle templates for keylining, paste ups, drawing borders and mechanical drawing. All those jobs are gone today, along with the jobs of professional letterers who previously worked with rulers and compasses, because software such as Photoshop made them obsolete. No more clogged rapidographs, no ink smears, no waxers. Mistakes now vanish automatically, so the artist doesn't have to buy a new piece of illustration board.

I'm not sure what you mean about producing perspective "in an automatic way." Certainly it is easy today to use the "line tool" and the "skew tool" to create two point perspective along a horizon line, then use the layer tool to make the guidelines disappear after you've followed them. Or, you can create a single vanishing point just by using the polygon shape tool in the "star" configuration, along the horizon line. Or if you're not so persnickety, you can easily approximate a rough perspective by distorting then tweaking an image you've already made. These techniques are not "automatic" in the sense of having a genie grant you three wishes, but they save a lot of time and practice, plus give you a lot of reliability. I think you and I probably agree on the important point, which is that these tools alone don't produce a quality image. We see many examples on digital art fora where students ride the software as far as it will take them. Then when taste and judgment and talent are supposed to take over, the picture falls off a cliff.

You say that when it comes to photo-manipulation, "You see it in amateur work or in the fake canvas prints that are sold at shopping mall kiosks, but not often in an editorial illustration or graphic novels." In one sense I agree, but in another sense the whole ubiquitous field of "photo-illustration" is the result of art software. (See, for example, ) Those were pictures that were once created by more experienced illustrators can now be done by untrained high school students.

David Apatoff said...

António Araújo-- Your class sounds great, I wish I could take it. Do you teach at Cornell?

Let me start by emphasizing that I have no general grievance against computers. My law practice specializes in information technology and telecommunications, so computers not only occupy my days but also feed my family at night. I agree that "The computer is what you make of it."

I'm glad to hear your assessment that things are getting better, and that students today are "earnestly trying to get a hang of classical drawing (with pencil and pixels both)." I'm also glad to hear that your students from Moscow haven't been tainted by some of our attitude problems.

I recognize that there are not many Starrs in any era, but sometimes I wonder whether even Starr could still be Starr in this era. As I mentioned in one of my posts, Starr abandoned his first strip, On Stage, because newspaper circulation dwindled and popular tastes shifted from soap opera comic strips to talking, moving digital entertainment. He began drawing a much more simplistic strip for a simpler audience, a strip that would still be decipherable when it was reproduced at half the size of his first strip. I talk to friends in the illustration business who say the expectations for their speed and productivity, as well as the prerogatives of clients to meddle with their work, have all been transformed by art software. I talk to friends in the gaming industry who say that their art is not one for capturing complex facial expressions or lingering over subtleties-- it is for fast paced decision-making.

António Araújo said...

Hi David,

no, not Cornell; I live in Portugal, and I teach at Universidade Aberta (sort of the Portuguese Open uni). The paper is at Cornell's arxiv server because arxiv is a universal repository where we all (mathematicians, physicists, and some other types) send our preprints from all over the world, to freely share our work before it gets frozen into print (arxiv is another example of computers put to excelent use)

For now my course is only in Portuguese, but I'll be writing a small book about it next year, and that will be in English.

" I talk to friends in the illustration business who say (...)"

Can't disagree with anything on this paragraph. But isn't that mostly about economics? I think you had this discussion before. Even before photoshop, weren't magazines replacing illustrations with photographs because of speed and price? I recall you did a piece once about some industrial magazine that once had these great illustrations on the cover (of grandiose industrial vistas and equipment) and later on started replacing them with boring photographs of "captains of industry".

(I am not at all clear on the economic shift that took place in order to make that happen, so I'll be very glad if someone could elaborate.)

But in spite of those constraints that come from the job, don't those friends of yours still put in the time (though it hurts the bottom line) to learn the old skills? I know a few people from the local industry here, and they keep trying to hone their abilities beyond what is strictly needed to make the concept design, storyboarding, etc. They lack the time, yes, but not the interest.

BTW, I always get sucked into this argument on computers, since it hits an emotional chord with me. I got to live in a transitional period. I remember wasting years as a kid who lived in a backwater of Europe, hungering for the books I half knew existed but couldn't get at. It is amazing the amount of information we can access right now, and how fast you can learn if you put in the effort. I can see all the crap that came with computers, but frankly, overall I am still in awe at all the information it unleashed. It was probably not as noticeable if you were born in places with good libraries and bookshops, so it's a matter of perspective. But for people like me it was a great bounty.

Anonymous said...

Apart from the expressions, it is always a joy to zoom right in on Starr's original artwork and see his beautiful inking. This is something that you don't get from all the excellent books of comics reprints that have been issued in recent years.

Thanks for all the scanning.

Don Cox

David Apatoff said...

António Araújo-- I would far rather go to Portugal to take your class than go to Ithaca, NY. However, I'm afraid that my Portugese is not what it should be.

I agree with you that computers are a double edged sword. I share the view of those who believe that computers and the internet are a milestone in human history comparable to the development of agriculture. What a privilege to be living at this moment, and what a terror too. We don't know whether computers will turn out to be our salvation or our downfall.

Don Cox-- It always pleases me to hear from those who appreciate the qualities in Starr's great work. He was not there for the ascension of the art form, like Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff. For them, the horizon seemed unlimited. Starr was a witness to the end; he knew it was coming and rode the art form most of the way down, maintaining his dignity in the process. It's a very different artistic challenge, I think.

Gunnar said...


I'm not suggesting Kate Beaton is any master of facial expressions, but her repertoire goes a fair bit beyond smiles and frowns (of the ones you mention, I'm sure I've seen at least nostalgia, as well as things like moronic obstinacy, self-conscious virtue, tolerant amusement, flattered glee, etc., etc.). I think she's a great cartoonist in part because her drawings – despite various technical weaknesses that I by no means deny – do in fact support the storytelling/joke, including with appropriate facial expressions; they "add value", as you put it, in a way that your Roz Chast example clearly does not. It is not at all obvious to me that her work is inferior on this score to the William Steig examples posted here, although she's obviously not on Starr's level.

As for Photoshop and other computer tools, there are definitely comic artists who rely heavily on them to help with e.g. perspective, to the point where the actual drawing seems like little more than a formality. In European comics, for example, you have someone like Bruno Gazzotti who builds or imports scenes and props in a 3D-modeling tool like Sketchup, then takes snapshots and traces them. You can see another example, which combines photo tracing and 3D modeling, here:

Anonymous said...

i completly disagree on your Kate Beaton and Betchell examples. Beaton was going for a comedic effect and her "lustful" face hit the mark rather well, honestly i snicker a little when i saw it.
and Betchel was going for a more subdued effect. conflicting emotions on his father and stuff. the face certainly convey how she probably remembers her father.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- Thanks for writing. I'm content to let people look at the drawings by Beaton and Bechdel and draw their own conclusions. All I would ask is that you try looking at the drawings without the words attached. If the label did not say "lustful" is there any way you would construe her drawing as a lustful face?

Gunnar-- I agree that Beaton has real strengths as a cartoonist. I've heard her speak and she is clearly bright and articulate, and she has legions of fans. I just don't think they're very demanding about drawing.

Thanks for the link. Despite the superficial mechanical accuracy of such drawings, I find them even less appealing than Beaton's drawings.

Anonymous said...

(same guy that jump about Beaton and Betchell) The problem of using that example (the Kate Beaton one) is that she is not using the "consumed with lust" to explain the character feelings. but to make his silly face more funny by comparison. he is not as dignified as he think he is. and the think is, i dont know the context of the strip, but i got a lot of information out of the drawing that goes beyond what the text told me.