Sunday, February 24, 2019


I love this drawing by the great Austin Briggs:

I love its marvelous, fresh take on the running figure, partially obscured by the design of the flapping coat.

Notice how Briggs was not enslaved by the coiled telephone wire; notice the way he added vigor to what could have been the boring color of the policeman's uniform.  Briggs seized these elements and boldly made them into what he needed for the picture:

Does it look like Briggs had trouble with the anatomy of hands?  Guess again.  Briggs spent decades painting highly realistic figures for advertisements for companies such as American Airlines, Bell Telephone and Chevrolet before he became brave enough to draw pictures like this.  

You might get further insight into the special qualities of this drawing by looking at a few other drawings from the same article about the gangster, John Dillinger.

Briggs could not draw in this simple way if he didn't already fully understand the role of the extensor muscles or the radius bone at the wrist or the structure of the human face.

Great stuff from an era when Look magazine would commission four illustrations by a talent such as  Briggs for an internal article.


Li-An said...

It’s pencil ?

MORAN said...


al mcluckie said...

Looking forward to the forthcoming book - updates ? I know these volumes are labors of love , do they turn a profit that would warrant followup books ?

I had an initial negative opinion of Briggs , having only seen his Flash Gordons , where he was trying to follow Raymond's style - later his illustrative work made him a favorite .

Al McLuckie

Donald Pittenger said...

Briggs had plenty of Right Stuff, as the hard-edge ad image and the sketchy article illustrations confirm. As for the latter, that general style was in fashion back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Think David Stone Martin, Harvey Schmidt and others. Though media might have varied, what was happening was drawing, not painting (though there were illustrators such as Coby Whitmore who did sketchy paintings).

Over the first 2/3s of the 20th century illustration fashions as found in the leading magazines changed every decade or so. Even top-level illustrators such as Dean Cornwell and Mead Schaeffer rolled with the times. A few stuck to their lasts without hurting their careers, but they seem to have been rare. I suppose Rockwell is a good example, though he had to shift from vignette formats to full-canvas images as dictated by changes in the Post's cover layout.

So Briggs did what he had to do to stay au courant -- and did so brilliantly.

comicstripfan said...

To Li-An: From the Illustration History Section of the Norman Rockwell Museum website: "Briggs was especially known for the great subtlety and sensitivity of his drawing with a lithography crayon, charcoal, or similar tools."

comicstripfan said...

To David Apatoff: Thanks so much for your Feb 27th article in the Post on Peter Helck - the reproduced illustration of the "plummeting" train is unbelievable!

Richard said...

How much of the walk of the line do you think is the "accident" of muscle memory flicking out motions?

Anonymous said...

These drawings are fascinating for their integration of the line with the nature and gestures of their subjects. That would be strong and rash characters with an imposing lust for life. He’s using unique and thoughtful combinations of lines with opposing arcs, directive slashes and devices to pin the form in space verses the floating jacket, moving legs, bending knees, pelvis, tilting heads, hats and arms. Everything about these drawings is expressive as opposed to lines politely receding into their host shapes as functioning borders required in the preliminary sketches for the Bell Telephone ad. I especially like the middle thug in the second drawing. That one’s loaded, but shouldn’t forget to mention the very thoughtful pivoting tilt line across his forehead.

The application of tone in areas, appears more vigorously handled than the line work in faces and on the clothing of Dillinger and two women at the theater which demand a slower line. But the final drawings may have been worked up from a number of sketches so that he knew what he was after and from that point, the full drawings may have been done with a level of spontaneous attack according to his discretion. Briggs didn’t treat every subject the same which would indicate habit. It was also common to go back with some white paint and clean up anything unwanted, so what remains is the artist’s intentions.

Li-An said...

to Comicstripfan : thanks for the information.

David Apatoff said...

Li-An-- to augment Comicstripfan's response, Briggs started out with conventional pen and ink, but became proficient with a wide variety of drawing tools,, some of them quite unconventional. He was best friends with Robert Fawcett who used to draw with bamboo sticks, customized brushes that he shaped with a razor, and partially dried felt tip markers. Briggs loved to experiment, including drawing on the reverse side of the paper using a medium that bled through the page. He would simulate half tones in his drawing by drawing in ink on textured window shades, creating a drey brush effect. I believe the Dillinger drawings were done with a crayon, probably a lithography crayon.

MORAN-- I agree.

Al McLuckie-- The Austin Briggs book is almost ready for the printer. I will provide updates and previews on this blog so if you're interested keep watching. These books turn a slender profit only as long as illustration lovers continue to buy them aggressively. I would urge illustration fans to check out Auad Publishing at and The Illustrated Press at for a great cross section of monographs. After the Briggs book, my Mead Schaeffer book is almost done. Who do you have in mind for a followup? So far, I've been involved in six books about some of my favorite artists, including several of my favorites. Briggs will be number seven.

Briggs was not particularly proud of his work on Flash Gordon, and turned down an extremely lucrative offer to continue the strip, in order to achieve greater freedom as an illustrator. However, there are some interesting stories about Flash Gordon, and the relationship between Briggs and Raymond, that I think may affect your perspective on Flash Gordon. The foreword is written by Briggs' son, Austin Jr., about growing up with Flash Gordon and my own text has several revelations.

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- To add to your timeline, recall that drawing was the core of illustration from the 16th to the early 20th centuries; from early wood engraving through Charles Dana Gibson, J.C. Coll, A.B. Frost, Sullivant, Booth, Flagg, all dealt with linework. With the advent of sophisticated color printing, drawing took a backseat to Parrish, Leyendecker, Rockwell, Wyeth and dozens of other great illustrators. After 40 or 50 years focusing on elaborate and detailed color paintings, the illustrators you mention began backing off and recalling the subtle charms of very simple, unadorned drawing. Briggs was a bold leader in that process.

Comicstripfan-- Thanks so much for checking out my Saturday Evening Post column. Yes, isn't that falling locomotive something? Helck could conjure up a train from any angle.

Richard-- I think a lot of drawing is instinctive or intuitive and I'm sure that muscle memory plays a role, but when you're using a thick, black unforgiving crayon where each stroke is a commitment, I don't think its easy to work on automatic pilot. When an artist deals with fine line or shading, when an artist uses a rapidograph or a crow quill pen or silverpoint, they can do a lot of work subconsciously. Franklin Booth or Murray Tinkelman could misdirect 20 or 30 lines and no one would notice. But if one of Briggs' lines defining that face or arm or hat went off course it would make a major difference.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- I agree with your thoughtful assessment of these drawings. You've flagged some of my favorite elements. When you say, "the final drawings may have been worked up from a number of sketches," you are almost certainly right. Briggs did numerous preliminary sketches as a way of thinking through his spontaneous-looking drawings, and worked hard to make the final product look fresh and lively.

al mcluckie said...

William A Smith - and followup volumes on all previous artists .

That was easy to write !

Richard said...

> I don't think its easy to work on automatic pilot

Even when you're working from a photo, and potentially doing tens of quick drawings per finished piece?

Paul Sullivan said...

David—we should all thank you for once again featuring the work of Austin Briggs. I’ve enjoyed studying his drawing style since I was a young artist. The TV Guide series is some of his best work. As much as we admire these Illustrations, they were even more powerful published in ad form. Some time ago, I mentioned that I first saw this series in Advertising Age, the bible of the advertising industry. The impact was nothing short of tremendous. Here you had a slick-paper, black and white tabloid crammed with copy and ads to the point that the pages looked gray. In contrast, the TV Guide ads were one big illustration with nothing but a line or two of copy at the bottom with the TV Guide logo.

To add to the impact, the illustrations had the built-in white space and solid black line of a spontaneous sketch. The figures and compositions of Briggs’ work had an informal, believable look. This was at a time when surveys were telling advertising agencies that people believed photography over illustration.

Maintaining a solid black line was extremely important. With limited tone it meant doing the illustration on two separate surfaces, one for the line art and another for the tone. At that time, line art with limited tone was tricky and extra effort had to be taken. If rendered on a single surface, the black line would be broken to some degree with a dot pattern. Just as important was maintaining the white areas as pure whites. The white areas of a half tone could look like a five percent gray.

In an extended or revised version of the Famous Artists course, Briggs states that he used separate watercolor sheets for the line and the tone. Registration would have been difficult with tone on an opaque watercolor sheet. My guess is that he eventually used a mylar or possibly a treated acetate surface for the tone. This was the general working method at the time. This method was even more important for ads that may be printed on newsprint such as the New York Central series.