Thursday, May 14, 2020


This is Noel Sickles' preliminary sketch...

for this finished illustration of runaway horses on main street:

Unlike many artists, Sickles rarely made detailed preliminaries.  For him it was most important to analyze how his subject worked.  Once he'd mapped out the structure of the street, the sweep of its curve, the strategic location of key landmarks such as that parasol in the road he could proceed directly to the final drawing of the horses, carts, etc.

Henry Pitz noted that Sickles was such a remarkable draftsman, once he walked around a stagecoach and understood how it worked, he could rotate it in his mind and draw it from any angle.  His brain was equipped with CAD/CAM software. 

This may look like a painting, but as you can tell from this close up of the original, this remains primarily a drawing:

Here is another preliminary sketch...

for this finished illustration of the siege of Leningrad:

Again and again, Sickles' sketches demonstrate the approach of a structural engineer:

If he can figure out how the thing works, he is confident his drawing will be authentic.


Donald Pittenger said...

There's a school of illustration -- often French -- that favors casually-drawn images, often in watercolor. An example that comes to mind are some images Apple used back in the early Macintosh years, namely the "Picasso" logo and related designs.

Then there are artists (more painters than illustrators, I suspect) who got through art school without much knowledge of how things are structured. Most likely they were exposed to human anatomy, but perhaps not much beyond that. I wince when I see an illustration where, say, the wheel of a car is improperly depicted. I suppose a Fine Arts type might use the "it's my feeling of a tire" ploy and get away with it. But unless the commercial image is not clearly a design (as opposed to depiction), that lack of structural understanding is hard to excuse.

Perhaps I'm biased here, given my interest in industrial design plus a year of introductory architecture training. Still, I really, really like Sickles' work for the reasons you presented.

By the way, David, I recently drafted a post about him for my blog. Has to do with imaginary World War 2 scenes. Will appear fairly soon. I also have a plug for your Mead Schaeffer book in the queue -- can hardly wait for my copy!

chris bennett said...

Interesting thoughts Donald, and they chime in with why I prefer Sickles to someone like Dufy (a French artist embodying the kind of casual depiction I think you are referring to)


Of the images David has posted here I consider the line drawings to be far superior to the paintings. I think it's to do with the way they tickle at the sense of something being there and not there at the same time. The white paper inside or outside his pen or pencil strokes remains a void evoking no substance, as if the graphic marks are just scaffolding ready for a building that hasn't begun. Normally this makes for bloodless, soulless work (one comes across it in countless amateur drawings of the life model), but with Sickles this vacuum between the lines seems to contain a dark matter holding them together. It's what makes them intriguing to me.

chris bennett said...

Maybe this is why his paintings do not work for me - the colour and tone, which should be there for a reason, has no substance.

chris bennett said...

EDIT: I should say 'has very little' substance'.

kev ferrara said...

I can't say these are the best Sickles pieces I've ever seen, or even the best you've posted, but I'll take any Sickles I can get. At least they're worth inspecting and talking about.

That main street wagon horse bucking scene is an interesting attempt at de-dramatizing the violent incident of the picture in favor of expressing the general open planar quality of a street scene in those days and in that neck of America. The overall effect, however, becomes quotidian quietude instead of action and drama. The work feels sleepy rather than arresting. The afterthought of the unoccupied open carriage in the foreground has more narrative force than the horse. The dust cloud Sickles used to distinguish that foreground object from the runaway horse only serves to better frame the carriage and obscure the runaway wagon. This seems contrary to the meaning of the narrative and it took me a long time to figure out what was happening back there. (And the lady in pink with the carriage seems strangely tall and floating off the ground plane. Not Sickles finest hour.)

I really like that charcoal sketch of the Siege of Leningrad, but the finish loses the sense of smoky particulates in the air, falsifying the atmosphere of war and explosions, by emphasizing figural clarity throughout the entire crowd scene as it recedes into the depth of the picture. In clearing the sky for no good reason, the crowd becomes a diagram for no good reason. He lost his forest for the trees.

Tom said...

I like the panoramics David. Especially the Western one. It feels like a 1950's or early 60's film still. The sunlight hitting the ground plane and all the top planes in the picture is nice, especially the way it strikes the roof of the far house in the background. You know its hot and its mid day. The runaway horses feel like the sun whose gravity is holding all the surrounding planets in orbit by the straight lines of sight of all the spectators. Even the objects, the fence gate the foreground carriage, the distance house and trees are all under the influence of the same circular gravitational force.

The little girl in the white hat seems awfully important for some reason. The value contrast and her red flower hat have almost has more magnatic pull then the runaway horses.. I guess she balances the action across the center of the page giving the picture a nice sense of stablity. Is she the protagonist of the story? I agree with Kev the woman in the red dress does feel out of scale, awkardly tall almost leaning to far forward in a unbalanced way..

Wes said...

Is the woman too tall because the perspective is off, or is she just too tall, or both? She looks normal and correct in the preliminary.

kev ferrara said...

Is the woman too tall because the perspective is off, or is she just too tall, or both? She looks normal and correct in the preliminary.

For any two standing people on the same ground plane and of roughly the same height, whatever part of the body falls on the horizon line for one, the same body part will fall on the horizon line for the other. So if a man's eyes fall on the horizon line, every other man's eyes on the same ground plane and of roughly the same height will also fall on the horizon line. Same goes for shoes, kneecaps, crotches, bellybuttons, shoulders, or the top of the head... If the part on one guy is at the horizon, the same part for all similar guys is at the horizon. (These kinds of freehand assessments can be used to eyeball all sorts of depth/height relations in a picture.)

The man in the straw hat above the shoulder of the young girl in white at right... that man's eyes are approximately at the horizon level (not the mountain range in the distance). Now run a straight horizontal line from his eyes to the other side of the picture; that horizon line runs through the thin horizontal store sign on the far left building. All the men on the left side are well below that horizon line/store sign, thus their eyes are not even close to being at the same level as the man's at right. So all those guys in that far left group are out of perspective compared to the straw hatted guy. (There's no indication that the street is in any way curved, if one were to attempt to justify the perspective as "correct even though it feels off.")

Regarding the girl in pink with the baby carriage, you'll note, compared to the sketch, that not only has she been made considerably taller, but she also been moved up in the picture plane, thus back into depth on the ground plane. So she's not only larger than in the sketch, but she's also farther away from the viewer as well as being larger, which indicates she's larger still. Imagine her standing upright and her eyes would be near the top of the far left building, well above that store's horizontal signage, which would therefore be above the far right straw hat man's eye line which is the horizon line.

So at least 3 different figures/groups are alienated from each other in terms of perspective. (Even geniuses have off days.)

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- I've learned to have high regard for your knowledge about car illustration. Some say that faces are the ultimate test; others (including Sickles) say that the horse is how to tell if an artist knows what he or she is doing. You seem to be able to tell a lot from cars. Sickles does a great job with four wheeled vehicles, whether stage coaches, baby carriages or army tanks. I look forward to reading what you have to say about his work.

Chris Bennett-- I don't disagree with you. Even when Sickles was painting, he was really drawing. I hadn't thought about it before, but the same might be said of other artists I really admire-- Robert Fawcett and Mort Drucker, for example. They are definitely not colorists.

Kev Ferrara-- I agree these aren't as good as most of the other Sickles images I've posted. Unfortunately, I didn't have access to his preliminaries for his best work. What about anyone else out there?

Like you, I prefer the charcoal study of the Leningrad piece. It didn't get better as he worked on it more.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- You are right, the girl and her parasol lying in the middle of the road are key to the story. The fact that you were able to figure that out with everything else going on in the picture suggests that Sickles staged it well. I like your assessment of the picture; Sickles understood horses, small dusty towns and hot midday suns very well.

Wes, Tom and Kev Ferrara-- I hadn't focused on the woman in pink before, but I can see that you're right. Looking at the two versions, I'm guessing that he decided the rough was too diffuse-- a lot of small figures spread out across a long horizontal image, lacking a strong visual focal point. So he added that buckboard in the foreground and expanded those two figures, but didn't go back and readjust for the relative perspective. I guess this one could've benefited from another prelim.

Wes said...

Thanks; marvelous that you can see that -- and explain it. Very instructive.