Sunday, January 19, 2020


It has been said that form and content are jealous cousins-- they don't always get along well.

Sometimes it seems that today content has scored a TKO over form.  So many pictures in the information age focus on content, while giving very little consideration to the principles of design.

Previous generations of artists would collect entire files of strong designs:

At first I didn't understand what the pictures in this file had in common.  They were of different subjects, by different artists, in different styles, from different eras.  How could this file possibly be useful to a working artist looking for reference?

Then I realized they were all pictures where the form dominates the content, where bold designs and compositions reach out and grab you and only then fold you into the content.

I think these pictures were chosen to embolden-- something a working artist needs as much as they need accurate information about the anatomy of a hand, or the buttons on a military uniform .   

Saturday, January 11, 2020


Different illustrators clipped different types of reference pictures, depending on their needs.

For example, some kept comprehensive files of children, or different kinds of animals; some fixated on watercolors in order to study painting technique. Some kept boxes of historical reference with pictures of great cities and empires.

But I never saw a collection which didn't keep a file of drawings.  No matter what their professional assignments might be, all artists seemed to appreciate the importance of good drawing.

Here's a selection from the files I inherited:

Thursday, January 09, 2020


In the decade following World War II, illustrators faced an unprecedented challenge: painting more kisses, with more adjectives and adverbs attached to them, than any time in history.

Alex Ross distinguishes between a light, medium or heavy kiss.  ("Heavy, please," she said.)  

Al Parker, one of the preeminent illustrators of the day, described the national sense of relief after the war, when interrupted lovers could reunite and continue where they'd left off.  "The need to escape was already waning and, with it, escapist art." Instead of reading costumed adventure fantasies, young housewives ("the most important reader" of illustrated magazines at that time) wanted to see handsome men and gorgeous women finding each other and settling down for domestic bliss... preferably in the suburbs.  

This meant a whole lot of illustrations of kissing.

For example, here is an illustration of a kiss better than any "kiss in the movies:"

"No kiss in the movies was better."

… a concept which was probably easier to illustrate than a "wherever and whenever" kiss:

"...wherever and whenever he pleased..."

Here's an example of the "surprise" kiss:

This seems in questionable taste today, but judging from women's magazines of the 1950s,
women seemed to like these pictures.

Here, Al Parker himself depicts the unsettling effect of a "wild" kiss...

... which appears very different from the residue of Frederic Varady's "safely married" kiss:

Here is a "missed opportunity" for kisses with Mr. Atomic:

No longer reading historical fantasies, postwar wives were smooching the "knight in shining armor" in their own home.

The "I knew it would be like that" kiss:

Here's the "I'm-desperately-kissing-your-hand-in-the-driveway-because-I'm-going-nuts-and-I-don't-know-if-I-can-wait-for-the-wedding-night" kiss:

And of course, anticipating the "first kiss:"

Sifting through old illustrations is a little like an archaeological dig.  Layers of moldering clippings tell us more about the special look and character of their time than any history book.  That is the great power of demotic art.

In hindsight we can see how different colors, styles and subject matter appealed to the public during different eras.  For example, the colors of the psychedelic 60s still stand out as bright and bold.  Their lines remain distinctively flamboyant.  On the other hand, illustrations from the Depression seem more somber and businesslike. My files from the prohibition era overflow with black and white pictures of society dames and gangsters in fedoras, while the illustration during the war years are all tinged with patriotism and anxiety.  Illustrators were using a lot of olive drab and navy blue to paint uniforms.

And then of course, in the decade following World War II, every other illustration seemed to be about kissing.

Monday, January 06, 2020


Many contemporary illustrators don't devote much effort to capturing facial expressions.  They either rely on a "photo-illustration" to do the heavy lifting, or they draw a simplified face and write in the desired expression.

Here, famed illustrator Seymour Chwast shows us the expression of someone "overcome with emotion" in a 2010 illustration for Dante's Divine Comedy:

And you'd never recognize these facial expressions from Reuben award winner Roz Chast if she didn't label them for us: irony, sarcasm and passive aggression. 

So I find it instructive that every collection of reference clippings I've ever seen from artists working earlier in the 20th century included a substantial file of faces with a wide range of expressions.

These files of facial expressions show us how crucial these artists believed expressions were to their work.  

From the wildest extremes... subtlest smirk:

These artists felt it important to understand how facial expressions worked.

You also discover many pictures of the faces of pretty girls.  Those expressions include 47 varieties of demurely lowered eyelids:

That tells you something about the era too.  

But in this post I'd rather focus on examples of the more fun animated faces I found.