Thursday, August 24, 2006


Alex Toth argued that art should be stripped of all gimmicks and pretension:
Simplicity is a great god. Truth. Throw out all the junk. There's a saying which says: "to add to truth subtracts from it." Make it so simple you can't cheat.
No illustrator of the 20th century drew with more honesty and less pretension than the great Noel Sickles. He was a born draughtsman with an almost supernatural drawing ability. He had no use for pretension.

These stunning Civil War drawings were for an obscure article buried in the middle of a magazine from the 1950s. They were published at approximately the same size as you see them here. They have never been republished nor mentioned as significant examples of Sickles' work. But no matter how humble their size or format, their extraordinary beauty and purity are worth close study today.

This is what I mean when I talk about "drawing."


Anonymous said...

Sickles is tops .A class all by him self .

David Apatoff said...

Valentino, I probably did get a little carried away with that one but right now I can't think of anyone who clung more tenaciously to the virtues of pure, simple drawing.

Sickles worked in an era when top illustrators from Al Parker to Bob Peak were exploring all the flash and sizzle and color that the medium would permit. Even illustrators famous for their drawing-- Gibson, Coll, Booth-- sometimes couldn't resist showing off by overworking their drawings or tarting them up. But with Sickles it was all about that simple line. His drawings for Life magazine were models of sparse, economical presentation. He was a unique guy who stepped back from the art business in the middle of his career just to read and study philosophy.

Alex Toth wrote about Sickles, "celebrity was not [his] holy grail.... one satisfies oneself with less, monetarily and materially, enjoying another reward beyond price.... [T]hrough [Sickles'] words and work, my eyes were opened...."

To this day, Sickles has devoted fans who appreciate pure drawing. He is like Robert Fawcett in that respect, but without Fawcett's arrogance.

I agree with you that one might come up with a dozen names to put in the same general category with Sickles in terms of honest draughtsmanship, although I don't know who I would put above him.

One thing is for sure, Sickles would not approve of my attaching his name to such hyperbole. So in honor of Sickles, how about if I stop talking and start listening. I would be most interested in hearing about other illustrators, particularly non-US illustrators whose great strength was pure,unpretentious drawing. And I promise not to rate them.

spacejack said...

I'm fascinated by his scenes with dozens (or hundreds?) of figures. He's able to inject character into virtually every figure in the scene.

David Apatoff said...

I agree 100%, Spacejack. Sickles' drawings seem so straightforward on the surface, yet they contain such depth and quality that they always reward closer examination. Lesser artists often try to conceal their weaknesses with special lighting and other distractions. Sickles is just the opposite: he lays it all out there, unambiguous and unafraid.

For a real treat, take a close look at that third drawing and see how he depicts the broken fence receding into a grove of trees. With drawing like that, you wonder why anyone bothered to invent abstract art.

David Apatoff said...

Painter X, I confess I have always been a real sucker for the show offs too, but just when their theatrics and posturing begin to distort my values, Sickles is like a great detergent.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification.
I agree, it is hard to find (though not entirely impossible) good artists not fond of showing off. It's part of the business - art directors by definition look for flashy works.
However, here are a couple of european masters of the line (off the top of my head, in no particular order): Heinrich Kley, Zdenek Burian, Andrija Maurovic, Tommislav Krizman, Dino Battaglia, Victor de la Fuente, Hugo Pratt, Joseph Gillain aka Jije, Alberto Breccia (ok, he's Argentinian) Moebius, Miljenko Stancic, Jesus Blasco, Albert Uderzo etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

I've made ta similar comment on so many of your other posts that it probably evokes eye-rolling by now, but it would be wonderful to have a book collection of Sickles' work. The lack of such resources is the eternal frustration of those of us who love illustration. But we've recently seen the publication of the Alex Toth Doodle Book. If there's a market for Toth's doodles--and I'm glad there is--why not for Sickles' illustrations? Thanks for posting these examples, none of which I'd seen before.

Moritat said...

I have asked several publishers over the years about publishing a Sickles book. All of them told they would love to but would lose money. I think the time is now to start bugging them again.

Al McAllister said...

David; What a find your Blog. You express an enthusiasm and recognition for great art which is wonderful. In reading some of the posted reactions regarding your choices one sees that most people miss the point. They look at things from a competitive point of view, comparing apples and oranges.If they don't understand this it is their loss. Because the things you call attention to confirm how marvelous good art can be. Be it "Fine Art" or "Illustration" - I thankfully never had this prejudice.

mr & ms CabDriverLol said...

Valentino, I checked out your website too. Your portraiture is amazing! You seem to really be able to capture their spirit in your work.

Anonymous said...

Enjoying you blog very much David .First I heard mention of Fawcett's arrogance , I know he did say that If someone doe'snt become a professional artist then they have only there self to blame .A bit harsh me thinks .Anyway could you elaborate plz.

In regards to Sickles. How many artist living or dead could pull something like this off [URL=][IMG][/IMG][/URL]

Anonymous said...

Enjoying you blog very much David .This th first I heard mention of Fawcett's arrogance , I know he did say that If someone does not become a professional artist then they have only there self to blame .A bit harsh me thinks .Anyway could you elaborate plz.

In regards to Sickles I'd like to add to what you already said by saying no one was a greater draftmen as well

David Apatoff said...

Valentino, I was familiar with some of the artists you mentioned, such as Kley and Moebius, but I am enjoying exploring the other names as well.

Bob, I never roll my eyes when people like these artists enough to want a book of their work. Quite the contrary, it warms my heart because it makes me feel that I've found a kindred spirit over the internet.

Justin, good luck! I would be first in line to buy a copy.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I love the work of Robert Fawcett-- he is one of my favorite illustrators and I wrote a long article about him for Illustration Magazine a few years ago. In the process, I interviewed a number of people who knew him well and read some of his correspondence. Let's just say he was a man of strong opinions and high standards.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Fawcett, I deeply appreciate both his talent and his work ethics. I'd say that the artist's standards can never be too high.

leifpeng said...


In regards to the Sickles illustrations you posted all I can say is *gulp* (breaks into a cold sweat) thanks for sharing these with us.

As to the flashy illustrator movement, I love how Sickles considered even the illustrators going back to the 1920's (he gives James Montgomerey Flagg as an example) as shallow. Sickles: "Illustration was much better in this country in the 1880's and '90s and early 1900s." (!)

Re: honest, unpretentious European illustrators with whom we would not be familiar: just yesterday a friend alerted me to the work of Raymond Poivet, an artist I don't doubt of whom Sickles would have approved:

leifpeng said...

Oh! - And one more thing: with the cost and quality of print-on-demand available these days, all it would take is the will, elbow grease and permission from the estate of the artist (or the still-living artist, in the best case scenario) for someone to put together a decent "Art of___" book at a reasonable cost.

Check out and if you're (by "you" I mean anyone reading this) in the position to make such a book a reality, then there's no need to wait until some traditional publisher decides an "Art of ___" book is economically feasible.

I will happily promote such efforts on my blog.

Roberval said...


Sickles is the artistic father of people as Milton Caniff, Frank Robbins, Alex Toth, Hugo Pratt, Carlos Gimenez...Sorry but I must say "Ahhhhh...Noel Sickles"

joseph d. said...

Yes, these crowd scenes are quite remarkable

Unknown said...

I recently acquired a work by Sickles. It is an original, ink and water-color wash drawing of a train, all in simple black/white. Beautiful, and you can see some of the guide lines for creating depth, etc. There is a handwritten pencil note on the back along the bottom: "Original drawing 10-5-89 Color Craft Tucson Arizona Noel Sickles"--- His name is printed, although the other words are written in script. It is a rather large (for Sickle) drawing, about 14" high and 20" long, and it has been nicely matted and framed. Does anyone have more information (especially current valuation)... Thanks