Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Feliks Topolski (1907-1989) traveled the world, illustrating the great places and events of his day.

Born in Poland, Topolski set out for adventure at an early age. He made his way to Britain, the US, the Middle East, Canada, Ireland, France, India, Australia, Italy, Argentina, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Brazil and Portugal. Wherever he went, he kept a visual diary of the things he witnessed. His drawings of exotic street bazaars, ancient temples and crowded cities were collected in highly popular books.

During World War II, Topolski became famous as one of the great war illustrators, working on the front lines in Russia, China, Burma, India, Palestine, Africa, Egypt, Syria and Italy. He was in London to record the Battle of Britain, and in Germany to record the collapse of the Nazi regime. He witnessed first hand the freeing of the concentration camps. Here is a wonderful detail of looters making off with plunder in the streets of Bergen:

Here is an excellent drawing of Jordanian soldiers standing guard:

He drew portraits of world leaders such as Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Bertrand Russell

One thing I particularly like about Topolski is the care he devoted to drawing people who were standing around waiting aimlessly.

Traveling under primitive wartime conditions, Topolski saw a lot of people sitting around waiting; waiting for food, waiting because transportation broke down, waiting for visas, waiting in prison camp yards... progress had come to a halt, and it seemed like most of the world spent most of its time waiting in lines.

Rather than succumb to mind numbing boredom, Topolski found the inspiration to take out his pencil and draw the people sitting around. He made thousands of drawings of such groups all around the world, but you can tell from the following examples that Topolski remained alert and observant, shrewdly capturing in line the identity and characteristics of each group.

The posture and clothing of the Russian soldiers in their thick coats look entirely different from the displaced persons, who look entirely different from the German POWs.

Those who see with the eyes of an artist, whose hand itches to draw, find opportunities for excellence even when surrounded by tedium.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


When words and pictures are combined to tell a story, one medium or the other usually ends up doing most of the heavy lifting.

Personally, I prefer art where the picture plays the central role but I acknowledge that the People In Charge of Handing Out Awards These Days seem to have the opposite view. The most honored graphic novels often combine powerful words with weak drawing.

Take for example Alison Bechdel's touching book Fun Home, Time Magazine's No. 1 Book of the Year and a National Book Critic Circle Award finalist:

Bechdel can write about an "abject and shameful mien" but she sure can't draw one. You'd never guess from these facial expressions that you are looking at a sobered person confronting a shamed person. Furthermore, her commonplace composition doesn't contribute much design or style. So perhaps we are entitled to ask: do Bechdel's drawings really enhance her words, or are they just a place holder enabling the reader to fill in the gap with his or her imagination?

Another example of the emphasis on words over pictures is Art Spiegelman's pulitzer prize winning Maus-- again, a powerful story accompanied by weaker drawing.

As with Bechdel's drawings, Spiegelman's facial expressions are either simplistic or blank. His figures are often stiff and static,and nothing in the staging of this drawing adds depth or profundity to the story already being conveyed by the words.

The same is true of the widely acclaimed "masterpiece" of the graphic novel, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan. Ware correctly acknowledges, "as individual drawings [his work is] pretty bad."

Each of the pictures above tries to reduce a dysfunctional relationship between parent and child into a line drawing. To see what we are missing, look at how the same subject is handled in drawings from lowly MAD magazine. These pictures by Mort Drucker never won a prize or even merited a review, yet Drucker employs a whole collection of visual tools that are far beyond the reach of Bechdel, Spiegelman or Ware.

Note how the pictures enhance the words. This picture is drawn from an angle, looking down on the oppressed kid to make him even more diminutive; note the thick coarse line used to draw the abrasive father, the exaggerated shoulder and immense paw holding a cigar butt; and most of all, note the psychological insight in the marvelous facial expressions. This drawing reflects a lot of thought, effort and talent that are utterly lacking in the pictures above.

Here's another traumatized kid being manipulated by a parent. Once again, the expressions are perfect. Note how the parent leans forward and the kid cowers, looking back over his frail shoulder.

Here's a hilarious glowering mother hunched over the kitchen sink doing chores that her disrespectful daughter dismisses with a wave of her hand.

More body language: clasped hands, weary head in hand and raised eyebrows.

One last example: this picture shows how the angry mother has intimidated both the son and the father. They have furrowed brows and heads shaped and tilted to convey their weakness, as the mother's head and finger thrust forward into the picture.

When you compare these two sets of pictures, they exhibit dramatically different talents pursuing dramatically different goals. All of these creators claim to be "artists," but Bechdel, Spiegelman and Ware practice psychology using words, while Drucker practices it using pictures.
It is hard to say whether one medium is more insightful than the other, but the wild disparity in their treatment by the critics reflects a fundamental prejudice in favor of words and a gross ignorance about pictures.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


I have irritated some readers by criticizing popular illustrators such as Bama, Boris, Rowena or Vargas. These artists have good technical skills; they can paint realistically but they lack something far more important: a good design sense.

"What exactly is this design element you keep yapping about, and how can you claim to know which pictures have it and which don't?"

Like most glorious things, design eludes definition. It can be found in an infinite number of forms. But for those who want to observe it in action, I know of no more lucid distillation than in Japanese woodblock prints.

Look at the marvelous arrangement of shapes and patterns in the picture above, the artful negative space-- this is what I mean when I talk about design.

The great Japanese woodblock artists understood what Peter Behrens called "the fundamental principles of all form creating work."

Monday, November 12, 2007


We've all been taught that you can't compare apples and oranges. They are as different as... well, a Rembrandt drawing and a Disney cartoon.

Some of those differences may be significant, but many of them are simply propaganda from press agents, museum curators and bankers. Let's investigate.

Here is a herd of wonderful elephants:

Heinrich Kley's elephants courting


Disney studio's "Pink Elephants on Parade"

Jack Davis, GOP elephant

Jack Davis, study for Time Magazine

You will never see these elephants hanging out together in the same neighborhood; some reside in museums, while others reside in corporate filing cabinets. They were produced by very different hands, centuries apart. They were designed for different purposes and cost vastly different amounts. Yet, these are only questions of pedigree and should not distract the true art lover. As you compare these pictures, you will find we can still judge their most important elements on a level playing field.

A museum curator would faint at the heresy of comparing Rembrandt to Jack Davis, but never let that stop you. Personally I think Davis did a better job than Rembrandt here. His humor is broad, but I also think his drawings of elephants are more insightful and interesting than Rembrandt's drawing.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


The famous scientist and naturalist Loren Eiseley explained how flowers made human beings possible.

100 million years ago, wrote Eiseley, there was no such thing as a flower. The world was covered with monotonous green vegetation. The inhabitants of that long ago world were mostly cold-blooded creatures with low metabolic rates and small brains driven only by the instinct for the hunt. Their metabolisms made them slaves to weather and limited their lives--they mostly slept through winter, immobilized.

In this reptilian world, our ancestor was an unpromising little mammal who cowered at the losing end of the food chain. According to Eiseley, "man was still, like the genie in the bottle, encased in the body of a creature about the size of a rat."

Then during the cretaceous period, flowering plants (angiosperms with encased seeds) exploded into the world to rescue us. The age of flowers brought us seeds, fruits and nectars-- a totally new store of energy in concentrated form. This energy source enabled us to realize our potential by sustaining our higher metabolic rate. It brought about the rise of birds and mammals, with a more constant body warmth and efficiency and with newly agile brains. Warm blooded birds and mammals depended on high oxygen consumption and food in concentrated forms only provided by flowering plants. As a result of these "supreme achievements in the evolution of life," the human race was on its way:

Without the gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they continued to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable....man might still be a nocturnal insectivore gnawing a roach in the dark. The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours.
For me, art plays a role similar to the role of Eiseley's flowers. It concentrates our everyday experience into denser packets of visual and emotional nutrition that we can carry with us in our minds and unpack as we go.

Art might take the form of that "special song" that sets your heart to racing, or a poem that is an intense nugget of content that slowly unfolds within you upon reflection. But whatever its form, the invention of art acts like the invention of flowering angiosperms; it allows humans to ingest experience in more intense and digestible forms. It helps our higher metabolism-- intellectual, emotional, visual, amatory-- process the fuel of everyday life.

And it propels us another inch down the road from that "nocturnal insectivore gnawing a roach in the dark."

Saturday, November 03, 2007


In my youth, I was easily impressed by fine, detailed linework.

Fine lines are a great way for artists to show off. They also feel cool to draw. Artists such as Norman Lindsay (above) and Frank Frazetta (below) sometimes got so carried away drawing fine lines that they could no longer hear the muse urging, "turn back!"

As I matured, I noticed that the better artists exercised greater restraint and often employed heavier, bolder lines for emphasis. These stronger lines are like adding a lower note to the harmony.

Below, the great Alex Raymond draws an entire figure using a fine line, but comes back with a separate tool to make one bold stripe for that pants leg:

Here he does the same thing to accentuate a shoulder fold:

And here he uses that bold line to chisel the most wonderfully sculpted pair of overalls I've ever seen:

Once in a while there are very special artists who go even further. Working exclusively with a thick line they somehow manage to create sensitive drawings as descriptive as anything done by the fine line crowd. Here is the brilliant work of Noel Sickles:

When you draw with lots of fine lines, no single line is crucial; if you make a mistake, you can cover it up with cross hatching, or reinforce it with the lines on either side of it. But there is no place for Sickles to hide an imperfect line in these drawings.

Here is another superb example from Alex Toth:

Toth has captured a complex subject-- a group of people in ornate robes walking down a palace corridor under a trellis with palm trees outside-- and he has done so using a simple, bold line. Unlike the Lindsay or Frazetta drawings, this is a work of unimpeachable integrity and admirable restraint.

Finally, here is another powerful example of what can be accomplished at the thick end of the spectrum. The great Robert Fawcett was far too substantial to get distracted drawing button holes and strands of hair in this picture of tear gas at a civil rights riot:

Sometimes the less subtlety and precision in the drawing tool, the greater the subtlety and precision required from the mind and wrist of the artist.