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.


Anonymous said...

Great boobs! But I like the Toth better. (I know, always lowering the bar....) I do like the last Toth a lot. Some how he communicates a lot of movement in that drawing. cp

Andrew Smith said...

Wonderful post. I really needed to hear this.
While on the subject of line... What do you think of the work of moebius? I don't think I've ever seen you mention any of his drawings.

Mark said...

This is the very thing I struggle with. I'm very messy and often struggle to simplfy things down and look in awe at those that seem to just go there with no problem. It's at the top of my list of things to master, and thanx for the examples.

Anonymous said...

I hope I'm not getting too far off the topic, but one artist who drew with great beauty and economy of line was Bob Kuhn, who passed away on October 1. I also loved his wildlife paintings. While I dislike many wildlife paintings as obsessed with rendering every piece of fur and feather, Kuhn had great design and bold application of paint.

Anonymous said...

That hand in the second Raymond illustration is comically out of proportion.

David Apatoff said...

Bob, I did not know that Kuhn had passed away. I am very sorry to hear it. I agree with your point. From the few examples of his work that I have seen, Kuhn did not make the common mistake of trying to paint every hair or feather-- he did an excellent job of seeking out the abstract design in fur and painting it with great sensitivity.

David Apatoff said...

Jeffrey, I agree that the hand is too large for the head. From his early days, Raymond always erred in favor of small heads (something about the "classic proportions" they taught back then). But in this case, my guess is that he got caught trying to bridge the distance between the sleeve and the face, and simply miscalculated.

David Apatoff said...

Andrew and Mark, I feel your pain on this issue. It is one of the hardest temptations to rise above.

Andrew, I think Moebius has done some nice work. He knows how to draw and, while he sometimes uses a lot of linework, he is certainly more restrained than the Lindsay and Frazetta examples I have included here. I don't have access to any of his originals, but he is on the long list of artists whose work I would like to show here someday.

Kagan M. said...


What an ugly Frazetta drawing!

spacejack said...

You're preaching to the choir in this article (where choir=me.)

It's funny, I have an illustrator buddy and we've been having this friendly argument since we first met in art school. He prefers fine-tipped instruments like pencils and fineliners, while I would almost always go with a brush. (It's worth noting however that my pencil and pen skills are fairly poor.)

His argument is that you can get fine lines, and build up thicker lines all with a pencil or pen. My argument is that life's too short.

There's also something non-reproducable about a single, bold brush stroke that works, getting it right the first time.

I've been using the pentel pocketbrush a lot lately, wishing they had invented the thing 15 years ago.

I'd love to get to a place where I can do 75-90% of a drawing with a brush, and use a quill for just a few things that might truly need the detail.

Unknown said...

Search on 20th-century magazine illustrators brought me here. I was looking for Eliot Kanin and can't believe there isn't a single reference on the web. Have you ever heard of him? He did wonderful line art in the third quarter of the century.

Anonymous said...

I think Frazetta did that drawing when he was 23. He himself said his early work was often overdone. Thus the comparison/judgement is not a fair one.

The concision present in Frazetta's 1970s pen and inks, like in the Lord of the Rings or Kubla Kahn portfolios would be worth examining. In those, vast graphic shapes of pure white or pure black are used, only intermittently punctuated by gorgeous bits of rendering that are energetic little designs in themselves.

This issue at work here, I believe, is the difference between rendering form and texture and *referring* to the rendering of form and texture. I submit that Frazetta actually renders form and Raymond refers to the rendering of form. If you take both at their most refined, that is.

This goes to the question of where the poetic content of each artist' work lies. Frazetta is a lover of form and design and energy. Raymond seems a lover of good storytelling and "studio" inking techniques that work to simplify any occasion of form or texture that arises.

Personally, I enjoy the ease of Raymond's style. But I don't find it very romantically poetic. It just seems efficient. There is an empty professional spirit there.

Whereas Frazetta's poetifications seem more the result of some emotional process. Which is why no artist can duplicate Frazetta at his best, whereas there's other Cooper studio guys, and guys like Williamson and Torres and some latin guys who can "do" Raymond pretty darn well.

Sickles I would rank with Frazetta. You both notice the realism of the rendering of Sickles, while also noticing the personal poetics. I never "believe" Raymond's work. It has a cool graphic designer feel to it. It works mechanistically, rather than imagistically.

If you look at Raymond's pencil work, or ink wash work, it seems to indicate quite well that his "poetic" understanding of form was limited to what he could do with his collection of studio inking techniques. In my opinion, this shows his shallowness as an artist.

Whereas with Frazetta and Sickles, it does not matter whether ink or pencil or watercolor is the medium. It all comes out beautiful and personal. They could work with mud on a stick and they would find a way to make it work. I do not believe this to be the case with Raymond.

Wonderful blog as usual.

Kev Ferrara

P.S. My comic book came out a few weeks ago from Dark Horse Comics, in case anybody is interested. You can follow this link if interested. (Sorry if this is considered spam.)

Anonymous said...

May I recommend this silly Frazetta drawing from the early 70s. Notice how much large pure black and white space there is here. The skin of the girl. The cloak. The concrete. The sky.

And where it is needed there is gorgeous rendering, often transitioning rhythmically from one large shape to another. This is Frazetta's poetry. Without sacrificing his love of dilineated realism.

Here's the url broken up, just in case it doesn't come out clickable. Just put the following lines together in your browswer url window without a space separating one line from the next.

David Apatoff said...

Spacejack, I am going to try out that pentel pocketbrush!

ArchaeOpteryx, I am afraid I don't know the work of Kanin, but whenever I can't find an illustrator in any reference work anywhere, I ask Walt Reed at Illustration House. He knows everything.

David Apatoff said...

Kev, thanks for a very fair and erudite analysis of the artistic landscape. I didn't mean to suggest that one of these artists is always better than the others when measured on some absolute scale; I only wanted to convey how the quality of their images sometimes suffered as a result ot the urge to make lots of little lines.

That urge is understandable. When you look at Frazetta's originals, his fine lines are absolutely miraculous and it is hard not to be smitten by them. (I will note, however, that both Sickles and Raymond were doing great work at age 23. Sickles never succumbed to the "fine line" problem, and Raymond managed to outgrow it halfway through Flash Gordon.)

I am a big fan of Frazetta's work too. It is interesting to note that in the example of Frazetta's work that you offered, Frazetta made the exact same mistake that Jeffrey (above) points out for Raymond: the hand is "comically out of proportion." In addition, the woman's knee has become dislocated and the cape doesn't work at all as an object in the real world. Sickles would not have made such obvious mistakes, but then we like and forgive Frazetta for his excesses. None of this is an exact science.

That is fantastic that you have a comic book with Dark Horse. I will make a point of tracking it down, and I urge everyone else to do the same.

8:06 AM

Anonymous said...

Poor Leonardo, who obviously didn't know your blog, David... Just look at the unrestraint, narcistic, silly, cowardly linework in his self-portrait... ( )
The hair!!! Really, how much better could he have done if he only would have been a little more substantial!
Great insight, as usual, David, just keep at it ;-)
Your savage Tania

Anonymous said...

"Sickles would not have made such obvious mistakes."

Ouch ouch hot coals hot coals...

Ahem... Besides disagreeing wholeheartedly about "error" of drawing in the Frazetta piece, (And I find the cape to be a work of wonder) I think it is instructive to note the Frazetta was a parody whereas the Raymond was dramatic.

Exaggeration is allowed in either case, as far as I'm concerned. We aren't Art Gestapo here, is we? :)

So what, the hand's a little big. Shrug shrug and more shrug. Its like stopping a great storyteller in mid tale because he used the word "ain't" instead of "is not".


Anonymous said...

what in the...?! second try:


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

doesn't work, I somehow can't get the whole link posted... :-(

David Apatoff said...

Hey, Tania! Don't they teach you savages how to use a computer? It's good to hear that you are still alive and well out there. In ten minutes, you have made up for months of silence!

Eric Hamlin said...

I don't think it's a really a thin vs. thick line issue, but composition vs. (fussy)rendering, and what weight the artist gives to each. Using a coarser tool obviously reduces the ability and thus the temptation to indulge in the latter. But a balance between the two, like Frazetta at his best, is sublime. (I can't credit Kev Ferrara's example as being Frazetta at his best, however. While the detail doesn't overwhelm the composition, I'm still not a big fan of putting the Empire state building where he has.)

By the way, Kev -- congratulations on the book. I've been following your thread at for some time. Great stuff!

David Apatoff said...

Well, well, Kev, we seem to have struck a sore spot.

I would never begrudge Frazetta one of his "exaggerations," but I draw a distinction between an exaggeration and a mistake. An exaggeration is Frazetta's way with female posteriors. I'll never complain about those. But unless it was drawn during his cubist phase, that drawing of a knee counts as a genuine "mistake."

I don't know how we wandered so far from the original theme, which was how fine lines and details can take over a picture unless the artist exercises restraint. Jeffrey probably derailed us with his criticism of the proportion of the hand in Raymond's drawing.

To show you what a heretic I am, a better example of my point might be Frazetta's famous cover to Weird Science Fantasy 29, which in my view is an utterly exhausting, overdone piece. It shows Frazetta's linework run amok. I might say the same about some of his Famous Funnies covers. They would have been better drawings if he knew when to stop.

I sincerely love Frazetta's work; I think he is a genius. But that's in spite of (not because of) the over wrought drawings we are discussing now.

David Apatoff said...

Eric, you are absolutely right that "thin line" does not capture the issue well, although I'm not sure that "composition vs. (fussy) rendering" does either.

There is nothing at all wrong with thin lines per se. They can be beautiful and sleek and are truly fun to draw, which is why some artists get carried away with them. Amateurs lard up pictures with all kinds of details-- eyelashes, fingernails, wrinkles-- causing the picture to lose all balance and proportion. These artists would do well to put down the crow quill pen and start drawing with a cigar butt. But they can't because it is much harder to do.

Anonymous said...

Well, you know, "they" TRY to teach us so many things, don't they, David?
I bet you know Leonardo's self portrait anyway, hmm? (The complete link was in the text window before I pushed the "send"-button, but then somehow got cut time and again...)(here is another:)

Anonymous said...

I think I can agree that the leg is a little weird, and that the piece is not Frazetta's best work. And I completely hate the placement of the building too (can you say, traced the building to save time).

However, I thought it was a good illustration of strong graphic design in the Dracula figure, peppered with very fine rendering. Simply as an illustration of what I consider Frazetta's "poetics" as he matured as an artist.

And Weird Science Fantasy #29 is also not aging well with me for many of the reasons mentioned in this thread. On the other hand, many of the Came the Dawn work that are popping up of recent are stunning in their verve and graphic power.

I think there is a very fine line (in the kind of "felt" artwork that Frazetta does) between exaggeration and error. This is not a sore spot with me, just something I think a lot about. I adore Wrightson's work and, yet, at times I can't look at it because of all the weird anatomy and the stylizations. Then at other times, I forget the anatomy and only see the spirit and then I love it again.

There are theories in art (not ones I wholly agree with) that all "style" is the result of the drawing "errors" of the particular artist in question. If I were a lesser fellow, which I clearly am, I would point out that the simplification of the sleeves and folds by Raymond can also be construed as "in error". By this I mean, "error" is what bothers.And often what bothers is based on one's current frame of reference or concerns.

Anyhow... I love it all! Peace onto all who love illustration and are passionate enough to talk about it!!

Thanks Again for the great blog!!


RJ said...

David—another excellent post, and many excellent, insightful comments by your readers.

I would say that while one could argue that “less is more”, one could also argue that “more is more”.

Pondering this, I find that a few things are coming to mind...

Lester Young or Charlie Parker?

John Coltrane’s “Naima” or “Impressions”?

Muddy Waters or Jimi Hendrix?

Ernest Hemingway or Thomas Pynchon?

Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock?

So much of art is largely subjective—this can readily be seen in the range of opinions regarding the work presented on this post. I think that for both kinds of illustrations (detailed vs. simple line) one could find any number of excellent examples, and any number of mediocre ones as well.

That being said, David, I do understand what you are saying about the younger artist perhaps being drawn to an arguably excessive amount of detail. Here is another analogy: my son plays electric guitar, and has been in a series of metal bands over the last few years, playing very loud, very fast technically oriented music. He just turned 20; yes, still very young, but a couple weeks ago he asked me if he could check out some of my blues CDs. This made me very happy!

One could ask a musician, who are you playing for—your audience or other musicians? Or ask an illustrator, what is the purpose of the illustrations that you are doing—to tell a story, or to impress other artists?

I love both the Frazetta drawing and the Raymond drawings. (Not to digress, but for those that have been discussing proportions, the head on the Frazetta is pretty damn large! BTW, I also recommend clicking on the Frazetta pic for an extreme zoom-in, as much is lost at the smaller size.) I have to say that I’m not particularly fond of the Toth drawing with the trellis, and I’m sorry, but the figure in the Fawcett picture looks like a quick marker illustration, nice but no big deal.

When I was doing illustration work (I am now a high school art teacher), if I had the time to really put a lot into a picture, I would oftentimes do it—as much to entertain myself as for anything else. If the deadline was tight, I would find ways to economize but still make it look good. For artists that are doing a large volume of work on a regular basis, such as comic book work or storyboads, realistically, it makes a lot of sense to work in a way that will let you get the job done more quickly but still look good.

I was initially going to say “less” with this comment, but I sort of ended up saying a bit “more”. Well, I don’t have any pressing work to do tonight, so I guess that in part I’m just entertaining myself here, but at the same time, I hope that my line of thinking makes sense.

So, less or more? As the expression goes, “It’s all good!”

p.s. Here is a link to a cool website: The Top 100 Artists of American Comic Books


David Apatoff said...

Kev, we agree 100% on that passion business; thinking and talking about art and sharpening our senses against it is one dandy way to spend our time, and I really enjoy your input.

RJ, thanks for your riff. I agree that we could find endless examples of splendid art in both the simple line and detailed categories. Someday I hope to see them all. I also enjoyed your list of the top 100 artists, although I of course disagreed with many of the choices. For starters, how could anyone leave Mort Drucker off such a list?

Jason said...

But David, sometimes the 'search' lines make the whole drawing that much more spontaneous..

Also, to argue the point of some people covering mistakes, guys like Paul Calle and Victor Ambrus placed each and every line perfectly.

Jack Ruttan said...

Personally, I like the painterly idea of slowly defining a form with lots of little lines. It's a different idea from most of my buddies, who are clean line advocates, but if I can keep things from getting too grey overall, and establish interesting contrasts, it works for me.

Anonymous said...

Ken Meyer Jr. here.

Great post, though, to be honest, I think you could have chosen tons of other artists to represent someone with little design sense than Frazetta. Plus, you chose a very early example. I would think anyone could see an advanced sense of design in his later drawings (the 70's, etc), and of course, his paintings. Great example of simplicity in Toth, and I really need to investigate Sickles more in depth, as I only really know of him as referenced by others, like Toth.

Penance said...

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Anonymous said...

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I am speechless...almost drawless!

It's Friday here and I have a whole weekend ot indulge. So much good stuff.

great thanks.