Wednesday, March 19, 2008


For fifty years, cartoonist Don Trachte made an excellent living doing uninspired, simple minded drawings.

Nothing about these drawings hinted that behind closed doors, Trachte was so talented he could paint a major Rockwell oil painting well enough to fool all the experts:

Similarly, the cartoonist James Swinnerton had a long, successful career making mediocre drawings that revealed no particular artistic ability:

Yet, in his spare time Swinnerton painted powerful, sensitive landscapes:

Rose O'Neill was another artist who made a small fortune with bland, inferior drawings. The public just loved her cute little imps, called Kewpies:

Nobody guessed that behind the scenes, O'Neil drew intense, erotic drawings and wrote steamy poetry. Her real drawings look like the work of Brad Holland, who came along 50 years later.

When a reporter asked O'Neill about the striking contrast between her professional work and her personal drawings, O'Neill refused to comment, saying "these things were made for the maker's own delight."

I'm not suggesting that every one of these private pictures is a work of genius. However, it is interesting to me that so many artists could not find a market for quality art, and survived only after they dumbed down their work.

I would never have guessed from their public work that these artists were capable of creating such pictures. I think their best work, the work they did for their "own delight," deserves some exposure.


ces said...

All of us are multi-faceted - so their personal work shouldn't surprise us - yet it does. Why?

David Apatoff said...

Ces, for me the surprising thing is that these artists prospered using a facet that seems truly mediocre, while hiding the facet with their real talent. It must have been hard for capable artists to spend year after year doing work you could almost train a chimpanzee to do.

One is reminded of the great Frank Frazetta who spoke ruefully of his wasted years as a ghost artist for Al Capp's Li'l Abner. Frazetta made a lot of money, but his artistic growth stopped altogether. When he finally escaped, it took him a while to recover his true power.

Anonymous said...

Somehow it seems unfair to call simple ink drawings or "cute" illustrations uninspired. Maybe we should admire the dedication and discipline it takes to create pleasing and acceptable works on a daily basis. Works that perhaps aren't in our natural style, but that we create out of a need.

Isn't it fair that it takes at least as much talent to control creativity and use it to, say, pay the bills and fulfill the obligations of a job, as it does to draw whatever suits our fancy at our leisure?

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, you make excellent points. It takes a great deal of civilian courage to work hard, year after year, doing things that aren't your first choice just to support your family or to keep society on track. I respect that courage, and as regular readers know, I subtract major points for hedonistic self-indulgence.

It is also important to emphasize that simple drawings are often more difficult, and demonstrate more talent, than detailed, realistic, overworked drawings or paintings. So my problem is not at all with "simple."

Having said that, I think the drawing in the comic strip Henry is simply awful. The drawing in Swinnerton's strip, or in the Kewpies, is not much better. Trachte, Swinnerton and O'Neill are obviously talented enough to realize what they were producing. I am guessing they would have felt much better earning a living creating art that gave them a personal sense of satisfaction, but the market apparently didn't offer that option.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting article !
People assume illustrators don't have "Real Artistic Talent" wow how very wrong are they.

Mai Daader said...

Yes, this is so strange that real art or let me say genious art should be unfairly hidden just for the sake of making living!!!

But real art is and always will be Real art whether hidden or not.

Thanks for this artistic blog :)

jb. said...

From a recent graduate, trying to find his own "voice", this is a true inspiration.

Anonymous said...

It crossed my mind that these facts provide an excellent justification for the "Chris Ware style" in drawing. In this link below, Chris Ware says sticking to his most stupid ideas has often turned out to communicate most clearly.

I'm yet to think about what does this all mean in terms of life on a grand scale.

Anonymous said...

This particular "expert" doesn't seem to think much of Tracthe's forgery

Trippy how just days after reading your blog I stumble into that piece. (I was Googling the definition of 'halftone')

MDG14450 said...

> Having said that, I think the drawing in the comic strip Henry is simply awful.

I don't get that at all--the art in Henry is simple and pared down to the essentials needed to tell the story/joke. A different style might risk muddying the clarity, if not on one day's strip, on another's--and the "house" style is going to have to work every day.

And that's why Ernie Bushmiller and Chester Gould were great cartoonists.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

@MDG14450: The drawing is bad not because it is simple, but because it is bad. It is not just stripped down to the essential (as comics like Calvin & Hobbes, Peanuts,...), it is also stripped from drawing principles and aesthetic qualities. In my eyes, it's a lack of care.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, amiehiggs and mai ahmed daader, I appreciate the comments.

JB, I like your use of the vertical space and the designs in your current sketchbook installment. You're well on the way to finding that "voice."

Anonymous, if Chris Ware uses his stupidest ideas, perhaps it's not such a good thing to communicate those ideas clearly.

David Apatoff said...

Crisp, I have seen this comment claiming "the emperor has no clothes" before. The author is justly famous for looking past the famous Rockwell name and focusing on the quality of the art. To my knowledge, he is the only one to have figured this out and taken a strong stand and I say kudos to him. Of course, I still think it was a miraculous painting for someone like the artist for the comic strip Henry to create.

MDG14450, I have to say that I agree with Benjamin. I am crazy about lots of "simple" drawing styles, such as those found in Peanuts, Dilbert or Miss Peach, because they are so well done. It's often harder to simplify a drawing than to overwork it. But in my view the comic strip Henry employed a rigid template that was mediocre when it was created by the strip's founder, and was not enhanced when Trachte inherited it. You may see something I don't, but personally I find the drawing mechanical and lifeless.

Anonymous said...

You say that "Frazetta made a lot of money, but his artistic growth stopped altogether." I think that's probably a sort of false dismissal. He would never have become the artist so many admire had his "real" work simply ceased and the money he made allowed him to reach those artistic goals - creating a necessary cushion crucial to his growing family and later career. The two are probably more deeply entwined than the man would have enjoyed...

Frankly, I wish I had spent years working and reworking the human figure in front of everybody's eyes. I'd be one hell of a lot better at it than I am now! I also wish I'd been so well paid, but I digress...

You've picked the worst of the few O'Neill's Kewpie Illustrations I've seeen, but I've seen too little of it to know if this one is more or less representative. I find her work on "ordinary" romantic illustrations to be as lovely (albeit not as strange) as the Rodin-like pieces you kindly show here.

I think the greater skill is in the ability to take what you've learned from all areas of your life and create a new summation with each piece. I think there were probably years when Kaluta and his classmates in Virginia would have declared the sanctioned studies in abstract art to be an utter waste of time - that so much more was to be learned from one another than a 70s "fine art" curriculum. But I see that curriculum's influence in his best work today, and I think he appreciates it a lot more himself.

This is a terrific journal and I invariably appreciate your thoughts and enthusiasm.

Best wishes,

Lee Moyer

tim said...

At the risk of sounding sort of bitter, I would just say that it seems almost axiomatic to me that the stupider and more mortifying an illustration job is, the more you get paid for it. For a while I had a job drawing spot illustrations for little restaurant write-ups in a city magazine (dancing chefs, pizzas in space, etc.) which made me cringe to see in the supermarket check-out aisle but which paid literally ten times more than the weekly cartoon on which I lavished so much time and work and care.

I'm certainly not judging anyone who has to do such work to pay the bills or support a family. It's just sad that it's a choice almost all artists have to struggle with. I myself am starting to second-guess the wisdom of having devoted myself to personally meaningful but unrenumerative work for so many years.

Luckiest, of course, are those who accidentally make a ton of money doing something they actually enjoy and put their best efforts into. I'm thinking not only of obvious examples like Charles Schultz or Bill Waterson, but also of B. Kliban, whose cat cartoons became such a marketing sensation. Kliban's much stranger, more interesting work (as seen in "Never Eat Anything BIgger Than Your Head" and "Whack Your Porcupine") is much less widely known, but his cat cartoons are by no means cynical selling-out--they're drawn with his usual skill and brilliance, and also with obvious love.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, here is what Frazetta's official web site say about his experience working for Capp:

In 1953 Al Capp hired Frazetta as one of the uncredited ghost artists for the popular Li 'l Abner. "I shouldn't have done it, " Frank confesses, "but I was lazy".... Frazetta worked for Capp for the better part of eight years, burying his own style under that of his employer.... " Because of Capp's strong style of drawing, I had all but lost all the things I had learned and developed on my own. " states Frank. " I had to get away. " ( Even after a year away from Capp, his own work looked awkward).

As for O'Neill, she had a regular Kewpie feature in Good Housekeeping magazine for years. That is what made her reputation and fortune. If you go back to look at those illustrations, they are pretty much simple line drawings.

Jack Ruttan said...

I think Swinnerton's Tigers are charming, and do the job. Making them baroque and realistically full-figured would ruin that charm, to say the least.

There's a tension between "easy" art and "hard." Haven't figured this out, totally (people tend to put down the "easy" stuff as 'bad art,' or at least value things which take years to do, and expensive training, more highly. Are they objectively "better?").

My brushy scribbles are the things that charm and sell, while I work at the complicated drawings, which are much less pleasing.

Also, there's a tension between doing art to please yourself, and doing it to please the masses, or art directors, at least.

Anonymous said...

what's the Swinnerton comic about? can't make any sense of it

Li-An said...

Well, being an artist working for the public market is difficult. If you find something people like, you'll have to repeat the idea again and again.
I don't know anything about O'Neill's life, but I suppose if she showed enough of her private work maybe she would met somebody interested in publishing it. As comics author, I try to test different way of drawings (sometimes for "free") and it's always funny to see how some years after, somebody says "I loved the drawings you made 5 years ago. Do you want to make a story in that style ?". So, these efforts were not in vain.

Rustam F. Hasanov said...

The Rose O'niell drawings you posted are absolutely gorgeous. Could you recommend a book that would include some of these illustrations. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Where did you find those Rose O'Neill drawings?

David Apatoff said...

Hi, baklazhan and jelliotcoleman, I stumbled across those O'Neil drawings in an old issue of Studio Magazine (problem from the 1920s); the article contained about ten similar drawings, and talked about how this was the side of O'Neil that nobody knows. I scanned some of her other drawings from the article, but unfortunately did not write down the issue number.

Angie said...

I've just been skimming your blog posts. I'm just...amazed!
I'm very...'artistically ignorant', I suppose. I can't think of any other way to describe it.
I love many paintings and there are artists I admire but, I've never really looked into them much deeper than that...I'm ashamed to admit that, especially since I'm wanting to be a cartoonist/illustrator, myself.
But your blogs are opening my eyes. You have a wonderful way with words that just makes sense.

I have noticed that things I draw for myself, just for the sake of drawing, always seem to look better. On the opposite end, whenever I draw something for someone post on my website, or some silly thing like that all the flaws get pointed out.
I guess the thought of having something I enjoy not being accepted by people is what holds me back. Maybe that's why they never released any of their personal work? That's just my thought.

And a personal note:
Those 'personal' pieces of Rose O'Neil...something about those just jump out at me. They're much more gorgeous than any of her published works that you've shown here.

David Apatoff said...

Why, Angie-- what a sweet comment. Thank you very much. I checked your blog and see you don't have any of your own work up yet, but I'll check back. It always seems to me that a genuine "love" of pictures is the single most important first step toward being an expert on art.

Carl Linich said...

I'm interested in Swinnerton's Day Dreams of Danny Dawes. Do you have any besides the one page you've posted? I've got one page, and I've seen two others. I'd love to see (or own!) the entire run! In any case, thanks for your post & I look forward to your reply.

Carl Linich said...

I'm interested in Swinnerton's Day Dreams of Danny Dawes. Do you have any besides the one page you've posted? I've got one page myself, and I've seen two others. I'd love to see (or own!) the complete run! In any case, thanks for your post, and I look forward to your reply.