Friday, October 31, 2008


In 1655, the great English poet John Milton wrote in despair how, halfway through life, his blindness prevented him from fulfilling his god given talent:
When I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account...
If he couldn't make maximum use of his gift, Milton felt he would not be able to present a "true acount" of himself to his maker. 

Beethoven, too, was tormented because the gods who gifted him with genius perversely thwarted him from achieving his full potential.  Robbed of his hearing midway through life, Beethoven despaired over his inability to use his gifts. 

The artist Noel Sickles was not able to use his own talent when he worked as a ghost artist for the comic strip Scorchy Smith. He had to conceal his ability in order to earn a steady living imitating the awful drawings of cartoonist John Terry.

Sickles recalled the pain of deliberately doing bad work in order to make money:

Have you ever seen John Terry's work?.... I had to forget everything I learned about drawing -- absolutely everything -- because it was the worst drawing I had ever seen by anybody. Your children do better drawings than John Terry.... But it took time to copy that horrible style, you know.
After Sickles escaped from the shadow of John Terry, he was able to flex his own muscles, develop his own talent and begin doing great work like this:

Artist Frank Frazetta had a similar experience. He earned a steady living as the ghost artist for Al Capp's comic strip, Li'l Abner:

Frazetta later recalled the the soul-numbing effect of drawing under the weight of Capp's mediocre formula:

"I shouldn't have done it, " Frank confesses, "but I was lazy.... Al Capp came along and made me an offer I couldn't refuse. The pay was wonderful and it took me only a day to pencil his Sunday page and I had the rest of the week off! What more could I ask for? On a couple of occasions I went up to his Boston studio and he paid me $100 a day, which was really big money back then." Frazetta worked for Capp for the better part of eight years, burying his own style under that of his employer.... Frank devoted his full attention to Li 'l Abner.... "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).
After he cast off the straightjacket of Li'l Abner, Frazetta developed astonishing artistic gifts that dwarfed those of Capp:

Time and again, gifted artists have subordinated their true talent in exchange for a regular paycheck.

Illustrator Bernie Fuchs was commercially successful working on car brochures in Detroit, where he painted happy couples standing next to fancy cars. Fuchs worked in a large studio for a boss who promised, " if you stay with me, I guarantee I will make you the richest illustrator in all of Detroit." The work was safe and lucrative, but Fuchs knew he was capable of more. A friend recalls,

All the local art directors kept calling up saying, I want Bernie! I want Bernie! But Bernie got tired of doing pictures of people holding drinks and just said, "shove it."
He gambled everything and broke away to work independently in New York. There, he encountered a wider range of challenges and was able to make use of his talents to their fullest.

His gamble paid off. Within just a few years, Fuchs was at the White House meeting with President Kennedy to paint his portrait. He had a long, exciting career filled with experiences he would never have encountered in Detroit.

Not every story had such a happy ending. Artist Don Trachte worked for years behind the scenes on Carl Anderson's mediocre comic strip, Henry. When Anderson died in 1948, Trachte stepped into Anderson's shoes and continued to make identical drawings following the same mindless formula for another 40 years.


As Shakespeare wrote,
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and miseries


Thursday, October 23, 2008


Those of you who are sick and tired of hearing how much I love the drawings of Noel Sickles are in luck, because today I'm going to talk about how much I love his paintings instead.

Sickles was one of the best natural-born draftsmen around. He earned the respect of his fellow artists for his almost supernatural ability to understand and draw what he saw.

Although Sickles is respected for his drawing, a recent excellent collection of his work reminds us that Sickles also painted with the wisdom and control of a zen master.

Zen painters believed in long, slow meditation before a brush touches the paper. Only after the artist understands the essence of the subject and reduces it to its most profound simplicity does the artist proceed to paint--quickly, decisively and with the minimum number of brush strokes. The following enso is a classic image for ink brush painters: a circle painted in a single breath, accompanied by vigorous and confident calligraphy.

I admire how Asian brush painting requires the artist to make the maximum commitment using the minimum touch. There's no room for mistakes; the hard labor of eliminating extraneous details and exploring alternative approaches is worked out in the mind of the artist rather than on the paper.

Sickles painted the following illustration when he was 60. Note the distinctive way he handled the smoke from the tires:

It probably took no more than 5 seconds for Sickles to capture that smoke by scuffing his brush across the painting. However, if he screwed up, the whole painting was ruined. (Believe it or not, o best beloved, once upon a time before photoshop enabled unlimited takeovers, artists had to make choices and were accountable for the results.)

Smoke like that doesn't take 5 seconds to paint, it takes 60 years.

Or look at this splendid cover for Life Magazine:

Sickles was an artist who had pondered elusive subjects such as clouds and mist and ocean spray, so that when it came time to depict them with a brush he was able to move quickly and decisively, and that quality transforms his paintings:

The new book about Sickles is worth buying for the drawings alone, but don't skip over the paintings.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Last week's story about Martha Sawyers reminded me that many women's magazines in those days lured readers with tales of romance on a tropical island.



Here we see an uninhibited island girl inviting a western dignitary in for a dip:


 Thousands of housewives in places like Kansas and Ohio turned regularly to Redbook, Cosmopolitan and similar magazines for stories of love under a tropical moon. These women never travelled overseas-- in fact, many would never travel more than a few miles from home. Their fate was to raise their children, cook, clean and manage the household. If they were lucky, they found a chance to express themselves once a week in the church choir.


Here we see how the tropical moon magically unleashes the inhibitions of American girls.


 Perhaps in another lifetime these housewives might skinny dip under a lotus scented bower while brilliantly plumed songbirds trilled soft praises to their beauty. But in this life, Redbook was as close as they would ever come. These illustrations were not really pictures of the south seas. They were pictures of someplace over the rainbow. Paradise is always located someplace other than here, someplace where there are no eye witnesses or cameras to limit our imaginations or spoil our fun. People used to believe that heaven was located on top of clouds because clouds looked glorious from the ground and no one had ever been on top to see what was up there.


Gustave Dore Since there were no first hand accounts of the tops of clouds, clouds became a creative platform for some of our most audacious yearnings.


 By the 1920s, air travel had taught us that there were no angels waiting for us on top of those clouds. Air travel also brought those tropical islands a lot closer. In fact, there hardly remains a location on earth where our romantic imaginations can take refuge from the cold eye of the camera (we can even monitor the snow falling on Mars!) And yet, there are still places a camera cannot go. Sure, there are plenty of cameras documenting the south sea islands, but the tropical paradise in women's magazines was never really a geographic location. It was a place where the weather, the mosquitoes and the emotions were all controlled by an artist's brush, not by nature. Like Gustave Dore's heaven, such locations could never be portrayed by a photographer. They exist only in the domain of the artist.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

MARTHA SAWYERS (1902-1988)

If you graduated from high school in Cuero, Texas during the 1920s you could look forward to a long career working at one of the local turkey farms. Martha Sawyers sized up the situation and decided instead to run for her life.

She packed a bag and made her way to New York City where she took classes at the Art Students League and supported herself doing theatrical illustrations. But Sawyers wasn't done running.

Late at night in her small apartment she read stories about the exotic islands of the south Pacific and resolved to see them with her own eyes. She saved enough money to book passage on a slow Dutch freighter headed for the south seas. The ship steamed around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean, and with each new port Sawyers became more entranced by the sounds and colors and cultures. When the freighter arrived at the island of Bali, she decided to stay. She quit the ship and rented a small place on the beach looking out across the Straits of Bali.

The first nights alone were terribly creepy. The surf booms in like great thunder claps but in between each roar of the waves I could imagine I heard all sorts of things. One night a monkey broke in and swung on the support of my mosquito bar over the bed, gibbering at me all night long.
Looking back, Sawyers laughed that she had no idea what she was getting into. "I guess I was a ninny, to tell the truth." She got sunstroke. She had to dose herself with quinine to avoid malaria. But her experiences in the south seas set fire to her art. Sawyers said that living among the natives
taught me the value of honesty in my type of work. When you stand and sweat-- yes, sweat-- for a whole morning trying to get the right reproduction of a girl's golden skin and amber eyes it's good for you.

Sawyers later described her fateful decision as "the turning point in my artistic career. The nights when I trudged out into the coconut palm groves to see the natives dance were worth it alone."

The pictures she created in the south sea islands were highly successful back in the United States. She exhibited a series of 30 portraits of Balinese artists in a NY gallery where they were seen by the art director for Colliers. She soon became a regular illustrator of Asian subjects for Colliers, as well as for Liberty and McCall's.

Sawyers had some close calls after World War II broke out in the Pacific. She endured the Japanese invasion of Peiping. Outraged by the impact of war on the people and cultures she loved, she created posters for Chinese war relief and became a war correspondent for Colliers.

After the war, she continued traveling around the world, and worked in Penang, Singapore, Sumatra,Tokyo, Istanbul, Java, Hong Kong, Shanghai, China, Indonesia, India, Nepal and Mexico.

Sawyers married illustrator Bill Reusswig and for a while even thought about retiring, but said "before six months were up I was so bored I could have wept." Taking her husband in tow, Sawyers went off on another adventure illustrating books about the far east. She wrote of one of their trips:
From the plains of India at Patna we flew in a war-weary C-47 northward over some of the highest mountains in the world, then dropped into the valley of Katmandu, which is only 4,500 feet above sea level. Timing and luck gave us spring in our Shangri-la.
Sawyers' long and exciting artistic career ended quietly in a little home in the Connecticut countryside.

I am amazed that virtually nothing has been written about the life of Martha Sawyers. I only learned the stories I am sharing here by sitting at the feet of
Walt Reed at Illustration House. Each year the echo of her bold adventure grows fainter.