Wednesday, February 18, 2009


"I am for those who believe in loose delights."
-- Walt Whitman
Some of my very favorite drawings are free and spontaneous. Unfortunately, so are a whole lot of crappy drawings.

Is it possible to distinguish good loose drawing from bad loose drawing? Or from random marks on paper? It seems to me that there is not only a distinction to be made but also a good reason for making it. Loose, spontaneous art can be fun, but Ernest Hemingway correctly spotted the potential danger: "All our words from loose using have lost their edge." When sloppy or careless drawing masquerades as loose drawing, it eventually dilutes the meaning and potency of drawing.

Consider the following examples of artists who engage in the "loose delights" of drawing but who still preserve that edge.

The great George Lichty had a line like an unraveled ball of yarn:

Nevetheless, look at how beautifully that line conveyed a head, or the indentation of a pillow, or the folds in clothing:

You can tell that a lot of looking and thinking took place before Lichty was able to dash off a drawing like this. We are the beneficiaries of that looking and thinking, no matter how loosely it is conveyed.

Note how he understands the different postures of people sitting in chairs, the anatomy of fingers wrapped around an arm, the shadow created by a fore arm resting on a table:

William Steig is another great example. For decades Steig churned out mediocre cartoons such as this one, where he labored for some semblance of visual accuracy.

Then, in the 1960s he managed to shed these constraints and began drawing marvelous, meaningful pictures with a free hand.

The looser his touch, the better his drawings became.

James Thurber is a third example. He drew wispy nonvertebrates with a simple line that was the perfect complement to his brilliant writing.

In each of these examples, a seemingly spontaneous, haphazard style is employed to convey important insights without being obvious or labored about it. Technical skill is important, but it can also rob a drawing of the freshness and intimacy we see here . These are drawings with wings on, and they occupy a blessed place in the pantheon of drawing.


Anonymous said...

thanks for another uplifting entry, i truly look forward to your blog. it is honest and interesting. i usually have tons of opinion but never post because i am too busy working to survive as and artist (and get better).
all of your insights are thoughtful (especially the one for your father), and thought provoking.
thanks for taking the time to produce such great a great blog.
i'll try to participate in the conversations in the future,
peace and blessings,
Derrick Hollowell

Matthew Adams said...

Hi David,

Another good post. I really love Steigs later drawings, an artist you can see grow through his published work.

I was wondering if you had ever seen the work of russian illustrator Mikhail Mayofis (or Maiofis). He has a certian looseness to his work which reminds me slightly of steig (or Steig remins me of Mikhail, not sure which). Some of Edward Lear's work also has wings.

JChevais said...

I rather like Sempé too. However, sometimes his Paris street illos are just too darn busy!

Anonymous said...

I thought you didn't like artists like Panter because you just liked old fashioned, realistic drawing. It's good to see that you like this work too.

Anonymous said...

And of course for incredible ,loose but beautifully realised drawings, you can't better Heinrich Kley...

Stephen Worth said...

When I was a kid looking at the Sunday pages, I skipped right over Lichty and Partch thinking they were sloppy. I've since seen the error of my ways!

I posted a big pile of amazing Grin & Bear Its from the late 30s and the 1940s and 50s on the Animation Archive site. Enjoy!

Kagan M. said...

The first two are great but Thurber's don't do anything for me. I thought it was an odd choice.

Anonymous said...

The early William Steig looks like the work of someone enamoured of Charles Addams, perhaps he came into his own once he was able to shake off that influence.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Derrick. It's good to hear from you and I hope you'll jump in.

Matthew, I agree with you about Steig. His later work is really great. I was not familiar with Mayofis, but I checked him out and I see the resemblance.

Mrs C, I enjoy Sempe's cartoons as well, although his drawing is generally more disciplined than the other artists on this post.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous #1, I like all kinds of drawing. Just not Gary Panter's.

Anonymous #2, I am a big fan of Kley. His work is terrific .

Stephen, I have spent a lot of time wandering through your great animation archive, but somehow I missed the Lichty work. That early work from the 1930s is extremely interesting. You can see the foundations for what he later became.

Matthew Adams said...

Thurber's work is brilliant, and should be up there, but I was surprised ( and glad) to see David put it on his blog.

Thurburs brilliance is in the way way he doesn't let his drawing come in between the viewer and the idea. His line does everything it has to, without you even noticing, unlike panter's work which demands you notice how shoddy it is.

Jesse Hamm said...

In that first Lichty detail, I like that we can see where he cleaned up some details with white paint. It shows that his looseness wasn't due to lazy indifference, but that he wanted each line to look right.

The Steig comparison reminds me of something Tim Burton said in Burton On Burton, which was that he realized in art school that he should draw for the love of it and not with quality in mind, and that freed him up tremendously. Not to draw poorly, presumably, but to focus more on the main idea than on accuracy. (I think the best artists nail the accuracy, too, but it's clear that they put the spirit of the image before that accuracy. Frazetta's spirit-then-accuracy vs. Vallejo' accuracy-then-spirit.)

Thurber, I've always hated.

kenmeyerjr said...

I'd have to agree with Kagan on this one. Whereas the first artist's quick strokes show a knowledge and intelligence behind them, Thurber's just seem willfully childlike and sloppy. I know many would say capturing that childlike wonder and such should add to the connection between viewer and drawing, but it just doesn't do it for me. He just seems to be a writer who draws, not a writer and artist.

kenmeyerjr said...

...oh, and I have never seen the attraction of Panter. Willfully crappy art doesn't make it good art, at least for this viewer.

And Jesse, great statement about Frazetta vs. Vallejo.

Jesse Hamm said...

Thanks Ken. Coincidentally, I just ran across this statement by Frazetta a few minutes ago. Frazetta's point that he stresses composition that borders on the abstract is surprising but true.

Rob Howard said...

Anyone skilled with pictorial composition stresses the abstract qualities . There's nothing else to stress in composition, it's all abstraction-based. It's not based in subject matter, drawing or painting skill and is certainly is not based on those rebus-like groupings of objects that are supposed to related to each other to spell out a visual sentence.

Even more abstract is color theory, but that's beyond the ken of most artists.

David Apatoff said...

Kagan, Jesse and Ken, I understand your concern about Thurber's work. Technically I should be on your side of the argument because I have often said rude things about so-called artists who think they can substitute IQ or a sense of irony for the ability to draw.

However, I have grown to respect Thurber for a couple of reasons. You are correct that Thurber never learned to draw the way that Lichty or Steig did. Even when they are working very loosely, Lichty's and Steig's intstincts and muscle memory put variety in their linework to accentuate and illuminate their subjects. That is a whole level of meaning that I admit you don't get from Thurber's drawing.

However, Thurber does think visually, and in a brilliant way. Have you seen his drawing of a timid little man coming home to a great big house that turns out to be his angry wife?
It delivers a message far more effectively than words could ever accomplish. For me, that type of visual thinking makes Thurber a genuine artist, and not just a writer who draws.

Second, while Thurber's figures have no bones or muscle, neither do the characters he is drawing. Thurber's drawings are right for the themes he is illustrating, just as Fred Astaire's singing is right for his dancing; Astaire is really quite a good singer in his own distinctive way, and you just have to decide whether that distinctive way appeals to you.

Finally, (and perhaps this is where I am being inconsistent) I guess I am willing to give Thurber more of the benefit of the doubt than I have given artist/writers such as Chris Ware because I respect Thurber's writing so much. Ware and many other graphic novelists seem to think a thimble full of irony will redeem laborious, uninspired drawings. Thurber's content is by comparison brilliant; he writes beautifully, combining a quicksilver sense of humor with a deep sense of pathos. The fleeting, unpretentious, drawings that he does to accompany such themes strike me as "loose" drawings in the good sense of the word.

David Apatoff said...

Jesse, I agree that Frazetta is a towering talent, but the point in his credo about "no swipes or photographs" is demonstrably false. It's funny, there are other brilliant artists such as Norman Rockwell or Robert Fawcett who also denied using photographs (although Rockwell finally admittted it when it became undeniable). I don't think today's artists feel the same stigma, but apparently artists of Frazetta's vintage and earlier would rather die than admit it. Perhaps they were defensive because they had the inferiority complex of an illustrator.

Jesse Hamm said...

Frazetta used photos, but that wasn't the part of his statement I was referring to. What interested me was his point about abstraction. (When did Rockwell deny using photos, btw?)

Regarding Thurber, I suspect the strength of his writing is behind all three of the reasons you gave for enjoying his work.

His visual metaphor of the house-as-woman is clever but belongs to the realm of literary skill, IMO. To embrace a work for having good idea desite a poor execution is like buying a two-legged horse. "He's only lame on one side!" (Plus, all the other Thurber drawings I've seen lack clever visual metaphors; they're mostly women antagonizing men in typical social settings. For that, give me Arno or Saxon!)

The idea that his drawings are right for the themes he is illustrating could be said of countless bad artists. Guisewite's drawings succeed on that basis. And Panter's, etc. Thurber's themes may be worthier than theirs, but that points back to his writing.

Anonymous said...

The bottom Thurber drawing is really brilliant, thanks for posting that. The weight of it -- the slogging figures, the crow on a leafless tree, the broken branch like an arm pointing down, the setting sun on the horizon (as if to say, "My God, it's this bad and now it's about to get dark!") Funny stuff...and the mood seems frighteningly relevant .

Matthew Adams said...

I agree with David about Thurber

I always feel like I am seeing things that might not exist, or missing things that do when I read these comments. I look at Thurber's work and can see how wonderful and right it is. Am I seeing the Emperor clothed when he is in fact naked? Thurber's work just sings to me (I don't have the vocabulary or knowledge to describe it otherwise). The first Thurber picture on this post has such wondeful movement to it.

Shirish K said...

Hi David,

This is not related to the post, but are you aware of an Indian illustrator with the name R.K. Laxman?

He is famous and very loved in the Indian community for drawing daily comics which depict the life of the 'Common Man' in India.

I would like to know what you think of him.

Shirish Kandekar

David Apatoff said...

Jesse, I suppose it is possible my admiration for Thurber's writing has caused me to put my thumb on the scale-- one of the best reasons for doing this blog is that readers force me to reexamine my assumptions. But I've seen several drawings in addition to the woman as big as a house where I think Thurber has demonstrated first class visual thinking, and I share Jim and Matthew's view of Thurber's line. Arno and Saxon are certainly a lot closer to Lichty and Steig, but I wanted to include an artist who was closer to the "anarchy" end of the looseness spectrum. I guess the further one goes in that direction, the more subjective the evaluation becomes.

Rockwell writes in his autobiography about how he originally lied to his fellow illustrators about using photographs, and was mortified when Leyendecker stopped by unexpectedly and caught him.

I agree with you that the important point from Frazetta's credo is his point about abstraction. I just couldn't resist tweaking him for... errr... dissembling in his own credo.

Anonymous said...

Great blog --- keep up the good work. I really enjoy it.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Shirish-- I'm always happy to hear about new artists. I enjoyed Laxman's work. He draws with simplicity and clarity. It sounds like he has a large following in India.

Rosie said...

Delighted to have come across your blog. Full of so much interesting stuff!

Anonymous said...

I agree there is a deluge of poor drawing behind the loose style bandwagon...however i feel when it comes to children's book illustration
children do not criticise the nuances of good or bad drawing when reacting to can be i think too tempting to nit-pick at illustration...from an artists point of view it is often easy to find fault...the layperson reader/viewer is usually unaware of a little bad perspective for-shortening or any number of facets of poor draftsmenship so an interesting insight into your personal favourites Ronald Searle being one of my own..but live and let live eh.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Rosie! Nice to hear from you.

Anonymous, I agree that children aren't persnickety about things like perspective or technical skill, but in another way I think they are the most demanding and interested audience an illustrator can have. The illustrations I saw as a child were magic-- the ones that impressed me are vividly stuck in my brain to this day. They became a foundation for viewing much of the world. The mediocre ones vanished down the memory hole long ago.

ethamd said...

I've been reading your blog with interest for an hour or so that slipped by completely unnoticed. I stopped by here because I am trying identify a drawing that I own and love, but that I am not able to put an artist's name to. Other than the artist's loose, confident line, the only other tantalizing clue I have are the initials MP. I have been trying to find people like you who post and discuss artists by their similarities of style, hoping that a long post with many artists in it will yield a revelation. The drawing I have reminds me a bit of the looser styles of Thurber and Steig--so that's how I got here. If you can spare just a moment perhaps you can glance at the drawing. Who knows, maybe it will be obvious and you'll know who it is in a millisecond. When I look at it I get a feeling like I know who it is, I just can't put my finger on it--but that may be because I have had the drawing for so long. The drawing can be seen here. Thank you in advance for your time. And again thank you for a great blog.

David Apatoff said...

ethamd-- I'm sorry, I'm afraid I don't recognize your MP cartoonist. Anyone else?

Novak said...


This is an old post, but I'm a longtime reader of your blog and have come back to this entry a few times over the years because it reaches for a quality that's difficult to put into words. What Thurber has - in addition to strong visual metaphors - is a natural rhythm and balance. He's like a self-taught musician who makes serene music without a conscious understanding of theory. In that sense, the strength of his drawing comes from an honesty with himself, and it's an honesty that many viewers can recognize.