Saturday, August 29, 2009


Here is a series of splendid drawings with two things in common:

First, they are all drawings of geometric shapes: buildings comprised of straight lines, flat parallel surfaces and right angles.

Second, despite the fact that each drawing started out as essentially a mechanical drawing, at some key point the artist turned away from the unforgiving laws of perspective, the T square and the triangle, and instead injected the drawing full of character and personality.

The brilliant Bernie Fuchs sketched these buildings in the slums of San Juan. Fuchs seems to have a god-given talent for finding the design in any situation, including this row of squat, ramshackle buildings.

When Rodin drew the massive facade of this building, the shape that interested him the most was not the stone blocks or the massive pillars, but rather the shadow in the doorway. The shadow is insubstantial compared to the weight of the stone structure around it, but it dominates this picture, and enabled Rodin to make a nice, modernistic design.

Cartoonist Jeff MacNelly was a superb draftsman whose understanding of weight, volume and perspective gave his cartoons of buildings and heavy industrial vehicles great credibility. In this typically marvelous example, the geometric shapes of the house have as much humanity as a human face.

In each of these drawings, the artist had to begin with a foundation of traditional knowledge and technical drawing skills, even if those rules were quickly abandoned. Each drawings turned out wonderfully opinionated-- the artists were able to imbue a stone block with character, and portray a brick with personality. But their opinions are far more believable because the artist had mastered how to draw the mechanically correct version.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Suppose that you were a baron, born of noble blood, but you lost your rank and title after the heir to the throne was murdered. Then let's say your country declared war on its neighbor but lost the war after a long bloody battle and as a result, your country was dissolved and the economy collapsed so you lost your family money. Then to make the story interesting, how about if we say that the communists took over but were kicked out in another war. And let's suppose further that you and your good friends, movie actors Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre, decided to flee the country but before you could leave, you were severely injured in a sword fight over the honor of a woman so that you were unable to get around or perform conventional work when you arrived in your new land.

With that type of background, what kind of job would you possibly be qualified to perform?

Obviously, an illustrator.

Sandor Leidenfrost was a baron in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. His family's title dated back to the 16th century. In the tradition of nobility everywhere, Baron Leidenfrost studied fencing and fought duels and lived off his family money. But he also studied the arts and became a master of perspective. (It's always good to have something to fall back on, even when you are a baron).

After the unpleasent events described above, Leidenfrost changed his name and emigrated to New York City. Because of his wounds from the duel, he could not walk around and apply for a normal job but he drew and painted a portfolio of artwork that Lugosi and Lorre shopped around for him. On the strength of that portfolio, they obtained enough assignments to support the whole group. After Leydenfrost recovered, Lugosi and Lorre left for Hollywood and stardom, while Leydenfrost prospered as an illustrator. He specialized in dramatic pictures of aircraft and spaceships; during World War II he painted a famous series of 35 illustrations of warplanes for Esquire magazine.

He also worked for magazines such as Life and Colliers. He was well known his detailed and meticulous drawings with charcoal and watercolor.

The moral of the story is that when some pain-in-the-ass illustrator starts putting on airs and acting like he is royalty, be careful-- he just may be.

Saturday, August 08, 2009


Nobody knows for sure why Rembrandt drew this errant line beneath his signature in his famous picture of Adam and Eve:

The line seems so incongruous, some print collectors who preferred "tidy" art trimmed Rembrandt's line off the bottom of their print. Apparently they thought they were doing Rembrandt a favor.

Me, I adore this line. It's the only line in the entire picture not employed in the service of content. Instead, Rembrandt turned it loose in all its abstract glory, as naked as the day God invented lines.

We see it separated from the picture of Eden as the tool Rembrandt uses to perceive the world. It is the means by which he performs miracles. It underscores his signature, but for me it tells us more about Rembrandt's identity than his name does.

Abstract expressionist Barnett Newman was famous for painting wall-sized canvases, blank except for a single bold line. A friend who was trying to educate me about how to understand Newman's work raved, "When he painted that stripe his balls must have weighed 20 pounds apiece."

"Eve" by Barnett Newman

Well, I understood what he was trying to say.

You'll find echoes of Rembrandt's line in some of his other drawings. For example, in the following two pictures, after Rembrandt completed the careful, controlled portion of the picture he scraped a bold, powerful, almost abstract line across the bottom of the page.

The line in Rembrandt's tiny drawings seems more powerful to me than Newman's ten foot stripe. A line doesn't need to be physically large to be compelling, and it is not necessarily diluted by sharing the page with a subject matter. Note how Rembrandt's eyes sought out the strongest most fundamental line in those landscapes, distilled it to its purest and simplest form, and recorded it on paper as the exultant mark you see above.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


If the electricity ever goes out at your house and it's pitch black in the middle of the night but you need to find "one lovely drawing," the safest thing to do is to grope for your Noel Sickles file. The odds are pretty good that anything you touch there will qualify.

Man oh man, that wispy grass is rendered every bit as powerfully as those oxen.

The legend is that Sickles taught cartoonist Milton Caniff how to draw in this high contrast chiaroscuro style. Caniff continued to employ this style effectively for another fifty years on his famous comic strips Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. Sickles, on the other hand, quickly abandoned this approach and went on to do other things.

Many years later, Sickles briefly revisited chiaroscuro for this drawing. After all those years, he still remained the master.