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.


Dominic Bugatto said...

Wonderful piece indeed.

Bosch Fawstin said...


StimmeDesHerzens said...

In reference to your response to my (contents in the)comment in the last entry;

No. Because of your writing, which endears me. (But i suppose a rolls would never hurt.)

Rob Howard said...

Holy S**t! That's as good as it gets.

Anonymous said...

Pure design, Awesome!

mark morris said...

I am not real familiar with Caniff's work. But I think that Noel Sickles was better at this than Caniff was!!
This is a really nice drawing. It really speaks to me at this moment.

David Apatoff said...

Einbildungskraft: Thank you. That sounds more than fair.

Dominic, Bosch, Rob and anonymous: I am so pleased that you see what I see in this little drawing which was hidden away in a cheap schoolbook. This is one of those situations where pleasure shared is pleasured doubled.

David Apatoff said...

Mark, I think that Sickles was better at this than anybody!

Rob Howard said...

David, it would be a service to mention another series of Sickles drawings you published on these pages in 2006. The URL is

MORAN said...

Why wasn't this great drawing in the Sickles book? You always find examples of art that I don't see anywhere else.

Rob Howard said...

David, I keep returning to the Sickles drawing of the miners and oxen. It’s like a long draught of water amidst the parched remains of the world of illustration. On the strength of this drawing and the splendid drawing of The War of Northern Aggression…(whoops! I slipped up and revealed my roots) I ordered the book on Noel Sickles.

What a weighty volume. Perfect for my exercise program. I hoped to see many more examples of Sickles sensitive draughtsmanship and, indeed there were a few. But what a jumble. Sickles was all over the place as far as consistent style. It was as though a dilettante had been given a powerful talent and used it to explore anything that came to…ooo, look, a squirrel! Yeah, it was like that…Short Attention Span Theatre. First he makes a weak approximation of Dean Cornwell, then he bops over to do battle with Austin Briggs (and doesn’t fare well there. either).

His best paintings were interesting in his powerful use of contrast scales, but I must say that they were largely muddy and unpleasant or dry and desiccated looking…like inept gouache or poster paints (he worked in oils). It’s when he worked with line that he shone. Mama mia, could that guy draw!

I should have been tipped off that the book was put together by a comic book company. The illustrations were not well chosen as to continuity and content, let alone quality. They were basically filler for the Storchy Smith comic strip. I suppose that Storchy Smith has some interest for people getting a PhD in Advance Comicology but it hardly ranks as even a mid-level strip. It certainly does not show off Sickles superb chiaroscuro abilities.

On the whole, the book was disappointing in the extreme. It’s being returned today. Your collection of Sickles drawings is a much, much better tribute to the artist at his best.

David Apatoff said...

Rob, Sickles is a fascinating story. He was a barefoot farm boy who learned to draw from looking at (and trying his hand at) pictures in books at the local public library. He turned out to be one of the best natural born draftsmen I have ever seen. He detested most of the comic strip art you saw in that book. He found work with a syndicate as the ghost artist for a no-talent bum, and later complained, "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." Unfortunately, I think the people who published his book would tell you that they could only get the book out the door by packaging it as a collection of the comic strips!

In my mind, Sickles is one of those examples of the dichotomy between quality and success. When art directors left him alone to do what he did best, he was fantastic. When they required him to tart drawings up with color and such to meet the magazine fashions of the day, he made more money but the quality diminished. And he knew it. He was so displeased that he destroyed much of his own work, so there are very few originals left to be collected. During one period in his life, he gave up art altogether in order to read philosophy and think things over. Don't know if he ever found the answer.

I have only a few originals, but they are all drawings and they take your breath away. I also have a batch of tearsheets of work that I was sorry did not make it into the book. But any book of Sickles work I am happy to have.

Rob Howard said...

David, there's no denying his ability with a pencil. For that he deserves superlatives. I fully understand his having to dilute his art to the taste of art directors, clients and, worst of all, client's wives (no kidding, they'd bring comps home to the Missus for crits because, as we know, women know more about art than men). This was never a business for people who wanted to remain optimists. It's a great business (or was) but it can make you misanthropic, so I can understand his bopping back and forth with styles just (okay...not just) to make a living.

I can understand all that about Sickles. At his best, he was among the best. His series for LIFE magazine's serialization of The Old Man and The Sea (imagine one of today's popular magazines...TIME, WE, WIRED...sponsoring a Hemingway masterpiece). Obviously, the general audience was far more literate in the early 50's. For the next ten or fifteen years we were treated to great, great illustration by the likes of Ben Shahn and the incomparable Morton Roberts' heart-pounding illustrations of Rigoletto for (I believe) LOOK magazine.

Then any semblance of culture died and produced a generation that cannot use it's opposable thumb to handle a pencil.

Have a banana.

Liliana Lucki said...

Good blog.

Buenisimoa trabajos.

Con admiraciĆ³n,saluda desde Argentina.


Chad said...

I share some of Rob's thoughts on the quality of Sickles painting.Like Fawcett I think he was at his best when adding colored inks to his fantastic drawing power.
Where he's wrong, I believe, is in his comments on Scorchy Smith. Sickles, next to Alex Raymond and possibly Eisner, was the most important influence shaping the look of American comics after WW2. Its a fact that virtually every important comic artist -particularly Alex Toth- had a stack of almost priceless Scorchy Smith xeroxes at their elbow for inspiration.If it were not for this contribution he'd be even more obscure today and there would probably NO books documenting his important career.
Yes, he was constantly experimenting with style but surely this was the impulse that took took a poor farm boy into the local library to study European design journals like Simpliccimus to learn his craft.Rob should support that.
I have the book and until the Fawcett tome is published it is a source of the purest joy for the quality of the work.

David Apatoff said...

Liliana-- thanks!

Chad-- Scorchy Smith is a delicate subject. I agree that there were moments (largely toward the end of the strip, from late '35 through '36) when the real Sickles was able to shine through. And I agree that Scorchy Smith was highly influential because there was nobody in '34 to '36 who was doing what Sickles was doing. Raymond, Caniff and Foster were just beginning to gain momentum, and they worked in a different style. Having said that, in my opinion Sickles was usually drawing that strip with one hand tied behind his back. I suspect people tend to collect it because of those occasional sequences where he became motivated to work around constraints, and because the strip generally shows the formative stages of a legend. It cannot compare to Sickles' work for Life Magazine and other illustration assignments once he was set free.

I am grateful to the strip because it led to this book, and also inspired Toth and other excellent artists who came after Sickles. But I think Sickles, just like Frazetta, didn't really blossom until he got out of comics.

Chad said...

Point taken,David.I think maybe he gave those other artists a glimpse of an approach to comics drawing that showed the importance of 'design' and storytelling rather than beautifully rendered figurework (although he showed he could do that as well later) there was definitely SOMETHING in that stack of Scorchy Strips that absolutely blew everyone in the 'know' away in the post-war period.His illustration was great, but like Bernie Krigstein-influenced by Toth,therefore Sickles-his comics work seems to have had the most impact/influence on the next generation.

Unknown said...

This is a really nice drawing. It really speaks to me at this moment.


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