Saturday, October 31, 2009


I was pleased that my last post about working with ink triggered a discussion in the comment section about the great Leonard Starr.

Regular readers know that I am a big admirer of Starr's brilliant draftsmanship in the comic strip On Stage. At regular intervals, I revisit On Stage just to renew my education. In view of the comments from readers, I thought it would be timely to share some inspiring examples of Starr's work with brush and ink.

Starr's no. 3 Winsor & Newton brush gave him more descriptive power than he could have obtained from a pen.

In the following panel, note Starr's elegant brushwork on the crouching figure, especially the brisk contoured shading of his left arm.

The next panel is a good example of the range of delicate applications for a brush in the hands of a talented artist: contrast the freedom of the curls in her hair with the lines of the folds in her nightgown sleeve, and contrast both with how effectively Starr sculpted those hands holding the phone:

Starr knew how to apply heavy inks for dramatic effect:

If anyone knows the whereabouts of the original of this daily strip, I'd love to hear from them.

But the heavy ink never gets out of control. The consummate craftsman, Starr maintains complete balance. In the following daily strip, only one face ever comes out of the shadows but the moonlight on that single dubious face works perfectly, both visually and as stagecraft.

Also, note the woman's upturned head as she offers her lips for a kiss (quite sexy, I thought). Starr gets the tilt just right, and delicately captures the effect of gravity on the back of her hair. You can tell when an artist is using silhouettes to avoid work, and when he really knows what he is doing.

For me, a bonus in Starr's artwork is that he is a master of facial expressions. Look at how he captures the emotion in the face of the loyal old soldier in the last panel...

Or the disappointed bemusement of the woman in the last panel here... not the simplest emotions to depict.

Starr seamlessly combined the strengths of the pen and the brush to create unified pictures of integrity and class.

For me, it defies the laws of physics that Starr was able to write and draw three such panels every day, six days a week, and three times that amount on Sundays.
Today, the medium of the comic strip has evolved and no longer has room for this type of craftsmanship.

The entire wonderful series of On Stage is being reprinted by
Classic Comics Press and I highly recommend it to you. The reprints have now reached the years where Starr really hit his stride. It is truly a pleasure to read.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Sophie Herbert

You should turn to ink only when you're no longer afraid of commitment.

If you're looking for a more casual relationship, choose a pencil because I guarantee you, ink will still be there in the morning when you wake up, and she ain't leaving after breakfast.

Newer art tools, from the etch-a-sketch to its successor, the WACOM tablet, sometimes give us the impression we can make all our mistakes disappear. 

The Etchasketchist

Photoshop enables us to go back in time and magically wipe our fingerprints off a murder weapon or retrieve the phone number we imprudently handed out in that bar last night. But the benefits of this freedom come with a cost.

Ink is the medium for artists who are prepared to stand by their actions. Ink reserves her special favors-- as well as her frustrations-- for those artists who understand the significance of commitment.

Ink is applied wet but leaves a fossil record of every decision or mistake the artist made. That record can be difficult to live with, but its finality transforms the psychology of the experience; artists who enjoy playing with the wetness of ink recognize they can't escape the consequences of their actions when that ink dries.

Saul Steinberg had just one chance to get this bold flourish right. This Hineni moment was important to the character of the art.

Andre Francois

Ink can be experienced by means of a rigid pen or a yielding brush (offering the artist yin or yang alternatives). Some people prefer the metal backbone and sharp point of a pen nib because it offers precision and control. For this I cannot blame them. But personally, I find the nonvertebrate brush provides the strength to make the more powerful statement. The point on a brush bends to the resistance of the paper but the more it bends, the stronger and bolder its mark becomes.

Note the virilty of that lapel stroke by the great Leonard Starr

Which leads me to the point of this post: When Francis Bacon laid out the scientific method for understanding the physical universe, his great insight was that the only way to master nature is to obey her. Only by observing nature's properties and following her laws can you then command her to do your bidding. On the strength of this perception, humans launched the scientific revolution, patiently collecting the information to harness the physical world.

This rule applies equally to the hydrology of ink. Once you have learned to understand and respect her properties, ink can perform magnificent feats for you.

She is likely to serve you better through the fluid freedom of the brush than through the pen which constrains her nature. (This law also applies to other physical sciences, such as love.)

Some fools believe they can have it both ways, getting the benefits of the medium without having to deal with all of her messy capriciousness, simply by caging her in a rapidograph and regulating her through a 000 nib. But this is not mastering ink. Such people are emotional misers. They don't understand ink, and never will.

Friday, October 09, 2009


Jeff MacNelly never went to art school or graduated from college, but his brain was the prototype for 3D supercomputer graphics software-- he had the uncanny ability to visualize an object and rotate it in his head on all three axes, then scale, translate and project it-- all before breakfast.

MacNelly rarely drew one of his political cartoons straight on-- instead, he effortlessly played with the vantage point, ratcheting it up or down a few degrees to make the picture more dynamic:

Note how the low vantage point completely transforms what would otherwise be a fairly conventional scene.

MacNelly punctuates the receding plane of the bar with well placed figures.

Here, he convincingly intersects the receding plane of the fence with the right angle of the jet and the acute angle of that sagging truck.

His angles allowed him to go wild when foreshortening the ground-- a side benefit he obviously enjoyed...

MacNelly won his first pulitzer prize by the time he was 25. He told friends he hoped that by hanging his pulitzer high enough on the wall, he might fool people into thinking it was a college degree. He won two more pulitzers by the age of 38.

A highly prolific artist, MacNelly used to claim that on days when he felt he had done a bad job with his cartoon, he would sign his name to look like "Oliphant."

MacNelly was a natural; he intuitively understood many of the things he might have learned in art school; for example the fact that the part of the picture that attracts the most attention is the part that appears to be out of place (here, the small dark figure contrasted against the white half of this picture.)

MacNelly's gift for visualizing an image and rotating it on an axis was not limited to the drawing. One of the things that made him the preeminent editorial cartoonist was that he could rotate ideas as well, looking at subject matter from a variety of perspectives in order to come up with great concepts.

Monday, October 05, 2009


Edgar Allan Poe believed that checkers is a more profound game than chess. The rules of checkers are extremely simple, he wrote, but their simplicity opens the game up to psychology and reflection while chess remains a closed game of complex mathematical combinations: "The higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by [checkers] than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess [where] what is only complex is mistaken...for what is profound."

After 68 years, Archie Andrews (the world's most indecisive guy) has finally chosen Veronica Lodge over Betty Cooper.

He marries Veronica in the current issue of Archie (no. 601).

Now is probably a good time to reflect upon-- and honor-- the seven decades that Betty and Veronica spent in purgatory as they tried to persuade this lout to commit. Day and night the two girls schemed and competed, connived and begged without success. This had to be a frustrating life and, as the decades went by, an ultimately debasing one. But the girls were trapped in a loop; they were never permitted to graduate from high school and mature into women with the confidence and self-respect to walk away. Thus, the parable of Betty and Veronica became a demented combination of Ground Hog Day and the Myth of Sisyphus.

The fateful moment Betty met Archie (1941). How could she know she was at the threshold of 68 years of indecision and disappointment?

Ultimately, the girls received mercy not from their writers or artists but from the cold blooded marketplace. The comic book's dwindling circulation numbers and advertising revenues accomplished what the two girls could not: they squeezed a commitment out of Archie (assuming of course that these were not androids getting married, in which case the cruel jest continues).

You can fill in the gaps yourself regarding what took place during this long, long struggle. Each time Betty or Veronica was hungry for dessert, did she pause to consider whether gaining weight might give her rival a competitive advantage? How many ice cream sodas did Betty forego in 68 long years to make herself more attractive to that vacillating wretch Archie? And how do you calculate the toll on the human spirit of seven decades of doubt and guilt?

Then there's the huge disparity in wealth between rich Veronica and middle class Betty. At first, this would seem to make their competition as uneven as a competition between a rook and a pawn. But psychological advantages are not so cleanly divided. Veronica will live every day uncertain whether her father's wealth, and not her personal qualities, made the crucial difference to Archie. (That same uncertainty will probably help to console the vanquished Betty.) What does this portend for the marriage? Well, ask yourself: will the witless Archie be sensitive to the causes of a rich girl's insecurity? Is he capable of reassuring her in a way that will keep doubt from gnawing at her (and surfacing in a thousand little tests and spats)? Will she eventually seek reassurance in alcohol? Or in the arms of the gardener?

While you are filling in the gaps, consider the sexual favors the two girls must have surrendered in Archie's old jalopy. If each girl felt pressure to go further than she had on the previous date, how far did she have to go to keep the insatiable Archie intrigued after 68 years of dating? Even worse, each girl had to struggle with the pressure of what their rival might be offering the selfish boy on the following night, and perform accordingly.

This is not the type of straightforward competition won by the girl most successful at gratifying Archie's lusts. Archie himself was a simpleton, but the gamesmanship of their triangle must have been more complicated than 3 dimensional chess. The creators have not disclosed Archie's vile sexual preferences, but they did occasionally share his method of sweet talking his vulnerable girlfriends:

By constructing Archie as a cipher, the creators enabled readers to fill the vacuum with their own speculation. Readers get to decide: would an old fashioned boy such as Archie feel obligated to marry the first girl who gave him sex? Or would he feel uncomfortable committing to a girl who capitulated too quickly? Most likely, he'd be intimidated by a girl who seemed more hot blooded than he was. Betty and Veronica also had to weigh whether Archie was so clueless and self-absorbed that he might be unaware of the commitment they were expressing through sex. What if they sacrificed for him and he was just too oblivious to reciprocate? With stakes so high, what was the best course of action for the girls? They had many long nights to fret about this during 70 years of high school.

The art of Archie started out at the bare minimum quality level and frequently went downhill from there. But the art, like the character, was a basic checker piece, an empty vessel that could be filled with all kinds of content such as the embellishments offered above. If the creators ever began to fill in the gaps in the story or the art ever became more insightful-- or at least more committal-- then some of my speculation might have been ruled out. Archie, Betty and Veronica would have been converted from checkers into chess pieces with defined roles . But of course, then some of the implicit horror of their relationships might have begun to show through.

The ancient Romans tied clown masks on the Christian martyrs so that, as they perished in the jaws of the lions in the Coliseum, they were denied the dignity of their faces. Perhaps the cheerful vacuous templates frozen on the faces of Betty and Veronica (who are now blessedly released from their long martyrdom) were conceived with the same purpose.