Saturday, November 21, 2009


This is why your grandpa spoke with such reverence about the great Al Dorne.

1953 illustration from Colliers about six greedy, shiftless sons waiting for their father to die.

These overalls alone are an act of utter brilliance:

Notice how sharply Dorne observed the folds at the knee and the waist, and how he used such a descriptive line to convey them. You can also tell from the way he drew those haunches that he understood perfectly the anatomy beneath the overalls.

Dorne's knowledge of anatomy did not hobble his imagination in any way. Look at the liberty he took in redesigning the human skull, placing ferret-like heads on the bodies of lummoxes.

In addition to the seemingly dislocated jaw, note the loving attention Dorne paid to the furrowed brow, the curve of the eye and the interaction between cheekbone and nose. This is a master draftsman at work.

Other examples of that fabulous Dorne line include:

But it would be a mistake to look at this drawing as just the sum of its highlights. Look at the total architecture of the drawing. Dorne has carefully placed these sons, leaning forward like vultures, to focus all attention on the dying old man.

Although he is the centerpiece of the drawing, you never see the old man's face. In a further act of stagecraft combining color and line, the old man's red sleeve draws your eye right where Dorne wanted it. (Admittedly, these watercolors have faded with the years, but even in 1953, that sleeve stood out).

For me, this is a lovely drawing with the kind of complexity that you rarely see in illustrations designed for today's shorter attention spans. The artist Leonard Starr recounts an exchange between Dorne and famed pop artist Andy Warhol: Warhol claimed, "Art today has to go beyond mere drawing" to which Dorne responded, "Excuse me, Andy, but there's nothing fucking 'mere' about drawing."

Monday, November 16, 2009


Bob Peak started out in the 1950s as just one of many young, capable illustrators.

But in the 1960s, Peak caught fire and began turning out radically different work. His line work had roots in the Viennese Secessionist movement (particularly Schiele and Klimt) and in the great Rene Bouche, but Peak's hot, fluorescent color combinations were unprecedented; his extreme angles, cinematic style, and space age dynamism were blazingly original.

Nobody else was doing work like this at the time.

Peak's work was "radical" in the truest sense of the word (defined as "going to the root or source.") Note in the following unpublished picture how Peak is not merely fine tuning details-- instead, he goes all the way back to the simplest most fundamental questions of design, composition and color and comes up with a striking result.

Literally, a "revolution" occurs when something completes a full cycle and returns to its starting place.

Peak's salad days in the 1960s were a remarkable, vibrant period, but he was too hot not to cool down. As Peak matured, he remained commercially successful but his innovations came fewer and farther between. He had a lucrative career making movie posters that seem to me to be repetitive and uninspired, the type of art that might be sold on vacation cruise ships.

Even if Peak's innovative period was not sustainable, there was a moment when he found the voice for his time and place. That was enough to establish a legacy that can't be taken away.

Monday, November 09, 2009


I love this drawing of a speeding police car.

Note the frenetic lines for the flashing light; the car's shape distorted by speed, with the ballast in the back and the snout lurching forward; and the way the car hovers above the ground, seeming to kick up gravel behind it. I love the line work (including the occasional ink smear). I love the design and the composition. Applying the same standards I apply to a Picasso, I consider this a terrific drawing.

Sophisticated artists who have mastered technical skills sometimes struggle to unlearn those skills. They hope that, by shedding their knowledge of anatomy and perspective and their hardened patterns of perception, they can draw the world with the same freshness as the child who drew that police car.




It's not easy to shed established habits of seeing. The process of dismantling skills-- abandoning assumptions, vanquishing muscle memory and starting from scratch-- can be as difficult as acquiring skills to begin with. You can't rid yourself of your assumptions about the world without first going through the educational process of figuring out where your assumptions end and the real world begins.

Today many prominent illustrators have concluded that technical skill will not take them where they want to go. Instead, they deliberately make their pictures ungainly and disproportionate. They use a primitive line, distorting and simplifying in an effort to simulate a fresh, unschooled perspective.





If an artist deliberately aspires to make pictures that appear awkward, sloppy or uneven, they obviously cannot be judged by traditional standards for technical skill. But what standards should apply? How do we compare a successful drawing by a mature artist with that child's drawing of the police car? Or more importantly, how do we distinguish a successful sloppy, ungainly, disproportionate picture from an unsuccessful one?

One thing is clear: standards for quality still matter-- perhaps more than ever, now that the more objective criteria such as technical facility or physical resemblance are no longer useful.

Some pictures in this genre are truly excellent (for example, I am personally a big fan of William Steig and John Cuneo, and I really like that Picasso picture,
Combat de Centaures). But there are other pictures in this category that I think are wildly unsuccessful.



What makes the good examples so rewarding and the bad examples so unconvincing? For me, design is always a crucial factor. Beyond that, do we measure such pictures by their purity? By their sincerity or authenticity? By the mature concept embodied in the child-like image? At a minimum, the artists who seem most successful at this "newborn" style of art aren't the ones who merely try to mimic children's drawings or who are willfully sloppy, but rather those who recognize and go after the raw, disturbing character of that pre-verbal, non-rational place where (as I've
suggested before) innocent children, raving lunatics and savage beasts all dwell.