Thursday, May 27, 2010


There are artists who make great big pictures of great big subjects:

Albert Bierstadt's "A Storm in the Rocky Mountains" is 12 feet wide.

And there are artists who make tiny little pictures of tiny little subjects:

A page from a gothic illuminated manuscript (circa 1494) at Peacay's superb Bibliodyssey blog.

But it takes a special talent to make tiny little pictures of great big subjects.

Observe how some of the masters of the graphic arts-- Mort Drucker, Leonard Starr and Noel Sickles-- squeeze a feeling of great space and weight into pictures that are not much larger than a postage stamp.

Here you see the difference between digital compression by a computer and artistic compression by a true draftsman. Mort Drucker had a mere 3 inches to convey a school bus crossing a yawning chasm. His radical foreshortening of the bus and his condensed treatment of the bridge preserve our sense of perilous height despite the miniature scale.

Look at the wonderful clarity in this small drawing. Drucker conveys the great distance between the two planes, and the even greater distance to the ground below. His description of the ground contains just enough information to explain our altitude, but not enough to confuse or distract us from the men performing various complex functions. This is an amazing example of visual problem solving.

In Leonard Starr's On Stage, the artist convincingly portrays a huge snowball rolling off the side of a cliff.

In just a few inches of space, Noel Sickles gives us the feeling of immense heft of a battleship listing.

All representational artists create the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional plane. However, it requires an excellent draftsman to convey great scale under such extreme limitations.

These are artists who have slipped the bonds of space limitations. You get the feeling they have the technical ability to implement anything their mind can conceive.


StimmeDesHerzens said...

am i the first?
I take it these two artists are comic artists. So now I have a new appreciation, altho I haven't looked at a comic book in years.

Bill said...


I like your art blog here. We just started up an art social networking website. It's for artists, galleries, and art agents. Check it out if you get a chance.

Tom said...

Great drawings David and topic, space seems to be the true subject of the visual arts, once you start thinking spatially, how many angels can you fit on a head of a pin, or how many people can you pack on the side of a sinking battleship.

Tom said...

David speaking of space and even thrust have you ever seen the landscape paintings of Rackstraw Downes?

David Apatoff said...

Leibesreime, you're always the first even when you're last. I try not to draw class distinctions between comic art and illuminated manuscripts or drawings by Michelangelo, except as those differences are dictated by the quality of the image itself.

Tom-- Thanks. PS, I was not familiar with Downes but I am enjoying looking at his work.

Tom said...

You have to see the real paintings to feel their impact there is one in the MOMA of Louisiana bayou that feels like it goes on forever. He does all his work on site; I think he works on some paintings for a few years at a time. ‬

Canuck said...

Those Drucker drawings are very cinematic - there is foreshortening, depth of field, camera point of view, etc. That sinking battleship illustration also looks like a movie still. Prior to the advent of cinema, a painting that wasn't 'window-like' (like Bierstaedt) as probably confusing.

Anonymous said...

"But it takes a special talent to make tiny little pictures of great big subjects."

Couldn't one argue that it is more of a developed skill necessitated by working in comic books than a particular innate talent?

David Apatoff said...

Etc., etc.-- well it is certainly a response to the kind of space limitations that are frequently encountered in comics (although that Sickles image was an illustration for Life Magazine). But let's be specific about the ability required to do this. We are NOT talking about the ability to draw reeeeally small, to squeeze as many figures as possible inside a panel border. (Note in the Drucker airplane picture how much space he devotes to that large but seemingly extraneous wheel, or the backs of the heads of the airmen wearing helmets.) We are talking instead about the ability to conceptualize a scene, isolate the crucial ingredients and find creative ways to alter and prioritize them to create the illusion you want. I think that ability to abstract and prioritize has a far broader set of applications than just a "skill necessitated by working in comic books."

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

"We are talking instead about the ability to conceptualize a scene, isolate the crucial ingredients and find creative ways to alter and prioritize them to create the illusion you want."

Don't most seasoned illustrators and artists do this? Working in a confined space would certainly force one to edit even more, no?

According to mosts artists working in a larger scale is far more challenging because of the difficulty of preserving pictorial unity and cohesiveness.

Tom said...

I think you are right David, Sickles concived the
side plane of the battleship, more then likely he could tell you how many men could occupy that plane and how far the life boat is from the sinking ship. Even the angle at which it is sinking. That is the differnce between between trying to be accurate and comprehension. The convctions of the proportions and volumes alone in the drawings tells the viewer that the entire space has been mentality thought out.

norm said...

Sorry if I'm being too contrary here...but, I might agree with etc etc, since most artists do small studies to get ready for large pieces...but not so much the other way around.
Though, I think there is something to what you say. I vaguely remember a story one of my teachers told in art school of someone looking at the work of two famous artists. One artist did a huge painting and the other did a smallish but more dynamically composed one. The viewer innocently asked why the small painting looked "bigger" than the huge one.
(is anyone familiar with this story or who these artists may have been?)

Tom said...

I think once one is thinking spaitally, size is irrelevant. Like Drucker, Turner did entire harbor scenes on paper a couple of inches high and wide-he had no problem taking things up to movie screen size. Prespective forces proportion and scale, if like David says, the artist thinks out the space his drawing decsions are already decided or force upon him once he decides where he is going to put something in the picture. It a great point he is making good artist are powerful conceptualizers.

David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc. said: "Don't most seasoned illustrators and artists do this?"

In my judgment, the good ones know they are supposed to, and a subset of that group can actually do it. I hate to pick at an old wound, but Jeff Koons couldn't do it if his life depended on it.

Tom, I think you are exactly right about Sickles. He used to stare at an object real hard until he understood how it came together, and then he could quickly draw it from any angle. Jeff MacNelly's analytical brain apparently worked the same way.

Norm, I suppose it all depends on what the small study is designed to do. If it is a plan for a composition or values, it wouldn't necessarily address the "scale" point we're discussing.

norm said...

True, I was just thinking most, if not all of the artists who worked out big space on big canvases probably did some small studies of it first....but, I suppose their studies may not have communicated the space as well as their finished pieces.
Or, am I missing the point here, and Tom is right that size is irrelevant. You can either convey space well, or not...the size of your canvas isn't going to help you much.

Tom said...

The forgrounds in all three pictures also set or start the pictures off beautifully, they immediatly set up scale relations to the great distances.

norm said...

...also, I think composition and value (and color) are things that help make the space I think they could still apply.

Tom said...

The two guys in Drucker's helicopter almost exactly mimic the two sailors in Sickles lifeboat, one head directing us in and one head directing us left.

norm said...

One more thing...
Does anyone else find it interesting that the Sickles illustration uses the same range of values in the foreground, midground, background and there's no atmospheric perspective?

Tom said...

Yes Norm, he seems to just change proportions, with black and grey in the foreground, the black being dominant and black and grey in the boat, with the grey dominant and the white of the water line contrasting the saftey of the foreground and the fear of the middle ground. He also nicely keeps bumping a strong black against a white from front to back. First the sailors head against the white water line, then the hole in the hull aganist the water line and finally some of the ships rigging aganist the sky, like stone skipped across a pond.

stephen Silver said...

These guys are legends. have you heard about the documentary film I made on mort. you can see the trailer here.

Rob Howard said...

David, controlling scale is one of the "101" classes in a decent art school. It's so basic that I am surprised that anyone doesn't know how to draw a flea towering over an elephant.

Very, very basic stuff and hardly magical.

Anonymous said...

Dear David, thank you. Having only recently discovered your blog, it sits at the top of my favourite's list for one very simple reason.

My eyes have been opened. WIDE!

I've been filled with self doubt and a not too small measure of self-loathing for many years. All because I was searching for perfection in my work. I too like a great drawing. Probably more than anything.

I've been drawing ever since I could hold a pencil, and I humbly submit that I can hold a candle too a great many of the illustrators you have featured in your blog. Ever since I saw Mort Drucker's illustrations as a small boy in MAD in the early 60's I wanted to be able to do what he did.

Unfortunately, living in a backwater like South Africa, especially at that time and then later during the apartheid years, the opportunities for an angry young artist who could out-draw just about anyone simplt weren't there. And while I did some studio work and even worked as an animator for awhile, my enthusiasm for drawing waned. Africa ain't a place for sissies!

Anyway, I'm rambling...simply put, your insights have delighted me and given me pause to reconsider my future with regard to 'illustrating'.

Like Goines, I don't consider myself an 'artist'. I've never really understood what it meant to be one and since I'm not particularly good at playing the game or swapping small talk with a pretentious bunch of bullshitters, the 'fine art' community represented a club of which I wanted no part. As a result I did not draw regularly for many years and became rustier then I thought possible in the process. But I'm slowly crawling my way back, and as a result of your musings, I'm more determined then ever to exceed myself!

My wife often walks into my office/studio early in the morning, where she finds me smiling quietly to myself and nodding my head in agreement to some profound new understanding which has jumped off the screen and whacked me in the head!

I'm learning to see things with a fresh eye once more. And to find someone whom I consider a kindred spirit, someone who can appreciate when a line is a thing of beauty, when a simple black and white illustration makes one feel glad to be alive, is a rare find indeed.

Please visit my blog if and when you get a chance. I would love to hear your thoughts. Sincerely yours, Jacques Stenvert. or go to

Joyce said...

Very interesting, David. Yes, this is a skill to be considered and admired. Nevertheless I would just like to add a bit of information to your thumbnail of Bierstadt and his abilities. Before he began to do the big, fill-the-room paintings, he took his traveling paint box into the western wilderness along with the Landers expidition in 1857-58, and while on the road (so to speak since there was no road, yet) he painted very small oil sketches of his experiences of the west. These paintings tend to be in the 6 inch by 10 inch range and are some of the most beautiful and compelling things he ever painted. They are tiny clear views into the vast western landscape.

David Apatoff said...

Canuck-- I agree with you about the cinematic effect. Hard to say whether the artists influenced film or the film influenced the artists. A little of both, I'd imagine.

Tom-- good point about the functions of the two heads.

Stephen Silver-- I am looking forward to seeing your interview with Drucker. I've made no secret of the fact that I think the man is a genius. Are there any stories you can share with us about the filming experience?

David Apatoff said...

Rob Howard wrote: "controlling scale is one of the '101' classes in a decent art school."

Rob, I know that a mechanical application of the laws of perspective can make a flea look bigger than an elephant, but in my view not many artists can create the feeling of ponderous bulk of that battleship in such a small shape, or design pictures as intelligently as Drucker. There are an awful lot of graduates of those "101" classes who can't come close.

Yuk, thanks for your kind comments. I enjoyed your blog, and appreciated your post about Frazetta. I've never been to South Africa but you sound pretty tough on them.

Joyce, I know that Bierstadt, like Turner, did great thumbnails on site which he later used in the studio. There are some interesting stories about Bierstadt and his wife on the road. I always intended to write something about them. Maybe it's time.

Anonymouse said...

ROb can't get over the fact that he's had decent training. He's so proud of this that it makes him forget that this blog is about artists who had other things besides just decent training.

Unknown said...


I got hit with an internet award, Kreativ Blogger. It’s intended as a viral meme and I’m expected to spread it to seven other creative blogs I find worthy of such. I figure your blog is easily in my top seven favorites!

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Richard.

Anonymous said...

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Marcos Mateu said...

Great stuff, whole stories in every panel!

Jeff Doten said...

" Here you see the difference between digital compression by a computer and artistic compression by a true draftsman."

What ?

David Apatoff said...

Venusian, what I meant was that a computer can reduce the size or the resolution of an image by applying a mathematical formula uniformly across the entire image. It doesn't discriminate between "bits"-- all binary digits are the same. But an artist reduces the image in a very different way, using judgment and taste and discretion to prioritize some things, do some things differently, find other artistic solutions.