Saturday, August 28, 2010


These are original student drawings from the 1911 class of the famous art teacher, George Bridgman.

Bridgman, constantly inebriated and chewing on a large black cigar, would rail at his students about the importance of mastering anatomy: "Don't think color's going to do you any good. Or lovely compositions. You can't paint a house until it's built." His students adored him and vied for his approval.

Some of the students in this class would grow up to be stars, such as Norman Rockwell, Mclelland Barclay or E.F. Ward. But in 1911 they were still ambitious teenagers dreaming of the future and striving to develop the kind of academic drawing skill that many illustrators today consider irrelevant.

The crowded classroom was warmed by the stench of tobacco, charcoal, perspiration and turpentine.

Many of the models were girls who had come to the city to work in department stores during a peak holiday season and were laid off after the holidays.  Desperate for money, they would apply for modeling work but once in the classroom some couldn't bring themselves to take their clothes off. Sometimes a young woman would attempt to pose in her slip and stockings, but she would be asked to leave. Recalled one of Bridgman's students, "she'd begin to cry and say she needed the money and what was she going to do."

These girls and their personal anguish are now just ghosts on crumbling paper.  All that remains of them are the images that shamed them.

Bridgman was a highly critical taskmaster, teaching as he did before our era of false praise. At the end of each class, he would designate one student's work as number 1. (You can still see Bridgman's notation, "1st" on E.F. Ward's drawing of the man's back, above.) But Norman Rockwell recalled a story that Bridgman would tell the class whenever he sensed that students were getting cocky about their grades:
Boys, a queer thing happened to me after I left the class last Tuesday. There was a coal wagon backed up onto the sidewalk on 48th street shooting coal into a cellar. As I passed by a fellow stuck his head, all begrimed with coal, out of the cellar and said "hello Mr. Bridgman." I said, "why hello there who are you?" Oh, the fellow said, don't you remember me? I was number one in your class last year.... 
The story varied; sometimes it was an iceman or a voice from a manhole.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I love Thomas Fluharty's working drawing of Hugh Hefner:

The purpose of this drawing was to capture the information Fluharty needed for an oil portrait. This could never be achieved merely by tracing liver spots. Look at the vigor and character of his line:

Robert Fawcett once wrote, "A design started tentatively rarely gains in vigor later on. In anticipation of the dilution... the first rough draft [is often] put down with an almost savage intensity...." The personality that Fluharty squeezed into this drawing will survive conversion to painted shapes followed by several phases of refinement and blending.

Despite the obvious energy and speed of his drawing, he has not sacrificed acuity. Note how sharply he records the eyes, never resting with an easy symmetry:

Best of all, as he digests information Fluharty infuses it with strong opinions. Here Fluharty takes liberties with Hefner's ear, treating it like the gnarly horn of a grizzled old satyr:

One of the things I love most about good drawing is the way opinions and judgments emerge in the evaluation process.

Fluharty teaches a superb course on oil painting in the tradition of the Dutch and Flemish masters.

Monday, August 09, 2010


Many of Frank Frazetta's fans had trouble understanding why the "master of fantasy" couldn't fantasize a better lifestyle than a home in the suburbs with a wife and kids.

Frazetta was able to conjure up vivid worlds of savage barbarians and wild harem girls. He painted eyewitness accounts of magic spells on alien planets and colossal battles with dinosaurs.

How could such an imagination possibly be satisfied with middle class domestic life?

But Frazetta made no apologies for his choice, shrugging, "I got married, had kids, did my thing."

Frazetta said he picked his wife Ellie over all the other girls because "I sensed that she would be forever loyal and I never had that feeling about any other girl I'd been involved with." Apparently her ability to pilot a space ship was not even a consideration.

They started out with very little money, but you don't need much when you're young and hot blooded. Ellie recalled that when they moved into a small apartment in Brooklyn,
we used to have water pistol fights in our apartment in the dark. Have you ever been squirted with water in a pitch black room? Oh, it's creepy! We did all sorts of silly things when we were young. I had to clean up the mess in the morning, but so what? We had fun and it didn't cost a dime.
Years later, a more matronly Ellie tried to keep the evidence of their early frolics under wraps, saying "I don't want my grandkids to see their grandmother like that."

As the couple matured, Ellie primly scolded Frazetta for paintings she now considered "too sexy" or "sacrilegious."

"I really didn't care for... the alien crucifixion.... when you start messing with people's core beliefs, that's when the joke's gone way too far." --Ellie

In a recent blog post about Frazetta, a friend describes Frazetta's frustration when Ellie stopped posing for him:
[O]ne time I really did want to use her and she said a flat "no". I had an idea to do a follow-up book to that book of monsters I did for Danzig. It would be in different types of pencil, all nudes, all using Ellie, and using very different types of really dramatic lighting. Ellie would have been my life model. She said "no". She said she was too busy with the business and the kids. I dropped the whole thing.
 When his art offended her, she threatened to destroy it. She pestered him into altering a painting when she thought a woman's rump was too large. To please her, he would paint pictures of Jesus.

Frazetta fans watched aghast: would married life tame their hero?

Outsiders can't always appreciate how marriage provides its own version of magic spells and alien planets. Marriage can introduce you to the true meaning of life-or-death stakes; you think a giant lizard with a ray gun is daunting? Try bringing new life trembling into the world, and taking permanent responsibility for it.

And of course, marriage also provides you with an opportunity to do your own version of that barbarian-and-harem-girl thing.

A couple must get beyond what poet Eavan Boland calls "the easy graces and sensuality of the body" and face life's true challenges before they understand "what there is between a man and a woman. And in which darkness it can best be proved."

The Frazettas stayed together through thick and thin, through lean years when assignments were hard to find, through vicious quarrels and illness and a stroke. Frazetta grumbled that he should have divorced Ellie long ago, but he was "too lazy."

After Ellie died, Frazetta's publisher J. David Spurlock visited him alone in his studio. Spurlock discovered that Frazetta had taken down his world famous illustrations from the walls and replaced them with pictures he had painted of Ellie over the years.

Spurlock reported that even when the face wasn't an exact likeness, it was obvious that Ellie had been the inspiration for each picture Frank selected.

In case there was any lingering doubt about the role Frazetta's marriage played in his work, Spurlock spotted Frazetta's famous painting, "Adventure," on his drawing board.

Frazetta was carefully repainting the face on the girl as the face of his late wife.

Monday, August 02, 2010

COMIC-CON 2010 (conclusion)

[This is the last installment of my field report on my expedition through darkest Comic-Con with gun and camera. Special thanks to those who have managed to remain awake.]

It seems that every year, Comic-Con gets larger and louder.

As Nell Minow observed, Comic-Con has evolved into "the Iowa caucuses of popular culture," the trial balloon for movies, television series, books, computer games and music in addition to comics. Film studios now erect statues of cyborgs, rocket ships and cartoon characters that tower over the exhibition hall. Rival fusillades of Dolby sound thunder back and forth across the convention center, each heralding the birth of the next great superhero legend.

It's not surprising that so much of Comic-Con centers around themes of extraordinary power. Power has been the focus of myth and legend since ancient times (Simone Weil famously noted that, "The true hero, the true subject matter, the center of the Iliad is force.")

I was among those who went to Comic-Con to enjoy its power, but not in the sense of high decibel levels or great speed. I am not one of those who is easily awed by armies of trolls or muscle bound super heroes.

If you want to see my concept of strength, take a look at these tiny pencil drawings by Noel Sickles which I discovered in the back of the Comic-Con booth of our old friends at Illustration House.

These are modest spot illustrations from a long-forgotten 1960s article about Russian spies. To me, they are smart, powerful and utterly persuasive.

I saw a lot of meticulous art at Comic-Con depicting shoe laces, fingernails and strands of hair in sharp detail. But ultimately I agree with Balzac: “Power is not revealed by striking hard or often, but by striking true.” For me, these drawings strike true.

Note how the only part of this hotel bar scene in sharp focus is the hand holding the drink.

The remainder of the drawing, including the drinker's other hand, merges into abstraction. Sickles had clear priorities in his drawings and made no secret of them.

And while we're on the subject of hands, note in this next detail how Sickles conveys these hands tearing up documents:

Sickles has already proven that he knows how to draw hands accurately, but here he has employed stark orthogonal lines to show the tension of opposable thumbs at work.

Or in this next detail, note how even at this miniature size, Sickles' sparse line conveys an understanding of the folds in that jacket sleeve.

Amidst all of the booming sound effects and flashing lights of Comic-Con, there is also a lot of power in the more meaningful sense of "striking true." That's why I go back.