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.


Paul Harmon said...

these are great! Did you purchase these? I haven't gone to comic con in about 5 years but I'm dying to see the original art for sale. I'd love to get a sickles piece or find another good Sergio Toppi.

MORAN said...

Damn, I love Sickles' work. You're right, these are more powerful than rockets blasting off by most other artists. How big are the originals?

Myron said...

I love this kind of work. The lines suggest just enough for your to fill in the rest of the scene. I can see all of the anatomy working under the fabric. :)

It actually reminds me of the work of comic artist, John Paul Leon . He is a master of shape, form and composition. And when he works in the genre, he even makes superheroes bearable. A true artist's artist.

Chad said...

Quality.Pure and simple.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen high resolution scans of original Sickles drawings before. Usually I just get reprinted versions of old published magazines. When you actually see his pencil line blown up larger than life, he's even better than I thought. Thanks.


अर्जुन said...

Cupids Bouquet, this is Matt, Matt Cvetic. I placed an order earlier today. Someone made an error, yes, I ordered white but Red roses were delivered…

Tom said...

Hi David
I like the shadows or darks. They capture the useen, underworld of spys. The world of spys is never clear and simple, one does not see below the surface.

Mark Conway said...

I love these drawings, but a question to those that know.Would these poses be traced from photos? Or possibly drawn from models.While I see that Sickles was clearly a great artist there are so many subtle nuances of anatomy, posture etc that he surely couldn't have faked or finessed them to achieve such a deceptively simple statement.
David, you said these drawings were small,can you be a bit more accurate.I think I will only be more amazed when I know their actual dimensions.

Anonymous said...

That second

Rob Howard said...

Those are the drawings i had hoped to see when I bought the Noel Sickles book. Instead, it was larded with the worst of Scorchy Smith (was there ever a best of corchy Smith?) What a waste of recycled toilet paper.

Sickles was a solid artists and that book went far to diminish his reputation. These drawings have some (but far from all) of the grace of Austin Briggs.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I totally agree David. The con is now gone, in it's place is yet another place for movie stars to hawk their latest project. I checked out the four hour coverage on the cable channel G4 and I swear, about 20% of it, MAYBE, was about actual comic content. The rest was a bunch of the same junk, the same questions, from the same loud and grating hosts (I had higher hopes for Olivia Munn or whatever her name was, having been on Jon Stewart).

Illustration House is always a great place to go (as is Allen Spiegel's booth, for the modern equivalent) to see real Illustration. Man...I saw Peak, Fuchs and many others there...artists I never thought I would see originals of in my lifetime.

Ken Meyer Jr, still too lazy to figure out google identities

Jesse Hamm said...

Comicon is big and loud and features much that has nothing to do with comics, but as David points out, there's gold in them-thar hills. I know of no other place on earth where you can find so much great contemporary art under one roof.

"larded with the worst of Scorchy Smith (was there ever a best of corchy Smith?) What a waste of recycled toilet paper."

Rob -- sorry to see you falter from your usual generosity of spirit. The Scorchy book contains all of the Scorchy strips Sickles drew, so it really is the best of Scorchy Smith (unless you prefer pre-Hazard Frank Robbins). And the first 140 pages are packed with hundreds of his gorgeous, hard-to-find illustrations, including one from the same spy article that produced David's images (see page 100). A fine achievement by IDW.

Laurence John said...

Mark Conway: "Would these poses be traced from photos?"

unmistakably, yes. see the 'From Photograph to Drawing' comment section about 7 posts ago for more on the debate.

pencil art said...

these are wonderful pencil sketches. I like all these..
you are very good artist....

Jesse Hamm said...

Laurence, I'm open to the theory that Sickles traced stuff, but I'm unaware of any evidence or argument to that effect. I perused the comment thread you cited, but Sickles only comes up a couple of times, and nobody made the argument that he traced anything.

David Apatoff said...

Paul, the original art at Comic Con is a prime reason for going. In my experience, there is no mode of reproduction, including these scans, that gives you the same feel as the original.

MORAN, I agree. To give you a sense for scale, that first illustration is about 5 inches tall.

Myron, thanks for the link to John Paul Leon.

David Apatoff said...

Chad, JSL and Tom-- thanks, I agree.

अर्जुन-- thanks, it's good to have your musical commentary back. I think these gentlemen are not the FBI, they are Russian agents and diplomats. That middle picture depicts a change of regime, when the Russians removed a picture of Khruschev from the wall and destroyed old documents.

Mark Conway-- going back to our recent discussion about the use of photos, I don't think Sickles "traced" these pictures from photographs. (Putting aside the morality of doing so and judging solely by the end result, this is just not the kind of result you get from tracing.) Did he use photo reference to anchor some of his points, or get some of the details right? I am sure he did so for at least some of his illustrations-- he'd be foolish to ignore a tool as important as photography altogether. But on the other hand, Sickles was famous for his ability to look at a complex subject (such as a stage coach), comprehend its structure and the way that it works, and rotate it in his head to create the angle and lighting he wanted. There are a couple of articles by his contemporaries who were astonished to watch him compose a horse or a building or a fight scene right out of his head for a final illustration. He was not one of those, like Dorne or Briggs or Fuchs, who conspicuously used photo reference.

If there was a photograph involved as a starting point for reference for any of these (clearly none was needed for that third drawing), it probably looked nothing like these final drawings.

David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc-- glad that you see it too.

Rob Howard wrote: "it was larded with the worst of Scorchy Smith (was there ever a best of Scorchy Smith?)"

Rob, Sickles agonized over the syndicate's demands that he duplicate the style of Scorchy Smith creator John Terry, saying "I had to forget everything I learned about drawing -- absolutely everything -- because it was the worst drawing I had ever seen by anybody." Still, Sickles did it because he needed the money and he should be held accountable for that (as we all must be). Decades later, the folks who put out the Sickles book filled much of it with Scorchy Smith, I suspect because the demographics hadn't changed all that much since Sickles' day and there is a wider readership for Scorchy Smith than there is for 1950s illustrations of white men in business suits. (I found a lot to like in the non-comic strip portion of the book.)

To Sickles' credit, I think he gradually inched Scorchy Smith in the right direction, and late in its run did some very nice work.

As for your point that Sickles lacked "the grace of Austin Briggs," I understand what you mean, although you might just as easily say that along with "grace," Sickles stripped drawing of artifice and embellishment. At a time when most illustrators were trying desperately to attract attention by developing a trademark flair, Sickles (a good midwestern farm boy)was focusing on the integrity of drawing in its most honest state.

David Apatoff said...

Ken Meyer, Jr-- I think Comic-Con is a melting pot for movies and the rest of popular culture. Movies are certainly the loudest and most conspicuous medium at Comic-Con right now, but on the other hand, comics provided the the DNA for most of those extravaganzas (such as Green Lantern and Thor).

I always visit Allen Spiegel's booth too-- also Fred Taraba's, Mitch Itkowitz's, Scott Eder's-- it's the equivalent of an art museum for people who like this kind of stuff.

Jesse Hamm: I certainly agree with you about Comic-Con. It's a circus but I love it. I hope those who attended this year caught the talk by composer Danny Elfman. Truly inspirational.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

David Apatoff said...
"Etc, etc-- glad that you see it too."

The expressive lines, the use of paper texture to suggest the texture of clothing, the placement of light areas in darks, ambience...I'm not willing to concede any inferiority or lack of sophistication in Sickles' drawing abilities; there are merely differences of style.

Rob Howard said...

>>> I don't think Sickles "traced" these pictures from photographs. <<<

Oy vey.

What is apparent to me is that all of those concerned with tracing have never, ever been inside a professional studio with a bullpen. The reality is that all of us could draw our asses off. When you're cranking out three or four fully colored storyboards an hour, of half a dozen black and whites, you have to come up with a composition, pose and git 'er done in a quick hurry because if you don't bill a thousand bucks a day you get yelled at by the studio boss.

Yesterday I was drawing a man riding a flying goose. It will be simplified into a colophon. A designer would have approached it directly as a colophon but, thinking as an illustrator, I just had to get in there and draw it out. It was drawn from memory because I'm too damned lazy to do the research unless I get into trouble (which I did with the goose...but figures and folds...never).
The drawings are on yellow trace and, yes, I cheated, I put one drawing under another to move things around and refine the drawing. It is much more detailed than I need for the colophon but hey, why not draw if you're not afraid of it.

If you are afraid of drawing and can't draw accurately, fast and from memory, then I suppose you'll come up with all sort of stuff to salve the ego. The truth is...all of the cheating you heard about means squat. It's like couch potatoes enraged at baseball players taking steroids. Get this Spud, even without the drugs they can play the game better than you can on your very best day. Same thing with studio artists...put us in a room with just a pencil and paper and holler through the door as to how many figures and horses you want and come back in a few hours to be absolutely humbled.

Those who can do. Those who can't come up with fantasies about which they have no firsthand experience. So worry about morality in church and your local animal shelter, not the studio. That's a workshop and nothing more.

G Dolph said...

revatsalAfter reading the previous you might think you were listening to the thoughts of one of the great illustrators of the day (though they are usually humble and modestin attitude) but in fact those are the thoughts of Rob Howard, professional hack and self-justifier.
Who evidently doesnt own the Sickles book but does have an opinion on it.

Rob Howard said...

>>>Who evidently doesnt own the Sickles book but does have an opinion on it.<<<

The reaction of a true lickspittle.

Amazon is wonderful to deal with because, if the book you order is not what you expected, you can return it.

While it may true that I'm a lowly hack who just does it for the money, the reality is that I'm far more skilled and esperienced than you and I have many more bona fides than you. So if I'm low, what's that do for your fantasy of who you are...lower than low?

Know your place. You're lint.

G Dolph said...

A. You prove you are a bullshitter because if you had actually looked through the book, you (or any fan of fantastic drawing) would have kept it.Sickles WW2 work is unbelievable in it's quality of draughtsmanship and here it is beautifully presented.
So you are saying that book was unworthy of a place on your bookshelf. Ha! Total crap.You never had it in the first place, liar.
B.You are making the assumption that I'm not as skilled as you,and having been an illustrator since the 90s, worked for major clients in publishing and advertising and having drawn inked lettered and coloured continuity strips, I would say that is a very foolish assumption.
The fact that some of us do not trumpet our achievements at every available opportunity does not mean we don't know what we are talking about.

Nahid said...

Being an American contemporary artist, graphic designer, and illustrator shepard fairey prints became more widely known in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, specifically his Barrack Obama "HOPE" poster. In wide range of shepard fairey prints, most of them are included in the collections at The Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Fairey also created an exclusive design for Rock the Vote.

David Apatoff said...

Rob Howard: I had to read your comment about the use of photography three times to make sure I agreed with you. It takes a while to navigate around the references to "lint" and "lickspittle," but when I came out the other end, I agreed 99.9% with your position. I think people are right to pause and ask questions about what photography means for the act of creation, just as I have paused and asked questions on this blog about what the computer means for the act of creation. Some of the questions remain unanswered of course, but to a large extent these technologies are self-legitimizing. They have already triumphed in the marketplace of ideas and even King Canute wouldn't harbor illusions about the meaningful choices left to us today.

As ususal I find your practical experience in this field invaluable, but you sure make us work to get to your position.

G Dolph: if you have been an illustrator and continuity strip artist since the 90s, you are certainly welcome here. I would love to hear your opinions on issues in addition to whether you think Rob Howard is telling the truth about buying a book. ( By the way, I own the Sickles book and have recommended it to readers-- there is a lot of great, hard to find material, some of it photographed from originals. It has replaced many of my tattered tearsheets of Sickles work which I inherited from old time artists).

Nahid-- thanks for the spam. I never did like Shepard Fairey's work, and have no use for the z art site which sent out the spam.

Richard said...

You're able to delete spam, no?

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "You're able to delete spam, no?"

Fair point, Richard, although I try to reserve that extreme remedy for escort services and incomprehensble emails from Hong Kong. The z art spam made me work to confirm that it is spam, and I figured that as long as I went through the touble to check their web site, I might as well express an opinion on the quality of the art I found there.

A Real Black Person said...

Is there even a market for that style of illustration anymore?

John Paul Leon has had plenty of high profile work but he's no favorite amongst comic bookr readers. But I like and own some of his work.

Ray said...

To A Real Black Person:

I guess J. P. Leon isn't heralded like a Jee Lee (unfortunately), but he's on my top five list of favorite comic book artist. He does beautiful stuff. I'd take him over Jim Lee and most of the other "top" names in the business.

अर्जुन said...

""You're able to delete spam, no?""

Not if its matted! Can ya feel it?

Jesse Hamm said...

There's still a market for strong draftsmanship, at least in the movie biz. Check out Rodolfo Damaggio's stuff. He works on lots of high profile projects, and boy can he draw.

Tom said...

Wow nice drawings Jesse, great sense of light. Reminds me of Laurence of Arabia. They are so clean and clear.

Laurence John said...

"I'm open to the theory that Sickles traced stuff, but I'm unaware of any evidence or argument to that effect."

Jesse, sorry for the slow response...
i don't have evidence and i'm not referring to other work of his, just these drawings. i'm not really interested in re-igniting the tracing from photos debate, nor am i interested in trying to belittle Sickles. i was only giving my opinion to Mark Conway's query. the dominant opinion here seems to be that tracing is a perfectly legitimate technique and i won't argue with that. of course it usually comes with the disclaimer "he/she could have drawn it just the same without tracing photo reference"... that's where i disagree. it's the subtle little nuances that Mark Conway picked up on that are the things you can't really make up... that give away a traced drawing. a brilliant draftsman can get very close, but tracing photos gives that extra edge of documentary-like realism even (or ironically, ESPECIALLY) in rapid sketches like these. but maybe it's better to let people believe what they want to believe. if you or David want to believe those drawings are done from life models or imagination or just a barely worth mentioning photo 'as a starting point', and you appreciate the drawings more because of that ambiguity, then i don't think i really want to try and spoil your enjoyment. i could on the other hand, give you a list of reasons how i can tell they are traced straight from a photo (or several photos pieced together) ... but it might seem like i have some sort of personal axe to grind against tracing and to be honest i really don't.

Rob Howard said...

>>>but you sure make us work to get to your position. <<<

I felt the same way about poetry. For years I had to content myself with not much more than Joyce Kilmer's "Trees." That arrogant, blowhard hack, Goethe, just made me work too hard. But I am nothing if not persistent and I kept going back to Faust, pounding my head against the impenetrable writing.

Then, mirabile dictu, it clicked. For the first time it began to make sense why anyone would ever write that way. I had to work hard to get there, but in the words of the great American philosopher, Wayne..."a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."

The objections I generally see fielded are those of incurious minds who become irate when something momentarily shakes them out of their torpor. They blurt out a sleepwalker's jumble of thoughts and disconnected words and then sink back into their familar and comforting reveries. One can only wonder at how much more barbed Mencken would have been if he had had such a rich palette of subjects as the Internet provides.

David, I've usually stayed ahead of the social curve which, today is currently exploring irony. I've long since progressed to the next logical step, cynicism. A few more years on the Internet and you'll join me and conclude that, overnight, sentient humans have disappeared and been replaced by The Pod People (hint: they cannot hold a pencil in the pre-Pod Person manner of using the thumb and forefinger. Instead, they rest it in the crook of the hand and hold it with the second finger...the dread, monkey fist) They're here and in a cubicle next to yours...Oooeeeeooooo.

Rob Howard said...

Thanks for the introduction, Jesse. That's first rate work. It bears out my contention that there's as much talent concentrated in the film industry as was in the Renaissance.

This new generation of artists has outstanding skills and, it seems, does not mind not being superstars. So much talent!

Thanks again, Jesse. That made my day.

Rob Howard said...

>>>The fact that some of us do not trumpet our achievements at every available opportunity does not mean we don't know what we are talking about.<<<

That's quite true. However, unless I can see something more than juvenile invective over having one of your sacred cows tippped over, it's just that...juvenile invective. I damned sure am not going to send you my receipt from Amazon but I will say it was an unusually heavy book.

Probably more to the point would be to gain my respect by directing me to your work. At that point I'd know if you walk the walk.

I believe that drawing comics is an excellent place to start. Like so many others, I started that way too. But, with rare exception, it's a form that doesn't allow for much individuality to emerge. There are armies of pencil artists, inkers, letterers, etc. Occasionally one will rise up out of that (one of the better painters I knew was a fashion artist whose painting bore no rssemblance to his fashion work).

So, show me. Jesse posted the work of a young artist I had never seen and the work floored me. If your work is at that level...or the work of etc, etc or anonymouse or any of the other trolls is near that level, you will have won a new admirer. So show me. I love art and I like to see the work of good artists but, for now...with that knee jerk reaction you had to someone daring to critcize the person who collected the work of a hero of yours (how's that for friggin' convoluted knee jerking?) soinds much more like a fan, like one of those unsocial scribblers in the back booths at the comic shows, than like an accomplished artist like the one Jesse recommended.

Show me.

Jesse Hamm said...

Laurence: "i could on the other hand, give you a list of reasons how i can tell they are traced straight from a photo (or several photos pieced together)"

I would love to know those reasons. Not for the sake of debate, just curiosity.

I find tracing difficult to detect, except in artists who (unlike Sickles) are poor draftsmen when they aren't tracing. The reasons usually cited seem to be accuracy and a lack of underdrawing -- reasons which by themselves I find unconvincing.

Rob: "they cannot hold a pencil in the pre-Pod Person manner of using the thumb and forefinger. Instead, they rest it in the crook of the hand and hold it with the second finger...the dread, monkey fist"

I wonder whether the second-fingered grip lessens one's control. It seems that way when I try it, but that may be lack of practice.

Rob: "I believe that drawing comics is an excellent place to start."

Damaggio started in comics, drawing Green Arrow in the '90s, but he didn't catch on with fans, and movie money is so much better anyway.

Of course, drawing comics is also an excellent place to remain, if an artist has stories to tell. It's hard to picture Jaime Hernandez offering more through gallery art than he does through comics.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Rob Howard said...
"So, show me....If your work is at that level...or the work of etc, etc or anonymouse or any of the other trolls is near that level, you will have won a new admirer."

Sorry. Don't want you.

David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन: I don't want to get overly linear or anything, but can someone explain to me why that song is called "matted spam"?

Jesse Hamm: thanks for the reference to Damaggio. You're right, he can really draw and I enjoyed his web site very much.

Laurence John wrote, " i could on the other hand, give you a list of reasons how i can tell they are traced straight from a photo"

Well... you could give us a list of reasons why you THINK they were traced straight from a photograph, and I would be very interested, from a purely substantive perspective, in how you think tracing reveals itself in a drawing. As for your concern that I "want to believe" those drawings are not done from tracing, I have tried to make clear in recent posts that I don't have great moral qualms with the use of photographs. I think Rob Howard's comment pretty well summed up my attitude on the practice, and a few weeks back I also quoted Austin Briggs' clear-eyed, unsentimental view of on the benefits and drawbacks of photo reference.

Perhaps my biggest disagreement is with the use of the term "tracing," which I find inapposite here. Morality aside, I think that someone who says these drawings are "traced straight from a photo" just doesn't understand the process involved in making such pictures. At a minimum, the drawings couldn't be "traced straight" because they are on opaque paper, so they would either have to be transferred from a separate tracing or projected. They are not of a size that would make any sense to project. Is it possible that they were transferred? Yes. But even if they were, I would not call it "tracing" in the technical sense of slavishly moving a pencil over the lines of a photograph to replicate an image.

An art teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago used to urge students to copy drawings of the masters using tracing paper. His expectation was not that they would lower their face to the paper and carefully reproduce the drawing, but that they would hold their head aloft and try to understand the larger rhythm of the drawing, the reason for the artist's emphasis and priorities, following the movement of his or her hand. His expectation was that students would continue to think and evaluate and make choices while their hand moved, not just "trace." In fact, he thought anyone who literally traced the drawing was a moron who completely missed the point of the exercise. I have also watched experienced, talented artists make use of tracing paper (or glassine or vellum), from Toulouse Lautrec to dean Cornwell, and unless they were straightforwardly transferring a final image in the era before photocopiers and projectors, they were doing far more than "tracing." So perhaps we have a semantic difference here.

Rob Howard wrote: "David, I've usually stayed ahead of the social curve which, today is currently exploring irony. I've long since progressed to the next logical step, cynicism. A few more years on the Internet and you'll join me and conclude that, overnight, sentient humans have disappeared and been replaced by The Pod People."

Rob, to the contrary, the fact that you can still summon up limitless energy to excoriate anonymous "lost causes" on the web suggests that you are more optimistic and idealistic than I am. If you really thought the Pod People were "lint," you would not expend the effort to tell them so, let alone explain why in Latin (you old softy, you).

Laurence John said...

"At a minimum, the drawings couldn't be "traced straight" because they are on opaque paper..."

Grant enlargers David (they might have a different brand name in the states). they were in every studio and college pre the digital age. they rear project onto opaque paper through glass. you lean into a darkened booth and 'trace' the image.

if 'trace' implies something more mechanical to you i'll happily subsitute 'drawn' over a projected image. it means the same to me.

G Dolph said...

Rob, I'll leave you to carry on acting out your little psychodramas, I understand you have a need to feel important and validated but I've no intention of engaging with you or trying to earn your 'respect' for my work; it's only art editors I need to impress and thankfully I have built up enough of a clientelle over the years not to have to worry too much about advertising these days.
I've seen two of your books.I saw no evidence of great technique in either book, just basics and knowledge of materials.But that's by the board.
What I object to is your attitude that being a 'working illustrator ' elevates your opinions over those of the art enthusiast.These 'civilians' as you have described them have an objectivity and enthusiasm that we should respect.As I said earlier, most great artists are self confident in their abilities but humble in demeanour.It would be nice if you try that approach. It might make you less bitter.

अर्जुन said...

D.A.-""but can someone explain to me why that song is called "matted spam"?""

Is there a literal reason? I don't know. Often projects, albums/songs, have working titles that aren't meant to be used, but for whatever the reason sometimes are. The song was written by Pete Ham (a lesson in success or fame), maybe he thought it was funny.

P.S. There is a reason Briggs was mentioned regarding these Sickles'… TRACED!

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John: I too am not interested in re-treading old ground on the use of photos for reference. As I've said, I find nothing morally or artistically troubling about using photos for reference in the way Austin Briggs described. In fact, I think a working artist today would have to be either a saint or a fool to ignore such an important and handy tool. I am guessing that Michelangelo would have used photos if he'd had the chance.

Furthermore, as I suggested in a recent post, I think photo reference has been such a sensitive issue in the illustration field for dubious reasons: when photographs were still, many illustrators seemed to feel guiltier about the using them than their "fine" artist peers did (perhaps because of feelings of inferiority about the "purity" of their profession and their subject matter?)

I do think, however, that you and I have two differences that go beyond the issue of using photos for reference.

The first is really a difference of methodology: when Mark Conway asked, "Would these poses be traced from photos?" you responded with great confidence, "unmistakably yes" and later claimed, "i can tell they are traced straight from a photo." When other people suggested that the answer was an open question, you wrote in what seemed to be a fairly condescending tone, "if you or David want to believe those drawings are done from life... then i don't think i really want to try and spoil your enjoyment."

I get a lot of traffic here from people who speak with great certitude about things it is physically impossible for them to know. For the most part, I am entertained by it, but I do speak up on occasion if it looks like their confidence might mislead people who subscribe to a more cautious methodology. I'm a big believer in cautious methodologies; I think they are an under-utilized virtue in this partisan world, and they deserve moral support when I come across them.

Putting methodology aside, our second difference is that I think it does matter whether you "trace" from a photograph or draw using the information from a photograph. I think it matters only because it affects the end product (which should really be the test for an artist: does it deliver the goods?) If you are tracing a photo or other image, following the lines in a mechanical fashion, it is hard to believe the end result won't look like crap. I have seen thousands of such drawings and paintings by essentially human photocopiers, and for me they are rarely worthwhile. If on the other hand you use a photograph for reference, to anchor your proportions or capture information which, in the words of Briggs, "has not been digested yet," then you stand a chance of ending up with an artistically valid result.

As a practical example, if Sickles was simply tracing over the lines of another image here, then anyone else should be able to come up with a very similar result simply by tracing over the same lines. But they can't. To paraphrase Rob Howard, neither you, nor anybody you know, nor anybody your mother knows, can do what Sickles did. Why is that?

Finally, re your point about "Grant enlargers," I have seen a variety of projection devices with different names and even tried a few. As I tried to suggest in my original question to you, I view working from a projection as once-removed from "tracing straight from a photo," which is why I asked whether you meant they were projected instead. My own experience is that artists working from projection who have the latitude usually work larger than Sickles did here. But I'm not saying it's impossible; after all, I wasn't there.

All I am saying is that, using words in the plain English way that I understand them, it is not correct to say that Sickles traced these drawings straight from a photo, or that he traced them at all.

kev ferrara said...

I'm sorry, David, I feel this point should be contested. If you were at the Art Students League in 1905, at the ground floor of the golden age of illustration, this is the philosophy you would have learned (it is passed down to us by F.R. Gruger who was there.)

"Illustration can't hope to compete with the camera in the reporting of facts. It has no business with the outer shells of things at all. (Illustration) deals with the spirit."

This is not a dubious rationale for why the imagination is the best source for certain types of romantic images.

As less "spirited" pictures came into vogue, with the Depression, replaced by women-pleasing, soap selling graphics, mainstream illustration became less an art and more of a business and whatever worked to sell the soap and make the buck was the way to go... that's all well and good. But the religion of Art wasn't just a bunch of hocus pocus, as Frazetta's rise following the fall of the photo-graphers demonstrated.

I too immediately thought the images posted this time out were "graphed" from photos. I can give my rationales, but basically it boils down to defending a gut instinct.

Since there are quite a few artists who visit this blog, it might be interesting to see if, given a suitable piece of reference, how many of us (if any) could approach the quality of the linework arrived at by Briggs and Sickles here.

Jesse Hamm said...

"the drawings couldn't be 'traced straight' because they are on opaque paper"

Not to defend the notion that Sickles traced these (and I'm still curious to learn what would suggest that conclusion), but a lightbox can easily enable an artist to trace over opaque paper. I use one all the time to trace my prelims onto Bristol board. Even light, detailed pencil lines show through with surprising clarity.

Laurence John said...

"For the most part, I am entertained by it, but I do speak up on occasion if it looks like their confidence might mislead people who subscribe to a more cautious methodology."

i'm sorry if i sounded condescending David. i know i can be a bit erm, blunt on occasion. however i'm afraid i also see your methodology as misleading. that's what happens when two people disagree strongly over something. Mark Conway clearly saw something in these drawings that aroused his suspicion of 'tracing' yet you said "If there was a photograph involved as a starting point for reference for any of these (clearly none was needed for that third drawing), it probably looked nothing like these final drawings". i'm afraid that is misleading. it is preserving the aura of mystique around the process (more for yourself i suspect than for the artist's reputation). if you want to respond with poetic misdirection of that sort (however nicely written) then please allow me the right to counter it with straightforward shop talk.

if i'd known you had such an aversion to the word 'trace' i'd have substituted 'drawn over a projected image' from the start. that is what i mean when i say 'trace'.

"I view working from a projection as once-removed from "tracing straight from a photo," which is why I asked whether you meant they were projected instead."

whether the method is Grant enlarger, opaque projector, lightbox or projected slide is irrelevant. what i'm talking about is making a drawing on a piece of paper on which a photographic image already exists. that is the point.

"it is not correct to say that Sickles traced these drawings straight from a photo, or that he traced them at all."

assuming we're going with 'drawn over a projected image' instead of 'traced' then i strongly disagree. i'm surprised that someone who must have pored over hundreds of such images and who has no qualms with the morality of it, doesn't recognize instantly a 'drawn over projected image'.

also, if you have a copy of 'The Illustrator in America' handy look at the Noel Sickles picture of the cowboys at the bar (page 201 in my edition); it is another example of an obvious 'drawn over a projected image'.

David Apatoff said...

Dear god.

Jesse, I should have been more precise, but I didn't appreciate that this was going to be a subject of such endless fascination for people. I wrote "opaque paper" as a quick way of ruling out vellum, glassine, tracing paper or any other translucent surface in order to put aside the notion that Sickles could have traced through the paper, even using a light box. In reality, and what I should have said is, the pictures are drawn on heavyweight illustration board, such as a Whatman or Crescent board. The surface is quite rigid and thick, and would be impenetrable for any light box I have ever seen (although I am not ruling out the possibility that aliens from Jupiter have imaging technology that could do the trick). I just checked the back to see if there are any identifying marks I could scan, and unfortunately there are not.

Anticipating my next question from a reader, I also checked for any signs that Sickles might have soaked the board to remove the facing paper, traced something on it and re-mounted it on the backing. It sure looks to me like it came right from the factory, but if someone out there wants to pay for a team of forensic experts to test that theory, I am perfectly open minded to it.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "basically it boils down to defending a gut instinct."

Kev, that's 100% fine with me. That's all I was asking for.

Your other points on the history of illustration and the impact of photography are more to my liking as meaningful subject matter. You write that Gruger and others concluded in the early days, "Illustration can't hope to compete with the camera in the reporting of facts." I think that's true not just of illustration but of fine art, portraiture, and every other human image making enterprise. We'd be crazy to deny it. Susan Sontag said that photography was largely responsible for chasing gallery artists into impressionism and ultimately abstraction, and that sounds plausible to me.

The ironic thing about that trend is that photography, or photoengraving, is what created the golden age of Illustration to begin with, making it possible for those juicy Howard Pyle paintings to reach a mass market in a way that Gustave Dore's paintings never could. Ah well, technology giveth and technology taketh away.

We probably have a different view over whether there was a point in time when "mainstream illustration became less an art and more of a business." If you read about Renaissance painters and their desperate efforts to win commissions and flatter potential patrons and link up with wealthy sponsors, art was pretty much a business back then too. Was any artist more obsessed with money than Michelangelo? Didn't Vermeer's jealous competitors spread rumors that the miserable bastard was using a camera obscura (or perhaps a light box?) to deprive them of commissions? Most of the crass commercial details are fortunately lost to us today, which enables us to enjoy the art unencumbered. I suppose a distinction could be drawn between illustration for advertisements, editorial illustration and gallery painting but I think that is probably more a difference of degree than of kind. It's worth some more reflection.

Rob Howard said...

>>>These 'civilians' as you have described them have an objectivity and enthusiasm that we should respect.<<<

The very fact that people eat, breathe and excrete has never been a basis for respect. That they have predictable opinions has never been a basis for respect. Every anonymity has 'em.
What intrigues me is the willful decent into anonymity of an artist. It goes counter to all ideas of the artist as an individual. That change has resulted in is a shift toward mere technique and away from the individual explorations emblematic of the mid-20th century.
I wonder if this emphasis on defining one's artistry in terms of rather homogenized technique -- as though the ineffable aspects of art were too difficult to judge whereas the technique can be easily judged, especially by those non-connoisseurs you mentioned? (That’s the Facebook crowd who always has a 6 year-old who can paint better than those fakers at Gagosian). I suspect that you are using their standards as those with which to judge art. They have risen no higher than comic books.

As a result of those new standards, they have produced legions of happily anonymous artists like the Xerox-like approach to painting cranked out of ateliers to their eventual pastures at ARC or Facebook. Then there are the comic artists who work within a narrow framework. Often they produce admirable technical examples of what are honorifics to what was always the lowest echelon of the art world -- an unsophisticated appeal to the very lowest elements of society. What's of note is that it is a shared opinion. Something one sees in the unobserved life of religious fundamentalists.

In a way, that's what chivvied you forth from your burrow, like an annoyed stoat ready to bite. To think, I had the absolute temerity to not like everything that was in that Sickles book. That instantly cast me as a liar who could never have purchased the book (in your mind, anyone who had purchased the book could never, ever remove it from their altar of second-tier artists to return it). Your reaction was like that of an immoderate Muslim toward seeing a woman drive a car. Impossible...stone her!
It's that religious fervor that seems to be the motivating genius of this Art For The Rude Masses that interests me. There are huge herds of people devoting countless hours to that most anonymous of forms, Anime. They submerge their entire individuality in producing what we now learn is something for which there are several excellent computer programs.
So there we have it...what Eric Hoffer called the True Believers. As Hoffer noted, there's a social warmth that draws True Believers together with nary a thought of rising out of the enveloping and faceless mass of similar people with similarly unexamined lives and unchangeable fixed outlooks. Any heterodox opinion has to come from a liar, a hack or some other apostate. Clearly, it's a challenge to your smoothly sanded orthodoxy of beliefs.
Sending a Sickles book back? Clearly the man must be either mad or telling whoppers. Clearly he is not one of the comforting crowd doing high polished renditions of exactly what has gone before. Why get a Xerox machine when there are so many True Believers sharing exactly the same opinions, viewpoints and cubicles?

As they say in your native tongue...Baaaah...baaaah. Or is that Moooo...mooo. One thing is sure, you are a fan and hagiographer for the least significant art humanity produces. You are truly John Q. Public with ink-stained fingers. But, I do respect you for eating, breathing and excreting. I respect my dog as much for the very same qualities. And I don't have to tell you Sit, Stay because that's what you have been trained to do.

Now roll over and play brain-dead.

Jesse Hamm said...

I didn't intend to chap your hide, David; only to correct the apparent belief that opaque paper precludes tracing. Illustration board is another matter, of course.

Laurence, given the size of the drawings, I can't imagine Sickles bothering with a projector. His drawing hand would have blocked most of the projected image. Had his process included tracing, he'd have worked large enough to make a projector feasible (or used paper thin enough to trace over). I think you and Kev will have to doubt your gut impressions on this one.

Rob -- "Sending a Sickles book back? Clearly the man must be either mad or telling whoppers."

Since you mention it, it IS rather odd to order a book called "SCORCHY SMITH," and then return it for containing too much Scorchy Smith.

Rob Howard said...

I vacillate between being bemused and amused at the ongoing discussion of the morality of methods in making art. Carpenters do not think power saws are immoral (well a few do), but the issues of morality in art are pervasive among as certain class of afficianado, thus I have started a poll to define, once and for all, just what is acceptable behavior in the studio (or kitchen table).


Which is the most moral way to draw
1. from life
2. from death
3. from a tear sheet
4. from a black/white photo
5. color photo
6. computer printout

Which are immoral tools
1. felt pens
2. Rapidographs
3. ballpoint pens
4. synthetic brushes
5. computers
6. erasers

Which tools are the most moral
1. 4H pencil
2. HB pencil
3. 2B pencil
4. tracing paper
5. watercolor paper
6. canvas

Who judges the morality of techniques
1. religious leaders
2. religious followers
3. convention fans
4. fans
5. you

Rob Howard said...

>>>suggests that you are more optimistic and idealistic than I am.<<<

I suppose you're right. What I write is largely disappointment in seeing so many people never taking advantage of their inate talents and strengths. Having seen the heights to which some people rise, people who in the locker room or examining room appear little different from you or I, always buoys my opinion of us as a race of humans.

I have that duality of view that Shakespeare had as he carromed to "the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals," from "it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours."

Ah, what a piece of work is man...even the shriveled and anonymous shadow crawlers. Think of what they could be. Think of the useable body parts that could be harvested for better people.

Seeing that you appreciate my Latin, I can direct this to the hoi polloi..Caesar si viverent, ad remum which etc, etc will reach into his scholarly bag and say "uckfay ouyay."

Don't forget...Prandeamus,vere!

Laurence John said...

Jesse, if you want to believe that a far lengthier and diffuse process went into these drawings that is up to you. but since numerous drawings exist from this era that we know were drawn from a projected image, i'd have to ask why you want to defend these ones in particular ?

what are you suggesting instead ? ...he did a load of preliminary sketches, worked those into a final layout, graphite-papered that onto the board very finely, then did this final drawing on top (and carefully erased the fine layout lines) ?

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John, I have no aversion to the word "traced," I simply define it differently than the word "drawn." If we use that term, then a large portion of our semantic disagreement disappears, leaving the more interesting subject of the different uses for photographs in picture making.

I like the Sickles drawing of the cowboys at the bar very much, and at the risk of further "poetic misdirection" I would say this is another example where I think, "If there was a photograph involved as a starting point for reference for any of these, it probably looked nothing like these final drawings." All of the artistic choices abut that drawing that matter to me-- the wide variety and strength of line, the points of emphasis, the sensitive treatment of the faces of the two cowboys with hats on the far right-- all came from the critical faculties of the artist, not from any photograph he may have used for reference. If I watched Sickles using a photograph as he drew it, I would still conclude it was a brilliant drawing and that not one artist in a thousand, armed with the same photograph, could do what Sickles did (just as not one artist in a thousand, armed with the same lily pond, could have done what Monet did).

If you are familiar with Sickles' work, then you are probably familiar with dozens of drawings that look quite similar to the ones I featured here, but where you know for a fact that he did not use photographs for either tracing or drawing. For example, look at Nick Meglin's excellent book, on On The Spot Drawing (which by definition deals with drawings that were done on the spot, from life). The chapter on Sickles contains numerous drawings that you would tell me were "unmistakably" traced straight from photos for the exact same reason you believe that about the drawings in this post. Pictures of buildings with cars parked in front of them at odd angles (p. 121), pictures of locomotives in a storage yard (p. 124) or complex drawings of circus tents and elephants and trucks (pp. 126-129) done on site when Sickles was a boy in Ohio, before he had access to the kinds of tools you are convinced he used. As another example, he did a number of drawings for Life Magazine of scenes for which there were no photographs-- New York City in rubble after a nuclear disaster, a trip to the moon, etc.-- with the same kind of decisive treatment.


David Apatoff said...

Laurence John: [CONTINUED]

It is clear that Sickles did use photographs, at least in the way I have described. In another excellent book, Illustrating For The Post, art editor Ashley Halsey sat in the studios of a number of the Post's top illustrators and watched them work and discussed their methods. He, like me, did not think there was anything wrong with using photos for reference and for a number of artists he reproduced the photos next to the finished art. Here is what he wrote about Sickles: "Ten years of newspaper artwork, as cartoonist, comic strip artist and illustrator, conditioned him to make his preliminary drawings inside his head and go to work directly on the final product.... Possessing an air-borne imagination, he likes to visualize the scene he is going to paint from various angles and altitudes. By observing with the freedom of an angel, he sometimes gets exalted results. To get the perspective for his "Stage from Elkhorn" illustration in the issue of November 20, 1948, the artist virtually hovered above the thundering stage horses like someone in a helicopter. Not bothering to make preliminary sketches, he went right ahead with the final version. The stagecoach was drawn first from a photo of one taken at ground level. This involved reconstructing the coach from a different angle, with tricky foreshortening."

I keep saying that with all of these tools, the proof is in the pudding. If Sickles could get the results he got by tracing photographs, then god bless him for it. I have not seen anybody do it yet, but I'd pleased to meet the person who can, and to call that person my friend.

Anonymous said...

Ro Howard said...
"Seeing that you appreciate my Latin, I can direct this to the hoi polloi..Caesar si viverent, ad remum which etc, etc will reach into his scholarly bag and say "uckfay ouyay.""

Capillamentum? Haudquaquam conieci esse!

David Apatoff said...

Rob Howard: Erasers are immoral too?? Damn, I was doing pretty well for a while there. Now I have lost my immortal soul forever.

Does the fact that they are sixth on the list at least relegate me to a higher circle of hell?

Laurence John said...

David i can't comment on the other drawings you're referring to as i don't have access to those books.

you seem to be willing to concede that the cowboy drawing was done from a photograph and that it looks the way it does because of the choices Sickle's made in his varied and loose line-work. i can't argue with that. i agree it doesn't look like a photograph anymore. that's not what i was arguing. but you're unwilling to go the whole hog and accept that it was drawn over a projected image. or maybe it was, but ultimately you don't care, or without actual evidence you won't believe it. i don't doubt that Sickle's had an amazing ability to visualize a scene entirely from his imagination (he must have had if he worked as a comic artist)... but that's not what i'm seeing in these drawings, or the cowboy one.

(unfortunately i'm going to have to bow out of this one as i'm going on holiday tomorrow and won't be back until monday 16th. cheers, LJ)

Tom said...

Hi David
if you are interested the photo of the cowboys in the bar has been published in a lot of American Hertiage and Time life books on the west. The photo is from the 1880's I think.

David Apatoff said...

Te audire no possum. Musa sapientum fixa est in aure.

David Apatoff said...

Tom, I would definitely be interested in that, thanks. I would be especially interested in seeing the choices and compromises Sickles made. I'll keep an eye out for it.

Tom said...

Hope the blog doesn't go all Latin, I won't know what anyone is talking about.

Unknown said...

Regarding Rob Howard's Morality Poll question #3:
I enjoyed the poll regarding different mediums. This is putting a heavy burden on the artist in addition to the requirements of the client. However you hit the mark with the degrees of pencils' hardness.

I remember Bob Fawcett making a special point of the importance of the pencil lead and that, as a student at the Slade School, one of his instructors required the use of 4H pencils in making life studies.

Fawcett passed this recommendation along to a group of us who were under his instruction in a figure drawing class at Famous Artists School, not as an obligation, but as a moral imperative. I found it a very hard discipline, but valid.

-- Walt Reed

kev ferrara said...

David, while it is true, a buck's a buck, I think there was a qualitative change in illustration philosophy from Brandywine's dominance and emphasis on imagination and poetry, to the later dominance of hardscrabble ethics in the field.

My lightbox easily penetrates 4 ply bristol board in a dark room. It would probably do fine on 5 ply. I have friends who have (practically) klieg lights beneath glass tables for their tracing apparatus... I can't imagine any paper staying opaque under that onslaught.

And Jesse, I've traced over projected images, and you can simply hold your pencil differently to avoid the problem of your hand blocking the paper. Having said that, there is more control in using a lightbox.

But if the paper were truly too thick to penetrate by light, one can easily project the photo, do light outlines and then flip the light switch, turn off the projector, and use a charcoal pencil to substantiate the outlines. There would be no need to erase any lines under that scenario.

Richard said...

Deus Misereatur

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "My lightbox easily penetrates 4 ply bristol board in a dark room. It would probably do fine on 5 ply."

Kev, in my part of the country Lockheed has the patent on such devices, which are called laser assault weapons. They can be utilized on fighter aircraft or on a tripod mount for battlefield use. The reason I can tell Sickles did not use one in this case is that 30 seconds of exposure to such a device would convert illustration board to papyrus and alter the DNA of the artist.

Kev also wrote: "And Jesse, I've traced over projected images, and you can simply hold your pencil differently to avoid the problem of your hand blocking the paper."

Kev, we're all just speculating "from the gut" here (and I am rapidly running out of the guts for this kind of speculation) but for the record: I understand what you're saying is theoretically possible, but these simply do not look to me like lines that were made by skirting around shadows and holding a pencil at odd angles. The lines seem too vigorous to have been applied while hiding from the light; the image is too densely packed to bob and weave the way you describe; if Sickles were going to draw from a projected image, it would make far more sense to make the drawing 3 time larger so the shadow of the pencil wouldn't obstruct half the image.

David Apatoff said...

Rob Howard-- well, you certainly struck the gong! A comment from Walt Reed??? Who are we going to hear from next, Zeus?

There is one thing about your poll I didn't understand: how can tracing paper possibly be more moral than watercolor paper? I think the commenters over the past month have pretty conclusively established that tracing paper is a tool of the devil. Have you been working from that Fox News Handbook for Dishonest Polling again?

Every once in a while, as I scroll through these comments in search of a previous point, my eye catches on an errant phrase and I say, "damn, that's good." It usually turns out to be a phrase you've plucked from Shakespeare. His work really stands out; it's a shame he worked from a light box.

Tom wrote: "Hope the blog doesn't go all Latin, I won't know what anyone is talking about."

Well, I don't know what anyone is talking about in English, so we had to try something. By the way, "Te audire no possum. Musa sapientum fixa est in aure" means, "I can't hear you, I've got a banana in my ear."

kev ferrara said...

Conceivably, it is possible that the names of the various papers, or their quality have changed over time, or that my local art supply store mislabels and misplaces the papers, and that I can't tell the difference. But I am working on paper right now that is labeled bristol, was taken from a stack at the art supply store labeled 4 ply bristol, is a heavy cardstock thickness which is enough to handle a full wash treatment, is thick enough to require effort to bend, and I just rebuilt my lightbox with stronger lights to project my designs through.

This is not to say, with these posted Sickles pieces, that lightboxing was the method involved. (I take your word for it, that the stuff is impenetrable. My reference to omnipenetrative Klieg lights was a jokey exaggeration.)

It is quite easy to lay trace lines down from a projection, and then to, as I suggested, go at it full hog with charcoal lines after the lights have been turned on, essentially "inking" the light lines with rich charcoal lines. There are many ways to skin this particular cat.

And it is entirely possible that Sickles can draw this way without any tracing or projection at all.

If one really harbors no sense that graphing a composition directly from photos is any detriment to the value of a work at all, it really wouldn't matter whatever the method... The cry of "tracing!" should have no value as an accusation.

norm said...

I had a life drawing teacher call me the Anti-Christ for using a mechanical pencil one day. you think would that count as a moral judgment?

Tom said...

Hi David

This may be the photo of the cowboys if I remember the Sickle's drawing correctly.

Jesse Hamm said...


"if you want to believe that a far lengthier and diffuse process went into these drawings that is up to you. ... what are you suggesting instead ? ...he did a load of preliminary sketches, worked those into a final layout, graphite-papered that onto the board very finely, then did this final drawing on top (and carefully erased the fine layout lines) ?

Simply drawing the pictures freehand is not a "far lengthier and diffuse process" than projecting tiny images, lightly tracing them from an extreme angle to avoid blocking the projection, and then tracing those lines with a darker, thicker pencil, complete with errant lines, to achieve a falsely spontaneous look. Had tracing been his aim, he'd have projected the images at a size large enough to conveniently trace from, or used thinner paper and lightboxed them. (P.S. for Kev: bristol board is different from illustration board. The latter is more like Masonite; you could cut ping-pong paddles from it.)

Furthermore, had he traced the images from photos, there would be no inaccuracies. But notice how the top and bottom corners of the desk in the office drawing don't line up... or that the table at the left side of the restaurant drawing is inexplicably wider, front-to-back, than the right-hand table... or that there are three different vanishing points/horizon lines in that drawing, for ostensibly parallel objects (the near tables, the far table, and the poster). Even loose tracing would have precluded such inaccuracies.

These mostly-accurate sketches were drawn from memory or observation, and reflect an expertise that we'd expect from a master in his fifties who drew often from life. Here's similar work drawn from life by a lesser but much younger artist, J. P. Leon. And Sickles-level work by older artist Ned Jacob. Enjoy!

kev ferrara said...

Mornin' Jesse,

Let's not overly complexify tracing. A proper method of holding the pencil will keep the hand from blocking the projection anyhow. Tracing from an overhead projector, like the one Rob advertised a few weeks ago, is very common. And often at a small size. Adams used it at comic panel size, which is small even compared to these Sickleses.

And, I did misunderstand that David was talking about illustration board, not bristol board. Just fogged a bit on that. However it is very easy to work on bristol and then mount it on museum board or chip board or whatever... just hand the bristol board to the studio kid and say, mount these on board, cut them down, deliver them to Newsweek, and then get me a pastrami on rye with a pickle, a coffee, and an eclaire.

Again, there are ways and ways to skin this cat, all of which may be moot due to the excellence of Sickles' drawing skills. (It should be pointed out that the reason tracing is so effective is because it keeps things both accurate and un-labored... and freshness of drawing is really what this kind of work is about. Calling this "falsely spontaneous" would indict the entire style of art.)

And I would guess the "inaccuracies" that you comment on in the drawing are on purpose.... To keep things loose and graphic and lively and with a touch of naivete. (I mean, Sickles could probably give you any degree of realism you wanted, and quick too.) It happens that if you trace over objects in perspective with a bold line, the perspective will flatten and start to look wonky. Drawing Through objects, too, as you see him doing here, is done for the same reason... to falsify the depth and to create a flat graphic interest.

It greatly helps to start out with "correct" and then to be loose over top, especially in a scene that takes place in a room where perspective is naturally involved. Tracing makes casual work of perspective, which is the best way to keep things fresh in that regard.

Anyhow... it wasn't just the facile/naive drawing that made me think tracing here, it was also the compositions. That's a whole other story.

Be well,

Jesse Hamm said...

Mornin' Kev,

One may work on thinner paper and mount it on a board, but had Sickles done that in this case, I'm sure David would have noticed.

I don't see how tracing would affect compositions, except maybe to make them less balanced than what we see here.

As for Adams tracing from an overhead projector, my understanding is that he would blow up his thumbnails from 5" to standard comics size (15"), and trace that. So he'd be tracing at a size three times as large as these drawings, and not from detailed photos but roughs.

Playful linework can't explain the disparate vanishing points in the restaurant drawing. Such inaccuracy is too subtle for the average viewer to notice, and therefore couldn't give the work a "touch of naivete." But once noticed by careful scrutiny, the inaccuracies are too broad to attribute to roughness of line. I've taken the liberty of mapping the vanishing points here. Red lines converge on the poster's VP; pink lines converge on the VP of the far table and left wall; blue lines converge on the VP shared by the near tables. The green grids contrast the widths of the near tables: two of the left table would take up roughly the same space as five of the right table. Such disparities are what we'd expect from a picture drawn from memory or casual observation. Tracing a photo, even loosely, would ensure much greater accuracy.

kev ferrara said...

Yo Jesse,

Many illustration boards are simply bristol board quality paper mounted on top of some hard paperboard stock at the factory. I worked at an agency that had a back room where mounting and matting were done, and many continuity boards were mounted/glued on heavyweight cardstock/chipboard, rolled several times through a press-type apparatus, and then cut down when dry. You never would have guessed they were not factory made.

This is not to say that these Sickles' were done this way at all. I'm just talkin' cat skinnin' variations.

The vanishing point issue is a red herring because Sickles could certainly do correct perspective, therefore the way he is using objects is as decorative bits of graphic design, purposefully naive in terms of perspective and form. (Notice how the abstract linearity of the elements of the set allow the more fully formed figures to pop with emphasis.)

Neal Adams told me himself that he projected photos down at times. Whatever got the job done. The thumbnail issue is really about keeping the expression of the idea intact as the idea is enlarged to fit the paper.

The compositional thing is a long discussion which, Kreskin predicts, would entail some argument.

Tom said...

Hi Jesse

I don't know how Sickles made the drawing. But it seems to me that the perspective would be more important when drawing from your imagination then from a photo, because the image already exists. Like Kev says it gives you a lot of room to just copy what you see. Whereas an image from your imagination needs perspective to control scale proportion and orientation. I am not being critical of Sickles drawing skills, I am just talking about method.

Maybe he even adjusted the perspective to give a more natural feel to the space and to eliminate the distortions that are often found in camera shots between the foreground and background. That is, in camera shots, things in the background are too small in relation to the things in the foreground. He slows down the recession by lowering the vanishing point for the second table. He has even turned the second table back toward the first table by moving its vanishing point to the right of the first directing the energy of the second table back to the protagonist with his cocktail.

Anonymous said...

kev ferrara said...
"on purpose"

Well since you're going there, another equally valid guess/possibility is that he intended to cover his tracks, which would suggest that he had very complicated feelings about tracing.

MORAN said...

This blog needs to limit the number of comments. The first 30 or 40 raise good points but people get locked into defending their theories, and comments get far fetched. Now we just get a lot of shit about how Noel Sickles could have had a super powered lightbox and peeled the top layer off an illustration board to make it 4 ply or maybe tilted his hand sideways while he drew. Some people are just desperate to link Sickles to tracing photos when they don't know shit about how these drawings were done and as the theories get crazier, other people are getting crazy to defend Sickles when they don' t know shit about these drawings either. Rob Howard is right, the drawings are good but these comments are fucking fantasies. Move on.

Anonymous said...

Don't be a control freak, Moran. If you want to stop reading at 40, then stop reading. Nobody's stopping you.

Jesse Hamm said...

Kev & Tom,

Sickles certainly used correct perspective when he took the trouble to plot it out, but I think a small freehand sketch like this one wouldn't be so error-proof. And if the inconsistencies here were intentional, he'd have had to diverge so often and so carefully from his photo that the "shortcut" of tracing would have been more trouble than it was worth.

I think Ockham would favor a simpler theory: Sickles expertly but imperfectly drew some quick sketches, freehand, trusting himself to communicate effectively without the aid of tracing or careful perspective.

Unknown said...

I found you and I am glad. Thanks for posting the pics. An unexpected break from the ordinary.

E.Sean StandingBear | Standingbear Studios

StandingBear Studios said...

I found you and I am glad. Thanks for posting the pics. An unexpected break from the ordinary.

E.Sean StandingBear | Standingbear Studios

kev ferrara said...

Jesse, I don't subscribe to your logic, and I can't agree with your certainty, but will agree that there remains a good chance that you are correct.

Adam Brill said...

Thanks, Jesse, for mapping out the vanishing points in Sickles' illustration. What I notice is that one set of vanishing points converges on the martini, face & hand, and the others converge on the figure silhouetted against the window. What I see here is perspective in the service of storytelling: The spyguy in the foreground and the guy who's conversation he's listening in on. Otherwise, why have so much contrast on the guy in the back? Sickles isn't lining up boxes for future generations to argue about, he's telling a story and directing your eye where he wants it.

kev ferrara said...

Adam, I think we're in agreement that Sickles could very easily have redirected his perspective lines for design purposes whether or not he was working directly, indirectly, or not at all from photographs.

It happens that this particular piece that Jesse is drilling down on was the one I felt was least likely among the bunch to be created from a projection of a photo or photos. It has more storytelling design.

Regarding Occam, it is really easy to work with these overhead artograph machines. And I bet the majority of realistic illustration studios in 1960 had them set up and ready to go, along with a polaroid camera, a light box, and a massive reference file.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I printed the image on letter-size photo paper. Actually, the two foreground tables also have disparate vanishing points if their lines are strictly followed. However, using a folding parallel rule, I found the vertical and horizontal lines are overall far to consistent for me to believe they were freehand, but have a slight wavering quality thus could not have been straight-edged, and these two elements combined strongly suggests tracing in my opinion.

Jesse Hamm said...

Adam, if Sickles wanted to direct attention to the speech of the guy in the back, two vanishing points were unnecessary: he could have aimed all the tables' lines at that guy's head. Instead, the near tables aim above the guy's head, and the far wall and table aim at his ribs. I think this indicates that the locations of the VPs were unintentional. He was content to let the composition work in a more general way.

etc. etc., maintaining consistent verticals and horizontals wouldn't be hard for an artist so adept at freehand drawing, especially given such a small drawing, and (presumably) with the nearby edges of the board to refer to as guides. What's harder is aiming diagonals at an invisible point (on account of the oblique effect: "contours with oblique orientations are perceived and discriminated less easily than those close to the horizontal or vertical"). That Sickles nailed the former but faltered somewhat at the latter suggests freehand drawing.

kev ferrara said...

That seems like more tendentious argument Jesse. I really am not getting your logic.

Sickles was equally adept at parallels, verticals, horizontals, eyeballing vanishing points, calculating screwy contours or what have you. These works are probably loosely mapped in terms of accuracy because, very simply, that was the vogue at the time and if that was what he was being paid to deliver, that's what he delivered. And since his full skill set was not required for this series, I think the guess is that he would have knocked the whole lot out in a few hours time.

Whether projecting a photo or two could have assisted him or slowed him down is impossible to know. Some of it sure looks like traced ref to me, particularly the first two drawings. And if those were done by tracing, it seems likely a similar method would have been used on the third picture. So by choosing to isolate on the 3rd picture, the most difficult way of making a good judgment on this point has been chosen.

Jesse Hamm said...

Kev, it's a demonstrable fact that diagonals are harder to determine than verticals or horizontals. Search on "oblique effect" and see what comes up. Any artist, from Sickles down to an amateur, will have more difficulty producing accurate diagonals than accurate square lines, because of how our brains are wired.

It's also harder to make lines converge on an invisible point than to match them to the paper's visible edges. This is why life drawing and tracing afford more accuracy than drawing from one's head: visible signs are easier to follow.

We agree that Sickles drew these loosely and quickly, but the inaccuracies I cited aren't just a case of loose linework. In a photo, the underlying size and structure would be much different than what we see here: a MUCH narrower table at the left, a MUCH higher table/couple in the back.

I've focused on the third image because it has more perspective lines, so its photo-accuracy is easier to determine. You never indicated that this image was problematic for you until its photo-accuracy was refuted, whereupon you suddenly declared that it was the weakest example of tracing, and that you had more confidence in the other examples all along. This frankly seems a rather convenient revelation.

Against all of this, we have your "gut instinct" that "some of it sure looks like traced ref to me," which is almost by definition the more tendentious argument.

Jay said...

Nice to see such passionate debate about Sickles. Hope they do another book on him.

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kev ferrara said...

Jesse, you are declaring checkmate so often, I feel like I'm in a remedial chess workshop. (Here's the chess rulebook just in case you are interested.)

The tendentious argument is baffling to me. You haven't proven anything. Photo accuracy was never the issue. The point of tracing in this style, it seems to me, is not to be photo accurate, but to be generally accurate while allowing for linear looseness. This keeps things fresh yet authoritative, the ref acting as a shepherd rather than a jailer.

On your accusation: I wasn't planning on debating this, so I did not address your choice of the 3rd picture until you started making a big case out of it. Regardless I did not mean the 3rd picture should be ignored, but that all 3 pictures should be considered together, for the reasons already stated. From a forensic standpoint, this seems obvious.

It also should be noted that it is very easy to swap out a photo from an artograph, and to shift size and placement, etc. Therefore a competent studio artist could easily trace any number of different reference photos onto the same piece of art, while retaining a general correspondence in perspective and scale.

Admitting something is a gut instinct is the very opposite of tendentious argument because it acknowledges up front that the argument is merely opinion based on intuition. If I were trying to sway a jury to my view, this would not be the way to go. I already know there is no way to convince an impartial, educated follower of this discussion of the rightness of either position because of the epistemology problem.

The argument I am making, then, is that the issue is unknowable.

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Mark Conway said...

Thanks to all for those thoughts on Noel Sickles technique.I'm of the opinion that the artist -who famously only drew when he completely understood the structure of his subject- probably made preliminary tight reference sketches and then on the final was able to elide unnecessary detail and get straight to the essential forms that would make the thing look correct. Look ,for example, how the detective's trouser leg neatly breaks over his shoe, or the way his jowl overlaps his shirt collar or how the raincoat and shirt collar pull away from the back of his neck.These fine details establish the truthfulness of the scene.A clever counterpoint to the looseness all around it.
One thing is for certain there is evidence of a very skilled hand -and mind- at work here.
I see Sickles as a more naturally talented draftsman than Briggs and equalled only by Fawcett in his generation.

Laurence John said...

"That Sickles nailed the former but faltered somewhat at the latter suggests freehand drawing"

Jesse, i see that you've convinced yourself that these were done freehand. well if Sickles could draw like that straight onto thick card with no under-drawing at all then i have to say he is the greatest draftsman that ever lived. not even Sargent could draw as loosely as this yet with such precision.

by the way, you have to give me one point for spotting the cowboy picture was a trace (Tom linked to the photo above). that's one out of four. would you have thought that drawing was freehand too if evidence hadn't emerged ?

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote: "by the way, you have to give me one point for spotting the cowboy picture was a trace (Tom linked to the photo above)... that's one out of four."

Laurence, apart from objecting to what I consider to be the misuse of the word "trace," I bowed out of the ongoing discussion about Sickles and photo reference because the proponents of the "photography connection" seem to care about very different things than I do.

I did look at the cowboy photograph and compared it to Sickles' cowboy drawing. In my judgment, you'd have to be pretty tone deaf to the charm, sensitivity and talent unique to that drawing to become distracted by the photograph (which had none of those attributes). Even Robert Fawcett, who was a total hard ass about the importance of traditional drawing skills, said that people who become caught up in linking drawings with photographic source material "confuse amateur sleuthing with aesthetic appreciation."

In his famous book, "On the Art of Drawing," Fawcett wrote, "No one will deny that photography has become a valuable reference, not only to the illustrator but to the painter. I recall an incident of some years ago when a painter was called to account after it was disclosed that a work of his had its inspiration from a published photograph, as though this was dishonest!....From this initial prompting he painted a picture which had a plastic reality the photograph never had. It was doubtful whether he consulted the photograph again after the first hour-- the weeks which followed were an intimate communing with himself and the canvas in a concern with values understood only by a painter of sensitivity. But through all this, a vague similarity of subject matter was still recognizable and he was jumped upon.... My disagreement [about the use of photographs in art] is not with the use of photography as a stimulant or as a source of research, but with its use as a means to an end which too often falls short of the original photograph."

I have to say, I agree with Fawcett.

Laurence John said...

David, the sensitivity of handling of the photographic source is not the issue here, but whether the drawing was made over a projected photo or not. i don't think the Sickle's cowboy interpretation is a very good one personally, but that's neither here nor there. the fact remains that i could tell it was drawn over photo, and that comes from my own experience of trying that very thing many times.

Jesse Hamm said...


Sargent's sketches weren't intended for the public, and therefore weren't concerned with succintness of line. So we wouldn't expect his linework to have the precision of Sickles, who drew for reproduction constantly. But for a comparable example, I did link to Ned Jacob's drawings, which have the same verve and accuracy as those of Sickles.

I haven't seen the cowboy drawing, but I'd love to take a look if someone could scan it or provide a link.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote: "David, the sensitivity of handling of the photographic source is not the issue here, but whether the drawing was made over a projected photo or not. i don't think the Sickle's cowboy interpretation is a very good one personally, but that's neither here nor there."

Laurence, actually the ONLY thing that matters to me is whether the Sickles cowboy interpretation is a very good one. I would be happy to engage with you on that. But if instead you want to test your clairvoyance against mine on whether Sickles must have "traced" a photograph, or used a particular brand of pencil or light bulb to achieve this result, or the color of his shoe laces, you'll be having that debate without me.

It's a debate with no rules over stakes that don't matter to me, with no way of establishing a winner.

Laurence John said...

Jesse, the cowboy drawing is on page 201 of 'the Illustrator in America'.

the Ned Jacob work is far looser than these Sickles drawings.. it doesn't have anything like the accuracy, and looks like on the spot quick life drawing. most of J P Leon's work looks like it was heavily based on reference photos, but not necessarily traced... a combination of looking at photos and adding lots from imagination. the one you linked to is very tough to tell i must admit.

Jesse Hamm said...


'Fraid I don't own "The Illustrator In America." If someone would be willing to scan the image, I'd be happy to scan some rare Sickles in trade.

I'll have to disagree with you about the Ned Jacob drawings. They're drawn from farther away than the Sickles pix, so we don't get fingers and noses, but in terms of horseflesh I think they're easily as accurate & precise.

The Leon drawing I linked was drawn from life, according to his website.


"It's a debate ... over stakes that don't matter to me"

That's fine. But for my part, it's valuable to my learning process to know how an artist did or didn't achieve his affects. If we can determine whether Sickles traced the cowboy drawing, for instance, that would be useful to me to know.

Laurence John said...

sorry Jesse, i assumed you had that book as you recommended it to me a while ago.

"The Leon drawing I linked was drawn from life, according to his website"

according to David, Rob and others it doesn't matter whether a drawing is from 'life', imagination or projected photograph, only the final result matters. i've no reason to assume that J P Leon thinks any differently and that it's all 'life' to him.

Laurence John said...

Jesse, i've scanned the cowboy drawing here:

grab it now as i'll delete it in a couple of days.

Jesse Hamm said...

Yeah, I've read the book, but unfortunately I don't own it. Thanks for the great scan. I'll hunt up that photo Tom posted and compare them.

I've never heard the term "life drawing" applied to traced drawings. David et al may accord equal merit to life drawings and drawings made with a projector, but that's a question of merit rather than terminology. When Leon (or anyone) says he drew something from life, I'm sure he means he looked at it in real space and drew what he saw.

As for the drawing I linked, a caption included with it in his published sketchbook says,"These were done from life using a felt tip marker. A late night hanging out with Tommy Lee and Bernard [Chang, pictured in the drawing] while staying in Toronto..."

David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm wrote: "I've never heard the term "life drawing" applied to traced drawings."

And you certainly won't hear it from me. I would no more say the cowboy drawing is a "life drawing" than I would say it is a "traced drawing." In my view, it is a good example of an artist using photo reference to establish the poses, costumes and folds of cloth of cowboys in an old saloon, much the way that previous generations of artists posed live models in costumes.

For me, this photograph is a wealth of data about costumes and anatomy but is otherwise a pretty sodden image. The drawing is a sharp, bristling image on the other hand, with numerous artistic choices that matter to me-- the wide variety and strength of line, the points of emphasis, the sensitive treatment of the faces of the cowboys with hats on the right-- all came from the critical faculties of the artist, not from any photograph. The photo was not needed to convert 3D space to 2D space, as sometimes happens when inferior artists reach for photographs as a crutch to do it. The artist did not "trace" over a line, following it mechanically to replicate a likeness. In fact, Sickles would have required an X ray, not a photograph, to trace the skulls of those cowboys. Their faces could not have been "traced" because the photo has no line to trace (if I recall correctly, the face on the far right has lost some of its nuance in this scan). As another example, it would have been simple to "trace" those symmetrical floorboards because the photo offers a clear line, but Sickles chose to disregard it for an erratic, dynamic line.

My view is that if there was a line to trace, anyone with manual dexterity could achieve essentially the same outcome simply by following the same process. But nobody else can do what Sickles does (including the commenters on this post).

Perhaps a more interesting distinction is between artists who "make it up" in their heads and artists who draw from external reference (whether models, props, photos or nature). But for me, the end result is self-legitimizing.

अर्जुन said...

I'm not arguing the semantics of "trace", neither am I playing gotcha, nor questioning the righteousness of a method, nor the skill and taste needed to do it right. I agree that "the end result is self-legitimizing", but don't doubt that this process greatly influences the look*.

I have no reason not to believe the JP Leon is from life (yet it has the dead weight line associated with bad tracing).

The Ned Jacobs are fine, but there is nothing about them that says traced.

L.John- Thanks for the scan, that drawing isn't in my edition.

One Lovely Drawing, part 31.5~ FRANCOIS LEMOYNE (PARIS 1688-1737)

*apparently your favorite

kev ferrara said...

For those who care...

If you overlay the cowboy bar photo on the sickles drawing, it is an exact fit for the main portion of the image including the main four figures and the wood edge of the mirror housing behind the bar.

I think this signifies a projection of the original photo was used to graph the drawing as a starting point.

The bartender has obviously been moved to the left because his silhouette was being compromised by touching the largest figures' hat brim. I believe the arch of the mirror was moved along with the bartender leftward, which may have caused sickles to extend and revise the mirror housing too. The far right figure has had his arm extended akimbo and the room extended beyond him to improve and finish the composition. The foot was hastily added on the figure in the middle, which seemingly accounts for its awkwardness.

The photo seems to have been projected while not quite 100% perpindicular with the drawing surface... or there is a slight squeezing effect to the projection.

If I were to make a sweeping generalization about Sickles, it is that, as time wore on and the illustration business changed, his artistic values adapted.

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Laurence John said...

"If I were to make a sweeping generalization about Sickles, it is that, as time wore on and the illustration business changed, his artistic values adapted."

tactfully put Kev.

for anyone else still reading, you've probably already seen the new book 'Lifestyle Illustration of the 60s'. there are several posts about it over on 'Today's Inspiration' blog. if you haven't seen it yet, it's probably the biggest,fattest compendium yet of this era and is an invaluable document of the stylistic tics that dominate the work of this decade. 'graphing' a reference photo and rendering it in a quick, slippery, liquitex style was de rigeur. Bernie Fuchs seems to be on nearly every page, only it's not him, it's a copyist ( for anyone who thinks that today's illustrators copy each other... wow, have a look at this book ). me, i love and hate it. mostly that style makes me feel slightly queasy.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "I think this signifies a projection of the original photo was used to graph the drawing as a starting point."

Kev, I don't know if that is the most "tactful" description but it certainly strikes me as the most accurate, sensible and agenda-free. Thanks for a solid, experienced assessment.

Laurence John, my copy of 'Lifestyle Illustration of the 60s' has not arrived yet, but as I understand it (from Today's Inspiration) the book consists of
"illustrations from British Women's magazines of the '60s," not the US magazines where the styles originated. I don't know if that has any impact on the reaction you describe.

Your reference to Bernie Fuchs reminded me of the time I interviewed him about his use of photographs. We had just been looking at a series of car illustrations he had done as a young artist in Detroit in the 1950s. They were very realistic, technically impeccable paintings of cars in environments with people, and he did them without photographs. Fuchs described the day he was visited by an illustrator from the legendary Cooper Studios in NY, who was incredulous that Fuchs was not using photographs. He laughed, saying "you'd never survive in the big leagues in New York. You just couldn't keep up without photographs. I can tell you invented these two figures in the background, and if I can tell, your client will be able to tell as well." Fuchs, who was ambitious to compete with artists in "the big leagues in New York," felt stung by the criticism and began using photographs more and more.

Yet, he regularly relied upon the technical skills he had patiently acquired in Detroit. He showed me one of his famous illustrations, a picture of a young girl playing the piano in a crowded saloon. He had posed models and took photographs of the girl, the crowd and the saloon. Someone objected "yeah, but in order to get that angle in the illustration, it looks like you had to change the perspective from these photos of the girl and the crowd. It looks like you rotated them slightly in opposite directions to achieve the effect you wanted. You also changed the light source. How did you do that?" It was as close as I ever saw Fuchs come to a smirk. "Well... that's kind of the trick, isn't it?"

Jesse Hamm said...


Thanks again for providing a scan of the cowboy art. In trade, I'll post some scans of other Sickles drawings soon.

The drawings David posted were small enough to make tracing unduly impractical, and the perspective in at least one of them was disparate enough to rule out tracing, but that's not the case here. However, there are still problems with the theory that this one was traced.

For one thing, even apart from changes which can be chalked up to compositional decisions (such as the location of the bartender's head), the sizing/positioning of figures in the drawing doesn't quite match the photo. Kev attributes this to the possibility that the projector was angled, or there may have been some flaw (in its lens?) to cause a squeezing effect. Another possibility is that the figures drifted slightly as Sickles freehanded them.

You can also see in the drawing where Sickles scribbled in rough guidelines (the bar-top, the foot-rail, the basic positions of the mens' limbs) in pencil, indicating generally where these elements were located, before he drew the image in darker lines. If the image were traced, I can't imagine why Sickles would take this step.

So while I can't confirm that Sickles didn't trace the image, there are indications that he didn't, and that the drawing's accuracy can be attributed to his mastery of techniques like contour drawing. (Contour drawing, BTW, is the approach Leon used to draw the pic I linked earlier. It enables an artist to draw collections of objects without underdrawing, and accounts for the dead line you noticed there.)

Laurence John said...

Jesse, i've placed the drawing over the photo here:

and here:

the guy on the left has slipped a bit in Sickle's version so i've lined him up again. the bartender looks deliberately moved as Kev has already noted. if you still want to believe these weren't drawn over a projection/lightbox or were done by 'contour' drawing or freehand that is your call. i can only assume you want to convince yourself of it for some reason more than anyone else. you certainly haven't convinced me, but full marks for effort.

kev ferrara said...

Jesse, the distortion is extremely minor, and mechanically consistent. When I overlayed the two pictures I just adjusted the photo ever so slightly to get a match. This could just as easily mean there was a slight variation in the aspect ratio of the photo scan or the shot of the drawing used for the article or the scan of that drawing made for posting it on the web, as for the actual use of the photo by Sickles.

(I spoke too quickly in assuming it was a slight projection error.)

5x8 is not too small to be projected. Especially if the photo itself is small. There are ways and ways to get things done in the studio.

Your contention that outlining disproves graphing from a projection is mind boggling. That is exactly the way one would go about making the trace, before embellishing.

If one accepts that photo projection may have been part of Sickles' process on the cowboy picture, one must also accept its possible use on the pictures that accompanied David's post.

MORAN said...


Everyone else explained their theory and moved on. You are the only one who is so certain what Sickels did that you can't let go. You tell anyone with a different view they are deceiving themself. Why can't you tolerate other people's perspectives?

Your proof comes from your own experience and limits as an artist ("i could tell it was drawn over photo, and that comes from my own experience of trying that very thing many times.") Are all your arguments and tests and experiments really about protecting your self-esteem? Do you need to believe that it is impossible for any other artist to make such pictures without tracing photographs?

Laurence John said...

Moran, i'm clearly not the only person who 'can't let go' since Jesse, Kev and David are still commenting. as others have said to you before, if you don't want to read past 40 comments, don't read.

Anonymous said...

MORAN is a bit of a Jeckyl and Hyde, Laurence. Just ignore him when he turns obsessive compulsive and angry.

MORAN said...


How many of the other people you named said they knew unmistakably what Sickels did? Only you. How many of them said people who disagreed were deceiving themselves ("i can only assume you want to convince yourself of it for some reason.") Only you. How many of them spent so much time running experiments about what Sickels must have done (based on their own personal skills as an artist)? How many of them agreed to say "drawn over a projected image" instead of "trace" because of its negative connotations but then kept using trace?

I don't mind that you and I have different theories. Everyone is entitled to any theory they can support and you have supported your view well. I like that. What I don't like is that you have left 14 comments trying to persuade people that you know something for a fact, which you don't, and telling them that if they don't agree with you it can only be because they are lying to themselves. That sounds like a man on a mission to me.

Anonymous, was that Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

Laurence John said...

"I don't mind that you and I have different theories"

i don't know what your theory is yet Moran, as all you've told me is that i don't know what i'm talking about. well, do you think the Sickles cowboy drawing looks like it was drawn over a projected image or not ?

MORAN said...


My theory is not the issue. Your arrogance about your theory and your unwillingness to let go is. So is your attitude about people who don't agree with you. It shows you are on a mission from god to persuade everybody when you can't know for a fact. Why?

My own theory is that I like these drawings. There are similar drawings by Sickels that were drawn on site without photos in front of witnesses. I agree he did use that cowboy photo, but I don't know exactly how or why or how often he did it and neither do you. Maybe the editors of Time Life books gave him classic photographs and asked him to modernize them for their contemporary readers. Perhaps he fooled the editors by secretly plagiarizing a photo because he was too untalented to do any better. I don't know, but neither do you.

Laurence John said...

"I agree he did use that cowboy photo..."

wonderful. then my arrogance, inexperience and amateur sleuthing wasn't ENTIRELY a waste of time.

Jesse Hamm said...


"5x8 is not too small to be projected. Especially if the photo itself is small."

Not sure where "5x8" came from, but if a photo is small, one enlarges it to a convenient size. That's a major advantage of using a projector rather than a lightbox.

"Your contention that outlining disproves graphing from a projection is mind boggling. That is exactly the way one would go about making the trace, before embellishing."

The scribbled vertical pencil lines on the cowboys' legs and arms are not outlines. These lines pass through the middles of the limbs, and are rough indications of their locations, not their contours.

The pencil lines indicating the bar-top and foot-rail aren't outlines, either. These lines pass straight through the figures. This is structural underdrawing; unnecessary when tracing.

If you or Laurence can explain why Sickles took these steps in the context of a tracing, I'm all ears. Perhaps he did trace this image, but these apparent guidelines cast doubt on that theory.

"When I overlayed the two pictures I just adjusted the photo ever so slightly to get a match."

It's notable that any adjustment was necessary. (I should add that Laurence's scans, split into two images, conveniently obscure the disparity between the left cowboy and those on the right. To match one up unmatches the others. Also, Sickles's thick black linework obscures various disparities. Here's a clearer photo for anyone else interested in making their own comparisons.)

In the past, I've laid my own drawings over their photo ref to check their accuracy, and discovered that no adjustment was necessary at all. This isn't often the case, but I'm not Sickles. The point is that detailed photo-accuracy is a reachable goal for any seasoned artist who follows the proper methods.

I'm reminded here of theories that Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and the Easter Island moai were built with help from aliens, since we supposedly can't accomplish such things without computers and tractors. Our culture has become so reliant on technical aids that the idea of succeeding without them seems like witchcraft. Skills honed by decades of specialized training are viewed with suspicion, and explained away. That isn't to deny that mastercraftsmen can use technical aids, but this trend to distrust old-school expertise is troubling.

kev ferrara said...


Even though I've held traced drawings done by illustrators from the 1950-1970 era in my hands, seeing how they looked, I will discount that. I will also discount my experience tracing from projectors and my knowledge of how they are used. I will discount my intuition. I will discount what Neal Adams, and others, have told me. I will discount what Fuchs told David. I will discount the fact that with minimal effort, I achieved a match between the photo and the western bar illustration, which then reasonably explained why everything else was done the way it was done in the picture. I will discount how different Sickle's work from the 40s looks from this stuff. I will discount that you seem never to have used a projector, that you can't understand where I came up with the 5x8 figure, that you have no idea how low the projector can go to the drawing board and still allow the hand to move freely underneath, that you think using a projector means making precise drawings, that you can't seem to understand that Sickles was drawing loosely on purpose, which only works because he already can see where the line can ultimately re-merge with the reference.

I will discount all that, and declare you the winner of the thread.

On another note: Brachioradialis. ;)

अर्जुन said...

""but if a photo is small, one enlarges it to a convenient size. That's a major advantage of using a projector rather than a lightbox.""

The negative is smaller~
If one references with a medium format camera, the detail quality would be such that one simply places the negative into the enlarger and projects downward onto any thickness of illustration board one wishes, eschewing printing the damn thing to begin with. (not sayin' thats what he did, just sayin')

"seems like witchcraft"~Colour me red.

अर्जुन said...

Can I get a discount also, or do I need a coupon?

Jesse Hamm said...

Kev, thanks for discounting that list of obfuscations, but the question remains: why would Sickles would do the underdrawing I pointed out if he were tracing?

If you can't answer that, some more Latin names for muscles should suffice.

kev ferrara said...


If we agree to discount my obfuscations, can we also discount your hallucinations?

I'm not going to repeat earlier discussions about the style these were done in and why the drawings look the way they do. You may come to understand what I've said in this thread at a later date if your concerns in your own art change.

अर्जुन, photos can easily be small enough to project to 8x5 using an overhead attached to a drawing desk. Using a negative would be, I think, too dark. I've never heard of anyone using a negative. If you've ever worked in a darkroom, you know that it takes about 5 minutes to take a 1x1.5 negative and blow it up to a 2x3, or 4x6 photo. Either way, I doubt a negative was available of such a historical photograph.

Anonymous said...

अर्जुन said...

If Lucifer is supposed to be rendering talent in exchange for souls, then clearly Nordic bands Witchcraft and HIM are twice burned.

David Apatoff said...

My view on this issue is that all new information is good, as long as we are capable of receiving it with a little mature perspective regarding its meaning and significance.

I was interested to see the cowboy photo that Sickles used. (If I'd thought about it, I would have assumed that he didn't use live models but I probably would have guessed that he used some Hollywood movie still instead). It's kind of neat to put the work of art together with the photo reference, just as it is neat to see the tree near N.C. Wyeth's house that he painted into the background of one of his pirate illustrations. As neat as they are, it is exceedingly rare that such factoids would cause me to change my view of the artistic merit of a picture.

So we have at least one data point where Sickles drew from a photo (the cowboy picture). I can add another: a drawing on tracing paper of the inner workings of a nuclear reactor, with all kinds of complex pipes and tubing going all over the place. This is much closer to the "tracing" that Laurence advocates, although I would think less, not more, of an artist crazy enough to replicate that system freehand when a far more sensible alternative was available.

On the other hand, we have data points where Sickles drew pictures very similar to the ones on this post and did not use a photograph or a projector or any similar device. For example, he did a series of excellent drawings on site at a political convention for Lithopinion, where he drew scenes taking place in front of him at a restaurant, drawing on the restaurant's place mat or the restaurant check while other people watched. And of course, we already mentioned his drawings in the Meglin book, On The Spot Drawing, which many people here would swear were done by tracing a photograph.

I have featured a number of drawings by Sickles on this blog in the past because he is a particular favorite of mine. Based on the above discussion, I think it is difficult to be certain whether he did any of them with or without the assistance of photography. But if you asserted, for example, that Sickles looked at a photograph in drawing this picture of oxen, I would think that you have an instinct for the capillary, and that you must be missing out on a whole lot of the poetry in drawing. If you further told me that Sickles had "traced" the grass in the picture, I would say that you use the English language differently than I do.

This puts the debate over photography in an entirely different category for me than for many of the commenters. For me, it is only one of those "neat-to-know" facts that doesn't affect the merits of the artist or the art. For those of you who are more emotionally invested the outcome, feel free to continue the debate.

Jesse Hamm said...

Since I promised some Sickles scans, and David mentioned his on-the-spot Senate drawings, here are a few that didn't show up in the Scorchy book:




Grab 'em quick!

kev ferrara said...

Thanks Jesse,

Those are great.

For those who are reading along but aren't that familiar with Sickles' work, his phenomenally great monograph has a great many pages available on google books.

kev ferrara said...

Overall, I think the best case to be made that Sickles never projected anything is simply how great he drew.

David Apatoff said...

Kev, I can tell you've been looking at Sickles' drawings again. If you spend enough time in their presence, all the rest of this elaborate conjecture lapses into insignificance.

One last Bernie Fuchs story: Fuchs told me he had been asked to illustrate Ernest Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea" but turned the project down. I said, "Why? There's a great tradition... Noel Sickles illustrated that book." Bernie smiled and said, "That's just it-- I didn't think I could do as good a job as Sickles."

Paul Richard said...

Thanks for posting these amazing images.