Saturday, September 25, 2010


Illustrator Robert Blechman's tiny, distinctive drawings became a phenomenon in the 1960s. Blechman graduated from college with virtually no artistic training and no portfolio except the work he had done for a college literary magazine. He later recalled,
Nothing could have been more impractical than becoming a professional illustrator. My style--such as it was-- had no precedents and therefore no clear outlets.
Blechman showed one of his school assignments, a hand sewn booklet ("got a B-") to the editor at Henry Holt, who asked if Blechman could make a similar book on a holiday theme. Blechman chose the medieval theme of The Juggler of Our Lady.
I set to work immediately. Clearing the kitchen table of everything but the white paper and Will Durant's Age of Faith as reference, I started the book that evening and finished it the same night. In the morning I took it to Holt, and it was accepted for publication. An epic event in my life.
His feeble, neurotic line, combined with a brilliant concept, caught on immediately and Blechman was launched on a long and profitable career doing books, cards, advertisements and television commercials in his distinctive style.



  Blechman never raises his voice. His special talent lies in compelling huge audiences to stop and listen to his whisper. To achieve this result, he seems to follow a two step process: first, he gets people to pay attention by using empty backgrounds as boldly as his peers emphasized their main subjects. All that negative space surrounding Blechman's tiny little drawings drew more attention to them than a drum
 roll, a crash of cymbals and a spotlight.



 Second, once he has the attention of the audience, he has to deliver a concept that makes it worth their while. Below, Blechman explains how he misunderstood, after his first, immediate success, that he would have to start all over again with something fresh and original:
When the Juggler of Our lady was published and met with great acclaim, I associated success with the book not with me, whom I considered undeserving. Convinced that success lay in producing other Jugglers, I set out to do more of them. Son of the Juggler, Grandson of the Juggler, Grand Nieces and Nephews of the Juggler....They were stillborn, all. In the meantime, the years went by, and, still desperately trying to produce offspring-- Cousin of the Juggler, Bastard of the Juggler-- I would not stop: I could not stop. I did not realize that I was changing from the 22 year old who had sat down at the kitchen table with a pad of paper, The Age of faith, and a vision. No longer the same person I could no longer produce the same work.
Once Blechman returned to wracking his brain to put fresh creativity and honest effort into each new concept, his success was assured. The following illustration from later in his career is only about four inches wide:


 ...yet Blechman still cared enough to make a microscopic adjustment to the length of a nose to make sure the drawing was as funny as possible:


 That's how he became a success.


Amy said...

"No longer the same person I could no longer produce the same work. "

I really needed this. :)

Matthew Adams said...

I remember the first time I saw one of his illo's, and I wasn't all that impressed. It's only when you see quite a few and then see how he takes this simple drawing style and makes it work in a million different ways that you start to become impressed.

It's the difference between simple and lazy.

Anonymous said...

We're living through an artistic time when technology and incredible software make it so possible (and seemingly desirable) to cram so much into each piece of art. Take a look at just a dozen works from artists - whether it's traditional media or digital - what you'll see is a 2D space stuffed with elements, images, metaphors. They often exhaust me. I don't know what to look at within the frame because so much is happening. So much is being said that nothing is being said.

That's why I love Blechman - just a little - not too much - just enough. And it's beautiful. Thank you for sharing this, David. We need these reminders that simple is good art.

Anonymous said...


Nicely put. I saw Peter Jackson's King Kong movie recently and had the same response. So much work on detail and cramming lushness into every frame... yet storytelling and meaning were lost.

So many of these highly wrought creations have nothing to say in the first place. But then that's not new in art.

kev ferrara said...

Blechman has a consistent tone to his work that is very distinct; airy, tremulous, waifish, small, innocent. It's always recognizable yet is one of the least solicitous or aggressive styles. It is almost defensive or apologetic. Don't hurt me, I'm just a little fellah, it seems to say. Which makes it an excellent style to adapt to commercial purposes in an era of cynicism and advertising overkill.

commoncents said...

LOVE YOU PAGE! Keep up the great work!!

Common Cents

David Apatoff said...

Amy-- thanks for writing.

Matthew Adams-- it is also to Blechman's credit that the cumulative effect of his work never seems repetitive.

snoringdogstudio and anonymous-- I agree; "simple" and "easy" are not the same thing. Sometimes they are even opposites.

Kevin Ferrara-- "tremulous" is the perfect term to describe Blechman's line. Also, I'd never thought about how "I'm just a little fellah" suits a marketer's needs, but that's an excellent point.

Having said that, it seems to me that Blechman's compositions are anything but timid. He employs those tremulous little drawings to dominate a huge stage. For example, the composition of that drawing of outer space took a lot of courage.

kev ferrara said...

Oh, saying his line is tremulous in no way diminishes his work. Its just the tone through which he presents his ideas. That it remains so fresh assignment after assignment, year after year, irregardless of the subject, is quite remarkable. Unless you've tried to draw so simple, humorous, pleasing, and fresh, you have no idea how hard it is. There are so few lines involved that any moment of doubt, any faltering or dip in blithe spirit, is amplified and memorialized in the sparseness of the execution.

It seems to me that Blechman's tone must be a result of his handwriting, which must be a reflection of his mental and physical character. And even at that, I'm sure he crumbles a lot of paper when his handwriting slips and some something on the board looks the least bit like labor. Whether he usually nails it on the first take or on take 5 would be interesting to find out.

Cyril van der Haegen said...

I wonder if R. Blechman was influenced by Sempé (Jean-Jacques), or vice-versa, as they were both born in the 30's, the former in the US and the latter in France, yet their styles are so similar. We didn't have internet back then. Fascinating.

RSA Certificate said...

Aww these are cute :) Love the drawing style

john cuneo said...

That dab of white out and "correction' on the nose is so intriguing. When the elements of a face are this..elemental, those kind of tiny decisions (are they about humor or proportion, balance , other?) have such a disproportionally large impact on the effectiveness of the drawing don't they?. ( Of course that little collection of hieroglyphic dashes shouldn't even resemble a face, much less such a sublime expression of doubt and distraction.) And perhaps one day someone will examine why it it is that a lack of forehead can make a a face so much funnier. Is it because a large nose simply needs more room? Quentin Blake, the aforementioned Sempe and Richard Thompson are a few contemporary masters who seem to have figured out the essential proportions - all of them calibrated ever so slightly different. Late period Searle (which is astoundingly also current Searle) feature faces with eyes and noses crowded together and sprouting out from the very summit of an oval. Christ, the above comments are all so wonky - and not a word about Blechman's idea's, which are as profound and evocative as his style is modest and understated.
I hope it's not inappropriate to recommend a book
of his here. It's called "Dear James, letters to a young illustrator", and it, also, is profound and funny and small.

bill said...

Thank you. Promoting the splashy seems to be all too common in the age of the internet. An illustrator with a beautiful, quiet, intelligent voice like this deserves attention.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote, "Whether he usually nails it on the first take or on take 5 would be interesting to find out."

Kev, I am consistently impressed with the way that light and breezy linework requires genuine struggle. Illustrator Edward Sorel once wrote that he and illustrator John Cuneo "are curious about the tricks each other uses to keep our drawings looking spontaneous even though they require an enormous amount of planning and a degree of tracing. Our problem is the same: keep it looking light and free no matter how many times you do it over." Other artists such as William Steig similarly agonized over simplicity.

Did Blechman work the same way? I don't know. The fact that he was able to illustrate his first book in one night suggests that he might have been a natural. On the other hand, the fact that he was making micro adjustments to the size of that nose suggests that he had to work hard for his results like everybody else.

Cyril van der Haegen-- I do not know the answer to your question about Sempé but I agree he is a wonderful talent.

David Apatoff said...

bill-- many thanx.

John Cuneo-- many thanks for your insights and erudition. I agree that even with a loose and "tremulous" line (as Kev Ferrara describes it) the margin of error sometimes seems miniscule. It is easy to go astray by just a tiny amount, and end up significantly less effective. Blechman's "casual" designs can be as unforgiving as if he was drawing schematic diagrams for semiconductors.

I have heard great things about Blechman's book and will track it down.

Kpakpo Akwei said...

Said Robert Fawcett:"An excellent picture is likely to be characterized by the restraint of self-confidence. Abundance of resouces will be apparent not advertised."

What more is there to add? Thanks Mr. Apatoff.

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

David, - I've just read your entire blog – that's a few hours of my life that weren't wasted – it's an education, and so goes straight into my store of favourite pieces of writing. Thank you for sharing.

Rob Stolzer said...

A wonderful post David. Thanks so much for shedding a bit more light on the wonderful Blechman.

Back in the late 80s I worked for Denis Kitchen when he was still located in central Wisconsin. One day we were looking through some of the Kurtzman archives and ran across a piece Blechman had done for Humbug. It pictured a man on a windy day whose hat few off his head. Along with dozens of other hats. Blechman drew each hat and glued them down one by one, until he had them composed in a way that flowed. What Denis had was a piece of art and a clear plastic bag filled with hand-drawn hats. As the glue aged, many of the hats fell off.

When I teach illustration and we're dealing with editorials or concept-based pieces, I always show a few Blechman pieces as an example of how the drawing is a perfect vehicle for the idea. And vice-versa. There is nothing superfluous in one of his piece. No easy trick.

kev ferrara said...

Rob, that's an interesting story.

I believe there's a similar story about Maxfield Parrish providing a magazine editor with an envelope full of meticulously hand cut, oil painted colored balloons in order to give the editor some leeway on the color scheme of a balloon filled cover assignment.

Anonymous said...

David, Sorry to go off topic, but I noticed the great courtroom artist Howard Brodie died Sept. 14 at the age of 94.
You know who he was even if you don't know his name. He was the sketch artist who drew rings around his peers. I'd think anyone who grew up in the 60's and 70's would know his work in an instant.
Pat Ford

Gailavon said...


kiran said...

Second, once he has the attention of the audience, he has to deliver a concept that makes it worth their while

kev ferrara said...

Fyi, I had the story about Maxfield Parrish slightly wrong. It was told by Frank Schoonover, who early in his career worked for Curtis Publishing as an office boy (1904?).

Schoonover unpacked an illustration sent in by Parrish of "a sexless figure" with bubbles all around that came with a box filled with extra "airbrushed" bubbles which, he found, the editor has just thrown in the garbage.

Schoonover's job included dumping the garbage and he planned to take the bubbles when doing his rounds. But before he had the chance, somebody else, person unknown, found the beautifully painted bubbles first and purloined them.

Anonymous said...

Not sure if you take request here how about a write up on the drawings of Hyman Bloom

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