Tuesday, November 30, 2010


The 1980 movie Popeye was widely panned by critics. (One of the more favorable reviews called it a "mess of a movie" and "unintelligible.") It quickly disappeared from the theaters but not before MAD Magazine artist Mort Drucker dutifully captured it in a parody.

Drucker drew many important subjects for MAD, but he was also assigned to depict much of the raw sewage of American popular culture: third rate television shows that quickly imploded and movies that should never have been made. (Remember Alf? Who's The Boss? The Flying Nun?) By the time he drew Popeye, Drucker had been slogging through such subject matter for almost 25 years.

Yet, he drew these pictures with the same loving care others might reserve for the immortal themes on ancient Greek vases. Look at Drucker's beautiful work for Popeye:

I am awed by Drucker's talent, but separately awed by his dedication and consistently high standards over many decades.

Notice in the panel below how Drucker continued his drawing beyond the (blue) panel borders. The man couldn't stop himself.

Click on these drawings for close ups of a master at work.

Look how convincingly he conveys great mass in his figures:

Notice how adroitly he controls the architecture of this complex scene, and still has the capacity left over to add a gratuitous fish climbing the stairs:

While Drucker was drawing for MAD, the other two great caricaturists of the latter half of the 20th century, David Levine and Al Hirschfeld were drawing more highbrow subjects-- great authors and composers-- for prestigious periodicals such as the New York Review of Books and the New York Times.

Many think that art is enhanced by association with prestigious subjects. They presume that a drawing of Dostoevsky must somehow be superior to a drawing of Joan Collins, or that a caricature in the New York Review of Books must be more culturally significant than a caricature in MAD. One look at Drucker's glorious drawings from Popeye tells you it ain't so. As far as I am concerned, Drucker is the best all around artist of the bunch, hands down. His prolific career is an astounding artistic accomplishment and I think more of him, rather than less, for achieving it with subject matter such as Popeye.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


The illustrator Jules Guerin had an unusual combination of strengths. He blended the careful precision of an architectural engineer with the exaggerated, romantic colors of an impressionist.

Guerin's technical drawing skills and mastery of perspective were much in demand by architectural firms around the country.

By infusing architectural drawings with color, he made them so appealing it almost guaranteed that the design would be accepted and the project funded.

At the same time, Guerin's vivid colors and stylized designs made him a popular illustrator of books and magazines. He specialized in painting exotic subjects.

Which art school could teach Guerin two such disparate skills? Or was it just natural talent?

Actually, Guerin learned from two guys he happened to meet along the way. First, In 1889, Guerin's mother was renting out a spare room in their home when a young artist named Winsor McCay showed up at their door. McCay had just been evicted by his previous landlady and needed someplace to stay. McCay and the young Guerin soon became fast friends, and McCay taught Guerin his special techniques for drawing in perspective. McCay went on to create the revolutionary comic strip, Little Nemo In Slumberland, where he proved himself a genius with perspective indeed.

A few years later, Guerin happened to meet another artist, Maxfield Parrish, who took Guerin under his wing, introducing him to the art directors at Century Magazine and teaming with Guerin on projects. It wasn't long before Parrish was a nationally famous colorist, with Guerin following in his footsteps.

So much depends on who you happen to meet, and at what stage of your development, and under what circumstances. Perhaps if Picasso had been evicted from a room in Chicago, Guerin would have a third specialty as a cubist.

Friday, November 12, 2010


These are portrait sketches by the great Russian painter, Valentin Serov (1865 - 1911)

While many of Serov's finished paintings are quite beautiful, I especially enjoy his preliminary sketches for their vitality and truthfulness.

Serov, who studied under the great Ilya Repin, was part of that astonishing Renaissance in Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For centuries, Russian artists had manufactured religious icons to suit the rigid specifications of church dogma.

Icons were the opposite of western illusionist art. The church historically frowned on efforts to create physical images of the holy, so Russian artists went out of their way to avoid accurate, representational images. They stressed flat, distorted figures, inverted perspective and unnatural colors to emphasize that they were painting the ideal, dematerialized world rather than the natural world. (In 815 CE, if you tried to paint a realistic icon the troops of Leo the Armenian were likely to come along and thump you on the head). But starting in the 19th century, there was a period of sunlight and fresh air which inspired a flurry of cultural activity in Russia.

It didn't take more than a generation for the Russians to shake off the dust and produce world class artwork that was nimble and probing and insightful.

With the advent of Stalin the window closed again.

But I love these pictures by Serov, not just for the images themselves, but because they help me believe that, even after centuries of confinement, artistic abilities can be reawakened on short notice if they are given the right stimulus and the room to grow.

Saturday, November 06, 2010


This is an unpublished student drawing by illustrator Robert Fawcett at age 19.

Sketch from 1922, approximately 5" tall.

In his introduction to the upcoming book about Fawcett, Walt Reed wrote, "He'd had rigorous training in draftsmanship at the Slade School in England and learned to make it almost a science. Within the discipline of drawing the figure with a hard 4H pencil, with no erasures allowed, students learned to record proportion and perspective by eye."

The Slade School was renowned for a tough and relentless approach which quickly weeded out the unfit. Fawcett was given 10 minutes to complete this sketch, but on another occasion he was required to spend a full week drawing a single figure on a sheet of plain paper using a hard graphite pencil -- a form of torture that that forced him to focus on every nuance of the model and of drawing.

Later in life, Fawcett would entertain artist friends with horror stories about the grueling regimen of his two years at Slade. "I did nothing but draw from the model eight hours a day for two years.... They gave us discipline, discipline, discipline."

Unlike most artists, Fawcett never took a class on painting or perspective or technical drawing or any other traditional subject. Instead, he extrapolated from the powers of observation and the discipline he acquired from life drawing.

Some people believe that if you learn everything about one subject, you'll understand something about every subject.

Despite his jokes about his ordeal at Slade, Fawcett must have concluded that the process was worthwhile. Long after he arrived at the top of his profession, and for the rest of his life, he continued to set aside personal time each week to draw from the model.