Wednesday, September 19, 2012


In keeping with our current theme of posting working sketches by the great illustrators, today let's look at some unpublished drawings by Austin Briggs.  It is a shame that Briggs does not get much attention today; for decades he was one of the most highly regarded illustrators in the country.  An excellent painter, Briggs was especially known for the great subtlety and sensitivity of his drawing with a lithography crayon, charcoal or similar tools.

Despite the free and spontaneous look to his drawings, Briggs' sketches and preliminary drawings show that he was a disciplined and skilled draftsman.  He drew numerous preparatory sketches...

...sometimes with great precision (especially earlier in his career, when his style was tighter):

To plan his more complex illustrations, Briggs would do numerous preliminary sketches:

Briggs wrote a note to an art director in the margin of one of these sketches, saying "If you don't like this one, I've got a dozen others on the floor of my studio."

The following drawing is not a sketch, but a finished, published illustration.

Drawing with corrective patch

However, the original version was never published:

Drawing without corrective patch

We forget today that Briggs was at the forefront of artists introducing a more realistic informality into illustration. Previous illustrators focused on the one key moment or reaction shot, where the subject's eyes were widest or their expression was the broadest or their leap was at its height.

Norman Rockwell
Briggs took a different approach and began focusing on moments that looked less staged.  His sketches reveal a deliberate search for offbeat moments, where a subject might be looking away or checking their watch or other things more integrated into daily life.   It may seem crazy to us today, but in the 1950s art directors sometimes choked on this radical approach.  In the two drawings compared above, the art director instructed Briggs to change his drawing to make the man sit up straight.  Briggs glued the correction on with rubber cement, causing the stain.

Today's illustrators should be grateful to Briggs as a bold and principled pioneer who left the field with more artistic freedom than it had when he began.


Stephen said...

Thanks for doing these "sketchbooks" posts. I'm really enjoying the drawings and your insights.

Donald Pittenger said...

Didn't Briggs also ghost Flash Gordon for a brief while? Yet another feather in his cap, methinks.

Of course, he was far from the only Flash Gordon artist ....

jpleon said...

Briggs was a master. Thanks for posting these, David. I'm sure Briggs used photo ref for his finishes, but I wonder how many of his preliminary drawings were from life?---While beautiful, there's a coldness to these drawings that lead me to believe they were done from photographs too. The standing women, for example. Beautiful drawings in either case.---Just wondering if you know how he did them. Thanks again!

Jesse Hamm said...

Love the version with the guy asleep. Better compoition, and more pointed.

David, do you have a before & after example of a Briggs prelim sketch & corresponding final piece? Would make a great comparison.

Katana Leigh said...

these are truly beautiful sketches. The accuracy says how much he was able to see, from looking, and in his imagination, bringing what he saw into his mind and transferring it back onto paper. Magical. Your analysis is also fantastic- never would I have realized this was an avant-garde approach because it seems so conservative now - but without it we wouldn't be as free today...wonderful!

Untitled said...

Brilliant! This is excellent. Thank you for posting this drawings series, this is an incredible view into the works of people who did this quality work on a daily basis to earn a living! While their work showed up in magazines and was discarded when readers were done, you have allowed them to live on here. And with a great commentary to boot.

David Apatoff said...

Stephen-- Thanks, these are a lot of fun for me.

Donald Pittenger-- You're correct, as usual. And it wasn't easy to fill the shoes of the great Alex Raymond.

jpleon-- I'm guessing he used photo reference for some but not all of these. I agree with you there is a coldness to many of these that you don't see in-- for example-- the William Smith sketches. That may be because Briggs was making multiple drafts for a professional assignment while Smith was making a one time sketch of a personal subject.

On the subject of photo reference, I should add that Briggs was IMO the most eloquent, lucid, sensible spokesperson on the proper use of photography in drawing. He could draw beautifully without photos, but he also came along after Rockwell had worked through the initial guilt of using photography, and found no shame in the process, to the extent it aided genuine quality (which it often does not).

David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm-- I have a few such examples, I will try to post them in the future.

Katana Leigh-- Yes, we smile at the notion that Briggs' approach was once unconventional. The same tradition was carried on by Bernie Fuchs, who was a (younger) friend of Briggs. Fuchs once painted a car ad integrating the car into a real life situation, and even had a human figure standing in front the car, partially obstructing (gasp) the view of the product. The client threw the painting on the floor and denounced Fuchs as a prima donna. That's what illustrators once had to deal with.

Untitled-- Thanks, I'm glad you enjoy them.

Anonymous said...

I never knew Women's fashions were so attractive back then. Briggs did a good job with hips. JSL

Alex said...

I think they were right to change the head of the sleeping man-he distracts attention from the main focal point.Looking into the picture creates a stronger focus.

The fact that these were working drawings accounts for the perceived coldness, I'm sure his personal sketches would have every bit as much charm as Mr Smith's.

अर्जुन said...

Briggs was pretty good.

…prelim, false start, alternate comp, who can say?

"a before & after example of a Briggs prelim sketch & corresponding final piece" ~ Aquí tienes!

also~ Mike Ludlow

Did they share a studio? Did Briggs do layouts for others? The profile of the stewardess in "Briggs IMG_5408.jpg" is similar to that of a passenger in Ludlow45.jpg which can be found at Leif's flickr set.

Jesse Hamm said...

अर्जुन -- Wow, thanks fot the comparison images!

If Ludlow & Briggs did share a studio, I doubt they'd have shared photo reference on jobs for the same client (unless by request). My guess is that the client liked the "little girls greet their dad" image by one of the artists, and later asked the other artist to mimic that imagery in a subsequent ad.

Speaking of which, is it a sign of our times that the up-skirt shot in Ludlow's version looks pedo-creepy? Hard to imagine a client today signing off on that shot.

Back to Briggs, someone at Peng's blog said that Briggs's method was to trace his sketches from projected images. Can anyone confirm or deny?

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- Briggs clearly understands the human forms under those 1950s fashions, and I agree he makes them quite appealing.

Alex-- I agree that Briggs knew how to do warm personal sketches. These are mostly business-like (although as anonymous points out, not without their sexual awareness).

अर्जुन-- Excellent find! I was planning to sift through piles of tearsheets to find a couple of corresponding final pieces. That's one heck of a filing system you must have. As for Mike Ludlow, I always thought he was one of the best of the pin up cartoonists. I'd never seen his little girl pictures. I am pretty certain they never shared a studio, and if Briggs did layouts for others, it was without his knowledge.

David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm wrote, "someone at Peng's blog said that Briggs's method was to trace his sketches from projected images."

Jesse, I have seen enough of Briggs' work from scratch to say that he has satisfied me he was a brilliant draftsman without the benefit of photographs or projected images. It is also my experience that many lesser draftsmen (perhaps including the commenter on Leif's blog) are drawn to explanations of "tracing" in a misguided attempt to reduce the gap between Briggs and themselves.

I think such people are missing the important point.

Briggs was quite open about his different uses of photography and other tools at different phases of his career, as he experimented the way anyone with an open mind and creative energy would experiment. His essays on this subject and his candid guidance to students are a model of clear and honest thinking on the subject. I also strongly recommend Fred Taraba's excellent description of Briggs' working methods in Taraba's reference book, Masters of American Illustration.

Briggs said, "The only trouble is that if you can't draw in the first place, it is more difficult to draw from photographs than it is from models, because photographs deceive you."

Jesse Hamm said...

David -- I doubt he was criticizing Briggs at all; I think he only meant to describe (what he believed to be) Briggs's working method.

I don't own Taraba's book and don't know where to find Briggs's essays, so let me repeat my question with perhaps a less loaded word than "traced." Did Briggs frequently (such as in the drawings in this post)draw over projected photographs?

David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm-- It has been my experience that when fans gravitate to the "photography" questions, it is rarely for benign purposes. But I am prepared to assume the best in the case of Lief's commenter.

Everyone should own a copy of Taraba's excellent book, its value will only go up.

Basically, Taraba reports that for "most of his finest story illustrations... Briggs drew his sketches freehand." However, Briggs went through a number of phases between his first published illustration in 1925 and his mature style in the early 1950s. He logged a lot of years learning basic drawing for Flash Gordon, newspaper work and magazine illustration. In some of those phases he used photos in a ballopticon, while in others he didn't. When he hit his stride, Briggs "would begin by making quick sketches, relying heavily upon his strong visual memory. Frequently he made scores of sketches until a handful communicated what he felt was the focus of the developing illustration.... In his sketches Briggs would experiment with a number of different compositions and vantage points. He would THEN alternate additional increasingly detailed sketches with photo sessions....His uncanny visual memory played a particularly important role."

The truly thoughtful assessment of the role of photography for Briggs can be found in his excellent essay, "On Drawing." Without re-typing the whole thing, his most salient point was that a camera was "a gatherer of information which has not yet been digested. Only when I resorted to the laborious task of drawing the object directly did it begin to reveal its hidden forms."

Personally I don't see any problem with using photos and / or computers, as long as you use them well and keep them in proportion.

Jesse Hamm said...

Many thanks for all the information, David.

Where did you find "On Drawing"? Perhaps I can track it down somewhere.

अर्जुन said...

Jesse H. ~ Glad to oblige.

D.A. ~ Please do some sifting, would like to see more. "Briggs IMG_5413.jpg," the men seen through a doorway, was that for TV Guide?

David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm-- If I have done this right, you can find Briggs' essay at

I think it is a smart piece of writing by someone who has paid his dues as a professional.

अर्जुन-- Sifting through tearsheets of Briggs' work is pleasant duty indeed.

Untitled said...

Thank you David(yet again)!
It is an excellent essay on drawing.
I too use photos as a reference because drawing on the crowded streets in India is hard and if not impossible, but I try to get the essence with a line drawing on site and then use the photographs to tone and fill in details that I noticed but did not have time to draw in. I always felt I was cheating when i used my photos. I feel better now :)

I need to spend time on the paragraph about what drawing is not this evening.

Jesse Hamm said...

Cool, thanks David!

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Miras said...

HI David, Thanks for these "sketchbook" posts.
I just love to peek into artist soul and there's no better way than sketches.

BTW I have found something that you might find interesting. Here's exact copy of your blog... Are you aware of this?

David Apatoff said...

Miras-- Thanks, I'm glad you like these. As for the web site that copies my blog, thanks for the heads up. It turns out that there are two or three sites out there that simply steal huge chunks of this and other art blogs, remove the name of the author and use our content to sell advertising (something I would never do). It's a shame, but on the other hand, it's hardly the worst theft in the world. Talk to poor Bill Watterson about the people who steal Calvin & Hobbes pictures to sell T shirts and key chains.

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