Saturday, October 27, 2012


The remarkable Harry Beckhoff drew this tiny picture of a man scared by a black cat in 1913.

What a marvelous design.

Many artists would feel constrained by the actual size or shape of a cat.  Or they might struggle over the fact that a cat walks on the ground around our ankles, so you are obligated to draw the entire body if you want to show the face.

But Beckhoff understood that the design comes first.  Everything else flows from that.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


The computer gaming industry was launched using just a few primitive elements.

Two or three colored pixels were all that was necessary to construct a story in the minds of viewers: a red pixel might represent a missile trying to knock out that green pixel before it hits blue pixel earth.

Later would come photo-realistic graphics, complex story lines and motion sensitive technology.  But the most important step-- turning viewers into believers-- was achieved with just a few basic visual symbols.  Our imaginations did the rest.  

It's amazing how a visual image--even a single red pixel--  gives our minds a starting place for belief in scenarios where mere words might fail to persuade.   Even the most far fetched ideas become more plausible once we can visualize them.

The newly released movie Argo tells the true story of the rescue of American diplomats hiding in the Canadian embassy in 1979 after  a mob of Islamic militants took over the US embassy.  To smuggle the diplomats out of Iran, A CIA “exfiltration” expert made up a wild story about the diplomats being a movie crew scouting locations in Iran for a Hollywood space fantasy called “Argo.”

As one film critic recounts:
“You don’t have a better bad idea than this?” a State Department official asks the CIA.  ”This is the best bad idea we have,” is the reply....   They can’t fake any of the usual identities for the Americans because they are too easy to disprove.  The normal reasons for foreigners to be abroad — teaching, studying, aid — are not plausible.  Only something completely outrageous could be true.
But how to persuade the fanatical Iranian border guards who were skeptical of all foreign devils?   Why should they believe such a far fetched tale?  Because the CIA showed them Jack Kirby's concept drawings for the "film."

They really liked the drawings.

Once the guards saw the pictures, they were able to visualize the movie and became persuaded.  They let the diplomats go.  Whether you're playing video games or smuggling hostages out of Iran, the principle that "seeing is believing" pays off time and again.  People who dismiss pictures as the mere illusion of reality underestimate the reality of illusion.

Friday, October 12, 2012


Howard Pyle (1853-1911) was the father of American illustration.   His powerful compositions (such as these horizontal stripes across a background color field)...

...had their origin in Pyle's small sketchbooks where he developed the designs for his pictures.

In some of Pyle's sketches we see him carefully mapping the placement of figures and objects in space:

But my favorites are the ones where we see Pyle wrestling with the abstract designs of his paintings:


These images are courtesy of the good folks at the Delaware Art Museum which owns a treasure trove of Pyle's sketchbooks showing the master at work (Thanks, Mary and Erin!)

Figure study

Friday, October 05, 2012


These unpublished sketches are by the illustrator E.F. Ward (1892-1990).

In an era before photography became convenient, illustrators filled sketchbooks with meticulous reference sketches of props and period costumes.  Like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter, they kept records of little details and touches that might be useful for some future assignment. 

 Today, an illustrator who wanted to draw someone in an historical outfit would not have to go through this.  They could easily pluck a dozen reference photos from the internet.

Lest you think that Ward's detailed sketches are anachronistic, he also did a series of faster, smaller figure studies and gesture drawings.  Done for a different purpose,  they were drawn in a much simpler style:

In good, workmanlike fashion, Ward only devoted as much time to a sketch as its purpose warranted.

Ward's sketches reveal a hard working, talented artist.  We don't remember him much today because he had the great misfortune to be working at the same time as Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker, Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth.