Thursday, December 05, 2013


In the mid-20th century, American illustration witnessed an explosion in lush, impressionistic pencil drawing.

Assignments that would previously have been completed in paint or ink were now handled in pencil or charcoal by a remarkable group of illustrators who worked with a sensitive, expressive line.

These included the great Carl Erickson (known as "Eric"):

 Austin Briggs:

Note the broad variety of lines in this simple drawing
Briggs employs a slender outline for the figure,contrasted with a thick, vigorous crayon for the folds.

 Rene Bouche:

Bernie Fuchs: 


Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas
and Bob Peak:

Peak also did the portrait of James Cagney, above
In previous generations, the printing process could not pick up such subtleties, so  talented illustrators who worked in pencil (such as F.R. Gruger or Arthur William Brown) were unable to take drawing to such extremes.   In the 1930s we begin to see experimental illustrators such as Al Parker basing illustrations on delicate pencil work:


 ...and within a few decades become quite comfortable with pencil's more aggressive applications:

Graphite and wash

Famed art director Otto Storch became concerned that some of Bernie Fuchs' delicate lines were too light to reproduce, so he called Fuchs and asked him to darken them.   Fuchs was adamant about the effect he wanted, and refused.  Storch thought for a moment and asked, "Well, would you at least be willing to wear a heavier watch?"

We like to believe that changes in the arts result from developments in the human mind or spirit.  But sometimes changes are prompted by something as simple as a mechanical invention.
For example, the invention of the piano helped inspire the Romantic Era in music.  Before the piano, composers wrote for the harpsichord which made clipped, succinct sounds.  The piano suddenly gave composers new expressive power; they could create long, sustaining notes, deeper resonance, greater control over subtle nuances and a broader range of sounds.  Enthralled by their new capability, composers such as Beethoven and Chopin began writing music that was more lush and emotional.

The improvement in printing gave 20th century illustrators the gift of more expressive power, and in the drawings above we witness their delight over their new gift.  For the first time, illustrators could capture delicate gestures and a wider variety of lines.  It did not take them long to bring out the full symphony of effects from a pencil.


chris bennett said...

Nice post David, and some beautiful drawings in there – a real pleasure. Thanks so much!

However, I think your analogy with the invention of the piano is a little off centre though. I’d say the improved printing process of the era and its effect on the range of graphic expression is closer to what the microphone and amplification did for the human voice.

MORAN said...

That's when people still could draw. Today they draw digitally but it's not as good.

kev ferrara said...

The Fuchs' are killer. Even if he traced them, he still added a lot. Very sensitive.

John LaGatta had a lot of very sensitively-felt dry media work reproduced excellently in b/w in the Golden Age. So everything was probably in place for quality printing of almost any degree of sensitivity by the mid 1920s.

I would liken these printing improvements to the increasing fidelity of 78 rpm records during the same span of time.

James Gurney said...

Great post, David. You mentioned some pencil maestros. Also not forgetting Paul Calle, Ernest Watson, Ted Kautzky, and Noel Sickles, to toss in a few more. Watson's showpiece pencil drawings on the "El Dorado Page" in the art magazines was a huge inspiration to other artists, and those old El Dorados had high quality graphite that's hard to find nowadays.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- You're right, a microphone (or perhaps a recording device) would be a closer analogy to printing technology than a piano (although less sexy).

In each of these examples (including the piano), an invention made it possible for an artist to put his or her internal aesthetic feelings into a form that could be experienced by an audience. There is also a view that oil paint was invented primarily to satisfy the urge to capture human flesh, and that flesh attracted much more attention, and became much more desirable, after the invention of soap.

MORAN-- I have stopped predicting where digital drawing will go, but so far I haven't seen anyone do anything like Peak's James Cagney or Briggs' nurse digitally.

Kev Ferrara-- 78 rpm records is another good analogy. I know a lot of progress was made by the mid 1920s-- wood engraving was gone, replaced by photoengraving and halftone engraving-- but I think that the half tone reproduction in the 20s still had trouble capturing the full value scale and the subtlety of these lines.

If you follow the link to Gruger's work from the 1920s, you will see the disparity between the images scanned from his originals and the published images (which look chalky, and which lose all the little wispy of lines). From the same era, the printing was good enough to tell us when Henry Raleigh was using dry media-- you can sometimes see the rasp of the pencil on the paper's tooth-- but you rarely get the tapering effects.

AleŇ° said...

I like the old man in Fuch's drawing, his courteous posture with the raised shoe and leaned head, the dynamism of various line thickness and quick, expressive "coloring" of the coat. The woman seems allright too, but I don't like the boy, he has that photographic frozeness and he also seems to be looking behind the man, out of the picture. He seems a bit out of place to me.

chris bennett said...

David, I thought of the microphone because it allowed the quiet nuances of the human voice to be conveyed/delivered to a larger audience. The operatic or projecting mode was no longer the default and suddenly the whisper and individual timbre of a voice at ordinary volume and natural articulation became a new possibility in the sonic palette of vocalists.

And so with the revolution in cheap but quality printing, the master drawing of old was no longer the necessary reserve of the artist and immediate patrons.

AleŇ° said...

David, I'm very glad when you show pencil/charcoal drawings, it's probably my favorite medium. Alot of the time drawings tend to move me more than finished paintings do, so I hope you'll devote even more posts to drawings in the future.

chuck pyle said...

The original art for 'Saturdays are Special' hangs in my office. I marvel at it very time I stand in front of it. It serves to remind my of my teachers who all worked in that style, and of the power of the line well used. A little intimidating, considering that my drawing board is just below it.

kev ferrara said...

I just gave a cursory look at some gruger as published in the 20s, and I certainly agree that the richness isn't there in the darks. And in all probability, you are right that some wisps of pencil line don't get picked up.

I note increasing richness in the darks when printed on slick and substantial paper. Interestingly, the pen and ink decorations as published on slick paper in Pyle's 1905 "fate of treasure town" story in Harper's, are also very dark and rich.

The ability of the paper to handle the ink was a big factor, and is more an economic issue than a technological one. Once the publisher affords better paper, one can publish darks with thicker viscosity of ink, or by "rich black" (Adding cyan, magenta and yellow overtop the black to make it deeper.) or by increases in lpi.

So there are some other issues involved.

That Fuchs drawing of the banjo player looks to me to be scanned from an original. As published, I believe it would still be effected by the line-screen printing method. (Check the kennedy pencil drawing from your "last court painters" post, which is highly effected by linescreen.)

David Apatoff said...

James Gurney-- Thanks, Jim. Those are certainly worthy names as well. Sickles is a particular favorite of mine. It's interesting (as you point out) that as the quality of printing improved, the quality of pencils declined! You'd think that would be the one thing they could get right. But I know artists who shop for old pencils on ebay because the quality of graphite today is so mediocre.

Ales-- I confess, I prefer drawings too.

Chris Bennett-- speaking of the "master drawing of old," you can find rough sketches by Degas and Sargent that have a feel something like these drawings. I suspect part of what is happening here is that illustrators, in an era of "action painting" and "expressionism" gave themselves license to use a loose, preliminary style (with all its charm) as a final work, whereas Degas and Sargent would not.

Charles Pyle-- Wow, great score! Good for you. How big is it? And what do other people have over their drawing boards?

chuck pyle said...

about 2/3 of a sheet of illustration board. part of the university collection. At home studio, it is Dean Cornwell in drawing form. Nice contrast!

Richard said...

> the quality of pencils declined!

Lithium ion batteries require high purity spherical graphite to make, as do a number of other industrial processes.

Still, I'm surprised we haven't found anything to replace high quality graphite in pencils -- I would have supposed a quality synthetic alternative would've cropped up by now.

Li-An said...

The great Bofa worked almost in graphite in his best years.