Saturday, February 28, 2015


Following up on last week, here are some loose drawings I enjoy:

George Booth: "This meeting was called in order to discuss the meat. It has been pointed out that there is no more meat.  A motion has been made to fight over the bones."

R.O. Blechman


Robert Weber

Observe how each drawing appears light and spontaneous... but look closer and you'll see that each artist  carefully fine tuned their drawing to achieve that "spontaneous" look:

Booth re-drew the faces on two of the cave men

Blechman shaved 1/16 of an inch off the nose to make it funnier

Lichty made those slapdash brush strokes funnier by going back and tapering them with white paint

Weber's simplified yet insightful line (look at the great profile on the woman!) came at a price.  He came back with white paint to simplify and clarify his picture. 

I'm not pointing out these refinements to reveal a magician's tricks or to find fault with these excellent artists.  Rather, I'm trying to demonstrate that many of the best "spontaneous" drawings you see are carefully drawn to an artist's exacting standard. Variations as small as 1/16 of an inch were considered important.

I fear that some young artists see the free looking result and develop unrealistic expectations.  They believe casual drawing can be taken casually.  Their eyes no longer see the difference.  

The great political cartoonist David Low once said, "making a cartoon occupied usually about three days: two spent in labour and one in removing the appearance of labour."

Saturday, February 21, 2015


When is good draftsmanship important to an illustration?

That question occurred to me when I saw the current cover of The New Yorker magazine:

The subject of the cover was challenging to draw: a packed theater audience captured from an angle that also shows the events taking place on stage.  In the past, such an assignment might've demanded the full tool kit of draftsmanship-- perspective, anatomy, foreshortening, etc.

Observe how those skills enhanced the same subject in the past:

Walter Appleton Clark showed the stage over the shoulders of an audience: a marvelous piece of draftsmanship.  And while the treatment may at first seem like antiquated realism, notice how Clark made an abstract design from the backs of heads and the arrangements of the bodies.

Gluyas Williams simplified the complexities of our subject with clear lines and geometric shapes, but always on a rock solid foundation
An engineering feat: capturing the faces of the audience and the act on stage at the same time.

Caldecott award winning illustrator Paul Zelinsky put a magic spin on the subject.  Note how he simplified the audience into small circles and ghostly profiles to avoid getting trapped in unimportant detail.  He achieved depth with those marvelous silhouettes, and managed to get both the stage and the audience into the picture by bending the time space continuum.  These are the judgments of a mature artistic talent

Mort Drucker was famous for his crowd scenes which he could rotate to any angle with uncanny agility.

Drucker always managed to have great fun with individual faces in the audience while still maintaining control over the larger sweep of the picture
Franklin McMahon (above and below) drew stylized pictures on site at political conventions

For me,  it's a pleasure to watch such great skill in action.  I think these illustrations were successful in part because the artists had the drawing ability to solve sophisticated problems of structure and organization and emphasis and coherence. 

Of course, some pictures don't require technical drawing skills.  For example James Thurber, William Steig and other illustrators made excellent pictures with flat, naive looking figures drawn simply on blank backgrounds.



The trick, then, is to figure out when draftsmanship is important for the picture and when it isn't. Ultimately draftsmanship is only a means to an end.  It's a tool for delivering a concept more persuasively, or elegantly, or effectively, or economically, or powerfully, as the individual artist sees fit.

In the theater pictures above, good draftsmanship enabled artists to undertake a wider range of solutions. But you'd never find Thurber attempting such a complex composition.  He just didn't have the skill, and he knew it.   Illustrator Seymour Chwast said that he avoids attempting pictures “that require craftsmanship and a drawing ability I do not have.”  Illustrator Elwood Smith said that his inability to draw the scenes he imagines forces him to find other alternatives: “if I can’t draw it, I struggle to come up with a different idea that’s invariably more original." 

Returning to The New Yorker cover that launched us on this quest,  drawing skills were put aside in favor of a naive, unschooled look:

This unschooled style has become increasingly fashionable.  It is found on the cover of The New Yorker but also in graphic novels and mainstream magazines.  It is applied more indiscriminately, even to concepts that are not particularly elevated by such an approach.  Why?
One reason seems to be a general disillusionment with draftsmanship.  Audiences have noticed that some artists with impeccable technical skills never get around to addressing concepts of significance.  Also, some artists achieve the appearance of technical proficiency through suspicious mechanical means.  This could help explain why so many artists now seek authenticity in spontaneity.

On the other hand, another reason for the popularity of this look-- especially when applied to less suitable concepts-- may be that today's audiences have become more ignorant and less patient, and art directors have become better at catering to those traits.

If the desensitized readers of graphic novels or popular magazines can no longer recognize the difference, it doesn't behoove a publisher to work hard to stay on the right side of that divide.  But an artist who hopes his or her work will outlive our current fashions will need to make independent choices about what an artistic concept requires, and when draftsmanship is important, and when it isn't.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Saturday, February 07, 2015


Smoke has no shape.  Scientists describe it as "matter in a gaseous state" because its atoms move freely and dissipate into the shape of whatever container it happens to occupy.  

So why is art nouveau smoke shaped differently than art deco smoke?

Art nouveau smoke (by Rene Bull)

Art deco smoke (by Leslie Ragan)

And while we're at it, why is Japanese smoke shaped differently than Italian smoke?

Japanese smoke (by Uttagawa Sadahide)

Italian smoke (15th century)
Clearly there are mysteries about smoke that science has yet to explain.

Of course, it's not all the fault of science.  Some artists must've slept through physics class because they don't remember the difference between a gas and a solid:

 Mud slide smoke (by Frazetta)

Even worse, some mistake a gas for a liquid:

Daniel Schwartz

This is all very confusing.  Smoke is supposed to have no shape, yet here we see all these strong opinions about the shape of smoke, and none of them match.

And if that weren't bad enough, along comes that smart alec Richard Thompson and picks "all of the above" for the shape of smoke:

Explosion in a shape factory (by Richard Thompson)

There are artists who love to paint billowing smoke with rich, blended colors:

Attila Hejja

Ashley Wood
 And there are artists who illuminate smoke from behind with a golden glow, and make you think "this is truly the way to paint smoke." 

N.C. Wyeth

 Yet there are other artists who can make equally astute observations about smoke merely by scrubbing a dry brush with one color:

Noel Sickles
Degas took a less linear approach than Sickles, trying to convey smoke with a rag and fingers using the monotype practice:

Degas, "Factory Smoke"

At this point, I'm so baffled I can't even remember what I started out to say about smoke.  My idea is gone in a puff of I don't know what.

So let's just end this way:  when artists set out to affix a shape to something that has no fixed shape, they are really transforming a gas into a solid.  This task gives artists a broader license than they'd have when transforming one solid into another (for example, capturing a face on canvas).  It can provide a Rorschach test for artists who choose to take it.  

As you can see from the pictures above, artists who make full use of their broader license, rather than relying on conventional symbols for smoke, can achieve some pretty interesting results.