Sunday, October 01, 2017


Ralph Barton was one of the most prominent illustrators of the 1920s.  Most of his illustrations were done with a simple line, yet if you paid attention it soon became clear that Barton knew a few things.  Here are four of them: 

1.  Sometimes the best way to exaggerate legs is to contrast them with a normal arm: 

Those high-stepping legs seem even crazier because Barton gave us a baseline for normalcy.  By showing us he understands the bones and muscles of that arm; he emphasizes that he has detached the bones and added more joints to those legs.  That wonderful flowing tunic is like a magician's cape, concealing how he has sawed a lady in half.

2.  Sometimes the best way to draw a big subject is to obscure it in a small corner.

There were plenty of dramatic ways to draw the 1927 death of Isadora Duncan, the famous dancer whose trademark-- an enormous, flamboyant scarf-- became wrapped around the axle of her brand new convertible.  Duncan was pulled from her car and choked to death as she was dragged along a cobblestone road in France.  An artist could hardly ask for a more visual spectacle.  Yet, this is the wonderful, controlled way that Barton depicted it:       

I love Gertrude Stein's stoic reaction when she read the news of Duncan's death:  “Affectations can be dangerous."

3.  A mediocre subject can still be redeemed by a strong image.

The joke on this cover of Puck is not particularly funny or creative:

but man oh man, it is redeemed by Barton's strong graphic treatment.  He didn't get discouraged by his text, he redeemed it.

Today the practice is largely the opposite.  The dominant assumption is that crappy drawing will be redeemed by profound or moving content.

4.  Don't accept standard templates if you have a better idea.

Barton decided that the regular logo for Puck would not go very well with his cover drawing.  Rather than compromise his drawing or accept , Barton took the initiative to letter a whole new title and offer it to his client:


It appears from Barton's note that Puck neither requested nor paid for this extra effort.  It was something Barton volunteered because he cared about the least details surrounding his art and was not afraid to work.


MORAN said...

That first drawing is awesome.

chris bennett said...

Marvellous work this David, thanks for posting.
An extra point I can add to your excellent notes on the first drawing is how it employs something Picasso made extensive use of, especially in his paintings of Marie-Thérèse Walter; the invisible disruptions of scale in Barton's dancer give the sense of shifting proximity; as we look over the image we are sometimes nearer (the hand) then father back (the head), then near again (the foot) - giving the unconscious feeling of us and subject eddying about in space.
But its the twisting, tornado cornucopia-like dress that really impresses me.

Jesse Hamm said...

One of my top faves! Great observation about redeeming mediocre subjects with strong imagery, vs the current ethos.

Loved the recent Kley/snail entry, too!

carolyn said...

The first drawing is indeed brilliant. I wish my legs were half that length!

Joss said...

I am trying to remember a quote and the author, I believe you have shared it on this blog a number of times. Something about ones line being an extension/expression of each individual's nervous system or something like that. Do you recall? I think it was a woman who wrote about drawings or taught drawing?

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Isn't that a honey of a drawing? I didn't have a quality image of it, but it was too good to pass up.

chris bennett-- Yes, I think the "disruptions of scale" are particularly noteworthy here; it's so easy to get them wrong, but Barton did a good job here. I agree about the dress; it's an imaginative twist that few have the courage to make.

Jesse Hamm-- Many thanks! It's good to hear from you.

Joss-- I'm guessing you mean one of my favorite quotes from art critic Roberta Smith: "Drawings are the most overtly delectable of all art forms...Drawings in general are like love letters. Personal in touch and feeling, physically delicate, they reflect the artist's gifts, goals and influences in the most intimate terms... [They are] a direct extension of an artist's signature and very nervous system. "

sss said...

Interesting -n- Informative ...

Joss said...

David-- That's the Quote! Thank you. I am teaching a drawing class for the first time and just remembered as I was preparing for it that you had some quote that really impressed me.