Sunday, May 05, 2019


[The forthcoming book about the art of Austin Briggs, from Auad Publishing, is now at the printer.  Unfortunately, there was not enough room in the book for many great images.  Rather than return them to obscurity, I've decided to show several outtakes on this blog between now and the publication date.]

I love Austin Briggs' preliminary drawing of five girls marching in a line through a bar. 

Drawing courtesy of Roger Reed at Illustration House
Note how Briggs uses  the angles of their hats to show their individual characters.  The eldest girl is prim and decorous but by the time we get to the pile up at the end, all decorum is gone:

Briggs adopted a similar approach for the little girls greeting their daddy in the following ad for Douglas Airliners.  Even with his rough, sketchy technique and their backs turned to the viewer, each of these girls has a distinctive personality:

The shy one hides behind her mother, the excitable one leaps in the air, and the middle one wobbles indecisively. 
The drawing is intended to look spontaneous but Briggs did at least a dozen preliminary sketches, trying to tie a hair ribbon on a bouncing ping pong ball. 

This large sketch (19" x 25") and others were tossed on the floor of Briggs' studio as he worked.  That's Briggs' shoe print in the upper right corner.

When Briggs captured touches he liked, he incorporated them in the final drawing.

Briggs' experience shows up in that hand

Before he turned to his charcoal illustrations, Briggs made his reputation doing fully painted illustrations.  Here he paints frisky children in an ad for dog food

He employed a lively brush technique to keep his painting active:

Still, at some point in his career he seems to have realized that the medium of paint unavoidably civilized his pictures.  If he wanted to convey the indecorum of little girls, a crayon or vine charcoal was a more suitable medium.

Despite the seeming crudeness of this line, note how sensitively Briggs depicts the curiosity and lack of coordination in those young fingers.

In an era of slick, full color illustration Briggs was a pioneer in making these basic drawing tools fashionable again.


Anonymous said...

A few comments, David: first, there is a LITTLE more than the angle of hats to tell us about these girls in the bar, like their poses and facial expressions! Briggs’s ability to achieve accuracy along with spontaneity seems magical, but can probably be chalked up to clever staging and a fast shutter. The girls’ responses are so perfectly age-appropriate — the second one is self-conscious as if she had had no rehearsal; the next pair are conspirators on a giggly adventure with no consequences; the last one is aware of her own body, but has no social context; the first one knows how to behave but is not yet a natural — I think Briggs must have actually marched them into a bar without warning. This was the age of the TV show Candid Camera; it was understood what could and couldn't be faked.

But of course, Briggs is not making a photograph, but tracing one (or several, rather). That technique of fast sketching with a wide, flat-leaded soft pencil — a technique of the reporter — also gives the evidence (or illusion) of veracity. It allows him to eliminate the downside of the camera: that it captures backgrounds and details one doesn't want in the picture.

Tinkelman used to kind-of dismiss Briggs as hypocritical for using photographs without acknowledging their use, even repudiating their use, but I say Briggs kept the upper hand over his photos, and was never a slavish copier of them.

Briggs had that series of TV Guide adverts about the necessity of advertising in TV Guide (I love the Looking-Glass nature of that, but isn't that also a clue that these cannot be real scenes?). They were reproduced in black and white (the color of documentaries), and it was the tremendous success of these ads, both in that they achieved their purpose, AND because of their acclaim within the illustration community, that made him go heavy into line work: he was asked to.

— Roger T. Reed

David Apatoff said...

Roger Reed-- If Tinkelman claimed Briggs "used photographs without acknowledging their use , even repudiating their use," then Tinkelman didn't know anything about Briggs. Briggs was quite open about using photography, just as Degas, Cezanne and Lautrec were. He was also candid and helpful to younger artists about his own struggle to find the proper role for photographs. He spoke about them in lectures and wrote about them in articles; Tinkelman's drawing might have benefited from reading them.

I quote Briggs extensively on the topic in this bog post: Briggs started out without using photographs, then began using them as the only way to keep up with the daily demands for multiple figure drawings for the Flash Gordon comic strip. Over the course of his career, he sometimes used photographs and sometimes didn't. To his credit, Briggs had a thoughtful, self-conscious struggle trying to come to grips with what photography was good for and what it wasn't. His conclusions, quoted in the upcoming book, were about as thoughtful as any I've read on the subject.

As for the girls' hats, I agree 100% that the hats weren't the only way Briggs contrasted the girls; I just didn't think anyone wanted to read my laundry lists regarding the tilt of their heads, the expressions on their faces,, their heights, their body postures, etc. I have a very discriminating readership and they kick my butt when I start to tell them what they can already see for themselves. Regardless of the role played by photography, I think this is a beautifully staged drawing, visualizing the stages of development with great sensitivity and humor. I cannot think of an example in modern illustration that relies as heavily on draftsmanship skills to portray this type of lesson in human nature.

Anonymous said...

Years ago, I ran across (sorry I can't cite it) a magazine story illustrated by Briggs in which there was a claim he didn't use photos, possibly because at that time there was a stigma regarding their use. Perhaps Murray was referring to that. His story went that he visited Briggs's studio which appeared technology-free, but on poking into a closet Murray spied “the whole Eastman Kodak catalogue of gear.” [I'm paraphrasing, not quoting.] Anyway, I just thought that was both misleading and needlessly snarky for reasons you mention. Thanks for the link.

Sorry if I was so pedantic to laundry-list the girls’ characteristics. I was trying to point out that it's not just that the picture was staged, but that the photo-shoot must have literally been staged in order to achieve that degree of authenticity.

MORAN said...

Awesome drawing,thanks.

chris bennett said...

Never mind the little girls, he's particularly good with women's ankles.

Joss said...

My opinion is that Briggs, Hooks, Fawcett, Fuchs, so expert at drawing from life, when their fearless creative genius is loosed on a "limited" photographic source it is just fireworks. Absolute Brilliance!
looking forward to the book.

Igor Marinovsky said...

Interesting article and nice images.

Anonymous said...

You're right, the drawing of the littlest girls is far more interesting than the drawing of the adult men behind them, which is good but boring.