Friday, December 03, 2021

POLITICAL CARTOONS AT THE CROSSROADS

[In response to your inquiries, I've been away on a mission.  Now I'm back and I still have a few things to say.]


Political cartooning today is challenged by two trends:  

  • The disintegration of intelligence and substance in politics
  • The disintegration of taste and skill in drawing.  

The first trend, the disintegration of politics, must be frustrating for cartoonists trying to parody a parody.  People once feared that political cartoons might dumb down politics, but today cartoons can hardly get dumb enough to keep up.

My real concern is with the second trend, the disintegration of taste and skill in drawing.  Good political cartooning is an art form that calls for specialized drawing abilities.  Unfortunately, today's impatient audiences and obtundent artistic standards place little value on quality drawing.   

For example, some cartoonists get away with creating a likeness by gluing a photocopy of a head on a poorly drafted body.  



An overlay of scratchy lines creates the illusion that this is a real drawing

Note in the following example how easily a photograph of a face can be incorporated using automation (not, of course, literally with "glue.") 

Cartoon (left) and photograph (right)

Here is the result when superimposing one on the other:

This technique is analogous to "photo-illustration," a plague which surfaced years ago as a cheap and easy method for illustrators to achieve a likeness when they might lack the talent to do so.


 

But achieving a reliable likeness is not the goal of the best political cartoons.  The real artistry lies in the caricature of that likeness, the expressive distortions,  the exaggerations and visual liberties.   These artist's tools can help re-energize discussions that have become costive due to too many words.  

For example, consider these two marvelous statements by Matt Davies and Tom Fluharty.  


Davies abandons the laws of  anatomy in this portrayal of his subject as a beast, yet we have no trouble recognizing who it is.  

There was obviously a photograph somewhere at the start of Fluharty's brilliant drawing
but all the artistry comes from the hand and mind of the artist.


As a reminder of the artistic potential of political cartoons, over the next several days I'm going to share examples that I think are excellent and deserve renewed appreciation.

33 comments:

Sidharth Chaturvedi said...

That scathing Fluharty drawing still makes me laugh, years later. Man's a wizard with a pencil.

Tom said...

Good to see you back David!

Ann Telnaes said...

Bravo David.

MORAN said...

I hope you'll talk about why the standards for drawing have deteriorated so badly. The same is true in illustration and fine art. People don't seem to have standards any more.

Wiley Miller said...

Thank you for this. The decline of art skills started many years ago, thanks to Photoshop. Cartoonists who lack drawing skills...and too lazy to learn and improve their work...relied on computer generated images and tools to produce "cool" effects. They no longer create as the programmers for the application are doing most of the creative work. Editors don't seem to mind because they don't know any better...or care.

David Apatoff said...

Sidharth Chaturvedi-- Agreed, he is a wonderful talent, and so funny. I understand that a major book of his art in the works. Watch this space.

Tom-- Thanks, it's nice to be back.

Ann Telnaes-- Thanks, that means a lot coming from such a talented political cartoonist. You're very kind.

Chris Britt said...

well done

Clay Jones said...

I agree with Wiley. I don't think editors care. I think there's an ethical lapse in our business that our industry will take a hit for in the future.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- The lowering of standards is a pervasive malady and I suspect there is more than one cause, ranging from the introduction of the camera to growth of confidence among the ignorant to image fatigue in the era of the internet to a financially beleaguered newspaper industry. As usual, I think the remedy begins with education, and an ability to distinguish good from bad.

Wiley Miller-- A pleasure to see you weigh in here, Mr. Miller. I'm a big fan of your drawing. Yes, I agree with your diagnosis, but keep in mind that Photoshop is not the end of the story. Some of the most talented artists I've featured on this blog, such as Nathan Fowkes or Tom Fluharty, have learned to use digital tools without diminishing the quality of their other work.

Chris Britt-- Many thanx.

Wiley Miller said...

Oh, I didn't mean that use of Photoshop was sole culprit here, just a major part allowing lazy cartoonists to get even more lazy rather than learning their craft. There are many who have translated their skills in art from pen and ink to Photoshop quite well. Clay Bennett is one that immediately leaps to mind.

And thank you for your kind words, David.

Chris Britt said...

Of course

Nelson said...

It appears to me that you are accusing Michael deAdder of ” …gluing a photocopy of a head on a poorly drafted body…”.
(Using a photo AND drawing “poorly”?)

Or am I misunderstanding? If not, showing the alleged photograph of Mr Pence would be a good idea.


While on the topic, I could probably find scores of examples of comic strips — past and present — that have made copious use of copy & paste (“Cutty-cutty paste-paste” as a cartoonist friend once described the process).

I recall an interview decades ago with the creator of a popular strip who openly bragged about copying and pasting to save having to draw his characters, saying something to the effect, ‘You don’t need to be able to draw to be a cartoonist”.

I agree with Wiley Miller about laziness, but there are numerous strips today that appear to be a series of copied and pasted drawings — making some statement, I suppose, about how the art in comics isn’t important; it’s the writing…

Nelson said...

(This is a paraphrasing of my follow-up post to CSotD, where I first heard of the deAdder "controversy" through the link here):

Not knowing of possible political cartoonists' complaints, and not having seen this site before today, I have to rely on innuendo. I'd appreciate proof before condemning deAdder.

I think it'd be helpful to have a clear definition of "tracing". How does it compare with copying vs scanning vs "photocopying" vs "cut & paste" vs referencing vs "mashup"?
Those, to me, are different techniques; some apply to digital art, some to "pen & ink on paper" art, some to both.

Maybe I'm nitpicking, but you seem to have a hate on for deAdder. When I look at the close-up example, I don't see any evidence of "gluing a photocopy" (and I've done enough of that to feel competent to comment); the comments about "...a poorly drafted body..." and "...achieve a likeness when they might lack the talent to do so..." seem gratuitous; and the mention of hatching and cross-hatching as "...An overlay of scratchy lines creates the illusion that this is a real drawing" suggests a lack of knowledge about what makes a "real" drawing.

I've followed and enjoyed deAdder's work for years; if he does manipulate and include photos, I'll be somewhat disappointed. I hope he gets a chance to defend himself.

Anonymous said...

https://video.wixstatic.com/video/c34555_52282623bf104992bae720661a4233ca/720p/mp4/file.mp4

Anonymous said...

This contradicts this whole piece:

https://video.wixstatic.com/video/c34555_52282623bf104992bae720661a4233ca/720p/mp4/file.mp4

David Apatoff said...

Nelson-- I should clarify my view. I don't think the cartoonist literally cut out a photocopy of a head with scissors and glued it on his drawing. People stopped doing that in 1987. But I do think his mechanical shortcut is comparable, and-- for the same reasons-- it's particularly ill-suited for satirical drawing. An automated likeness won't produce irony or ridicule, it doesn't seize upon a similarity to a turtle or a monkey or an inanimate object, it doesn't produce the artist's visceral reaction to a nose or low forehead, or exaggerate an expression in the eyes. An automated likeness will always fall short of the artistry, judgment and skill of first rate satire.

I'm not disparaging the use of photographs generally; I've written glowingly about artists who've used photographs effectively, such as Bernie Fuchs, Austin Briggs and Toulouse Lautrec. I have nothing against Mr. de Adder personally. For all I know, he's a saint who deserves the Nobel peace prize. (To keep my comment from sounding personal, I considered cropping my reproduction of his cartoon so that his name didn't appear, but that seemed inappropriate.) And to be frank, I'm more concerned about the dulling of public taste and the lowering of standards than I am about any one cartoonist.

My view is that photo-illustration is usually an inferior substitute for good drawing, and that's nowhere more true than in political cartooning. If a cartoonist has trouble achieving a likeness, there are ways to deal with it. Garry Trudeau never learned to achieve a likeness in 40 years but he offset his deficits with other strengths. The guy who invented Foto Funnies in the 60s gave up all pretense and glued word balloons on photographs. But in my view, the kind of lines superimposed on the faces we're discussing are primarily to camouflage their photographic roots and integrate the bodies with the heads.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- In my view, the link doesn't contradict anything about this piece. But my larger point, the whole reason for this post, is not to take a swipe at one individual cartoonist, but rather to argue that the general quality of draftsmanship has declined. It's difficult to make that point without offering at least one example.

One reason for this lower taste is a change in the standards and expectations of the audience. But another reason-- perhaps a bigger reason-- is that artists can turn to a host of digital expedients that save time and money and simulate talent in the eyes of today's audiences. I think Wiley Miller has described the phenomenon quite well above.

MORAN said...

These are obviously traced. Anyone who can't see that doesn't know anything about drawing. Wiley has it exactly right.

The other two by Fluharty and Davies are beautifully drawn. Good drawing makes all the difference.

Ann Telnaes said...

In total agreement with MORAN and Wiley.

Anonymous said...

I love the Hillary Clinton. The cartoonist who draws on photos should leave it at photos. His lines on top of the photos don't add anything.

JSL

Nelson Dewey said...

This controversy seems to switch back and forth between CSotD (http://www.dailycartoonist.com/index.php/2021/12/10/csotd-without-a-trace/) and here. I posted earlier today on CSotD but will remark further here.

I can't speak for Michael deAdder but I think he's a victim of innuendo -- being unfairly accused of "cheating". All of my comments are ONLY about what's being said about his cartooning. I don't disagree with the comments about the other examples (above).

What I've seen so far -- where deAdder's work is concerned -- are snarky remarks from people who don't like his style of drawing.
For one thing, how can anyone see past his hatching well enough to think there's a photo there? Can anyone find the photo he's supposedly photocopied?

I keep seeing the word "traced" used indiscriminately. I define tracing as something that makes use of "tracing paper" or vellum -- or a light box. Or using an added "layer" in a digital medium like Photoshop or Procreate. An image to be duplicated is placed under a layer (tracing paper or digital layer) on which a new image is created by drawing with a pen or pencil or digital stylus. The object is usually to create a new image that closely resembles the original.
Can we agree on that?

" MORAN said...
These are obviously traced. Anyone who can't see that doesn't know anything about drawing...
".
I think 65 years of professional cartooning and illustration entitles me to an informed opinion, and I've yet to see any actual evidence of tracing in the deAdder cartoon above.


David, I apologize for not having known of you before; I've had a quick look at a few earlier blog posts and like what I see. I'll look further.
However, when you said, "...For example, some cartoonists get away with creating a likeness by gluing a photocopy of a head on a poorly drafted body..." next to deAdder's cartoon, that statement was published as a fact. Later saying, "...I don't think the cartoonist literally cut out a photocopy of a head with scissors and glued it on his drawing...." doesn't help much.. Yes, people stopped doing the physical cut & paste in 1987, but the process is easily duplicated digitally.

You go on to liken his cartooning to some kind of "mechanical shortcut" and "automated likeness". What do you base this on?

Here's a suggestion: download and play deAdder's animation: https://video.wixstatic.com/video/c34555_52282623bf104992bae720661a4233ca/720p/mp4/file.mp4 (There are links above, too.)
I understand that he uses Procreate (an iPad app similar to Photoshop) for his work. The app includes the ability to make a recording of each drawing.
Is this what you see as a mechanical shortcut? He is drawing freehand, with a stylus; Procreate doesn't do much more than straightening a line or filling a space with color -- at the artist's direction.
I've played the video several times and I don't see anything to suggest that he has traced a photo; it shows his process, from rough sketches to finished color.
Here's a link to what seems to be the photo he used for reference. I've closely compared the photo with the end result in his procreate video. I don't see any part of the photo -- any photo -- in the video... but I can imagine him referring to it as he drew.

What I do see are numerous differences and exaggerations in the cartoon: Pence's ears, his nose, his jaw line, the colors...
His only "fault" seems to be that he doesn't exaggerate as much as some other cartoonists. But it is his style.
Does he trace or photocopy? I don't think so. Does he use photo reference? I wouldn't be surprised.

Nelson Dewey said...

Here's the link I left out (above):

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/trump-clouds-pence-s-effort-lay-groundwork-2024-presidential-bid-n1285681?fbclid=IwAR0OtgfnSJGzXJNRjIgVp9TlAkJHlzBSkyVPRcoGkQ6ndPT6ghW7cjrz5-g

David Apatoff said...

Nelson Dewey-- I think it is a good thing to give artists the benefit of the doubt. I also think it is a good thing for readers to challenge any thesis such as mine, so I welcome your comments. I also want to repeat, I'm not trying to make Mr. de Adder the scapegoat for what I view as a disappointing and annoying general trend.

In response to your question, just as we can tell when a singer's performance has been digitally auto toned, it seems quite obvious to me that the faces on the de Adder cartoons have been digitally transferred from photographs. The faces are drawn in a different style than the rest of his cartoon; they employ a careful, robotic line with a different character, width and speed than the rest of the drawing. (And lines don't lie. As a famous artist once told me, "Every line you draw drops your pants.")

Compare the lines of the faces of Pence, Trump and Baldwin with the lines of their bodies in the cartoon. The two styles are so incongruous, the contrast immediately jumps out. And ultimately that may be the one unforgivable sin of the drawing: the result is not an integrated whole. Plenty of artists get by incorporating swipes or lightbox or photo reference, but the sutures on Mr. de Adder's patchwork quilt of a cartoon are left painfully obvious.

Rather than try to explain this with words, I've gone back and added a few additional images to my blog post, to show how a photograph was used. I hope you will take a look.

Finally, I should emphasize that I'm not saying Mr. de Adder can't draw these faces; I don't know whether he can or not. I agree with Wiley Miller's comment that digital tools have allowed "lazy cartoonists to get even more lazy rather than learning their craft." And special shame on the laziest of all, the editors at publications who no longer care about the difference between good drawing and bad, because someone told them that if you're smart enough the quality of the drawing doesn't matter.

There are fewer than 50 full-time political cartoonists in the U.S. at a time of great political upheaval, when many of the citizens can't bring themselves to read books or newspaper articles. Now is not the time to slack off.

Nelson Dewey said...

Hi David -- I must agree with your (and others') feelings about a trend towards lazy cartoonists getting even more lazy .

But I've followed Michael's work for years, and I don't think he's at all lazy; he has an economical style -- one that some others seem to find too simplistic.
I think he does draw some characters differently, more realistically -- usually political figures' -- to make them more easily recognizable. His secondary characters are often more exaggerated. It's a personal choice I think he's entitled to make; it's his style of cartooning.

I wish we didn't have to focus on deAdder so much, but he (still) is your lead example.

"... it seems quite obvious to me that the faces on the de Adder cartoons have been digitally transferred from photographs. The faces are drawn in a different style than the rest of his cartoon; they employ a careful, robotic line with a different character, width and speed than the rest of the drawing..." "...Note in the following example how easily a photograph of a face can be incorporated using automation (not, of course, literally with "glue.")
I just don't understand what "robotic automation" process you think exists to do what you claim!
Yes, a photographic image can be scanned or photographed, then cropped, then "pasted" into a layer in Procreate. (It could be Photoshop or some other graphics application, but I like to use Procreate.)
It could be pasted over an existing drawing or a new drawing could be created around it.
But I just don't see that in deAdder's drawings.

I did as you suggest, and looked closely at the second (Floyd/Justice) cartoon. Your example doesn't convince me.
I found what looks like the photo of Gianna Floyd that you used above, and I superimposed it on the deAdder cartoon. By "flipping" the photo on and off, it's easy to compare the photo to the drawing (much more accurately than your example above). I assume that he used the photograph as reference (which, I believe, is an acceptable practice) but I see enough differences that I do not believe he pasted and drew over a photo.
(I wish I knew how to post images here. I've already devoted far more time to this than I should, but if there's a way, I can post what I've done.)
The only clear example I have at the moment is his time lapse Procreate video: (https://video.wixstatic.com/video/c34555_52282623bf104992bae720661a4233ca/720p/mp4/file.mp4).

I use Procreate and I believe it keeps an accurate record of everythingI draw, paste, and manipulate, add, or remove.
I feel like I'm flogging the dead horse here, but nowhere in Michael's video do I see a photo being used! I see several preliminary sketches, then a couple more detailed partial drawings, then a finished line drawing (black lines; outlines then shaded with cross-hatching). He drew different body parts separately, which were incorporated into a complete figure.
Then... he adds color. Not in one brush stroke, but by building up various colors with many brush strokes. There's no photograph or photocopy or magical robotic app!

https://www.deadder.net is a link to see some other examples of his creative process.
The video of Pence giving the finger(s) is a mini documentary of the cartoon being created, stroke by stroke.
Until someone can prove otherwise, I will believe that he creates his other cartoons this way.
Change my mind.

(Is there a way we could chat more directly-- facetime or email or something?)

Robert Cook said...

My pick for best currently practicing US political cartoonist is Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal, not least because I love his drawing!

kev ferrara said...

just as we can tell when a singer's performance has been digitally auto toned,

We actually can't tell.

I assume you're referring to the 'T-Pain' effect - named after the rapper who popularized the abuse of Auto-Tune to create an obvious and robotic 'snapping' of vocals to specific notes. But that's just the blatant tip of the vocal fixing iceberg. Auto-Tune can also be used subtly. which makes it difficult to notice.

Moreover, nowadays, no pro audio studio is without Celemony's Melodyne program. And Melodyne can be used to fix pitch in such a naturalistic way it cannot be detected. Truly. Melodyne is actually a kind of audio paint brush, a real tool for artists.

David Apatoff said...

Nelson Dewey-- I'd normally be happy to discuss these issues, but Mr. de Adder didn't ask for this, and I don't want to beat a dead horse. I'd hate for someone to vivisect my weakest work under a microscope. Unlike you, I have not followed Mr. de Adder's work for years, but when his work recently started appearing in the Washington Post, the problem leaped out at me. For me it is glaring; at first glance I assumed I was looking at the actual photograph. I do understand that your view differs.

When I described the lines on his faces as "robotic," I meant that (unlike the lines on the other parts of his drawings) they are a monotone, with no taper or flair; they are mostly straight and evenly spaced, applied like zipa-a-tone; they don't hug the form. They remind me of a mechanical screen applied to convert value into line, and it's my experience that artists don't do that unless they are closely following a very reliable map, and don't draw outside the lines.

Kev Ferrara-- I understand that the softwares for pitch adjustment, auto-tuning and auto tone are becoming more subtle, but there are plenty of videos on youtube where people with expertise insist that experienced ears can always tell the difference. Even if we couldn't tell with the naked ear, we can always tell mechanically. https://youtu.be/s7aDN3oujXI

One might ask, if you need a piece of equipment to prove a song was auto-tuned, does it really matter to the quality of your appreciation for the song? Fortunately, I don't feel I need to answer that metaphysical question here. Even without a machine, I look at these drawings and the difference between human and machine contributions is readily apparent.




Nelson Dewey said...

Are we agreeing to disagree? Looks like it's the only solution.

Cheers,
Nelson

kev ferrara said...

Kev Ferrara-- I understand that the softwares for pitch adjustment, auto-tuning and auto tone are becoming more subtle,

Its not that they are becoming more subtle. They are already subtle.

but there are plenty of videos on youtube where people with expertise insist that experienced ears can always tell the difference. Even if we couldn't tell with the naked ear, we can always tell mechanically. https://youtu.be/s7aDN3oujXI

My dear David,

That is not sophisticated audio detective work. Anybody can sense that a vocal without any quaver at all which sits dead on the note for its entire length is artificial in some way. Even if they don't understand the studio hackwork behind it.

Anybody with any understanding of using a computer right now can download Audacity for free and perform the same 'detective work' that Mr."Wings of Pegasus"/"British Guitarist" has done for his amateur audience to see the suspiciously level vocal sustains.

When I mentioned Melodyne, I mean MELODYNE (by Celemony). Not Autotune (by Antares), which is a different program.

And when I say subtle, I mean it. You will not be able to find a single video on YouTube, amateur or pro, where a producer was 'caught in the act of using Melodyne to tune vocals' in some professional mix.

People out in the world know the term "Autotune" because they can hear it. Melodyne is a program almost nobody knows because it is the high end professional program that the real craftsmen in the business use. (Although, Melodyne can also do the obvious T-Pain effect or the flattened vibrato 'pure tone' effect. But why anybody would bother to buy Melodyne to do that is beyond me.)

I think you would like its inventor, Peter Neubäcker. There are documentaries on him online.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I did watch an interview with Neubäcker and he does seem like an interesting guy. But is it your position that Melodyne can create the imperfections and quavers and timber that give a natural voice its character (as described in the video I cited)? And if so do you think Melodyne can make anyone a Barbara Streisand?

kev ferrara said...

No melodyne cannot do it all. As with photoshop, it can't give you ideas, it can't give you heart, it can't give you talent or culture or knowledge, it can't give you expression or composition or personality, it can't create an existential performance, etc. And it can't give anybody a one-in-a-billion instrument like Barbara Streisand had.*

But it can be used as a musical instrument. It can be used to subtly introduce imperfections like quavers, randomized vibrato, and subtle bluesy de-tuning... it can ramp up or down from notes, it can stretch or squash time or volume, change formant. So it can 'micro-compose' within notes.

And it has a 'Sound Editor' subsection to work on altering harmonics and the overtone/partials array; which is the main cause of instrumental timbre. It can make a piano sounds strangely like a flute or saxophone.

It can't give that unique growl of a Ray Charles, Freddie Mercury, or Chris Cornell that sits on the edge between resonance and distortion. But there are many other digital audio workstation (DAW) plug-ins that do add harmonics, and harmonic distortion and non-linear effects to sound. The competition in the plug in market is quite intense, and many great engineers are involved.

The overall point might be that because music has so much geometry and physics to it that can be quantified and modeled as math, algorithm, and circuitry, the state of the art of its digital-realm manipulation is far ahead of Art's. For better and worse.

*It should be pointed out that the Analog gear that Streisand's producers recorded her with was not colorless. There are subtle aesthetic qualitaties of tape saturation vs tube saturation vs transistor smoothness, room tone, echo/reverb, compression, limiting, ribbon mics vs condenser, mic placement, etc. ... you can hear just how much is working nearly 'invisibly' behind her great recordings. It is a fantasy to think she was recorded 'pure.' There is no such thing. The question is where one draws the line between recorded performance and studiocraft.

Anonymous said...

I think the role of the political cartoon has been superseded by political memes shared on social media. Not only do they have the potential to reach larger audiences than traditional newspaper cartoons, but they are often funnier and aren't constrained by editorial standards.

As for digital tools contributing to the decline of drawing standards, there might some truth to that. I worked at a daily newspaper and actually shared an office with our political cartoonist who has been at it for 50 years. He once told me that he stopped taking as much care with his drawings once he switched to Photoshop, not just because it saved him a ton of time, but he felt that readers were there for the punchline and the art was secondary.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- You may well be right about political memes on social media eclipsing much of the role for and audience of political cartoons. It's hard to argue with the size of their audience, and I agree that they are sometimes funnier. However, the lack of "editorial standards" opens the floodgates for all kinds of raw sewage. Less artistry, less poetry, less seriousness of purpose, less accountability and thus less veracity, less taste, more venom, more hate.

It takes less talent or credibility to create a political meme than a political cartoon. You don't have to draw, you don't have to write, you don't have to persuade an editor or a publisher to vouch for your message... this seems like a recipe for irresponsibility. Perhaps this is another symptom of living in an era of disintegration, where digital reality continues to pulverize what little is left of standards, for better or worse.