Tuesday, September 26, 2023


 There's a lot going on in this political cartoon by the great Jeff MacNelly.

Using three point perspective, he fits important information neatly through each of the three windows of the ambulance; he wraps lettering and symbols at orthogonal angles around the different vehicles (even respecting the curvature of the motorcycle gas tank); he foreshortens the figures at the end, while decreasing the size of the text in the word balloon; and he even has energy left over to draw the ambulance's front wheels at a different angle than the rear wheels.

It's hard to draw with that kind of precision and detail while still keeping the drawing lively and spontaneous but MacNelly manages it.  

MacNelly pulls off the same trick with this next cartoon:  recognizable caricatures of eight different senators, sitting in chairs at eight distinctive angles, surrounded by a variety of embellishments.

Even this third cartoon, which appears much simpler, is crafted with a watchmaker's precision.

Note the beautifully constructed face of the threatening bull: with only a reverse 3/4 profile to work with (partially obscured by a drooping ear) MacNelly does wonders with that deadly eye, the curl of the lip showing uneven teeth, the hair on the chin and the ring in the nose.   Who can draw like this today?

The figure of Perot is tiny in the background, yet his ultra-simplified likeness is convincing, and details such as the rodeo gloves and the big hat are remarkably effective for their size.

Many artists who are able to exert this kind of control let the control dominate the picture.  Not MacNelly;  his drawings were always jaunty and friendly and informal.  How did he do it?

For one thing, look at how he darkened that bull.  It's one wild scribble:

Even when he's drawing something like the shade on the side of a flat wall...

... he doesn't use consistent lines. No gray screen, zipatone or even cross-hatching here.  

These disorderly, unsystematic lines infuse his drawing with life. Compare MacNelly's loose approach with the work of other masters of "control," such as Franklin Booth, Virgil Finlay or Reed Crandall.  Compare it with the antiseptic technical drawing of Chris Ware and his legions of followers. 

Here's another drawing with a level of detail that might prove deadly in the hands of a less certain artist:

MacNelly pulls the same trick shading that wall:

But he has other tricks too.  If you're going to draw 16 distinctive people in a line, with their heads cocked at different angles and wearing different hats, you don't want them to serve as an anchor weighing down your drawing, you want them to contribute energy.  I love the way MacNelly smears this crowd together with line, and draws them hugging the curvature of the earth.

It's hard to think of a more dynamic way of drawing a crowd of patient people waiting in a long line.

Today's shrinking newspaper industry offers so few platforms for artistic talent.  Heaven knows what MacNelly would be doing as an editorial cartoonist in today's market.  But looking over our shoulder at his dazzling drawings, we get a renewed sense for what good drawing once contributed to journalism, and might contribute again. 

Monday, September 18, 2023


This drawing by Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi is about an inch tall:

It's one in a long line of faces like these...

...which are part of an even larger grid...

... which continues on and on...

...and on and on!

I really like these obsessive, energetic little faces.  I stumbled across them in the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke Virginia.   Each tiny face is more important and less important than you'd suspect.

The individual faces are more important because each is different, and worthy of a look-- no Photoshop or AI here.   Mr. Perjovschi doesn't coast on autopilot-- he paid for each of those faces.  His variety was stunning, and his sustained intensity was a little freaky.    

 But at the same time, each individual face is less important than you'd think.   The tiny faces blur together to create a single design effect. 

After thousands and thousands of these obsessive faces, they tend to disintegrate into more abstract shapes-- lines gone crazy in a way slightly (but not totally) different from the craziness of the faces they echo.

I take my hat off to Mr. Perjovschi for the intensity of his vision, for the level of clean, honest work that he puts into it, and to the art museum in the small town of Roanoke, Virginia, for introducing me to his drawings.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023


 Another in a series about the strange doings at the intersection of art and love.

Jimmy Swinnerton

Jimmy Swinnerton's life was even zanier than the comic strips he created (including Sam and his Laugh, Professor Nix, Little Katy and her Uncle, Mount Ararat, Mr. Batch, Mr. Jack, Little Jimmy, Canyon Kiddies, The Daydreams of Danny Dawes, and Rocky Mason, Government Marshall.)  

Born in 1875, Swinnerton ran away from home at age 14 to join a traveling minstrel show.  He used blackface makeup as a disguise to elude his parents and the sheriff. 

Swinnerton led an adventurous life during the waning days of the wild west.  He rambled from job to job (and from bar fight to bar fight).  He drank heavily, gambled constantly, spent recklessly, and lied shamelessly.  These attributes made him irresistible to women.  

Depending on how we count, Swinnerton had somewhere between four and six wives. His biographer claimed that Swinnerton also “had a lady friend hiding behind every sagebrush on the desert," but let's confine ourselves to his wives.  Here's the scorecard:

  • Swinnerton's first wife was Thalia Treadwell, a glamorous San Francisco heiress. They married under mysterious circumstances; when friends asked for details, Swinnerton would only say, “the marriage took place between [San Francisco and New York] but I can’t tell you the place nor date for legal reasons.”  The couple quarreled bitterly, and Thalia abandoned her new husband and went to Japan. 
  • Swinnerton next married Harriet Hacker after a whirlwind courtship. Harriet was beautiful but she “enjoyed the night scene“ a little too much, going out to the clubs and sometimes not returning for days. When Swinnerton contracted tuberculosis he asked Harriet to move to the desert for his health, but she refused, citing the shortage of nightclubs in the desert.
  • Although still legally married to Harriet, Swinnerton moved to the desert alone.  There he quickly found a new girlfriend, Espie Castle.   The 1910 US census reports that Jimmy married Espie (which would've made him a bigamist) but in response to questions, he was evasive about their status. When Espie had a religious conversion and asked Swinnerton to join her in pious living, he quickly left. 
  • In 1917 Swinnerton belatedly divorced Harriet and two days later married his third – or fourth – wife, Louise Scher, a statuesque blonde divorcee.  The two quarreled constantly over Louise's spending habits on lace nightgowns.  Swinnerton borrowed thousands of dollars from her mother to pay for Louise's extravagances, then left without repaying her.
  • By 1933, Swinnerton was living in Las Vegas.  He divorced Louise and quickly married his fourth – – or fifth – – wife, Gretchen Richardson.  On her way to the wedding, Gretchen stopped off at a Vegas casino to play roulette. She placed a silver dollar on number 12 and when the number hit, she decided it was an omen and stayed to gamble rather than go to her wedding. She eventually showed up several hours late. 




The final Mrs. Swinnerton

Swinnerton was quick to marry and just as quick to leave.  He seemed to lack the patience or interest to explore what lay beneath the surface of his wives.  Yet, his attitude toward art was the exact opposite.

Swinnerton had infinite patience for painting the same desert landscapes over and over for decades.  He would loyally return every year to the same sites to paint the same scenes.  One of his exasperated wives complained, “why I do this each year I have never been able to figure out, because it’s the same trip, same road, auto camps, same climate, and has been for the last several years."  

Even Swinnerton's grandfather urged him to stop wasting his time on the same flat, drab "hellholes" such as Death Valley and the Mojave Desert and paint more glamorous landscapes.  Swinnerton responded that beauty lay beneath the surface, and that patience and faithfulness would be rewarded:  "Just you put full confidence in the [beauties of the desert] and she’ll show you all her secrets."  He would spend all day in the hot sun, carefully waiting for the desert to reveal her charms.

One has to wonder how Swinnerton's love life would've
changed if he'd devoted the same level of effort to his wife

Clearly Swinnerton didn't require the same variety in his landscapes that he required from his wives.  He found a sustaining variety in the rocks and sand (“Every minute in the desert is all new and completely different.")

It's also noteworthy that Swinnerton lied incessantly to his wives, yet as a painter he was obsessed with accuracy.  His mission was to make a true, literal representation of reality.

For some reason, Swinnerton's values in art didn't seem to carry over to his love life.  If painting gave him any insights into patience and the nature of beauty, those insights didn't seem to apply to his wives.  It's true that every artist must make tradeoffs, but looking at the meager quality of Swinnerton's paintings, one has to wonder whether he struck the best trades.