Monday, April 29, 2024


I love Frederic Gruger's drawing of a confrontation between a Russian princess and a group of leering Bolshevik invaders.

Gruger was famous for making paintings using nothing but a Wolff pencil, cheap cardboard and spit. (Later, he upgraded from spit to water and when he really began making money he added watercolor  wash accents.)

Gruger's illustrations were striking for his ability to achieve rich velvety tones, but he also knew how to draw with a pencil point:

Gruger expertly staged his picture with details and lighting.  Here is an artist who was firmly in control of the room.

But the feature I'd like to point out today is the faces of the mob in the background (reproduced here several times larger than the originals).

In the 1920s, without the benefit of the internet, Gruger captured the ruddy smiles of Eurasian peasants


Each of these ruffians in the front row has a distinctive face, but note that as the faces get further into the background they dissipate into abstraction.  They become shapes in a composition.

The painting on the wall in the background is another example-- rather than draw a representational image, Gruger blurs it into abstraction (with nice strong compositional shapes). 

Gruger's prioritization of elements is part of what holds this picture together so tightly, and makes Gruger an artist, not just a draftsman.

Monday, April 22, 2024


This drawing by James Montgomery Flagg is as confident and brash as Flagg himself.

The drawing is large-- nearly 30 inches (76 cm) and appears to have been drawn mostly from the elbow.

Like Franklin Booth, Flagg created values using numerous parallel lines:


However, unlike Booth, Flagg used bold lines, aggressively combining pen and brush.  Booth carefully planned his drawings, but you can see from Flagg's pencil lines how loose and fluid his preparations were.

This is not digital drawing.  You don't see much like it these days. 


Wednesday, April 17, 2024


Franklin Booth (1874-1948) learned to draw by studying wood engravings in magazines while he was growing up on a farm in Indiana.  He mistakenly thought the engravings had been created with pen and ink, and so developed his highly unusual drawing style simulating engraving lines.

I usually prefer drawings with a more direct and expressive line, as opposed to  clusters of lines used to create values.  There always seems to be more painstaking effort than necessary in Booth's drawings.  Still, when you look at extreme closeups of what Booth accomplished, you have to respect his consummate craft.  


I'm impressed that as a wrangler of all those lines,  Booth is able to maintain such control over lights and darks.  That's not easy:

Contrast Booth's drawing with the work of other, lesser artists who let their lines get out of control: 

John Buscema, inks by Alfredo Alcala

Reed Crandall

Some fans are impressed by the sheer level of effort in drawings containing thousands of fine lines, as if the level of work gives the picture credibility.  But Booth's gift has nothing to do with making lots of scratchy little lines.  It's not the manual labor,  it's the control.

Saturday, April 06, 2024


The stories in comics, pulp magazines, science fiction and fantasy were never subtle about the proper roles for men and women.  Here is Flash Gordon by the great Alex Raymond:

We see a similar perspective in Prince Valiant (1972), drawn here by John Cullen Murphy:

In 1959, Hal Foster drew our hero taking a more hands on approach:

Prince Valiant by Hal Foster

The politics of these stories have been the subject of robust debate.  I leave that debate to others. 

What interests me is that the words are only one small part of narrative art, and the non-verbal portion-- the lines, colors and shapes-- can express a gender orientation of their own.  

In the 1950s, illustrator Albert Dorne was commissioned to illustrate a story for Cosmopolitan magazine. The story involved a barn that burned down at night, a cow, and a young couple confronted by crooks.  Dorne turned in this powerful illustration:

But Cosmopolitan rejected the picture.  Dorne recalled the phone call he received from the art director:
"Albert, your drawing is swell but we are afraid our readers will not like it.  The violent fiery red is a bit frightening, the interpretation too literal.  We have found from our readership polls, etc. etc. Would you mind doing it over?" 
Dorne was irritated.  He recalled, "The audience in mind being primarily women, I knew I couldn't actually show fire, so I... created the illusion of fire by lighting the picture with a deep fiery glow from off stage."  But that wasn't sufficient.  The picture's strong, high contrast treatment, with pointed fingers, sharp angles, extreme positions and facial expressions was still viewed as too yang for a female audience. 

Cosmopolitan presented Dorne with "a layout designed in a much lighter vein and quite gay in its concept."  The art director explained, "This is the sort of thing our readers like."

Dorne (a powerful, cigar smoking man and former prizefighter) bitterly started over and this time turned in a much softer, pinker, friendlier picture:

To his amazement, Dorne received a flood of compliments for the revised illustration, not just from the readers of Cosmopolitan but from art directors of other women's magazines who thought that Dorne's light and charming style would be well suited for their audiences.  

This was not a conspiracy between a male artist and a male art director.  The patriarchy had nothing to do with these aesthetic choices.  These were the colors, lines and shapes proven to induce more women to buy and read the magazine.