Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Why did Maxfield Parrish spend so much time painting tiny crevasses in rocks in the backgrounds of his paintings?


Parrish was a fabulously successful illustrator.  He earned over $100,000 per year in an era when houses cost only $2,000.  His time was so valuable, you'd think he would've found a shortcut for the menial labor of painting tiny crevasses in dumb rocks. 

To get the proper "feel" for rocks, Parrish used to bring actual rocks into his studio, paint them a flat color and 
light them to accentuate their shadows.

The following detail from an original Parrish painting, photographed from 3 inches away, shows you how tedious it must have been for Parrish to paint all those damn crevasses:

Obviously Parrish decided that these details made an important contribution to his paintings, and that there was no simpler, faster way to achieve the effect he wanted.
Bernie Fuchs was another great illustrator whose time was very much in demand.  He was an economical painter who abhorred unnecessary detail.  Yet, he too seemed to believe that rocks in the background were worthy of his sustained attention.

There's nothing fake about these rocks; they required thousands of deliberately placed brush strokes.  If Fuchs tried to get away with random marks, we would've seen the difference.

This is not an issue of mere realism.  Fuchs wove more design into the details than Parrish did, but that was Fuchs's nature.

It's not necessary to paint rocks in great detail to be persuasive.   Illustrator Harold von Schmidt simplified desert rocks using black poster paint and a wide, flat brush:


Von Schmidt grew up spending a lot of time staring at rocks in the desert.


Like Parrish and Fuchs, Von Schmidt respected background rocks and put substantial thought into getting them right. As a result, they gave themselves to him in these wonderful drawings.

On the other hand,  when even talented painters disrespect rocks and attempt to fake it, as Frank Frazetta did in these two pictures, the rocks end up looking phony:


Frazetta put in the manual labor to draw tiny cracks in this wall but you can tell he wasn't looking at rocks when he did

Just like the rest of mother nature, rocks don't like being taken for granted.

Saturday, September 17, 2016


James Gurney is one of the most visually insatiable artists I've met. He is famously productive-- he draws and paints all the damn time.  If he gets trapped in a conversation too long, or if he has to wait in line to get his car inspected, his fingers get itchy and he feels compelled to haul out his portable watercolors.  When he looks you in the eye, you can't help but feel that part of him is measuring you from an artist's perspective.

Which is why I was particularly interested in Gurney's perspective on Adolph Menzel, the great German draftsman who felt similarly compelled to record everything he saw, everywhere he went.  Gurney's excellent new book on Menzel fills a great void by retrieving and publishing  drawings that have been hidden away for decades in an East German museum.

Menzel's obsession with recording worldly things enabled him to see the drama we might otherwise miss in a chest full of old documents:

Or to show us his respect for the symmetry and structure of a steel mill:

Menzel didn't put down his pencil when an acquaintance sat on the toilet:

Or even when opening caskets to help identify bodies:

Gurney's book contains a fascinating story about Menzel's 1873 expedition into a dark crypt beneath a garrison church to open old military coffins and identify the remains of the officers there. He drew these figures by lantern light.

But the thing that impressed me most about these drawings by Menzel is that the process didn't become mechanical for him.  He was not drawing out of mere habit.  After thousands and thousands of drawings, he still responded to the visual power of the world around him:

Gurney's large, thoughtful selection of images shows the full range of Menzel's drawing, and some I liked more than others, but they all make clear that Menzel was drawing for the right reasons.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


This extraordinary drawing by John Cuneo has already been selected for inclusion in both of the upcoming annual collections of illustration art: The Society of Illustrators' Annual of American Illustration and the American Illustration Annual.  So why bother reproducing it here?

Because the Annuals will reproduce it at a size that makes it look like an ant colony and you'll miss the entire point.   Here are some details worthy of your attention that you won't see any other way:

Cuneo is the only contemporary illustrator I can think of who draws animals on a par with the great A.B. Frost or Heinrich Kley.

This dog hanging from the ceiling shows Cuneo's strong sense of design:

I've been critical on this blog of the type of loose drawing that results from shortcuts or a careless attitude.  On the other hand, I think Cuneo is an excellent example of loose drawing with genuine strength and substance behind it.  You can really tell when an artist has paid his or her dues.

There are dozens of faces on this drawing, and some of them are freaky scary:



As with many of Cuneo's drawings, this one is rich with oblique references and dark symbolism.

I think this is a major work, but you'd never guess it from the tiny reproduction in the Annuals.  That's why I'm performing a public service by sharing some details here. 

Sunday, September 04, 2016


A sketch of a pebble may be a greater artistic achievement than a full color painting of the Grand Canyon.  An allegorical picture with grand ambitions about social justice may be inferior to a picture with no ambition beyond capturing a clump of grass.

You can just never tell.

I'm reminded of this every year at San Diego's Comic-Con, where the smallest, most informal art is nestled in the crevices between elaborately staged multi-million dollar corporate art.  This year in a quiet corner of Comic-Con I came across this small (5" x 8") sketch by Wilbur "Pete" Hawley on a ratty, torn piece of tissue paper:

This is a preliminary rough for an illustration for the American Greetings card company.  I admire  his selective use of dark accents and the variety in the width of his line  (contrast the sensitive line describing this cheek with the brisk, full lines shaping the hair on the back of the head):

Even without the wrinkles and bone structure that most artists rely on to convey facial expressions, Hawley managed to create marvelous expressions in an integrated unit.

Note Hawley's use of smudges and a heavier line to create volume

Remember, these were Hawley's notes to himself-- this was a preliminary sketch to work out how Hawley might paint the final version.

Leif Peng wrote, "If God bestowed The Magic Cute Pencil upon any one illustrator of the twentieth century it must surely have been Pete Hawley.  Cute wasn't a formula Hawley had worked out and applied to his drawing style... it was as natural to him as breathing."

Pictures of cute babies were scarce at Comic-Con.  Far more of the artwork focused on inter-galactic battles between armies of muscle bound super heroes.  Popular artists hawked limited edition archival giclee prints of photo-realistic paintings from fancy 3D displays.

But for me, Hawley's battered little sketch on crummy paper was stronger than much of the juiced up, overwrought art  on display in the exhibition hall.

That's part of the miracle of drawing.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016


At Comic-Con this year, I was struck by the number of prominent cartoonists who lectured on the virtues of simplicity.

Jim Davis, who presides over the Garfield empire, said that he tries to limit his strips to 25 words or less, and to get to the punchline in fewer than ten seconds.   Davis said that if readers spend longer than ten seconds, they might guess the punchline ahead of him.

Note that there are no backgrounds or details to distract the reader.  Davis also said that by using three nearly identical drawings, he spares readers the effort of thinking about transitions or shifting perspectives. 

Garfield was custom made for a low effort, short-attention-span audience, which means it is wildly successful.  In his talk, Davis impressed me as extremely bright and sophisticated.  His marketing strategy seemed similar to the strategy of cigarette companies that genetically modify tobacco plants to make nicotine more addictive.

Kate Beaton, creator of the popular webcomic Hark, A Vagrant! was another advocate for simplicity.

Like Davis, Beaton tries to minimize the number of words (which is good because she has little enthusiasm for punctuation, lettering, and sometimes spelling).  When it comes to drawing,  Beaton said, "I used to be self-conscious about my art.  The more I worked and tried to make it look finished, the worse it looked." Then she heard a story that made her realize she didn't need to work so hard.  According to the legend, illustrator Quentin Blake once had to rush an assignment and turned in quick, unfinished sketches which his art director liked even better than Blake's finished work.    This helped Beaton accept that her simple, casual sketches could be enough.

Beaton writes that her drawing process is "simplistic."  I agree with her, but I suspect she meant to say "simple."  ("Simplistic" means superficial, facile or oversimple. )  I think Beaton's real strengths are verbal-- her distinctive voice about historical characters and her thoughtful (and occasionally heartbreaking) stories about her home town. One might wonder why she chose an essentially visual medium to convey her ideas.

I love loose, naive drawing.  Some of the greatest drawings are the ones that have attained child-like simplicity.  Simplification is a wonderful discipline because it forces an artist to prioritize-- to continually sacrifice the lesser in favor of the greater until only the greatest is left.  But I fear that today's comics are flooded with mediocre drawing because the fashion is to view visual quality as expendable, a "lesser priority" which can be painlessly sacrificed in favor of the text or concept. 

In truth, this sacrifice hasn't hindered the success of Davis, Beaton or other mega successful cartoonists.  The New Yorker, with its literary emphasis, has become a cheerleader for these priorities.  Much of today's audience is incapable of distinguishing loose drawing from sloppy, careless drawing.  Like Beaton, they haven't mastered the difference between "simple" and "simplistic."

This trend isn't a tragedy on the level of climate change. However, it does suggest  that most art in today's strips falls short of the distinctive drawing that once made comics a great visual art form. Perhaps comics are evolving into a primarily literary medium with drawings serving a subordinate role as a mere lubricant for the words.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Mort Drucker and asked him about this drawing for the MAD Magazine spoof of the movie, The Heartbreak Kid.

There are 35 faces in this crowd.  I always assumed Drucker kept the world's largest reference file of face photos:


But Drucker explained that these were "spontaneous faces" he made up as he went.  I asked where the great variety came from and he answered,  "I like to notice people's faces.  Sometimes when I was on the subway or sitting outside the dressing room at Loehmann's waiting for my wife Barbara to try on a dress, I'd see an interesting face and say, "Hmmm, I can use that."

How do you make use of your time on the subway?   

I don't know of another cartoonist today who pays such attention to the variety of the human face.  To the contrary, as I've complained in the past, the trend seems to be toward generic, simplified faces with little content or individuality.  This seems especially true of cartoonists and illustrators who pride themselves in their editorial content.

Talking with Drucker, I was struck by the pleasure he takes in the humanity of individual faces.  That may be a difference between an artist who focuses on the human and artists who focuses on abstractions about humankind.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

RICHARD THOMPSON (1957 - 2016)


The brilliant Richard Thompson, an artist of immense gifts and creator of the last great comic strip, Cul de Sac, passed away today.

I've written about Richard several times on this blog, always inadequately.  I've written about his courageous decision to end his strip in 2012 when Parkinson's cruelly stripped him of his god-given gifts, and the book about his art that was created as an homage to Richard by fellow artists such as Bill Watterson, Peter de Seve, John Kascht and Nick Galifianakis. 

As I wrote in that book:
Richard's lines wobble like an infant learning to walk, teetering to the right and to the left of what the laws of perspective and anatomy might require. His shapes are askew as if they were lured from the straight path by a more fun place to play.  Yet those same lines are applied with such exquisite precision, his drawings would be diminished by any variation.  His beautiful ungainly pictures place him among the very top artists in his field.  
You can view an excellent documentary about Richard below.  His extraordinary gifts deserve your attention.

In the final stages of Richard's illness, he sat immobilized in a wheel chair barely able to whisper a single word.  Still, some of the most talented and famous cartoonists and illustrators came from far and wide just to sit in his presence.  They were a boisterous group, sitting around Richard's messy kitchen table (littered with Richard's crappy diet of Cheetos, orange soda and corn nuts) drawing sketches, laughing and telling jokes.  But the instant that Richard attempted to say something, all noise ceased.  Everyone turned expectantly to Richard and strained to hear his few squeaked words, which were consistently the best part of the conversation.

Even ravaged by Parkinsons, he was always the funniest man in the room.