Thursday, January 04, 2018


At the end of last year I offered one lovely drawing by an illustrator you've never heard of, H. J. Mowat.   Mowat has been lost in the sea of anonymous illustrators of the 1920s and 30s who worked in the loose, scribbly fashion of the day.  But I think he was really good.

To give him a fair chance, I promised some commenters I'd show a broader range of his work.


Mowat's pictures may seem a little fuzzy compared to today's sharper, hard edge fashions.  But plenty of mediocre illustrators can make sharp pictures of fuzzy concepts.  It's harder to create successful fuzzy pictures of sharp concepts.  

Take for example the drawing, "She used to come into the Petrovski barracks and empty her pistols into the poor devils who wouldn't bend."

I think this is a well staged picture, with selective use of lights and contrasts to direct your eye.  The figures are well posed and integrated to show how the professional soldiers are queasy about the bloodthirsty woman.  But most importantly, Mowat has made some highly unusual but smart choices: the "poor devil" has no face yet Mowat chose to emphasize his cowlick (which conveys his rumpled condition).  Also without drawing a face, Mowat shows us that the man's chin is raised by positioning his ears.

Just as Mowat drew rumpled hair, the man's clothing is one big wrinkle.  He has a defiant tilt to his head combine with a posture of resignation waiting for the bullet.  Mowat did not focus on the facial expression, which would preoccupy a more obvious illustrator.  For me, this is excellent, subtle drawing.

Note how, in 1927, ordinary Saturday Evening Post readers were presumed to be cultured enough to know the lyrics to Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado." 
Mowat used a bag of tricks to compensate for the cheap paper and primitive black and white printing of his era.  His medium would not permit him to display a blushing cheek or a steely glint in the eye, but he seemed to make maximum use of a tilt of the head.  

Many of the illustrators of the 1920s are best forgotten, but I think H. J. Mowat is one worth remembering.

Friday, December 29, 2017


When I was a boy, there was something about Playboy's comic strip, Little Annie Fanny, that mesmerized me.

I first discovered the strip in old issues of Playboy that I'd smuggled into my room.  Before I'd heard the names Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Jack Davis or Frank Frazetta, I studied the pictures so intently, they're still burned into my consciousness today.     

Revisiting the strip, I see that its message remains relevant.  Fifty years ago, the brilliant Harvey Kurtzman wrote an episode with an island where the population became bored by conventional politicians so they elected a vulgar brute to shake things up. 

Kurtzman offers us his view of "populism" at work:

We've elected an ape, indeed.

The character Annie was simple minded, yet Kurtzman always managed to put words of wisdom in her mouth:
"When people are so mean and selfish, they deserve to be led by an ape."
Wishing you all a 2018 that is a little less mean and a little less selfish.

Monday, December 25, 2017


You've never heard of the illustrator H. J. Mowat (1879-1949).   He was lost in the sea of anonymous illustrators of the 1920s and 30s who worked in the style of the famous Henry Raleigh.

Thousands of popular magazines of the era featured loose pencil illustrations shaded with charcoal or blocks of wash.  It was an appealing style because it was fast and helped conceal a multitude of artistic weaknesses.

But if you flip through those illustrations, it's easy to spot the few artists with genuine talent. It shows in the selected moments of tight focus or restraint, in the staging, in the imaginative solutions.  Mowat wasn't one of the illustrators hiding behind this soft style, he used it from a position of strength.

Consider the two ursine figures on the left.  Mowat doesn't neglect their faces out of laziness or uncertainty; those blurred faces are part of a carefully orchestrated effect with bulky bodies, small heads, stooped posture and thick limbs.  

These are lumpenproletariat, and sharply defined facial features would only distract from the effect Mowat wants.
Next, in the figure leaning over the bed, all Mowat needs is one strong, carefully placed jaw line and a few rounded strokes on that arm to define the figure: 

Mowat has proven he knows anatomy; that leaves him free to go wild with the rest of the figure.

Or consider the focal point of the picture, the figure dying on the bed.  All you see is a tiny head-- a minuscule part of the picture's real estate, but it occupies a choice location right in the center; the shadow of the window on the wall serves as a spotlight directing our gaze; and the shadow on the right side creates one of the highest contrast spots in the picture.

Who needs details such as eyelashes or lips when you can achieve your result with such a broad range of other tools?

Among the glut of mediocre pencil illustrations in the first decades of the 20th century, some genuinely lovely drawings stand out.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


When I started this blog, my plan was to publicize my favorite works by great illustrators of the past.  I had a long list, starting with illustrators such as Leyendecker, Rockwell and Cornwell-- and figured I would soon get to the talented Saul Tepper.

Then 12 years went by.

I fear that many people share my mistake of treating Tepper as an afterthought: he's an important artist that we'll get to eventually.   One reason may be that people rarely see high rez images of his rich, dramatic paintings.

Whatever the reason, he deserves better. 

Tepper (1899-1987) was one of the last great "painterly" illustrators who worked in oils on canvas to achieve a thick, buttery effect.  

The following lovely example is from the Kelly Collection of American Illustration:

The variegated textures and rich colors of Tepper's originals rarely showed up in the final published versions:

By the latter part of Tepper's career, illustration had moved on to smaller, faster, water based paintings on cardboard that were better suited to the demands and timetable of modern publishers.  By the 1950s he was working for second tier magazines such as Argosy and True.  He found work as a photographer, teacher and musical composer.

But before he migrated away from illustration, Tepper spent a solid 30 years painting in the classical style, creating remarkable paintings that are worthy of our attention.

Saturday, December 02, 2017


This week the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a major new retrospective of the work of David Hockney,  described as "one of the most notable painters of the 20th century."  The BBC tells us that Hockney's "greatest subject [was] private swimming pools," where he captures "something as impossible to fix as light on water."

Personally, I think illustrator Tomer Hanuka did a better job of capturing light on a swimming pool in this preliminary sketch for a movie poster:

Note how Hanuka's loose, quicksilver line suggests the essence of his subject:

Until the Metropolitan Museum of Art announces its major retrospective of Hanuka's work, I'll use this space to share a few things.

At the recent CTN animation expo in Los Angeles, I had the pleasure of meeting Hanuka and hearing his excellent talk about his series of posters for classic movies.  For example, he re-invented the poster for Hitchcock's Psycho...

...with this powerful composition:

As stark as this composition is, it contains numerous subtle touches that contribute to its potency.  For example, Hanuka's keen eye picked up on the dripping tile wall, still wet from the interrupted shower.

Other smart touches include the keyhole perspective, the shower curtain tangled around the woman's ankles, and the confined space, all of which give the poster a chilling intimacy.  Compare its eroticism to the original poster, where a plain photo of Janet Leigh in a bra once passed for titillation.  What a difference good design can make!

Here is the final version:

Hanuka reinvented the poster for Dr. Strangelove, from this:

... to this:

Here is an interim version...

and here's the final:

In many of these pictures, I prefer Hanuka's preliminary sketches to the final versions.  They show off the muscle power and the sparkle of the original ideas, before he tightens them up and begins to layer them with complex shapes, details and afterthoughts.  The great illustrator Robert Fawcett wrote, "A design started tentatively rarely gains in vigor later.  In anticipation of the dilution which I knew would later take place, the first draft was put down with an almost savage intensity...."

Hanuka's preliminary sketches are so strong, they help glue together final images that could easily fragment.





It was a treat to see these earlier drafts at the CTN expo and hear Hanuka discuss his approach.

Monday, November 27, 2017


Walter Appleton Clark was one of the most promising young talents in the illustration field in 1900.  He painted this beautiful and subtle watercolor at the age of 23.   

Note how he mastered the values in what might have been a muddy scene.  The light source creates a sharp contrast against that profile, and the structure of the whole picture flows from there.

Clark is judicious with his use of those orange highlights.
Clark reduces the contrast for the husband playing the fiddle in the shadows-- the husband is literally designed to be a second fiddle in this picture.  Yet he is painted with just as much structural integrity as if he were in the spotlight.

And I love Clark's soft, feathery treatment of his subject.

This painting won the Silver Medal at the World's Fair in Paris in 1900.

Clark never shrank from a challenge.  He would do it the hard way if it meant a more effective picture...

At the same time, he would take the simplest subjects (such as an old doorway or two people sitting across the table from each other) and find challenging angles or treatments that would make them complex and interesting:

A beautifully designed drawing of a door

Clark was prolific and hard working.  His career gained momentum just as the illustration market gained momentum:  printing quality was improving, full color was becoming reliable, and the market for quality illustration was exploding.  Conditions were ripe for Clark to make the most of his potential.

Then, as quickly as his career began, it was over.   Shortly after he turned 30, Clark caught typhoid fever and died.  He had spent his short time well, and left behind a small but beautiful legacy of work.

But who knows what he might have accomplished with another forty years to paint?

None of us has a guarantee that we will live long enough to realize our artistic ambitions. We should remember the lesson of Walter Appleton Clark  as we evaluate each day's work.