Tuesday, December 16, 2014

WHEN HE WAS GOOD, HE WAS VERY VERY GOOD

It's possible that Jack Davis turned down an assignment once, but I never met an eyewitness who saw it happen.  During his prolific career, Davis probably accounted for 47% of all the spot illustrations in America.  Not all of those illustrations were done with care, and that helped shape the public's impression of his stature.

But now that Davis has announced his retirement at age 90, it's a good moment to focus on his genuine strengths by looking at some of his originals close up. 

Davis did excellent fine line work.  He didn't fall into the common trap of letting excessive lines turn his subjects rigid and heavy.  Despite all that cross hatching, his pictures remained flexible and sprightly:  

Illustration from Humbug

Even in his fine line work, Davis maintained enough variety in his line to preserve priorities (for example, the banker's chin and belly).

A master of the pen, he was also a fearless inker with a brush.  Look at the way Davis transforms a man into a splatter beneath that sledge hammer.  That effect could never have been achieved with his fine line cross hatching style:

From MAD no. 5
Davis could also simplify his style effectively with markers or washes:

Note the simplicity of the shading on the father's face

At age 26, Davis began working at EC comics.  From the beginning, his draftsmanship enabled him to squeeze complex scenes into small panels that were already crowded with text:


Even at that early stage, Davis was able to combine thin line and thick brush stroke to bring drama to his pictures in a way that only Neal Adams and perhaps a few others have been able to match.


Finally, Davis had a wonderful sensitivity for color.  You didn't always see it in his numerous low budget spot illustrations, but when Davis got serious, there were few better.

 


Jack Davis has been a brilliant artist and an important voice in American popular culture for decades. As he steps down at age 90, he has a great deal to be proud of.  



Thursday, December 11, 2014

REMEMBERING OUR DEBTS



In the 1960s, illustrators suddenly became much better at painting action.  Contrast this illustration from 1956...


...with this illustration from 1961:

 Bernie Fuchs for Sports Illustrated

It's hard to believe two such different approaches were popular just a few years apart.  They seem to come from different worlds.

Prior to the 1960s, illustrators often tried to capture action the way a camera did, simply freezing the scene:



 
 
Occasionally illustrators might try to get adventuresome with a hotter color or a rougher line, but the results remained pretty tame:


Then at the beginning of the 1960s a radical young group of illustrators came blazing in with new approaches to conveying action:

Fuchs 1961

Detail


Bob Peak 1964
Fuchs 1964
Handville

These artists found new ways to capture speed by combining fresh ingredients:  the action painting and abstract expressionism that were revolutionizing the fine arts world; blurred and multiple images learned from movies rather than still cameras; an increased culture of speed from the new space age; new liberties emerging with the great thaw of the 60s.  Illustrators abandoned more static, realistic painting for impressionistic sensations of speed.  (As an analogy, recall how the great English painter J.M.W. Turner uprooted traditional realistic English landscapes with his own revolutionary expressionist painting, Rain, Steam and Speed.)

These 1960s innovations were so successful they were quickly adopted as artistic conventions by the profession.  The slashing lines and rapid brush strokes that at first seemed so exciting and new became standard tools for illustrators-- so much that later generations sometimes forgot whose shoulders they were standing on.  More recent illustrators, particularly those invested in textual or conceptual innovations rather than visual innovations, tend to be more dismissive of this period.  

This comes to mind today because in a recent interview a prominent illustrator recalled living in Westport Connecticut among the artists responsible for those 60s innovations:
 Westport was ‘the place’,  but it became not ‘the place’.... illustration started moving in a very, very different direction. Pretty soon the Westport illustrators looked really old fashioned....[T]here was this big tension between the New York City artists that were trying to be really original and really innovative, and the Westport people that were staying in traditions
I hear this version of illustration history mostly from students or friends of another radical illustrator of the day, Robert Weaver, who seemed to be in a pitched battle with the Westport illustrators when he wasn't in a pitched battle with himself.   For me, the notion that "New York City artists" were more "original" or "innovative" falls flat when we compare the impact of the the two schools of illustration.  Few illustrators shaped the personality of their era like those bold illustrators of the 60s.  And few generations advanced the ball so far from the work of their predecessors.

But the story doesn't end there.  Many Westport artists did not "stay in the traditions" that they founded.   Many (such as Fuchs, English and Heindel) continued to experiment visually.  For example, decades after his 1960s action paintings above, we see artist Bernie Fuchs employing a very  different approach:  there are no slashing lines in the following pictures because Fuchs later conveyed speed with a more mature combination of distorted forms, color and perspective.

Morning workout at the track



 The fact that a New York constituency shifted its gaze from visual innovation to conceptual innovation doesn't mean that the visual innovations stopped happening, or that the gaze won't shift back as audiences hunger for change.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

THE ART OF RICHARD THOMPSON, day 6


 Today we have another sketch by Thompson:


Here is what is NOT included in this sketch, that you might have expected to see:

1. Somebody getting punched in the snoot with the traditional impact starburst.  

2. The traditional "dizzy" lines radiating from his head, or birdies swimming around.

3. A more cautious and clear drawing of that boxing glove, showing the thumb, or with proper shadows so it is less ambiguous. And while we're at it, a less messy line for that spring.

All of these items would be on the short list for an ordinary cartoonist's  picture. But Thompson left them out, including the single most important  part of the picture: the person getting punched.  He left it to our imagination to decide what the person looked like, and whether he is still up in the air, or his eyes are crossed, or he is upside down with his legs sticking out.

Here is what IS included in this sketch that you might not have expected to see:

1. Loose pages floating down (a marvelous touch)

2. The chair tipped over backward

3. That scribble of a book-- no right angles, parallel pages or details to slow down our quick impression of the book as nothing more than a launching pad.

I'm guessing Thompson didn't consciously think through any of this. I suspect it was all instinctive for him. 

When I grumble on this blog that so many of today's preeminent graphic novelists are clueless about the timing, staging, and even the basic vocabulary of visual storytelling, this is what I am talking about.  In my view, this wonderful sketch is a thing of beauty compared to most of the work currently winning awards.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

THE ART OF RICHARD THOMPSON, day 5

I am pleased that this page from Richard Thompson's sketchbook is included in the new book. Although it isn't a finished drawing, I find it more instructive than many finished drawings. 


Thompson's gift for drawing funny is so bountiful that he draws letters (what you or I might call "writing") in a funny way too.   Here we see him creating a font for future use:


Anyone involved with typography understands how difficult it is to create a whole alphabet in a new typeface.  People work for days or even weeks, with lots of false starts and adjustments, trying  to make each letter consistent, and to make sure that each letter shows off the new style to its best advantage.  

But here Thompson draws 26 funny letters in a row, like Annie Oakley in a shooting gallery: bangbangbangbangbang.


 


Thursday, November 27, 2014

THE ART OF RICHARD THOMPSON, day 4

I am one of those who ranks the drawn line alongside the discovery of fire and the invention of agriculture on the list of human advances.  However, I have learned after years with this blog that a number of you actually believe painting, not drawing, is the true test of an artist.  As I understand this rather remarkable claim, an artist must work with the full symphony of elements presented by a painting in order to ascend to the higher tiers.

It is with this audience in mind-- the people who incomprehensibly remain unseduced by a jaunty line-- that I've selected a painting as today's example from The Art of Richard Thompson.


Santa's Sweatshop
 Although Richard's medium of choice in more recent years has been pen and ink,  The Art of Richard Thompson contains a number of works in full color, ranging from oil paintings and watercolor to pastel and colored pencil.
 


In my opinion, Richard's full color work contains excellent touches,  reminiscent of an artist who has worked full time with color and has developed a painterly way of viewing the world.  Another example of the breadth of his talent.






Wednesday, November 26, 2014

THE ART OF RICHARD THOMPSON, day 3

Thompson loved to write and draw about events at county fairs.  

 

One of my very favorites was his blue ribbon prize for "Worst Entertainment," awarded to Squinto:


I don't know what kind of mind invents "Squinto the wandering astigmatic stiltwalker and his flaming yo-yos," but I feel certain that if the Department of Homeland Security were aware of it, Richard Thompson would not be a free man today.

The fact is, I lobbied to name the entire book Squinto the Wandering Astigmatic Stiltwalker and His Flaming Yo-yos but my co-authors thought The Art of Richard Thompson made more sense.  Just one of the ways in which their lack of vision held me back.





Tuesday, November 25, 2014

THE ART OF RICHARD THOMPSON, day 2

Thompson's piece, Neighborhood of Mystery, is a good example of the talents that combine to make his work so special:

On the one hand, Thompson sees everyday occurrences with the fresh eyes of a child.   What adult still notices a loose plastic shopping bag caught in a tree?

 

 Who pauses to think about the significance of trash in front of a house waiting to be picked up?


Thompson sees such things as if for the first time.  His perspective opens him up to the mystery and magic in mundane things.

On the other hand, when it comes to drawing his ideas, he goes from innocent to sophisticate.  He can apply the tools of his trade to manipulate our responses the way a veteran actor might.  For example, look at the way he staged that panel with  the streetlight:


With a few casual looking lines, Thompson creates an aura of mystery-- the twilight descending from the sky, the silhouette of the man disappearing over the hill, leaving us alone with that ominous street light.  If the streetlight were drawn properly with right angles, or if it were drawn only with lines rather than a scruffy brush, it would not have enough personality to be sinister.  Thompson leads us by the nose to the exact spot where we need to be to participate in his joke, and we don't even recognize that he's doing it. 

And that is the inconsistency behind so much of Thompson's magic: conceptually he sees things with the naivete and the openness of a snowflake, yet his technical execution is as shrewd and calculating as a highly experienced artist's.  I don't know how it's possible for two such attributes to coexist in one person.  It's a rare combination, and (as you will see from his new book) a highly fruitful one.