Monday, November 17, 2014



Jim Silke has written about the style of illustration "derisively called the 'big head school of illustration,' a name derived from the fact that every picture was dominated by a huge close up of a beautiful woman...."  These 1950s illustrations, often painted on a plain white background, were sometimes viewed as less ambitious than the fully painted scenes from previous years.  Illustrator Al Parker explained the popularity of this style:
Readers demand pretty people in pretty settings forming a pretty picture. The larger your audience, the more limited its taste. It prefers subject matter to design and girls to men. It wants no message other than girls are cute and men like cute girls.
But take a look at the details of this original painting by the great Joe De Mers  and you will see how much wisdom and talent and even audacity went into some of those "simplified" paintings.
Note the bold palette and abstract brushwork in the woman's hair.  Note the wild difference in hue between the shadows beside her nose and in her nostril; this is an artist who knows what  he is doing.

At first glance that hand looked tightly painted, but study it in isolation and you'll see that De Mers conveyed accuracy using loose and spirited brush strokes.  These hands frame the face but they are not painted as tightly or realistically as the face, lest they t distract the viewer from the focal point of the painting. De Mers understood priorities.



The three top illustrators in this genre-- De Mers, Coby Whitmore and Joe Bowler, were each brilliant in their own way, and were very close friends.   They worked together at the famous Charles E. Cooper Studio, learned from each other and stayed close after retirement. 

A friend recalls that after De Mers died, his two comrades Whitmore and Bowler got together and looked through all his artwork.  They concluded that De Mers had been the best among them.

You can put De Mers high on my list of under-appreciated illustrators who are long overdue for a renaissance.

Sunday, November 09, 2014


Fifty years ago, comic artist Stan Drake needed to draw an unscrupulous director trying to bed a pretty young actress. We can tell the director is up to no good because he flatters her acting, which is horrible:

From the Heart of Juliet Jones, 1966

Drake's audience immediately got the joke.  The girl's way of demonstrating rejection (sticking out her hand and turning her head) was so simple minded, the director's compliment couldn't be sincere.

Fifty years later, when it was illustrator Ivan Brunetti's turn to draw a woman rejecting a suitor,  he employed the exact same body language.  Only today it's no longer a joke:

Today's version of "rejection of mute futility" with circle heads

Many people like to believe that today's comics and graphic novels are more sophisticated and mature than the soap opera strips they replaced (such as Drake's).   Brunetti's work (unlike Drake's) is collected in books by the prestigious Yale University Press and translated into seven languages.  Brunetti lectures in colleges and wins  awards (such as The Eisner and Ignatz awards) that didn't even exist in Drake's day, when the medium was less self-congratulatory. 

But take a closer look at Drake's work.    Note how he assumes his newspaper audience is familiar with the story of King Priam from the Iliad.  How many comparable literary references do you see in today's comics?   Note too that in Drake's panel, the words are not to be read literally-- they are a lie.   Only by contrasting the words with the drawing do we understand the wicked intention of the director and the lack of talent of the actress.  Fifty years later it's rare to find this type of creative tension between words and drawing, in part because most artists of graphic novels and comics don't draw well enough to pull it off.  Note how Drake's mastery of facial expression, body language and staging give him a range of communication tools that aren't called upon today.

Of course, Drake did employ the now unfashionable photo based realism.  But if you take a look at the great variety in Drake's line, his editorial choices and expressive exaggerations, you can decide for yourself what value comes from the artist and what comes from the camera.  

Whatever Drake's tools,  it seems to me that he was able to achieve a result with more layers of awareness,  more irony and humanity, and with greater aesthetic quality than the result we see from Brunetti and many of his peers.  

So, for those of you who still enjoy good linework, this week I'm offering a collection of Drake's drawings from an era when comics were less chic, and drawings were expected to carry their own as a full partner with the words:

No mechanical lines here: you could always tell that Drake's favorite time of day was when it came time to draw Eve Jone's hair.  There is undisguised pleasure in the act of drawing which is often missing from today's flatter efforts.

Monday, November 03, 2014


 American illustration used to be dominated by a sharp, stylish realism.

Roswell Keller

However,  that style was gradually replaced by a simpler look that emphasized concept over technical skill.  For example, this 1950s treatment of a couple going to bed...

...might be replaced by this flatter, simpler approach to the same subject:

Seymour Chwast

Not as pretty to look at, no obvious skill required,  the latter picture could easily have been executed by any mildly competent artist. It would never have passed muster at the great illustrated magazines that dominated the first half of the 20th century, such as the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Life or Redbook.  Yet, thanks to illustrators such as Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser at Push Pin Studios, it became a dominant style.

What led to such a drastic change in taste? 

There is more than one reason for the transformation, but such a change could not have occurred if the new look didn't bring something new and valuable to the table.  Here are two excellent examples of that "something," Chwast's clever perspectives continuing our theme of "a couple going to bed:"

"Impotence" by Chwast

"The Wedding Night of Art and Literature," by Chwast

The old realism of Norman Rockwell or J.C. Leyendecker would not have been suitable for such artistic solutions.  Chwast earned his exemption from the old standards because he gave us something meaningful in exchange.

The old realism would not permit Chwast to give smoke a gender

Despite his lack of traditional drawing skills, Chwast shows a genuine appreciation for the importance of visual elements.  A survey of his art demonstrates a lively, creative mind at work.

Illustrations for a poetry collection

Even when Chwast draws flat, stilted figures, he can turn that to his advantage with his content.  This bland livingroom scene is a perfect foil to show how we live every day with the existence of the bomb.

I enjoy Chwast's sculptures, which show he is not confined to simple diagrams on a printed page.

I have said some unkind things on this blog about contemporary illustrators who (in my opinion) don't draw well. (For example, last week we had a brisk conversation about artists who mechanically draw circles for the human head).  By contrast, I think Chwast is an example of what illustrators were able to accomplish by ridding themselves of the constraints of the first half of the 20th century.  Chwast understood that if you are going to take liberties, you have to give something in exchange.  Chwast used his liberties to achieve worthwhile results that could not have been achieved within the confines of traditional skills.

My gripe is that the second and third generation of artists following Chwast lose their appreciation for the trade off.  Some have become accustomed to the loss of discipline and technical skill as a way of life.

Illustration by a current illustrator from Businessweek November 2014: even simpler and flatter

They unthinkingly accept lowered standards with little recollection of why the standards were lowered to begin with.  Few of them offer any offsetting or redeeming profundity or creativity, in part because many of their viewers have become satisfied with banalities.

Chwast threw out the bath water, but he knew to keep the baby.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Now that the world has finally focused its resources on combating the Ebola plague, medical science can turn its attention to the second most fearsome epidemic threatening civilization: artists who use mechanical circles for heads.






The Ebola epidemic was centered in West Africa, and the circle head epidemic seems to be centered at The New Yorker magazine, which apparently finds this style charming:

Fortunately, some areas appear immune to the virus.   Ivan Brunetti applied for the job of artist on the simple minded comic strip Nancy but did not draw well enough, so he had to become a New Yorker cover artist instead.


Doctors have discovered a clue to the origins of this epidemic in the excellent reference work, Graphic Style by Steven Heller and Seymour Chwast.   The authors write that a style called "information graphics" was developed by artists such as Nigel Holmes in order to present simplified information to popular audiences.


The authors described the information graphics style as:
graphic design working toward the goal of clarifying simple and complex data.  The key difference between information design and general graphic design is transparency.  Ornament and decoration are unacceptable if they hinder perception.  Information graphics have, by virtue of a common visual language, become a sort of style. 
Information graphics began as a method for "quantitative visualization," useful for conveying information but lacking the sensitivity or complexity or range necessary to convey weighty ideas.   Yet today this style has become a popular vehicle for acute social observation and "deep" content.  Why?

Is this the latest dazzling display of genius by Chris Ware?  No, it's from an airline information card created by some underpaid staff artist.

For starters,  cultural awards (and New Yorker covers) are often bestowed by people who specialize in concepts but seem to have little appreciation for the qualities of line, color or design.  (A good example would be the confused Dave Eggers, who embarrassed himself by asserting that "The most versatile and innovative artist the medium has ever known" is Chris Ware.)

But more importantly I suspect our ambitions for the graphic arts (and consequently our priorities and taste) may be evolving in the information age.  The insightful Karrie Jacobs wrote,
Computers have seduced us into thinking about ideas--the intangible stuff that comprises our culture, our meta universe, our homegrown organic realities-- as information.
The perfect visual style for such a society is "information graphics."  The following drawing by Brunetti conveys the fact of sex, the information that the characters are engaging in sex, but conveys nothing worth knowing about the idea of sex.

This seems to be a weakness common to the circle head artists (as well as other graphic novelists who draw square or oval shaped heads using the same monotonous line,  insisting that good draftsmanship would only impede the flow of their words.) 

Visual art once prided itself in challenging our perceptions, but information graphics do the opposite: as Heller and Chwast note,  information graphics purge any details that might "hinder perception."  If there is anything oblique or profound to communicate, it will be done with words.

So why does the epidemic of circle heads matter?  The drawings above are pleasant enough to fill a blank space.   Besides, travel agents and telephone booths were rendered obsolete by the information revolution,  so why shouldn't the inefficiencies of art also be stripped away, so readers don't linger too long over the drawing in any one panel?  What is lost if the efficient processing of information dumbs down our appreciation for visual form? 

Here's my personal answer:  It's great that images can be harnessed to convey information, such as the motion of a character raising a glass.   But art-- good art--  has the potential to do more, to provide us with the shades of meaning necessary to communicate love and pain on a higher level.  It can strengthen our sense of aesthetic form that we need in order to fend off entropy.  It gives us a language  more subtle and profound than words to flesh out concepts of joy or sadness or humor or introspection.

Art enables us to express a range of moods, feelings and beliefs that transcend mere information and thus are conspicuously absent from most information graphics-- even when such graphics are lionized as "brilliant" or "profound." 

Saturday, October 18, 2014


Daniel Schwartz's illustrations were looser and more exploratory than the work of many of his peers.  Yet, his sketches reveal a classically trained artist with all the technical skill to create tight, representational pictures. 


This should not be surprising.  Often the artists who understand anatomy, perspective, light and shadow, etc. are the ones best equipped to make good use of abstraction.

I like the sensitivity of Schwartz's pencil sketches:

But he also knows how to make good use of strong, broad lines:

Schwartz's pencil sketches were often left visible in his finished illustrations and contributed important effects:

Illustration from Life Magazine story on the My Lai massacre, 1971