Friday, June 29, 2012


Last week I wrote that animated films are  corporate artwork, polished and refined by so many committees that it is often difficult to find the fingerprints of any individual artist in the end product.

But sometimes an individual artist's voice is so powerful that it survives the corporate de-flavorizing machine.  We can still see the impact of Eyvind Earle's contribution to the film Sleeping Beauty or Mary Blair's contribution to films such as Make Mine Music and Alice in Wonderland-- films that ended up far better off because of distinctive individual voices.

One of the very few artists working in the field today with that kind of visual strength is the brilliant Carter Goodrich.

When I began clipping his work from magazines, I didn't know his name but his distinctive style was easy to recognize.  

A common scene presented in an innovative way 

This marvelous bear foretells characters in the film, Brave

I later learned Goodrich's name from his New Yorker covers which strike me as smart, beautiful and true:

His children's books are also beautifully illustrated:

The scary bed: spend some time with this wonderful image.

 Goodrich has worked on a number of important animated films such as Finding Nemo, Despicable Me, and Ratatouille.  Most recently, he did character design on  Brave from Pixar.

Dozens of talented artists made important contributions to Brave, and I don't mean to underestimate the value of their work.  But for me the flavor of Goodrich's talent is unmistakeable, and the film is better off for it

New digital media delivered through corporate distribution chains have homogenized and sanitized many of the traditional roles of the individual artist.

However, even in corporate art some elements of personal taste remain indigestible and undilutable.  Those elements often account for the very best of the art form.

Monday, June 25, 2012


Comic artist Will Elder described how he and Harvey Kurtzman made art on an assembly line:
We had to bring in guys to help make [Little Annie Fanny]. We rented a suite at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, turned on every light in the suite, and with the assistance of Frank Frazetta, Jack Davis, Al Jaffee, Russ heath and Arnold Roth, we were able to make our deadlines. It was a great time, ordering eggs benedict, orange juice and plenty of coffee.
Will Elder,  Jack Davis and Frank Frazetta combined
We set up an assembly line type of arrangement : some of the guys were doing backgrounds, some were doing other details.  We were following Harvey's layouts.  After one artist was done with his part of the work, he'd pass it on to the next guy who would fill in the next step of the story.  It would eventually get back to Harvey, who was such a perfectionist that he often had changes to the work.  He would mark the work with his changes and send it back to the assembly line unbeknownst to the artists who thought they were done with that panel.  Suddenly I heard Jaffee say, "Hey, this is the third time I did this panel."  To which Harvey replied, "Do it again!"  We laughed a lot, but we worked very hard.  
Judge and police on the left by Elder, police on the right by Davis, Annie by Frazetta

When you examine the originals, you see how these artists blended their distinctive styles to create seamless images.   Like solo performers singing together in harmony, each understood what the job required and worked toward a common goal.

We like to think of picture-making as a highly personal expression of taste, uncompromised by groups and committees.

But a surprising percentage of art is collaborative: 19th century illustrators teamed with talented wood engravers who redrew each picture and carved it into a wooden block so it could be printed. The drawings of comic artists are often inked by other artists.  Digital illustrators such as the prominent Mirko Ilic create images by preparing rough conceptual sketches which helpers then use to construct computer images.

Perhaps the largest, most ambitious "group effort" between artists these days is the animated film.  If you watch the (very long) credits after films such as Pixar's splendid new Brave, you'll see the names of hundred of artists roll by, each one making his or her contribution to a blended work of art.

Group art has the unfortunate effect of diluting individual artistic personalities. For example, animated films are  corporate artwork, polished and refined by so many hands that it is sometimes difficult to see the fingerprints of any individual artist in the end product.  Yet they are also epic achievements that could not be achieved by any individual artist.  In fact, most of the collaborations listed above were essential to achieve a particular result.

There is a separate pleasure from watching well teamed artists interacting.  One of my favorite parts of Martin Scorsese's concert film, The Last Waltz,  is watching the eyes and subtle exchanges between musicians at work.  When Eric Clapton is in the middle of a brisk guitar solo, his guitar strap unexpectedly breaks (at :47).  Clapton stops mid note to clutch at his guitar, but the audience doesn't notice because guitarist Robbie Robertson jumps in, improvising a riff without missing a beat.  He watches Clapton out of the corner of his eye and once the strap is fixed,  Robertson smoothly returns the lead.

A great example of the telepathy between working artists.

Whether in a suite at the Algonquin Hotel or on a concert stage in San Francisco, there is a special kind of pleasure from watching talented professionals combine their talents in harmony.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


A century ago, Howard Pyle painted this classic image of man and mermaid locked in a passionate embrace:

Pyle's image is a metaphor for doomed lovers everywhere.  (As Joseph Stein put it, "A fish may love a bird but where would they build a home together?")

Today illustrators remain fascinated by the gap separating man from mermaid, but their perspectives look quite different.  Let's revisit Pyle's touching scene through the eyes of some of today's master illustrators:

John Cuneo offers this unsettling glimpse into the love life of a modern mermaid:

Sterling Hundley's mermaid has apparently decided not to let go of her man.  No more tearful good byes at the shore line: 

Jack Davis shows us what happens if you give a man too much time to think:

Carter Goodrich shows us a boy who has caught more than he bargained for:

French cartoonist Andre Francois imagines a cooperative effort to deal with the logistical problems:

William Steig helps us understand why a man might give up everything to flee to the mermaid's world:

Charles Rodrigues shows us the glum granddaughter of Pyle's mermaid:

What a difference a century makes (both in pictures and in relationships).  Many of today's illustrators employ a lighter medium to convey a darker message.

Pyle would have landed in jail for such irreverent and explicit content. Today's illustrators have a longer leash, but the good ones don't mistake the new candor for truth. These modern pictures work because-- like Pyle's original illustration-- they invoke some recognizable truth about human nature, a truth revealed by the gap between man and mermaid.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012


To finish my (rather extended) week of Gruger, here is one more original with a slightly different approach.

In this ambitious composition of an ancient bacchanal, Gruger uses a thicker line for a bolder, more blocky effect:

Gruger put aside his sharpened pencils and sensitive line when he drew this arm.

Despite its flatter, simpler look, this approach required all of the subtlety, sophistication and knowledge of Gruger's drawings from the previous week.

Monday, June 04, 2012


OK, so these posts spilled over into more than a week, but here are some more scans from original Gruger drawings that show his masterful draftsmanship.

Gruger uses foliage to add abstract design to his drawing. (from "He'll Come Home," Saturday Evening Post, March 1929)

Gruger spent 45 years working long hours, creating thousands of complex pictures using not much more than a pencil.  He found infinite variety in the marks of carbon on paper.

Saturday Evening Post, April 10, 1926

Gruger constructed face after face, employing a full variety of features.

Gruger was an original member of the "charcoal club" founded by John Sloan in 1893.  There, Gruger worked nightly alongside other young artists such as Robert Henri, William Glackens and Everett Shin in a vacant studio, exploring the glories of charcoal.

And in the right hands, charcoal is truly a glorious thing. 

Friday, June 01, 2012


In 1928, Gruger was assigned by the Saturday Evening Post to illustrate a long and tedious detective story.  Rather than draw another dozen pictures of English gentlemen sitting around tables in a parlor, Gruger concoted a wraith-like apparition (not a character in the original story) to embody hidden mysteries. 

Personally, I think Gruger just felt like drawing a cool figure in flowing robes.  Look at how much fun he had with these  pictures:

Another illustration from the same story:

I don't have all of the originals from the story to scan (The two above came from our friends at Taraba Illustration Art ) but if you look at the following printed versions from the Post, you can get a sense for how Gruger drew each wraith distinctively, each with its separate dramatic flourish:

These are not your run-of-the-mill Halloween ghosts.  Here you are seeing Gruger's vivid imagination in action.