Monday, September 14, 2009

Line and Style

Art instruction books will invariably tell you in the first chapter that “It all starts with the line,” and from the turn of the century to the mid-seventies, a mastery of pen, ink and line was essential to the newspaper comic strip. Any chuckleheaded youth with a little talent could land a job on a newspaper supplied with only a pen and a bottle of Indian ink. In those good old days a beginner was expected to do spot work and cartoons for he-and-she jokes, as well as cover fires, accidents, murders and criminal trials. Thomas Nast got his start with Frank Leslie doing sketches of the Heenan-Sayers prizefight and following Garibaldi’s army through Italy. Old-time cartoonists were merely a peculiar species of journalist.

Mass reproduction of pen and ink drawings first became possible in 1888 with the invention of the line process block, which used photography to transfer the artists’ pen drawing to a metal plate and on to the printing press. By 1900 an article in The Studio noted that “Already the cheapest Sunday papers in America are availing themselves of the decorative artist in a more or less crude way. On this side the editors are chary and conservative, but they are bound to follow.”

In the comic books you could get away with bad anatomy, failed perspective, and wooden drawing. A newspaper artist, for the most part, had to draw well under strict rules of reproduction. Style was very important. Style might even be considered the “handwriting” of the artist. Style can be quiet, delicate, free, nervous, violent or rough but every good style is personal to a particular artist. We have the Caniff style (actually the ‘Sickles style’), the Eisner style, the Frazetta style, and the Jack Kirby style. Some artists never move beyond flagrant copies of their hero’s style into a personal identifiable style of their own. Good style is instinctive, not labored.

I opened this post with a perky original crayon drawing by George Lichty. When Lichty retired from his comic strip “Grin an’ Bear It” in 1974 he turned over the cartoon to a young editorial cartoonist named Fred Wagner. In preparation Wagner worked with Lichty for 18 months prior to the changeover, striving to mimic Lichty’s style, until Lichty was able to say “It’s tough to tell the difference myself anymore.”

Thomas Nast’s engraved cartoons for Harper’s Weekly had a foot on the ground solidity that we don’t find in his original pen sketches. His loose sketches lost all the details of careful drawing in favor of the quick impression. Nast’s dogs shown here are not anatomically correct but they are first-rate expressions of dogginess. Freehand ink sketches are often a much more fascinating glimpse into the mind of a cartoonist than a finished drawing.

This Don Herold illustration is finished and it would have been nice to have seen the preliminary sketches that no doubt went into the drawing. This particular cartoon was rather famous and a b&w copy was reprinted in Thomas Craven’s Cartoon Cavalcade (1943). Here we have the original courtesy of Don Kurtz.

I’m an avid sketcher myself although it rarely turns into a finished drawing. I usually find that the spontaneity of my sketches is lost in a finished drawing so I have a suitcase full of dashed off improvisations that form a sort of diary of years of thoughts made visual. I sketch on very tiny 3 by 5 paper books that fit in my shirt pocket, excellent for catching life on the fly and useful for nostalgic purposes on long winter nights. This one, for devotees of pen porn, was drawn with the magnificent Pentel waterproof fountain pen which they don't make anymore. The nib was made out of a hard, white flexible plastic and by varying the force on the nib thick and thin lines (accompanied by occasional delicious squirting of the ink) could be very satisfyingly produced. In this case I grew so excited I flew off the top of the recipe card and spilled over the top of the drawing right onto the table-top.

These days there are far fewer outlets for the artist in pen and ink than at the turn of the century, when even the poorest of artists could make a comfortable enough living to move from garret to boarding-house. When I was in art school the use of the rapidograph for anything other than ruling straight lines was frowned on, today its use in comic strips is the norm. The line is still important but the personal, emotional impact of the individual penman is largely missing in the daily strips. Web-comics can be entirely impersonally drawn with templates and wacom tablets but much of the time all life and personality seems to have leaked out of the drawings. Who knows, perhaps someday pen and ink, like newspapers and print, will have gone the way of the carrier pigeon, and personal line and style will be a historical oddity residing only in private collections and obsolete books poorly preserved on microfilm.

*Lichty, Brickman, and Herold originals courtesy Don Kurtz.


  1. This thoughtful post deserves several responses; there are so many ideas packed into it.

    To start with, I am fascinated by the old newspaper sketch artists. Not much seems to have been written about them. Have you read Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge's autobiography? His description of being a student during that area is wonderful.

    My collection has several commercial art how-to books from 1899-1925 that prepare you for the small-town typical illustration jobs. Every town seems to have had at least one such. Included are lettering titles and drawing picture frames for the newspapers (as well as retouching the hell out of the pictures), the trick to drawing a really convincing cucumber or rooster, and the ins and outs of inking over silverprints. What a lot of work there was back then! Sigh...

  2. I haven't read that one, no. I am reading about H. L. Menken's newspaper days and some of that ground is covered from the writer's viewpoint. Most of the newspaper sketch artists had their beginnings with Frank Leslie or Harper's Weekly in the sixties. Its interesting that the entry level for so many cartoonists was covering murder trials. There are a few books about the newspaper artists who covered the Civil War but none that I know of dealing specifically with newspaper sketch artists.

  3. Geez. I have a Wacom tablet, and a bunch of Hunt's 102 nibs, and a bottle of ink. Not to mention some Chinese brushes. They're all great.

  4. Well, Jack, maybe I was a little melodramatic toward the end of this post. I don't really understand the need for a Wacom, however, I would just draw in ink or paint and take a scan of the original to post on the internet. Otherwise it seems too mechanical in look and feel.