“Many young artists want to be free too soon, before building up reservoirs of knowledge to tap. This kind of unequipped freedom will lead, sooner or later, into an artistic nothingness and make the artist wish he had learned his lessons well.” -Gustav-Rehberger
It’s a weekly challenge to get the drawing and inking done on Epiffany by Monday morning, and in so doing, somehow try to make it look easy (especially when it’s often so hard—haha!).
I try to keep my chops up by way of “auxiliary” tasks pertinent to the strip of the week, whether studies of furniture, clothing folds, kitchenware, or hands—and it’s often kitchenware & hands.
But a crucial tool for me is gesture drawing. Gestures are rapidly-executed drawings done in a short amount of time; they don’t give the drawer time to fuss over details or shading or rendering. Because they are done so fast — 30 seconds, a minute, maybe 2 minutes — one is forced to get to the essence of what makes a figure different from a bowl of fruit: balance, rhythm, action: gesture.
What, you say? Gesture drawing is for students? Been there, done that? Experienced older artists no longer need to pay their dues with this basic exercise?
Sorry, but I’ve gotta say it: BS. When drawing a long pose, I’ve seen students of all ages — and it’s often the older artists — labor away for hours (literally… hours…) on details of the face and anatomy to make a finished product they hope will resemble a Durer or Michelangelo sketch. In my opinion it’s usually a futile gesture (haha—gesture—get it?). If the artist hasn’t warmed up, the figure may not have balance, weight, and rhythm. If the figure does not have balance, weight, and rhythm, the artist is essentially treating it like a still life, and all the patient rendering in the world won’t make it look like the undiscovered Renaissance drawing the artist is hoping for.
I should know, because I used to be one of those students. Although my first drawing class forced us through the gesture ritual, out in the real world it was easy to ignore all that, and go right for that impressively-rendered figure. It wasn’t until the commanding & forceful Gustav Rehberger walked up to my newsprint pad one time and said “nice drawing, but I wonder if you really captured the balance of that model…” that I realized I was hanging detailed finery on an unfinished foundation.
One can spend hours—years—in school, in life, on a plateau… but that one statement by Rehberger was a gift that changed me and that, at least mentally, I’ve never forgotten.
If local figure classes don’t offer short poses, what works for me is “field sketching” — drawings of people at farmer’s markets, airshows, horse events, or even art fairs. In live situations such as these, it’s not possible to do a detailed, carefully rendered drawing… THERE ISN’T ENOUGH TIME. One is forced into gesture drawing by the nature of the situation.
I don’t field sketch as often as I like, but I try to get out when I can… more importantly, I try to be aware of the foundation of gesture in Epiffany Jones, even when I don’t have a model to work from (which, of course, is pretty much all of the time). I like to think that this exercise provides vitality to the strip.
It’s also possible to use field sketches as a basis for finished drawings later at home. We’ll save that subject for another time!
Here are some of my field sketches, some from the 1980′s, and some recent. Field sketches—mine, at least—are most often rear views because people change their behavior once they realize they’re being sketched! After getting warmed up it’s often possible to sketch entire groups of people… it can be especially interesting if there is strong light & shadow to work with.
I have to reveal & plead total ignorance for not knowing that the great Russ Heath — renown for war and other comics for publishers ranging from Timely in the 1940s to EC in the 1950s to DC in the 1960s to Warren’s Blazing Combat — was the illustrator for the backcover illustrations of Roman and Revolutionary war soldiers marketed for years on the backs of comic books.
How did I finally get a clue? A recent book about comic book advertisements — Mail-order Mysteries (Kirk Demarais, Insight Editions, 2011)– gave me the first idea. This nicely-produced book provides the straight dope on dozens of these items, ranging from X-Ray Spex (that name later adopted by a seminal early punk band), the Charles Atlas Fitness Program, the Polaris (cardboard) Nuclear Sub, the Vacutex Blackhead Remover, and yes, the Roman and Revolutionary War soldiers so ably illustrated by Russ Heath.
And what kid would not have dreamt about these soldiers — assuming they were rich enough for the $2.98 price, or lucky enough to talk their parents into forking it over (“it’s a rip-off,” was the retort from the author’s parents; although the word “rip-off” didn’t arrive in my neighborhood until the 1970s, my parents essentially provided the same sentiment… didn’t everyone’s?!?). Sadly, the soldiers were almost 2-D thin — on the order of a refrigerator magnet… and although they had stands, it’s hard to imagine them standing upright.
This is an entertaining and fun book. Each spread covers one item and includes the original ad, a photograph of the product (how did he track these down?) as well as accompanying packaging and advertising imagery. A “Customer Satisfaction” box at the end provides the author’s final general sentiment, and yes, most were rip-offs. But the product of Demarais’ research is one that historians of, oh, the year 3000, might find revealing… and today’s pop culture aficionados, comic book mavens, and coffee tables are sure to be pleased.
And what of Russ Heath? He is still with us, but at age 85 has fallen on bad health. In 2011, a call went out for help with his surgery expenses. “As a society, we’re not taking care of the people we need to. I think it’s imperative that we find a way to do that, and more practically, find the money,” said artist Howard Chaykin in a 2011 interview. Said comics writer Mark Waid: “This guy gave you joy… this artist or this writer did something that you enjoyed over the years, and now they’re in a bad place…. we owe them.” The Hero Initiative, a not-for-profit corporation that has provided support for many veterans in the comics industry, was able to help provide medical services for Heath; find out more about it here.
Thanks to JB Winter for turning me on to this book.