comicsworkbook: Above sketch by Noel Sickles (found by me at...


Above sketch by Noel Sickles (found by me at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum)

Reading My Love recently has got me thinking about naturalism in comics. What do I mean by the term naturalism? That’s what I call a bare boned observational (from life) drawing style. It’s not dissimilar from documentary illustrations published in newspapers before photography was affordable. A modern equivalent would be court sketches. And in comics the examples that come immediately to mind are  Noel Sickles, Alex Toth and Jaime Hernandez. A clear, observational drawing style based on a study of life as it appears to the naked eye. Stylized, yes, but accurate to life in proportion and feel.

I think there are two ways to learn observational drawing. There’s the contour line approach and there’s a tonal approach. Contour line drawing is concerned with defining form by lines without shadow. Tonal drawing is concerned with values of light and dark. Shadows and the modeling of light is the focus. These approaches are of course the building blocks of drawing; of reproducing what is there in front of the maker. Style is unimportant with this approach. A large class of students’ contour line drawings, if they are “accurate” enough, look almost as if they were drawn by the same person. There are no flourishes or mannerisms with this method. It is a documentary style of drawing.

(When I taught contour line life drawing at Parsons, my goal was to place the whole class at the same starting point and strip away their “mannerisms” and force them all to look at the model as though they were all looking through the same camera. After all, the camera is the same for everyone. Draw like you are a camera. Imagine drawing from life before cameras existed. What was it like?)

Now, of course, all drawing from life is an abstraction. There are no lines around things that separate them from the space around everything, right? Still, this can be done in a fairly accurate way which, again, with contour line drawings can be “style-less”. We’re all taught this approach in school first and then we learn tone. Values are learned in black & white first and then in color. Simple. (All those old paintings in the Met are painted in black & white first and then the color is glazed over. Even Alex Ross uses grisaille underpainting)

Comics is interesting because this “abstraction” that happens when one draws from life is repeated through the sequencing of images. So things repeated get simplified, reduced and turn into symbols. Stylized. Still, I think it’s possible to maintain a certain freshness that is part of the observational approach and soften the “reduction” process. The maker has a “style” but it’s quality is judged (I think) by it’s accuracy and feeling. The style is submerged slightly because there is a specific target (life). When I look at Noel Sickles’ comics I see a natural way of drawing transposed to comics. He reduces the figures to simple lines and the backgrounds to tones. His drawings remind me of Edward Hopper’s sketches and etchings. Basic drawing at it’s best.

Sickles influenced Alex Toth a great deal. He took Sickles’ approach, modernized it and defined a whole language. Toth had a way of drawing clearly, accurately, without modeling or hatching and created space in his compositions with masterful spotted blacks. I honestly think his Hanna-Barbera Johnny Quest style is the perfect synthesis of cartooning and “realism”. I call it “cartoony realism” (genius, eh?). And I think that Toth’s Hot Wheels run is a perfect example of how one can approach depicting “real life” in comics without devolving into mannerisms. There’s a punchy cartoony energy to the drawing, but it feels real to me, and I think there is a real tension between drawing accurately and exaggerating the forms stylistically for effect. I think this approach to comics making is about as close as one can get to life without becoming too stiffly “real” (see Foster) or without referencing photos excessively. Because then the cartoony-ness is too hard to pull off in relation to the drawings that look like photos. You lose that whole spectrum of exaggeration and tension. There are “realer” comics but usually they feel photographic and lifeless to me. Toth never feels that way to me. He plays around the with the level of realism graphically in a way that is interesting fascinating to me.

Tangent warning: Style is a really interesting thing in comics if you think about it. I had a friend (who can draw from life very well) tell me that she can’t draw comics because she can’t draw ‘in that comics style”. I said superhero style or funny animal style, what style? She said, “No, just with all those little marks and stuff”. What she meant was all the cross hatching lines and little mannerisms that most cartoonists use in their drawing. We talked about how manga has manga lines and for the most part all looks like manga. How French comics look like French comics. (I said “Everyone’s a Caniffer” but she didn’t get it.) And, yah of course, we also talked about how North American comics look like North American comics.

And here’s where I switch into my soapbox riff. I was surprised to look up and down the comics shop’s alternative section and not find much in the way of “naturalism”. Does anyone over here draw in a straight ahead natural style these days? (remember this was written in 2010 - there’s more naturalism now) Eddie Campbell does. Jason Lutes does. I think Gabrielle Bell has a natural, observational style. Adrian Tomine. Blaise Larmee has pretty naturalistic approach. CF. Jaime, of course – the heir to Alex Toth. Who else? Quick! Think! You can’t name many can you? Joe Sacco? Jordan Crane’s Uptight is naturalistic in a pleasant Jaime-esque way. A nice cartoony realism. Sammy Harkham has a similar cartoony realism that’s steeped in observation. Still I think they both feel more cartoony than someone like Gabrielle Bell. Maybe it’s her contour line approach because I read her drawings as more “real”, more documentary than Crane’s or Harkham’s drawings. Maybe slightly less expressive but more specific to the person she’s observing and portraying.

So, what’s my point? What am I tryin’ to say, eh? Not much. Just saying that it is interesting to me to see how alt/art comics for the most part aren’t trucking in naturalism these days. And I don’t think that’s bad or anything. Simply something I’ve noticed. Many of the stories may be about real people but frequently are they portrayed in styles that do not reflect “real life” but an exaggerated , mannerist POV. Again, this isn’t bad, but it is a little weird, no? Why do I find this weird? I guess because since these stories are often about people they would be depicted “naturally” and unaffectedly. The stories are often unaffected – that non-genre genre of autobiography – so why is the drawing so affected? I find it interesting that fewer alt cartoonists are following a more natural drawing style similar to Jaime’s drawing model. Or Eddie Campbell’s model. Or Adrian Tomine’s model. I don’t mean follow the style and copy the mannerisms. But why not follow the approach like Campbell’s page organization or Tomine’s exquisite stage blocking? I guess it’s really because most can’t draw as well as these folks or the natural approach doesn’t interest them. Maybe “real life” subject matter needs a counterpoint in non-naturalistic cartooned drawings. Or why most alt comics that have “natural” subject matter stay a safe distance from “realism”. Is that why naturalistic cartooned exaggeration works so well in Chester Brown’s autobiographical comics? Would it all be “too real” otherwise? Maybe it’s an 80’s 90’s thing. Or maybe it’s just too much work. –Frank Santoro (from HERE)

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