Saturday, September 22, 2007

"You gotta start somewhere..."

A lot has been written of late about style and influence. It seems to me that both are unavoidable. Both should be allowed to develop naturally though. One of my favorite influences is Henry Syverson, as regular visitors here know. When I first saw his cartoons as a small boy in SATURDAY EVENING POST magazine, I had no idea he had once been a Disney artist, but when I learned that years later I wasn't surprised. His characters have the appeal and fluidity I associate with Disney, somehow coupled with a slightly more Thurber-esque abstraction. Like Walt Kelly, Hank Ketchum and other Disney alumni though, Syverson carved out a personal niche that is as unmistakeable as a signature.

Which is why I was quite surprised recently to find a book containing early drawings of his famous signature "little people" cartoons. These may date back to just after WW II and while they are recognizably Syverson's work, they are considerably more formal, almost stiff, and peppered with extraneous details (wrinkles and such) that he would later learn to leave out.

EARLY SYVERSON:

These drawings are clever and memorable, but they would never have gotten under my skin the way the later ones did.

LATER SYVERSON:

This random sampling shows a sense of Syverson's personal mastery of his subject: he has his own line vocabulary, his own sense of proportion and form, and most importantly perhaps, a very unique sense of expression.

As with everything else, it often takes time to develop a comfort level with different media, formats, ideas, etc. It also takes patience to bear with your own lack of skill at the beginning of an effort versus where you want to be ultimately. Syverson was already a skilled and experienced artist when he did the first drawings, but time, maturity and perhaps even other influences led him to the distinct type of drawings I always associate him with. I know I am always much more self-conscious and tentative at the outset of something. Fortunately with long-term work, I usually find myself getting lost in an assignment and that is where and when the most interesting things start to happen.

On a similar note, this image leaped out at me from the pages of the recent posthumous PEANUTS tribute book: a rough sketch Charles Schulz did to submit as a panel gag to magazine editors in 1950:

Schulz Rough Sketch - 1950
To my eyes, the unfinished sketch above looks more like Schulz's work from many years later than this typical published work from the same year:

Ironically, the 1960 finished artwork has more of the inherent warmth and rhythm of the rough drawing from ten years earlier. In the 1950 finished panels, it's as if the burden of making "camera ready" artwork drained much of Schulz's personal flair out of the drawings. Perhaps too, there is a "forgiveness factor" in a rough which allows some artists more freedom. The rough has more fluidity, more relaxed and confident sense of character and attitude, qualities I associate with PEANUTS on the threshold of it's prime, like the later panels.

Whether it's a matter of maturity, mastering the physical tools, or sheer volume of work demanded by a daily strip, it looks to me like it took Schulz a full decade to learn how to draw like himself. He is no longer aping pen techniques he learned from teachers or copied from idols (as he surely did earlier), he is fully aware of his characters' identities and he is comfortable in his own skin. You can almost feel him reveling in his own confidence. But this process was slow, sure and ongoing. In a time when finished products (from meals to works of art and industry) arrive in our hands with lightning speed, it is often easy to forget the sweat and error that goes into making anything. That can make the early stages of our own work harder to cope with. I guess there is no substitute for patience...

16 comments:

mark kennedy said...

Wow, Will, really great post.

Tim said...

I have noticed this effect in many of my favorite comic strip artists, mainly the likes of Bill Watterson and Gary Larson.

But then I look at other strips (especially the ones that have changed artists) and the tendency is reversed. Compare Blondie from the 40's to today's strips. Or Tumbleweeds.

I'm not sure where Garfield falls into the mix. I'm not sure the last time Jim Davis actually drew a strip.

I think one of the few strips that has maintained it's quality through a change of artists is Prince Valiant. (John Cullen Murphy being my favorite).

Mr. Semaj said...

I hear ya man.

Having just completed and submitting a portfolio to RIT, I'm still dealing with the Disney influence/affixation that comes with most of my art. I'm trying to absorb many different influences, while at the same time, learning the basics and eventually develop a style of my own. It can be excruciating, especially when you try to figure out your influence's process.

Jenny said...

I'm parroting Mark, but what the heck, it bears repeating--great post! This is definitely one for bookmarking.

chrisallison said...

Will, thanks for the reassuring words. Being a younger artist, I guess I could use a little patience. It's of great concern to me that so many of my drawings come out looking stiff and like somebody else's drawings. But maybe it's because I'm so concerned that this is happening. It's a vicious cycle that perhaps it just takes time to come to grips with. Here's to greater confidence in myself when tackling my drawings!

Monkeyfeather said...

Interesting post indeed.

Jack Ruttan said...

I'm a self-taught cartoonist, and have the same problem with roughs vs. finished work.

I find that trying to draw tight lets me learn a lot and expand my vocabulary, but it sometimes takes a while to get in the space where the drawings are unforced and expressive.

Not so crazy myself about artists who do only one thing, even if what they do is charming. Though I know in some cases it's made them a lot of money.

Gregory Hayes said...

I think the effect is true for creatives in general: visual artists, writers, actors, photographers, you name it. Whether we're schooled or self-taught, our artistic influences guide how we present the subject to the audience, but the final blend--and hopefully, the message behind it--is what sets each of us apart.

Good read, thanks!

John S. said...

An incredibly thoughtful analysis. You just blew me awaym with that "It took Schulz a full decade to learn how to draw like himself". You are the man.

elizabeth said...

Great post, Will. Patience is hard to keep sometimes, but it's easier to maintain when someone takes the time to point out that it's worth it...

Will Finn said...

thanks to all for the positive feedback. this is one of those subjects that looms in every stroke of the pencil/pen/stylus or whatever for everybody. it probably always will...

mr. semaj: good luck at RIT. the lure of the disney siren could fill a whole blog of its own. i struggle with it too.

jack rutan: this too is almost a topic of its own. i also wonder how many deal with the problem of "performance pressure". meaning that annoying thing where free-hand doodles flow like honey and then the minute you're asked to draw something, everything freezes up...

john-glad you liked it.

liz--ironic that i lost so much patience with my batch-rename command at work yesterday!

Bruce said...

It would be great to see your older artwork, like say 10-20 years ago and compare it to how you draw today.

Otherwise, this was a very informative post. Thank's for taking your valuable time to write it up, Will.

From a wannabe cartoonist/ artist

Bruce

Will Finn said...

bruce--
awhile back i posted some drawings i did twenty five years ago for something called the I HATE E.T. HANDBOOK. it was a justifiably unsold and unpublished work but it gives a best-case idea of how i drew back then.

Bruce said...

I completely forgot about that 'I HATE E.T. handbook.' Sorry about that.

BTW, how do you like my picture?

Will Finn said...

bruce-
nice!

Robert said...

Fine Post!

Is Syverson the artist who drew the characters in that cartoon we see tacked up in everyone's office cube that says "You want it when!?!" It's gotta be.