In our high tech world, charcoal must seem like a pretty primitive medium. And of course it is. Maybe the most primitive. Drawing with a charred stick of wood is probably as old as the domestication of fire. Yet in a lifetime of teaching myself to use ink and paint and now Photoshop, no medium I’ve ever used is as direct, simple and cheap as sticking a stump of charcoal in my coat pocket and taking a walk with a sketchbook.
One of the chief virtues of charcoal is speed of execution. When you're drawing something like a barn at noon in upstate New York, the light can shift and shade so completely in half an hour that if it takes you any longer than that, you can find yourself finishing a drawing that’s quite different from the one you started.
Being able to draw quickly is also imperative when you're trying to draw people in motion, or who would become self-conscious and uncooperative if they caught you drawing them. Not that the fellow below would have noticed however. He had just finished a big meal on a trans-Atlantic flight and had settled down into a world of his own.
Of course some subjects have nowhere to go and can be drawn with greater detail at a more leisurely pace. This cow, which I found in the countryside north of Zurich is a case in point. I made a finished painting of this sketch, and nothing was different, except for the addition of color.
When you’re drawing a model who’s only posing for half an hour, charcoal really comes into its own. No other medium lets you to cover a surface so quickly or modulate tones with more subtlety.
Because it’s so easy to carry around, charcoal is perfect for drawing things you don’t expect to find. In Tokyo one morning, I got up at 3 AM to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market and do some drawings. On the way back I sat down to have a Coke in a little park on the grounds of a Buddhist temple and before I had finished the Coke I had done this drawing.
At Florianopolis, off the coast of Brazil, I noticed that the local musclemen would get to the beach early so that each of them could stake out his own private rock and hold it for hours, preening and showing off for the babes on the beach back across the shallow tidepool.
I drew my friend Jennifer on a Shinkansen Bullet train as we traveled from our little cottage in Hakone and headed for our next destiation:Takayama in the Japanese Alps. You could see Mount Fuji over her shoulder but I was taken with her exquisite profile. Jennifer is a brilliant designer and we've done a number of fantastic projects together.
At Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, I skipped lunch with some friends one day to wander around the ancient city and draw. This stretch of shoreline is of such extraordinary beauty that it was said Mark Anthony gave it to Cleopatra as a wedding present. I wouldn’t know about that, but I confess it was one of those times that the brilliant colors of the sky, the cliffs and the sea made me wish that I had a little more time and a box full of pastels.
I found this magnificant pool table at a great pink hotel in the Brazilian forest near the city of Foz do Iguaçu. The Iguaçu River forms the boundry bewween Brazil and Argentina and culminates in the great waterfall there which many people regard as one of the seven wonders of nature. At two miles in length and comprised of 270 separate cataracts, Iguaçu Falls simply wouldn’t fit into my sketchbook, but the pool table did.
During my first trip to Australia I was so taken by the kangaroos that I did half a dozen drawings of them my first day. Until then I had never realized how human their anatomy is. It’s not apparent when you watch them bounding about, but seeing them in repose is a different matter. All this character below would need to complete the picture is a can of beer, some Cheese Doodles and a TV remote at his side.
I’m fast, but I wasn’t fast enough to draw this lady of the night on the streets of Frankfurt before she and her client had settled on terms and disappeared inside the hotel. I took a few minutes to sketch in the rest of the exterior and thought I’d draw the woman later from memory. But once I got back to my own hotel, I decided that her ghostly absence serves the picture better than a concrete drawing of her would have done. So I left the picture alone and concluded that it was finished.
In Leningrad I did several drawings on site, but the most evocative for me is this crude sketch I did from memory during a long night on the Gulf of Finland sailing back to Helsinki. The perspective is no artistic device: this part of the city is the only place I’ve ever been where the space was so vast and the line of sight so unimpeded that the streets, the buildings and streetlights all went to a single vanishing point.
The gentleman strolling towards me was wearing a large white hat that looked like a scoop of vanilla ice cream on his head. On his suit coat he wore a World War II medal. It reminded me that during the war Leningrad survived the longest and deadliest siege in the history of warfare. Nearly one thousand days – two and a half years – during which the inhabitants were reduced by the Nazis to eating dogs and cats and rats. Yet they held out and prevailed, and there, by their will to resist – as at Stalingrad in the south – people like this old man – then in his youth – turned the tide of the second world war.
My wife, when I was married, kept sketchbooks of her own and some of the happiest times of my life are of the times we spent together, both drawing and not drawing. Her pictures were always as strong and sensitive and beautiful as she was herself and, as I would imagine, still is.
Flying out of Bergen Norway, the scene below us was a maze of channels and waterways that threaded their passage west to the North Sea and south to a great fjord. I didn’t know the geography well enough to know what I was seeing and what I was seeing changed so rapidly that what I drew was an abstraction anyway. By the time we passed over Stavanger in the south, the landscape had changed again and I found myself drawing another abstraction: this time suggesting snow covered hills dotted with pines.
Vernal, in eastern Utah, is the northern corner of the “Dinosaur Triangle.” It streches from there to western Colorado and then back over to Price in southern Utah. Not far from where I did this drawing is a 75 foot-high ridge upended by the earth’s convulsions and eroded over millions of years so that along its entire face, dinosaur bones literally stick out of the ground. As I drew this sketch, a prarie dog watched me warily from his hole and in a bush nearby, I saw the ripped-off leg of a deer caught in the branches, with the blood on it barely dried.
In our twenties, my brother Jim and I looked so much alike that our relatives had to see us together to tell us apart. That changed over the years, but our closeness never did. Although he was six years younger than I, he was my best friend from the day he was born until he died six years ago. He looks severe in this drawing but he was merely squinting in the Arkansas sun. He was smart and inquisitive and unimpeachable, yet he was the kindest and most thoughtful person I’ve ever known. When he died in 2007 some part of me left the world with him.
Many of you know Marzena, or have run into her at openings. She represents a number of excellent artists and has my nomination as one of the best reps in the business. Besides having great taste and and integrity, she also has courage. I’ve done several drawings of her over the years and one painting; and if she still lived in New York City, I’d try to do more.
“What an expression!” I thought when I saw this woman’s face on a crowded street in Toyama Japan. Yet in less than ten seconds she had disappeared into a sea of faces and I was left to draw her mostly from memory. I’ll never forget that look though. Was it urgency, desperation, tragedy, indigestion? It’s not a look you can put into words. Yet of all the drawings I’ve ever done, this face – which took me hardly a minute to draw – haunts me like nothing else I’ve ever drawn from life.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve heard about the “miracle of the swallows” of the mission of San Juan Capistrano in southern California. According to legend (and song), they return to the old Spanish church every March 19, a symbol of continuity and a harbringer of spring. Of course in southern California, I don’t know how you tell spring from the rest of the year, but it’s a great story and who wants to quarrel with that.
I’ve been to the mission four times over the years and have seen, as advertised, plenty of swallows. But on my second visit there I was dawn to this lonely dove sitting on a rock. All around her people came and went but the commotion and jostling of the crowds didn’t seem to faze her. She seemed to have found a zone of her own in both time and space and I felt that I had found a similar zone for myself in the half hour I spent there drawing her.
I began this post by writing that charcoal was the medium most suited to my personality. Yet as much as I love the medium it was hardly love at first sight. Back in high school my first charcoal drawing was a mess and it wasn't just because I had never heard of fixative.
I was in the ninth grade when I first saw some charcoal drawings in a library book. I wanted to do pictures like that, but there were no art stores in town and the local hobby shop didn't sell art supplies. So where does a smart kid go in a small town to get charcoal? To the super market.
I took my bike because I didn't know if they sold charcoal in five pound bags or whether I'd have to get a 25 pound bag and lug it home. Also, I didn't know whether I should get the kind with or without fire starter. I figured things like that could make a difference.
I had the same issue with finding paper. A cartooning book at the library said that professional cartoonists did their work on illustration board. I had never heard of illustration board and neither had anybody at the super market. The hobby store didn't carry any either, but the woman who ran the place said shirt cardboard should do the trick. So off I went to the dry cleaner.
Now I don't know whether any of you have ever tried to do a charcoal drawing – with a charcoal briquette – saturated with fire starter – on shirt cardboard; but I recommend it to any young artist who has trouble sticking to things. It will either cure you forever of wanting to draw or teach you perseverance, which in my case, is apparently what happened.
At the time, however, it simply taught me to abandon charcoal and shirt cardboard. I settled instead for Ebony pencils and typing paper. They sold both at the town stationery store. That got me through high school. Then at 17, I got a social security card and a bus ticket for Chicago. It was there, at the Sam Flax store on Wabash Avenue, two blocks from the river and the Sun-Times building, that I bought my first grown-up charcoal. I’ve been using the stuff ever since.
I did this poster over the summer for the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I just got printed copies in the mail today. They asked me to design a poster that showed the school's curriculum, which offers courses in both the visual and performing arts. I proposed this image, based on a small painting (8" X 10") that I did six years ago for a collector in Turin, Italy. The early version was never published, and ever since, I've been looking for an opportunity to expand on the idea.
The art director was Anthony Padilla, for whom I've done several posters before. I designed it and did both the art and the hand lettering. The text at the bottom was added by John Coy, who also selected the final type font.
The University of the Arts is one of the oldest art schools in the country. It represents the merger of two previous schools, both dating back to the 1870s, I believe: the Philadelphia College of Art and the College of the Performing Arts. They came together sometime in the 1980s.
For me, the poster was a visit to Memory Lane. Many years ago, the Philadelphia College of Art was the first school that ever asked me to address its students. Although I had been doing work for Playboy for a year or two at the time, my youth, my opinions about how the illustration business needed to change, and my untamed manner of delivery made me somewhat controversial as a speaker. In fact, I was barely older than most of the students and actually younger than some of them. In addition, my off-the-cuff speaking style was certainly less polished than I think most people were expecting from a Playboy artist. Yet in spite of that, a wonderful gentleman, Ben Eisenstat took me under his wing and made me feel right at home.
Ben was an artist, a teacher, a collector and a scholar of the illustration field. He took me to lunch at an elegant club, even though I was dressed in blue jeans and desert boots; and he treated me as graciously as if I were one of the big shots of the business. I've never forgotten him and I'd love to think that this poster is, in some small way, a salute to that great gentleman, whose daughter, Alice Carter – some call her Bunny – is carrying on her father's tradition out on the west coast.
So thanks once again, Anthony, for the opportunity to do the art; thanks, John, for the elegant type face; and a tip of the hat from across the decades to the late Ben Eisenstat. As for the school, hello to everyone in Philadelphia and the best of luck to all of you in your new school year.
Over the summer Dave Lesh died. Many of you knew him through his art. Some of you knew him as a person. Artists everywhere have lost a champion and a colleague of great distinction. We’ve lost a good and true friend. Recently some of us who worked with him collected our thoughts and delivered them to his family at a memorial service in Indianapolis.
It would be hard to describe Dave Lesh with a word, but a word keeps coming to mind: Integrity. Those of us who knew Dave well can testify that he was honest and fair; kind and caring, talented and creative; determined and yet modest. But the virtue that encompassed all his other virtues was integrity.
We each met Dave at different times about 15 years ago. It was art that brought us together. Yet from the beginning, we learned that we had more than art in common. Together we shared a belief that the field of illustration was going through a period of radical and fundamental change; and that as artists, we needed to do more than just practice our craft. We needed to act as stewards for all the young artists who wished to follow in the traditions of our field.
We were a small band but we got big results: the first national Illustrators Conference ever held; and a grassroots organization, The Illustrators Partnership, that has twice stopped Congress from passing an anti-copyright law – the Orphan Works Act – that would have fundamentally undermined every artist’s right to control the use of his or her own work. It was a fight that mattered desperately to artists and it was a fight that (so far, at least) artists have won.
Dave’s role in all this was like the man himself: dedicated, but unassuming. He was a quiet activist, always willing to contribute his time and money to the campaign for artists rights. Yet he never sought credit for his work; never used his contributions to promote himself and never bragged about his achievements. The field of illustration is better because Dave Lesh lived. His loss to the field is greater than the sum of the parts he contributed to it.
Dave’s art was the product of subtle thinking and a sophisticated sense of design. He contributed some of the most elegant and imaginative images of his generation to our popular culture.
Yet one event marked the turning point when Dave Lesh the artist became Dave Lesh the activist. It began in early 1998 when he joined two of us to launch the first national illustrators conference, an event unlike anything ever held before in our field.
The idea for the conference was hatched over Thanksgiving weekend in 1997. It was born of the recognition that the field of art was being reshaped by technology and that the rules of the game were being rewritten by corporations and media conglomerates. Yet we had faith that these changes could be turned to opportunities if collectively, artists would welcome change, understand it, and find strategies to adapt to it.
By the fall of ‘98 we had assembled the first conference board; and with no backing from any organization, and with only two corporate sponsors, we each pledged $15,000 of our own money to get it off the ground. A year later, in October 1999, over 600 of us from across the country and many artists from overseas met in Santa Fe.
Illustrators had never met like this before. For decades, we had worked in isolation. We had nurtured our styles and individual visions alone. We had thrived alone. We had taken pride in being a cottage industry. But now, as change came to that industry, our cottages were scattered across the country and many artists were responding to change alone. Many were responding out of confusion and fear.
The Illustrators Conference was an effort to dispel that fear, bring purpose out of confusion and end the industry-wide isolation that had exposed all of us to lousy contracts, shrinking fees and exploitation by opportunists.
We didn't meet to complain about how things had changed or to lament the passing of the old ways. We didn't invite people to "meet the stars" or to show our work and talk about ourselves.
Instead we met as colleagues to expose ourselves to things that artists should know, but didn’t know. To dispel myths and untruths that had been spread by gossip and misinformation. To learn from legal experts how to retain our rights in the new digital environment. And to propose new ways to maintain the value of our work and the integrity of our craft.
We met to bring illustrators together and we succeeded.
The conference was a runaway success and Dave's contribution to it was unsung but essential. The unexpected profits – more than $120,000 after expenses – led some to suggest we split the cash and turn the thing into a money-making machine for ourselves.
Instead, we opened the books and passed the money and the franchise along to others to use or lose. We took nothing from it: no money, no salaries, no benefits. We even paid our own registration fees and travel expenses. We hoped it would set an example for others.
The Illustrators Partnership that followed was started to act on what we had learned in Santa Fe. As a grassroots effort we kept it small and flexible. Once again, Dave, like the rest of us, put up his own time and money to start it and once again, his role in the co-founding was as essential as it was unsung.
The basic problem facing artists today is how to survive the move from a print to a digital world. There's a well-funded lobby dedicated to undermining our rights.
Twice they've introduced legislation that would have forced us to register every picture we've ever done with commercial stockhouses or see it exposed to potential infringement as "orphaned" work.
Twice we were told there was no way to stop these bills. Yet twice we DID stop them.
In 2008, 85 organizations joined us in opposing the legislation and 167,000 letters were sent to Congress from our website.
Washington insiders have told us this is the first time anyone can remember illustrators playing such a decisive role in any legislation.
This is neither the time nor place to tell the stories behind the stories: the efforts by some to sabotage the Santa Fe conference before it could start or to privatize it for profit when it suceeded. No time to explain how some in our business have sought – and still seek – to profit from the money artists are losing. These are stories better left for another day. Yet when the stories are told, as they will be, artists may better understand the high cost of defending rights too easily taken for granted; and appreciate more fully what a true and noble fighter for those rights our cottage industry has lost this summer.
To Dave's family, we extend our deepest condolences. Our loss is neither as immediate nor as intimate as yours, yet it's a loss that tears at the heartstrings. For those of us used to reaching Dave at the end of a telephone, we can do nothing now but salute him from across that dark and mysterious void that separates the living from the dead.
So long Dave, but not goodbye. For those of us you've touched, you'll die only when we die ourselves. Until then, Godspeed, old friend. Thanks for the memories, thanks for the dedication and hard work, thanks for the art you've left behind and thanks for the gift and the pleasure of your company.
Steve Heller just emailed me from Paris to say JC Suares has died. Variety has an obituary.
I owe JC too much to try expressing it on a day like today when I'm swamped with deadlines. But a few years ago I posted an article here about the birth of what has come to be called conceptual illustration; and I'm writing something more extensive about it to be published in the fall. The best I can do today is to quote from that:
"The first mainstream forum for this new approach to illustration appeared in 1970 and it was an unlikely one: the Op Ed page of the New York Times. This feature, newly-created, was the first op-ed page in the country. The Times had never published editorial art before, and the editor, Harrison Salisbury, wasn’t sure what he wanted. He knew, however, what he didn’t want: no donkeys and elephants, no Uncle Sams and John Q. Publics, and no cartoons of politicians with their names written on their suits.
"To find a vision for the page, Salisbury turned to Jean-Claude Suares, a former art director of Screw and the only member of the hippie press who drove a Bentley to work. A self-described descendent of an old Egyptian banking family, a refugee from Nasserʼs revolution, a dropout from Yale and graduate of Pratt, Suares spoke several languages and used them all to recruit a small posse of artists from around the world. The artists had different approaches to art, but they had one thing in common: a personal approach.
"This made them alike in their potential to redefine what popular art could be and do in the changing world of the mass media."
For my own part, I wanted to disengage graphic art from the need to channel a writer's sensibility and point of view; and by 1970 I had found only two art directors willing to cut me loose and defend what I was doing to their editors: Art Paul at Playboy and Heller himself at the hippie New York Review of Sex. Suares was the third, but he was the one who brought my drawings out of the world of men's magazines and sex papers into the mainstream.
I met JC at the shabby Review of Sex office at 80 Fifth Avenue. He was just starting at the Times that day and within a week, he saw that I was being published there. Within two years, the art of the Op Ed page was being exhibited in museums around the world and I made my first trip overseas with Suares for the big exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
It was a long trans-Atlantic flight in the smoking section of the plane (they still had them in those days) while JC chain-smoked cigars. He had brought along his buddy, the jazz musician Charles Mingus, and seeing Paris for the first time in the company of those two was like sitting in the back seat of a squad car as two wily cops patrolled the streets.
Suares didn't stay long at the Times – he had stepped on too many toes there, and left when his own defender, Harrison Salisbury, retired. But in his short two years he had midwifed an approach to popular art that has greatly expanded the range of what we as artists can do.
He went on to advise publishers, author books and do his own charming drawings for many of them.
We live in a world of hyperbole these days, but in truth, there are never many people in any generation – nor in any line of work – about whom it can be said that so-and-so was a giant. JC was a giant; and everybody in the field of graphic art these days owes a little bit of their own creative freedom to him.