Monday, May 12, 2008

Understatement in Illustration

An old man sits up in bed, startled by a noise from downstairs. He reaches for the door, listening.

Even in a simple spot illustration, Frederic R. Gruger (1871-1953) tells a story by showing only what he needs to show: the rumpled bed, the modest bedframe, the doorknob, the key, and the lock. He leaves out unnecessary details, like picture frames, lamps, or windows.

What he does show, he understates. The forms and edges of his left arm are swallowed up by a simple shadow shape that leads us to the even darker dark of the open doorway. The virtues of economy and understatement are one of the benefits of working solely from the imagination. Gruger rarely used models.

A close look at the head, which is only about an inch high, shows that Gruger defined the form gradually, tentatively, erasing and blending until it emerged in his mind, and then adding the more definite lines of the Wolff pencil last.

As Joseph Pennell said in 1925, “All art is illustration.” And a good illustration is like a good novel or a good movie: it tells a story as much by suggestion as by definition.


Erik Bongers said...

I hope to do a pencil only graphic novell one day. But only when I'm really old.
Shaun Tan's "The Arrival" is great, but the drawings on this post are exactly like I would want it to be!
A reason why I want to wait with this is because I'm to unexperienced and clumsy currently. I keep correcting and correcting until the paper can't be erased to white anymore.
Why this story? Because Gruger's drawings are also 'worked on' for quite some time it seems and the paper is also stained beyond repair and this really ADDS to the drawing : it becomes more painterly. So maybee I shouldn't be so scared.

About 8 out of 10 of these posts teach me something, for more than a year now I think. How come my head hasn't blown up yet!?

Paolo Rivera said...

I first came across Gruger's work at the Dahesh Museum during the Kelly collection show. I've loved it ever since, but can't seem to find enough. Do you know of any good sources?

James Gurney said...

Paolo, there's a good book on Gruger by Bennard Perlman from North Light Books in 1978. Like Fortunino Matania, he was an artist reporter for the newspaper, so he had a phenomenal visual memory. Illustration House in New York always has nice Gruger originals to look at.

Erik, I love "The Arrival," too, as well as that painterly exploratory way of drawing that you're talking about. Thanks for your regular comments; I always learn something from them, too.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, I often paint without using models, when I work this way I rely heavily on my memory and my life drawings of people. I keep my sketch book on me at all times, and draw people doing their daily activities. This is the first Ive heard of Gruger, Ill definitely try and find the book you mentioned. His work is great.

Thanks, Jason

Shawn Escott said...

I've missed a lot of amazing posts lately. I always learn something new when i have a visit! Thanks Mr. Gurney.

theresa said...

Just a thought- this is also a really good example of the shape welding you talked about in an earlier post. I love good pencil artists- it's a tool we all have at our disposal, yet so few people really excel at it. I'd love to see more.

Paolo Rivera said...

Many thanks for the info... I'll probably get the book shortly... as soon as I make some room on the shelf.

Anthony said...

Thanks for introducing me to Frederic R. Gruger. I found a nice (small) collection of his drawings here. That man really understood the figure, especially if he mostly drew from imagination as you say.

And thanks for quoting Pennell. I have a (probably out-of-print) book of his, Pen Drawing And Pen Draughtsmen that is as insightful as it is shocking. He certainly didn't mince words if he had an opinion.