Friday, February 7, 2014

Lightning Sketch Artists, Part 1

A popular stage act around 1900 was the lightning sketch artist. These performers drew quickly in front of the audience, providing a lively patter as they brought the drawing through amusing or surprising transformations. 
Edwin Lutz thanks Michael Sporn Animation

Typically they worked in charcoal on a big piece of paper on an easel, but sometimes they used chalk and a chalkboard. The act often required strategically adding new lines that changed the drawing into something else. 

Sometimes the transformations involved turning the drawing upside down. Inspired by an old book called "The Art of Chalk Talk," I adapted a normal easel with a lazy susan swivel that allows me to turn drawings upside down, and I've tried similar gags in my lectures. Maybe some of you have seen my own act.

A few of the acts by the original performers were filmed, including a 1906 performance called "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces" by J. Stuart Blackton (1875-1941) (Video link). He stopped the camera between different phases of the action to add or subtract lines, or to replace them with paper cutouts. In this way, he inadvertently became one of the fathers of animation.

More examples of lightning sketchers tomorrow, including the legendary Winsor McCay.


Reaven said...

At 2:40 he's erasing it, but before that it looked like everything was made out of cut-outs. You could even see shadows around the contours.

Or are those shadows visual artefacts?

Roca said...

I have often looked for resources in this performance art and found nothing. The book you mention is nowhere to be found! Any suggestions?

James Gurney said...

Meredith, It's hard to find much in print about these guys because the performers were often secretive about the art form. There is a book called Lightning Sketch Art in Ten Minutes by Munro on Archive. I haven't found "The Art of Chalk Talk" anywhere online. I'll try to do more posts from it.

Reaven, yes, he's using a lot of tricks, including cutouts and backward film.

doloresquilts said...

Enjoyed your post today!

medsec said...

My partner's father was Paul Sarony, lightening sketch artist, 1920-1964. Australia

I wondered if you have any information.

James Gurney said...

Medsec, I found a 1946 article that mentions him: "Phil Bramley. the funny man remembered in the Dads' Show in the Town Hall some two years ago, Paul Sarony, lightning sketch artist and Don Humphries, piano and piano accordeon, are coming from Melbourne."

Stuart McLean said...

Wallace Goldsmith, the Boston sports newspaper cartoonist, was a book illustrator in the early 1900s. In 1908, and probably earlier, he performed at the Keith Theater in Boston as a lightning sketch artist. The manager of the Keith Theater, Robert Larsen, was my great-grandfather. One of Goldsmith’s stage drawings was handed down to me and now hangs in my home office. It is a watercolor and ink on newsprint depiction of a crowd of children circling Uncle Sam and a giant firecracker with the caption “Bang, Three Days More Then $100,000 Goes Up In Smoke in Boston”. You can still see some of the underlying pencil sketch. Goldsmith also created an illustrated pamphlet, The Keith ABC for Children, as a promotion for the Theater in 1906.
Source: The Fourth Estate, July 11, 1908 (Google Books).