Hungarians, Childhood and Steve Black: Tryin' to live the dream
This guy, Willy Pogany, is literally the first artist I ever liked. Click on all these images to make them bigger. Seriously. They look so much better that way.
I remember a set of books called something like “My Little Bookhouse.” There were 10 or 12 of them, all hardcovers, and all themed. The earliest volumes were geared toward very young readers, and contained mostly Mother Goose rhymes, Aesop’s Fables and simple folk tales. Somewhere near the double digits, there was a volume with a painting of a castle and a procession of knights on the cover, and this one was my favorite. It was full of classical myths like the story of Perseus and the journey of Odysseus, legends like the story of the Ring of the Nibelung, and all sorts of tales about King Arthur and the Knights of Camelot. I was able to read fairly well by kindergarten, but I can remember looking at the illustrations in these books even before that.
While I liked almost all of the art, the artist whose work I loved the most was Willy Pogany. All of his pieces were very simple, elegant black and white line drawings but they were just beautiful. And he got to draw almost all of the monsters, from the Medusa that Perseus beheaded...
...to the monstrous children of Loki in the Norse myths...
and that was a big deal to me. At the time, I didn’t know who he was and I forgot about him as I worked my way through junior high and high school. Some time during my undergraduate years at Bowling Green State University, while doing some work in the library for a project on children’s books, I came across a copy of the book The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles.
I paged through it, saw Pogany’s classic illustrations, and was thunderstruck with a wave of nostalgia that knocked me off my feet. It’s hard to describe that feeling really.
Willy Pogany was a Hungarian illustrator working primarily in children’s books during the first half of the 1900s. He was incredibly prolific and created some real masterpieces in his time, including fully illustrated versions of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser, Parsifal and Lohengrin. He passed away in 1955 but left behind and impressive body of work that included beautiful black and white as well as full color drawings and paintings. Take a look at some of these stunningly gorgeous pieces from his illustrated versions of Wagner's operas...
I’m not sure how much of the person we become is innate in us from birth or is a product of our environment. I don’t know how different I would have been if I had seen the messy scratchy illustrations of Jules Feiffer first instead of the clean line work of Willy Pogany. All I know is that those illustrations made an indelible impression on me, one which has never really disappeared entirely. I still thrill – absolutely thrill, personally and emotionally and reflexively – to his work.
About 6 months ago, when I began working on my project to create one illustration for every page of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, fellow Panelista Steve Black sent me an email in which he basically called me out and wrote that he thought I was capable of producing much better art than I was currently making. It wasn’t a douche bag move at all; it was actually something that only a good friend could have done. Steve wasn’t overstepping any boundaries with me at all. We had a great exchange, and while I was able to share a little more about what I was trying to do with the Moby-Dick pieces, he was able to refine and strengthen his critique, and we came to a good understanding. Steve’s words have stayed with me since then.
I still dig the Moby-Dick stuff a lot, but the very nature of the project (one illustration per day, made in an hour or less, and so on, for 552 consecutive days) has a real effect on how finely polished the images will be. Those pieces are rougher, more random, more experimental, and more wide-ranging. But I keep coming back to Steve’s words, and in a weird way, to Willy Pogany.
See, Willy Pogany is the one guy who I’d kill to be able to draw like. I don’t mean I’d like to swipe him, I mean I’d do almost anything for his command of line, form, composition, and elegance. But you know, in spite of more or less imitating all sorts of other comic book artists like Kirby and Marder and sometimes even Simonson throughout my years of making art, I’ve never worked toward what I’d really like to accomplish. A lot of that has been, I’ll admit, a fear of failure. If I never try to clean things up and draw like Pogany did, I’ll never fail at it. But I know that’s really stupid and pathetic. So lately I’ve been thinking, why not? Why can’t I be that good? Or at least try to be that good? I’ll be dead eventually, and if I died tomorrow would I regret not challenging myself to make the kind of art that I love the most? Definitely, yes.
So take a look at Willy Pogany’s art, and please let me know…any advice? I know Andy told me to draw and draw and draw and draw and I believe that. Looking at what Pogany could do, I have no doubt he had piles of sketchbooks all over the place. But what else? Any advice on this kind of clean line drawing? I think it's fascinating that in so much of the early, black & white stuff I love by Pogany, there is only a single thickness of line. No heavier weights of line at all. It's all done with composition and linework. I can see echoes of it in the art of Paul Smith (especially his X-Men stuff)...
and Yves Lombard...
and even Sergio Aragones with his single pen approach.
So help me out and I’ll share the results as I work on this. Pen suggestions? Practice suggestions? How to make this work in black & white? How to make this work for comics as well as it does for static illustrations? Any feedback at all will be deeply appreciated.
Ape your heroes.
You'll never be able to duplicate anyone else's work exactly, but in attempting to do so, you'll learn a lot about your own approach.
Jamie Rich gave me one of the best pieces of advice when looking at ink work: take an artist you like, blow up their work and look at the pen marks.
There comes a phase in every artist's life when they're trying to mimic artists they like. Eventually, you see them stray away and work out their own style. You'll see it leak out every once in a while.
I see you already trying out different media when you're working on the Moby Dick pieces.
For what it's worth -- I love that clean line too, and I also haven't been able to do it.
I always fall back on cross-hatching.
Look at the early issues of Moon Knight; Bill Sienkiewicz started out as a Neal Adams clone. That just kind of catapulted him to where he is today.
I check this blog regularly and don't usually stick my oar in but I felt I had to say something regarding Mr Pogany - fantastic stuff! I've never come across him before so thanks for introducing me to his wondeful work. He reminds me a little of Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham... and he looks like he must have been quite an influence on P.Craig Russell, too.
I totally understand your reluctance to try your hand at something in his style - that fear of failing at something you love stopped me trying comic strips at all for years - but what have you got to lose? I don't have any tips to offer, I'm afraid, but I've been told that Herge's ligne clair style is a product of tracing and tracing and tracing until that one, essential line has been refined. As far as using a single thickness goes - I'm stumped. Whenever I've tried it myself, my drawings have looked flat and lifeless. I suppose it's like many things - a skilled exponent can make the most complex of tasks look deceptively easy.
Josh Middleton is another great illustrator that doesn't do much in the way of line weights, but has super delicate drawing and beautiful colors added in the computer.
Good one to look at since he also does comics, but his covers are super.
Look at Klimnt and Egon Scheille for the sinlge line weights too. as well as Aubrey Beardsley. Not sure of the spelling of those names. just google them. Also kids book and editorial illustrator Istvan Banyai , whos book Zoom is everywhere. Great work with line and color.
I think it's not just a matter of line weight, but a matter of pencilling. If I did that, with my pencils, it would look like I just didn't know to vary my line weights.
If you're that good of a draftsman, I think it buys you the credibility to do something unique.
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