Monday, July 30, 2007


Some artists produce mediocre work because they just can't do any better. Others produce it because they're able to get away with it.

Jack Davis is a highly talented artist who has done beautiful work over a long and stellar career. He also churned out enough lame, half-hearted work to decimate an entire forest.

Davis' talent was obvious from the start. Note the confidence, humor and strength of the brush work in this early contribution to MAD magazine:

Davis was still producing excellent work for MAD decades later.

During those decades, his distinctive style became wildly popular. His work appeared everywhere, from the cover of Time magazine to cheap advertisements in the back of local newspapers.

Davis worked at lightning speed, and apparently did not believe in turning down assignments. He obviously knew the difference between good and bad drawing, but you might not know it from some of the work he pushed out the door:

Every artist is born to confront this same temptation. Artists need to eat and deadlines are remorseless. If a client will pay for a hasty, second rate job, why should an artist ever do more? A great deal depends on how an artist answers this question.

I've previously quoted the great illustrator Robert Fawcett, who was no stranger to this temptation. Fawcett fought back:
The argument that "it won't be appreciated anyway" may be true, but in the end this attitude does infinitely more harm to the artist than to his client.
Ben Jaroslaw, who worked with the famous illustrator Bernie Fuchs, recalled how Fuchs responded to the opportunity to coast along doing repetitive, lucrative work:
All the local art directors kept calling up saying, I want Bernie! I want Bernie! But Bernie got tired of doing pictures of people holding drinks and just said, "shove it."
Another illustrator who worked with Fuchs, Bob Heindel, made a similar observation:
I know Bernie has tried to choose his assignments, and I know he has done some work he is not so proud of....That's how you learn. But you learn to protect yourself, and mostly if you care about it you learn to protect your work. Bernie was always very protective of his ability. Not that he was vain-- quite the contrary. But he knew what he had. And he always wanted the opportunity to do his very best.
Jack Davis has had a wonderful career, but his legacy would be different if he had been a little more protective of his great ability.

One of my very favorite cartoonists, Leonard Starr, once said that writing and drawing a syndicated daily comic strip was like "running in front of a train." He laughed,"you'd be surprised how good a drawing starts to look at 3:00 in the morning." The pressures are real. So where does an artist draw the line? When facing similar temptations, I often think back to this wonderfully instructive passage from Starr's comic strip, On Stage:

We are all entitled to lie down a little, but make sure you know how to count to nine.