Thursday, October 23, 2008


Those of you who are sick and tired of hearing how much I love the drawings of Noel Sickles are in luck, because today I'm going to talk about how much I love his paintings instead.

Sickles was one of the best natural-born draftsmen around. He earned the respect of his fellow artists for his almost supernatural ability to understand and draw what he saw.

Although Sickles is respected for his drawing, a recent excellent collection of his work reminds us that Sickles also painted with the wisdom and control of a zen master.

Zen painters believed in long, slow meditation before a brush touches the paper. Only after the artist understands the essence of the subject and reduces it to its most profound simplicity does the artist proceed to paint--quickly, decisively and with the minimum number of brush strokes. The following enso is a classic image for ink brush painters: a circle painted in a single breath, accompanied by vigorous and confident calligraphy.

I admire how Asian brush painting requires the artist to make the maximum commitment using the minimum touch. There's no room for mistakes; the hard labor of eliminating extraneous details and exploring alternative approaches is worked out in the mind of the artist rather than on the paper.

Sickles painted the following illustration when he was 60. Note the distinctive way he handled the smoke from the tires:

It probably took no more than 5 seconds for Sickles to capture that smoke by scuffing his brush across the painting. However, if he screwed up, the whole painting was ruined. (Believe it or not, o best beloved, once upon a time before photoshop enabled unlimited takeovers, artists had to make choices and were accountable for the results.)

Smoke like that doesn't take 5 seconds to paint, it takes 60 years.

Or look at this splendid cover for Life Magazine:

Sickles was an artist who had pondered elusive subjects such as clouds and mist and ocean spray, so that when it came time to depict them with a brush he was able to move quickly and decisively, and that quality transforms his paintings:

The new book about Sickles is worth buying for the drawings alone, but don't skip over the paintings.