Ben Shahn: Perspective


“I remember a story that my father used to tell of a traveller in 13th-century France who met three men wheeling wheelbarrows. He asked in what work they were engaged and he received from them the following three answers:

The first said, “I toil from sunup to sundown and all I receive for my pains is a few francs a day. ”

The second said, “I’m glad  enough to wheel this wheelbarrow for I have been out of work for many months and I have a family to support.”

The third said, “I am building Chartres Cathedral.”

-from The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn, 1957, Harvard University Press


Job Description: Illustrator


“I’m an illustrator. Most artists, if they’re painting something and you don’t understand it, that’s your problem. If I illustrate something and you don’t understand it, I failed.”

-Joe Krush (100 years old this week) who illustrated often with his wife, Beth.

Going Digital


Seventeen years ago, I tracked the growth of “digital” artmaking by examining a number of old Communication Arts Illustration Annuals. Because the yearly issue includes a description of artists’ media use, I was able to use that information to catch a glimpse of the pace of growth of the use of digital tools from year to year in their survey of outstanding illustration.

Some artists didn’t list their media, so I didn’t count them. Also not included, were those works described as “mixed media” because the term is non-specific.

Here’s what I learned from this year’s issue, and a comparison from my calculations from the past:

In the 2018 Annual:

73% of the entries described “digital” as part of the creation process*.

43% of the entries described “digital” as the only medium.


In the 2011 Annual, 54% of the entries described “digital” as part of the  process.
In the 2010 Annual, 44% of the entries described “digital” as part of the  process.
In the 2005 Annual, 29% of the entries described “digital” as part of the  process.
In the 2000 Annual, 12% of the entries described “digital” as part of the  process.
In the 1995 Annual,    3% of the entries described “digital” as part of the  process.
In the 1990 Annual,   .5% of the entries described “digital” as part of the process.
In the 1985 Annual,    0% of the entries described “digital” as part of the  process.


*Series of works were counted as one entry because all were described as of the same media and artist). “Mixed media” was not included, due to vagueness. Entries with no description of media were included in the calculations.

Bushmiller: First and Foremost

“The gag itself comes first and is the more difficult than the drawing part of cartooning.”     -Ernie Bushmiller, cartoonist of Nancy


“Before the cartoonist puts pen to board, before the cartoonist puts pencil to notebook, before the cartoonist does anything fruitful with the pulp based product or any sort of pointed object, the cartoonist must first think. The ability to regularly generate useful concepts is at the core of the creative practice.”

“According to Bushmiller confidant and fellow comic strip artist Morris Weiss: “Ernie would go into a trance and he would be completely oblivious to everything around him…Most of his time was consumed with coming up with ideas…His whole life was coming up with gags.”

-from How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden, Fantagraphics Books, 2017

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Clear Advice

“Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will guided by its light.”

– Joseph Pulitzer 1911

Dean Cornwell: Shaping the Story many triangles can you find in this picture? Hint: a bunch. They are formed by legs and arms. Actually, all of those soldiers combined with that gun that they’re firing form a triangle. And where do they all point? Yes, up to the left.  All of that is on purpose – by design. It’s composition at its most exciting. The elements in the picture are thrusting upwards in a unified way. The squares and rectangles have corners pointing in the same direction.

Dean Cornwell was a master illustrator and muralist. Hi nickname among contemporaries was “The Dean of Illustration.” To us, he was old school. That is, a narrative painter in the vein of Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, James Montgomery Flagg,  Howard Pyle, and his teacher Harvey Dunn. His work looked realistic. But one shouldn’t doubt that everything was created and served his communication concepts.


In this second illustration above, you won’t find thrusting triangles. Instead you’ll follow that drooping line of the couch, echoed by drooping of the man’s head. The composition sets up a feeling of despair.



In this painting the figures are the pupil of an eye-shape – formed by the Venician bridge and shadow. We can compare the two of them to the other pairings in the picture (poles). They are more separated. She looks away.



This picture has triangles like the first, but notice they go in different directions. There’s a pronounced element of confusion and distress created.


“A Composition,” says Cornwell, “is not just a nice arrangement with everything gracefully filling the space. No matter how satisfying it may be from abstract point of view it is meaningless in illustration unless it is built around and wholly expresses an authentic idea that motivates that particular picture.”*  


Further Observation

Looking at these examples, we see that Dean Cornwell not only told a variety of human stories, but also took us to convincingly to many places. All from his suburban studio in New Rochelle, New York. Which leads me to a second quote worth sharing, found in the same book*:

“An important difference the painter of easel pictures and the illustrator, is that the former goes through life painting the things that he sees before him, the things that appeal to him, while the latter is forced to paint something that neither he nor anyone else has seen, and make it appear as if he has actually been an observer on the spot.”

“The Measure of an illustrator is his ability to take a subject in which he may have neither interest nor information, tackle it with evertything that he’s got and make the finished painting look like the cosummation of his life’s one ambition.”



*-from Forty American Illustrators and How the Work by Ernest W. Watson (Watson-Guptill Publications, 1946)