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Jesse Hamm

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More On Toth [Apr. 27th, 2011|07:12 am]
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On the occasion of cartoonist Alex Toth's passing, I posted a brief appreciation of his work's merits. To celebrate today's debut of a new book on his life and work, here's a follow-up article, in several parts. This first entry explores how Toth acquired his formidable skills; subsequent entries will analyze those skills.

(EDIT: Part 2 is here.)

PART 1: TOTH'S ADVANTAGE

"There came a time when I had to unlearn many things." ~Alex Toth


By the age of 30, in the late 1950s, Alex Toth was drawing some of the finest pages in the history of comic art. His work at that time was a rare combination of hard-won realism, dynamic compositions, and clear, simple rendering. Curiously, though, his work from the prior decade shows no sign of his later excellence.

We expect great artists to rocket ahead of their peers in their youth. J. C. Leyendecker's student work was so good that his art school displayed it proudly on their walls, where it intimidated subsequent classes for decades. Frank Frazetta was painting better than some adults by the age of eight, Albrecht Durer drew this at the age of thirteen and this at twenty; here's Diego Velazquez at nineteen, and here's Dave Stevens at the same age. Even the talented-though-less-revered Joe Madureira excelled at the age of 19, and the adolescent work of other notables tells a similar story. But Toth claimed in interviews that he was no prodigy -- a claim his unimpressive early work confirms:






The above pages were drawn by Toth at the age of nineteen, after he had been working in comics for three or four years. The art is clumsily rendered, poorly staged, and full of ignorant guesswork. It's better than what most people can draw, and it met the crude demands of its era, but it's no better than that of the average career-bound young artist. Show it to today's publishers and they would tell you not to quit your day job. Clearly, Toth was not a born genius; some factor other than natural talent was responsible for his later preeminence.

An obvious candidate for that "other factor" is practice. They say practice makes perfect, and Toth did practice a lot. However, if a few years of practice could explain his sudden growth, then surely decades of practice would carry other, more prolific cartoonists beyond Toth's level -- yet the fruit of most lengthy comic book careers shows otherwise. Few cartoonists draw as well by the end of their lives as Toth did by the age of thirty, despite their having spent decades longer than he at the drawing board. So practice alone can't account for Toth's amazing development.

Another factor that could explain Toth's development is his access to useful knowledge. Toth attended a high school aimed at nurturing artists; he knew cartoonist Frank Robbins personally and corresponded with Caniff and Sickles; he enrolled in the Famous Artists Course; he had fine editors in Sol Harrison and Sheldon Mayer. However, countless peers of his had similar advantages. Many of them attended that same high school, many knew and worked with established pros, and (probably) many took the Famous Artists Course. Toth's editors -- Harrison and Mayer -- doubtless offered the same advice ("Simplify!") to every artist in their stable, but Toth is the only one I know of who was so transformed by their advice.

So we arrive at a mystery. Other '50s cartoonists showed equal promise early on, worked as often or more than Toth, and had access to the same knowledge, yet few (if any) of them reached Toth's level by the end of that decade. If neither natural talent, nor years of practice, nor access to knowledge can account for Toth's rapid rise to excellence, then what was his secret? What magic potion turned this adequate beginner into an unsurpassed master within a decade?

In my occasional role as an art teacher, I've noticed a strange phenomenon. The student will learn a new technique -- hear it, grasp it, practice it a couple of times -- and then abandon it, returning to whatever mediocre approach the new technique was meant to replace. Why does this happen? My curiosity on this point led me to read of what educators have called "the learning trough." The learning trough is a period in which the student becomes temporarily less capable than usual, in order to master a newly learned skill. For instance, a typing student who formerly relied on the hunt-and-peck method will find herself typing more slowly while she attempts to master the (ultimately faster) method of touch-typing.

The learning trough stands in contrast to the more familiar learning curve, in which students progress more rapidly in the initial stages of learning. This is because the learning curve results from additive learning: the student is adding knowledge where none existed -- whereas the learning trough results from supplantive learning: the student is attempting to replace flawed knowledge with better knowledge. This is an important distinction. It means that additive learning rewards the ego, while supplantive learning punishes the ego. Beginners exploring wholly new territory (additive) are spurred on by their relatively quick initial success, but advanced students who find themselves in the learning trough (supplantive) tend to rush back to the more familiar territory of mediocrity, because doing the wrong thing well is less embarrassing than doing the right thing poorly. The learning trough is even scarier for professional artists, whose reputation and livelihood depend on appearing skillful. "I have deadlines to meet, clients and fans to impress... I can't take a break from all that to master some unfamiliar method." And so they plateau. To be sure, every artist will happily add a new trick to his bag when one appears -- just not when doing so means trading away an old standby, and briefly floundering.

Getting back to Toth, I'm convinced that Toth's "magic potion" was his willingness to brave the learning trough in search of greater skill. When editors critiqued his work, he didn't just add their tips to his flawed body of knowledge, or pour greater effort over the same old methods, as artists typically do when they try to improve. Instead, he tore up his art (sometimes physically; often metaphorically) and re-drew it, arduously replacing familiar methods with the better ones his editors recommended. A supplantive learning approach, rather than the additive one typical to others. The ground-up improvement of his work throughout his twenties bears witness to this.

Compare the following examples. At the outset of his career, Toth favored the standard, conventional approach of giving ample space and light to characters' faces:



But he soon began experimenting heavily with ways of obscuring characters' faces. If used well, this approach has a variety of advantages: it can add depth, lend faces greater mystery, foster a spontaneous "hand-held camera" feel, direct readers' attention elsewhere, or vary the heads' shapes for a more interesting design. Here's Toth using this approach masterfully in the late '50s, when he was around 30:




This panel is especially sophisticated. The severe cropping of Whitey's chin
bounces our attention back into the panel, ensuring that we notice the figure
watching him from the crowd. Had Whitey not been cropped, our satisfaction
at seeing his entire face may have prompted us to move on without noticing
the watching figure.


However, in inexperienced hands, this approach can misfire, and look downright weird. You can see Toth struggling to master it in these earlier examples -- and failing:



Above: a distracting fur collar intrudes on the speaker's face.



Here, we can hardly tell that the man is speaking to his lover (represented by the mound of hair at the right).



These two unfortunates look like they're trapped in that 'mirror prison' from Superman II.



This guy's apparently using his martini to herd poor Ginny out of the panel.



This scene's photographer has slipped and cropped off the women's mouths.



What on Earth are they doing?!


These failed experiments weren't private; they appeared in print for all the world to see. Toth's early '50s work is full of such missteps. But he had to brave the embarrassment of poorly composed panels in order to graduate to the sophisticated compositions that distinguished his work by the end of the decade. Let me repeat that this improvement wasn't a matter of adding bells and whistles to a standard approach. Toth was recasting his approach at its foundations, like a cyclist shifting into higher gear instead of pedalling harder. It was this willingness to swap out inferior methods for more effective ones -- even at the cost of embarrassment during the interim -- that put him ahead of other great draftsmen, who merely continued refining the familiar methods with which they first established their careers:



Early and later work by top cartoonist John Prentice, adding sharper skill -- but little else -- to his scenes.
Fine improvement, but dull compared the trio of bold Toth compositions farther up.


During the '50s, Toth probably spent more time in the scary headspace of the learning trough than any of his contemporaries. "Of all the artists I've met," recalls veteran illustrator Greg Theakston,"none have been so quick to crucify their work, and with so much disdain." Of Toth's written self-appraisals, cartoonist Derik Badman observed that Toth "spends more time analyzing what went wrong, what he’d like to have done differently, than discussing anything else, as if all he could see were the flaws." Spending so much time outside of his artistic comfort zone must have taxed Toth's emotional health. Toth later admitted that his intense devotion to art wore heavily on his family. He also learned late in life that he was bipolar, and I suspect this condition was worsened by his pattern of entering and leaving the learning trough: alternating the brief joys of achievement with the ongoing burden of new failures.

On the other hand, these efforts left him with skills that most of his peers could only dream of. In Part 2, we'll take a close look at some of those skills.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

"It was great fun, to learn anew. You think you know enough, but you don't. You must open up; let it in. ...be receptive, admit what you don't know, which few are willing to do. Start from square one. Again!" ~Alex Toth

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

(More on the learning trough here. I haven't yet bought "Genius Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth," but I look forward to it. It can be purchased from Amazon at a 37% discount, plus free shipping.)
linkReply

Comments:
[User Picture]From: daltonnw
2011-04-27 05:24 pm (UTC)

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Wow, amazing insights. Thanks for sharing!
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-04-28 03:44 am (UTC)

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Thank you!
[User Picture]From: thetoymaker
2011-04-27 06:02 pm (UTC)

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This is awesome! Wow... every artist I know should read this.

[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-04-28 03:44 am (UTC)

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Thanks!
[User Picture]From: david_porta
2011-04-27 08:50 pm (UTC)

FASCINATING

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.

A clear, convincing, well-articulated thesis with abundant examples.

So, have *you* had any *personal* experience with the learning trough? Have you ever had to un-learn anything.

I see that the early examples of Toth show a fairly primitive style in other respects than just composition. Composition seems to be your focus in this chapter.

.
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-04-28 01:18 am (UTC)

Re: FASCINATING

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Thanks Dave.

Yeah, Toth learned other stuff too. (Surprise!) I had prepared some material on his advances in perspective, but the entry was growing too long so I culled it. Maybe it will show up in a later entry.

I recently unlearned the way I hold the pencil when laying in a composition: the old grip was comfortable, the new grip is superior. Reminds me of a conversation from (I think) the movie The Natural, where a young baseball player is instructed to stop holding his bat with his wrists crossed. He complains it would take too long to get used to the other way, and the coach says the "down time" will pay off in the long run, since he'll be able to hit farther.

However, overall I've unlearned surprisingly little. It's so much faster and easier to just paste new knowledge over the old, without fundamental revision. I suspect this is true of just about every artist, which is why most don't show as much improvement as Toth. I'll have to make a deliberate effort to unlearn/relearn some stuff in the coming year. Time to sweat.


(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-04-29 08:01 pm (UTC)

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You raise a good point re. style. "It's my style!" seems to be a common excuse among artists for hanging on to bad habits.

Reminds me of an aspiring cartoonist I knew back in the '90s. Her drawing was awful, so I gave her some tips, and she dismissed them all with,"I'm not trying for realism. I'm trying to emulate '60s Hanna Barbera adventure shows, like SuperFriends." So I explained to her that she was in luck: a book had just debuted that collected hundreds of model sheets from that studio and era, all by Alex Toth. The perfect "bible" for anyone wanting to emulate that style, all for only twenty-five bucks. She was unmoved. "Too expensive!"
From: (Anonymous)
2011-04-30 01:53 am (UTC)

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And ha ha!, joke's on her, because if you're talking about that ALEX TOTH: BY DESIGN book, that's now worth a couple hundred bucks!

Jesse, this is a really useful and thought-provoking post. Thanks for putting it up there and helping to crystallize exactly why Toth's one of my very tip-top favorite artists in comics.

Now I've got some unlearnin' ta do!

Matt Southworth
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-04-30 07:39 am (UTC)

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Thanks Matt.

Yeah, that was the book, and it was yanked off the market within months after I recommended it to her. Luckily, most or all of that art (and more) should appear in the third volume of this IDW trilogy.
From: (Anonymous)
2011-04-29 05:55 pm (UTC)

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Thanks for this, Jesse!
From: (Anonymous)
2011-04-30 12:58 am (UTC)

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great article - now i can worry less about my flaws as an artist and feel worse about my flaws as a person - probably not brave enough to go through the pain and shame required for improvement --
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-04-30 07:32 am (UTC)

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Ha ha
But there's a lot of truth in that. I find that the hardest lessons in drawing are those that challenge my character flaws, rather than my knowledge. For instance, good taste seems to consist of a willingness to trust viewers to get the point without patronizing them. (More on that here.) But trusting viewers is SO much harder than techniques that aren't character-oriented.
[User Picture]From: Bosch Fawstin
2011-04-30 05:48 am (UTC)

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You've got my attention, thanks, looking forward to your next post on this.
[User Picture]From: castlesartmagic
2011-05-03 05:07 pm (UTC)

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Good article but that Madureira page is 100 times worse than the earliest Toth pages. The Dave Stevens image isn't convincing either. Looks like he just translated a photograph.

The Toth "misfires" look like he was cutting edges to meet a deadline.
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-05-04 11:29 am (UTC)

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I'll have to disagree. Madureira could have spotted more blacks, but to be fair he was drawing for color, and this page and the rest of the issue (Uncanny X-Men #313) looks better to me than teenage Toth's in every other respect.

The Stevens pic was based on a photo, so I agree he earns no points there for originality, but the accuracy and brushwork alone show how much better has was than Toth at the same age.

I could accept deadline pressures as an excuse for one or two of Toth's pages, but these pages are from four different stories, and all the other work I've seen from his teens is similarly unimpressive.
[User Picture]From: castlesartmagic
2011-05-04 01:18 pm (UTC)

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I think the early Toth pages have a higher grade of difficulty than either the Madureira page or the Stevens pic. Toth had to fit a lot more action into those small panels than either of the other two had to worry about. The Toth stuff looks like someone who, though still awkward, takes sequential storytelling seriously. It's not too surprising to me that someone doing work like that at 19 would develop into a superior artist. Stevens and especially Madureira are less focused on good storytelling, something I think is a lot tougher to master than accurate brushstrokes or slick splash pages. I think that's pretty obvious if you look at the majority of work being done today.

Anyway, no need to quibble too much about this, I'm in total agreement with your overall view and am looking forward to the next installment of your series on Toth.
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-05-04 06:20 pm (UTC)

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Thanks Angel. I do agree that Stevens wasn't as focused on good storytelling as Toth. He told me once at a convention that he really preferred drawing covers and pin-ups to drawing comics. I saw my dreams of another issue of Rocketeer sprout wings and fly away...

I'm hoping to post more on Toth next week.
[User Picture]From: castlesartmagic
2011-05-03 05:09 pm (UTC)

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By the way, ever read "Talent is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin?
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-05-04 11:31 am (UTC)

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Hadn't seen it before, but I just read an excerpt; looks great.
[User Picture]From: 2ce
2011-05-06 04:55 am (UTC)

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I'm always a bit awed by these total breakdowns of the masters that you post. You're very very good at bridging the visual and the historical and the biographical.
From: williamstout
2011-05-09 07:30 pm (UTC)

Toth Analysis

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My brilliant son and comics fan Andy sent me a link to your incredibly perceptive essay on Toth. I had never considered additive vs. supplantive learning. It makes enormous sense. I see the reasons behind some of my own artistic successes and difficulties made clearer by your analysis.

I'm fascinated by the nature of the creative process. Working closely with two geniuses (Jean "Moebius" Giraud and Ron Cobb), I saw that they had at least one thing in common: they both take a childlike delight in the world. Their creativity seems like a form of play. They are both completely unblocked and freshly unprejudiced, which gives them total unfettered free access to all of their creative impulses.

Learning that Toth was bi-polar explains mountains about the guy for me personally. It's a shame he wasn't on some good meds; it would have made his life, friendships and relationships so much easier...

I love the first volume of the series of new huge Toth books and look forward to future tomes. Although we had a falling out, I never lost respect for Alex's magnificent work and great storytelling skills.
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-05-11 12:57 pm (UTC)

Re: Toth Analysis

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Thanks for commenting, William! I was just perusing your gorgeous art books last week
(Inspirations and Hallucinations), and appreciating your generous tutorial on achieving a Rackham/sepia effect. And let me add a belated "thank you" for your commentary on Return of the Living Dead -- a great flick, and I enjoyed hearing your insights.

Here are some other blog entries you might enjoy, where I wrote about Frank Frazetta and Dave Stevens:

Frazetta 1
Frazetta 2
Stevens
From: williamstout
2011-05-09 09:51 pm (UTC)

Toth/Dave Stevens

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BTW, I think you may have misinterpreted what Dave Stevens told you. When he said he preferred drawing covers and pin-ups to stories, I believe it might have been an expression by Dave of how time-consuming drawing sequential story art is in comparison to creating single image jobs like covers and pin-ups. Because of the time issue, it was far easier for Dave to make money drawing covers and pin-ups than stories (cover and pin-up original art is much easier to sell, too, than story pages are).

I feel much the same way. I'm crazy about drawing comics (despite the crappy pay) --- but I can draw six covers in roughly the same time it takes me to draw a six panel page. I would prefer to draw stories (it's more challenging) --- but I've got house payments to make (I am drawing an 8-pager right now, though, for the revived "Alien Worlds". It seems like it's taking forever. Just ask my writer-editor, Bruce Jones).

Plus, by creating a story I face that original art sales problem. Do I break up the story (I hate doing that) and sell the pages individually? Or do I try to sell the story as an entire self-contained entity (leaving me with something that's much more difficult to sell)? The pages were meant to be together, after all.

Dave took his comic book storytelling extremely seriously. He agonized over every panel (I know; I was there when he was creating The Rocketeer in my studio), constantly trying to improve his skills in that arena. Dave learned a lot from Toth but the two were obviously worlds apart stylistically.
From: williamstout
2011-05-11 06:57 pm (UTC)

Thanks!

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Hi Jesse,
Thanks for those links! Great articles all! You continue to bring a fresh perspective to everything you write about and analyze. I deeply appreciate that. It's very, very rare, especially in the world of comics and comic art. Please continue your finely perceptive writing and criticism!
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-08-13 03:55 pm (UTC)

Re: Thanks!

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Many thanks, William. I've finally posted the follow-up:

http://sirspamdalot.livejournal.com/83517.html
[User Picture]From: darkwaterfrey
2011-06-25 05:14 pm (UTC)

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Wonderful! Thanks for posting this.
[User Picture]From: stanleylieber
2011-08-15 12:46 am (UTC)

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great! looking forward to the next installment.
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-08-15 04:05 am (UTC)

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Thanks! It's right here.
From: (Anonymous)
2013-03-03 03:08 am (UTC)

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What you can clearly see during this period was just how much Toth was influenced by contemporary illustration:
notable Al Parker, Fawcett, Briggs, Çoby Whitmore. You can find almost all of the types of solutions that he is using
in their work at the time. and it was a classic example of Alex's attempt to take his work beyond "just comics."