Thursday, March 17, 2011

Noel Sickles Illustrates "The Source"

From Reader's Digest Condensed Books, 1965















* My Noel Sickles Flickr set.

* Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles - a must read for any serious fan of illustration art - is available from IDW Publishing


  1. Michael Lark3:27 PM

    This same edition of RDDB has another story with some truly beautiful Anthony Saris illustrations. :)

  2. Michael Lark3:27 PM

    I meant RDCB. Oops.

  3. Michael; I was looking at those as I scanned this batch and I was thinking, I really need to get these posted some time soon. ;^)

  4. Leif, I had never seen this series by Sickles before. Thanks for showing it.

    Am I correct that the title page is not by Sickles, but by somebody named Rimsky? (That stone antiquity projecting out of the sand does not look as firmly grounded as it would if Sickles had drawn it. Sickles was a great respecter or gravity and physics).

    Also, speaking as someone who read Michener's book as a young boy (it was a llloooooonnnng book, but real good) I am surprised that Sickles chose such a heavy line and such "dirty" shading to draw a sun bleached middle eastern desert. Unless he was trying to draw a sandstorm, I don't understand why he would use the side of a piece of chalk to scuff up a vacant blue sky or draw such thick folds and shadows. Whenever I don't understand what Sickles has done, I assume the fault is mine and I double back to see what I have missed.

  5. Like David A, I am also puzzled by some of Sickles choices of texture, and dare I say, heavy handed rendering in some of these illos. These are not his finest illustrations, IMO. Busy, busy, busy.. every wrinkle indicated and, the background fights with the figures. Robert Fawcett also came close to over-working some of his illos, but seemed to just stop short of it. I have seen Noel Sickles ilos that have blown my socks of.. powerful, dramatic and solidly drawn and rendered. Some of these illos posted, seem to have gone beyond that point. And, like David A. suggested, I too went back and took another careful look at. I always remember the rule of thumb, that "if in doubt leave it out" or later known as KISS, "keep it simple stupid". However, I am by no means calling Noel Sickles stupid. He was one of the top black and white illustrators of the 50s' and 60s', but he was never thought of as a great painter or a master of color.

    Tom Watson

  6. David; Could the answer to your question be as simple as this: "experimentation."

    Sickles loved to experiment with new processes and combinations of media and this one, in some people's opinion, may have been less than successful. Add to that the never very good reproduction quality of RDCB and I think you have your answer.

    Whenever I feature Sickles I find myself returning to my (now very worn) copy of The Comics Journal #242 and the wonderful Sickles interview therein. I love that interview because Gil Kane asks Sickles such intelligent questions and, in response, we get the rare treat of hearing exactly what the artist thought about his own (and others') work in his own words.

    There's a great passage I've quoted before that strikes me as ideal in regards to your observation: Kane says, "And then I saw some of the stuff you did for Reader's Digest, with a very, very extreme emphasis on line and texture ... and the thing is that there was a constant, constant change as time went on ... you kept changing because you kept growing and developing..."

    To which Sickles sagaciously replies, "Also, you get bored doing a certain thing."

    Bingo! ;^)

  7. Leif, it could indeed be experimentation, although personally I would think he might want to draw some conclusions about the success of the experiment after the first couple of illustrations before completing the whole series.

    One of the things I usually love about Sickles is that no matter how thick and bold his line, no matter how crude and primitive his drawing tool, no matter how sparse his application, he still manages to achieve the precision of a master surgeon. I just don't get that feeling with this "experiment." There seem to be a number of lines and shapes that work at odds with, or snuff out, his subject matter.

    On the other hand, I agree with Tom, Sickles is entitled to an almost irrebuttable presumption that he knows what he is doing. I must be wrong.

  8. LoL, David; It a real testament to your admiration for Sickles that you keep suggesting you must be wrong - but you're a smart guy (a wise guy?) so consider that maybe you're not - and that in fact Sickles is only human, like the rest of us. We have no idea what his circumstances were at the time of this job... but think about it: he had to do nearly a dozen images that involve researching costuming and environments from a variety of different eras and cultures and include at least two panoramic scenes of epic proportion.

    Knowing Sickles propensity to experiment, he may simply have had to keep the ball rolling or miss his deadline rather than go back and start again. He may have had revisions from the AD that had to be completed at the eleventh hour. He may have had other distractions of a personal nature - or any combination of these and other factors.

    This interests me greatly - especially as I'm currently teaching one group of my students about the basics of good composition - something I see in many of these pieces. I must confess, I don't see the massive failure in this series that you and Tom do. Perhaps you could enlighten us with some specific examples of lines and shapes that work at odds with, or snuff out, his subject matter.

  9. Sickles was a great experimenter with technique,its possible that this was one job that he chose the 'wrong' style for.
    Alex Toth would tear up pages of beautiful work if he wasn't happy with his approach, not all illustrators are that obsessive.

  10. Charlie Allen hasn't been commenting here for a while:

    Hope all is well.

  11. From the current and previous samples of the Readers Digest stuff you've shown us,it might be that the small page size and paper quality,prompted some artists to use a bold outline and spot color style,sort of like the bold ink rendering done for the inside illustrations in pulp magazines.
    The editors or art directors might have suggested that approach to make the images more readable.

  12. Love his drawing, not so sure about his color sense!

  13. Many, many years ago I was so taken with the Fords Out Front Ad, complete with Canadian Mounties I removed it from the magazine and framed it and hung it up, and I am very much appreciate learning about the artist.Thanks!

  14. Leif, I don't think these are bad compositions, but I have seen Sickles do a lot better. They are rather predictable and ordinary. I think rather than trying out experimental approaches, the answer would more likely be that he was rushed trying to get his research, models, costumes, photos and then had to crank them out with the time he had left. He probably didn't have time to play around with the renderings. Also, IMO he's at his best when he doesn't try to pack in a lot of figures and show so much detail in the background of many of those illos. Tom Lovell would be a good example of the use of dynamic compositions in his historical battle scenes and other group illustrations. He would show many figures that were carefully designed to guide us through the painting. Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth's timeless compositions influenced Lovell, and many other excellent mid century illustrators.

    Tom Watson