Wednesday, March 21, 2007

My Favourite Cartoonists Part 2: Noel Sickles

Noel Sickles is the Man. Although he's primarly remembered as an illustrator and worked as a cartoonist for only a handful of years in the 1930's, Sickles revolutionized comic art. While Milt Caniff is justly celebrated for his deep chiascuro art-style, it was Sickles who taught his friend the basics of that approach. During the few years that he worked on the comic strip Scorchy Smith, Sickles really laid the groundwork for much of the cartooning that came after. In my opinion, few people did black and white artwork as well as he did, and none did it better.

As a writer, Sickles is nothing special, but as an artist and draftsman, he was second to none. His style was characterized by boldness, spontaneity and a sense of restless experimentation. I always got the feeling that Sickles was so good that he got bored very easily and was constantly inventing new ways of drawing just to keep himself interested in working at a high level. He was masterful in pen and ink, he did wonderful duo-tone artwork and most of all, he had an absolutely beautiful and lush black brush-work style. At a time when most people were doing line-art based cartooning, Sickles was more interested in shadows and lighting, using rich black areas to make his drawings leap off the page. He understood light and atmosphere like few others of his era and he used that knowledge to great effect in his art.

For me personally, I learned about line drop-outs, proper back-spotting and letting art just breathe from studying his work. The man could render snow in black and white better than anyone I'd ever seen. He drew jungle scenes that took my breath away. And nobody gave me the feeling of just being there in a scene, in a few quick brush strokes, better than Sickles. On my best days, when I feel I've really nailed in ink an impression of a place or a certain kind of light, I sometimes feel like I'm just doing my best, but very weak, impression of Noel Sickles.