A life in black and white

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Do you ever have that thing where you buy a new book – perhaps one that you’ve been waiting to turn up for a while – and when it arrives you can’t bear to read it because you want a time free of interruptions to do it justice? What’s more once you’ve read it, you won’t have it to look forward to any more.

At the moment, Krazy, a life of Krazy Kat comic artist George Herriman, by Michael Tisserand, sits on my table unread until my next holiday. If you don’t know Krazy Kat, there is much online, and if you do, you’ll want this already acclaimed biography.

The subtitle of the book is worth mentioning, George Herriman, A Life in Black and White. This refers not only to the black and white Krazy Kat comics, but also the fact that Herriman, know as ‘The Greek’ because of his swarthy complexion, was actually African American, born to a Creole family that hid its racial identity in the dangerous days of Reconstruction.

Herriman began publishing Krazy Kat cartoons in 1916, but the strange adventures of Krazy, Ignatz the abusive mouse, and lovesick Offisa Pupp still charm and amaze today, seeming both contemporary and timeless. But look behind the main characters in his strips and you’ll see backgrounds that repay careful study. Shifting vistas inspired by Monument Valley and the Enchanted Mesa come and go, a rocky outcrop in one frame replaced by a shack with a crooked chimney in another.

Herriman Trees blog

George Herriman trees (A5 ink 2011)

I was always fascinated by his trees, however, which twist and zigzag in ways that few do in nature. I was so captivated by them that I filled this sketchbook page with a few examples. Unusually for me, I copied them line for line – after all, who could improve on Herriman? I posted this drawing when I first started this blog, but as I only had about three followers then, I don’t mind posting it again.

Now that you’ve read this, please go down to your local independent bookshop – no, don’t click on you-know-where – and order a copy of Michael Tisserand’s Krazy.

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Just an illustration

Peppers 1207 WP

Peppers (2012 ink and watercolour 30cms x 40cms)

In the latest issue of Artists and Illustrators magazine, a contestant on the recent BBC TV Big Painting Challenge – a reality show featuring amateur artists – claims that she found the criticism of the two professional judges, Lachlan Goudie and Daphne Todd, unnecessarily harsh and even rude at times, and was called ‘an illustrator’ by one of them.

I know that some fine artists think illustrators are mere hacks but it seems to me a rather spurious distinction, especially when some artists of unquestionable reputation, David Hockney perhaps, are able to slip between the two without any sense of having to dumb down for their illustrative work. Furthermore, if some evil demon could wipe out an entire artist’s work overnight would we miss Tracey Emin more than Maurice Sendak, or Jeff Koons more than George Herriman (below)? Personally I’d prefer one frame of a Krazy Kat comic over Koons’ entire oeuvre but I know there are others who would see Herriman as a ‘mere’ cartoonist while a Koons vacuum cleaner in a Perspex case is a profound artistic statement.*

It seems a little like the argument about whether all classical music is somehow more accomplished than all popular music. In the end it’s just sound, just as art and illustration are both marks on a surface.

So is the picture above an illustration for a cookery book or a meditation on the graphic quality of red and green chilli peppers? Ultimately, does it matter?

* They’d be wrong, by the way…

Herriman’s Trees

Herriman Trees blog

Herriman’s Trees (ink 2011 A5)

The great George Herriman died 71 years ago today. Remembered now as the creator of the Krazy Kat comics, Herriman is not only considered the greatest American cartoonist of the twentieth century but also, by some critics at least, the greatest American artist of the twentieth century. Whether or not you agree with that assessment, the beauty of his line and his limitless imagination must surely make him a contender. His influence was always greater than his popularity: Art Spiegelman, Richard Thompson and Robert Crumb are just some of the artists who would acknowledge him as such. The strange adventures of Krazy Kat, Ignatz, and Offisa Pupp still charm and amaze today, seeming both contemporary and timeless. But look behind the main characters in his strips and you’ll see backgrounds that repay careful study. Shifting vistas inspired by Monument Valley and the Enchanted Mesa come and go, a rocky outcrop in one frame replaced by a shack with a crooked chimney in another. I was always fascinated by his trees, however, which twist and zigzag in ways that few do in nature. I was so captivated by them that I filled this sketchbook page with a few examples. Unusually for me, I copied them line for line – after all, who could improve on Herriman?