My review: The Art of Richard Thompson

This Tuesday “The Art of Richard Thompson” will hit book shelves everywhere. In one word, let me sum up the experience of reading this book: craft. Richard Thompson is a master of his craft – whether it is illustration, caricature or cartooning, his work stands out as something extraordinary. Those of us who have seen Richard’s work, this isn’t new. But this book is more than just a collection of his work. It’s a treasure of information. Within the span of 220 or so pages are hundreds of examples of his work along with interviews with Richard by notable individuals who are well respected or masters of the craft themselves. It’s reading the transcript of a group of master craftsmen talking shop and picking Richard’s brain to see how he was able to create such a diverse body of work.

The forward was penned by Richard’s friend Nick Galifianakis who tells a charming and self deprecating tale of his first encounter with Richard and his work over lunch.

From the forward:

"I let a respectable interval of time pass before finally reaching for my portfolio. I didn’t want to bruise this exceptionally likable fella’s ego before his career had really started.

"So, yeah – I felt sorry for him.

"Richard went through each page with great deliberation, studying and chuckling over each picture. Maybe my drawings would inspire him to get out there more, I thought. I appreciated (and expected) nice things he had to say about my work. Then, more out of politeness than anything, I asked to look at his portfolio.

"I opened it.

"And Richard was immediately and forever transformed in front of me as I realized I was sitting across from the only genius I had ever met.

David Apatoff writes the Illustration Art blog and penned the biography and review of Richard’s professional career. Nick interviews Richard about the diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease which ended Richard’s career. I’m not sure how much of the story is common knowledge – I had only heard of pieces of how Richard learned of his disease. What I think is remarkable is how Richard laments more that his characters still had more untold stories to tell than he is about being cut in his professional prime. They discuss that brief period of time when Richard is contemplating his options to keep his strip Cul de Sac going. Maybe some strips can be farmed out, written and drawn by committee or ghost artists, but Cul de Sac couldn’t:

Richard explains:

“In the end, I had Stacy Curtis inking. I thought about having somebody else draw it, you know. But don’t think I would enjoy that at all. I don’t think it would be possible because, without the drawing, I can’t do the words. Doing the drawing and doing the words are so much a part, a piece of each other, it’s so organic. The words come out of the drawing and the drawing comes out of the words. I wouldn’t know where to quit, where they began and ended.”

Peter de Séve, New Yorker cover illustrator and character designer interviews Richard about the craft of illustration. The discussion heads into business (why Richard, who had done a number of illustrations for The New Yorker, never attempted a cover), inspiration and influences and into the technical. Such as why Richard uses a light table instead of inking over his pencils:

" Well, it allowed me to do one preliminary rough and many finished drawings, and thus to separate the two. I’ve never liked inking over my pencil line. Just the whole idea of having to do a rough over again, if the inking didn’t work, annoyed me greatly. And the inking adhered to the pencil line to closely for any kind of spontaneity. Using the lightbox also left me with a nice clean final drawing without eraser marks. Neatness counts.
The accompanying illustrations are gorgeous and inspiring themselves.

Next up Gene Weingarten, Pulitzer Prize humor columnist and co-creator of the comic strip Barney and Clyde, talks about Richard’s Sunday panel comic Richard’s Poor Almanac, which was my first introduction into Richard’s work. Gene had approached Richard about doing a weekly panel with little constraints. Gene asks the secret to visual humor to which Richard responds:

"I know it’s harder than verbal humor, at least for me. It’s all about surprise. Which is almost impossible these days when most of the good ideas have been done. With me it’s mostly an accident, a doodle in a mass of doodles in a pad full of doodles. Unconscious doodling is underrated as a generator of ideas.

Next up is the topic of caricature. John Kascht, who’s work as appeared in just about every notable magazine in the US and who’s work is being collected by the Smithsonian, discusses the art of caricature. What is remarkable when you look the generous number of pages of Richard’s caricature work is the breadth of style and method. Richard is versatile and adept at everything from pen and ink, water color, oil, color pencil, pastel, acrylic and what else he experimented with.

Lastly we come to an interview and discussion between Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson and Richard. The discussion is lead by Bill and starts with the usual “when did you want to become a cartoonist”, but then evolves into two master cartoonists discussing their views on various other artists, styles, pop culture, early starts, their first fan letters to famous cartoonists and their influences and opinions about those influential cartoonists. Bill is such a worshiped cartoonist in the Pantheon of cartooning, it’s fun to see him geek out and gush about Cul de Sac, and Richard’s other art. It actually got me thinking about which of the is the better cartoonists. The answer is difficult to answer as each has different strengths. Solely on the breadth of artistic ability, I’d place Richard above Bill. It’s an unfair assessment. Beyond Calvin and Hobbes, we know little about the artwork Bill is doing whereas Richard’s impressive wide range of skills has been in greater circulation – and of course nicely bundled in “The Art of Richard Thompson.” Regardless, how much would you have paid to be in the room to listen to Bill and Richard talk about comics? At least we have the book.

Finally, let me conclude with a question posed by Bill. Bill asks, “your career shows what a wide range of skills you have in writing, drawing and painting. Conceivably you could have taken those talents in a number of directions. What is it about cartoons and comics that suited you so well as a vehicle for your personal expression and voice?”

“ Cartooning seemed like the most natural synthesis. I didn’t have to think about it. There were all kinds of other benefits, like I could work by myself, undisturbed, without shaving for days if need be. And personally it was a good fit. … I was never the class clown, but I liked being funny. I never understood the world of fine art, though I like modern art well enough. So cartooning was the easy way out. And in my house it certainly wasn’t looked down on. My folks would have been disappointed if I’d dropped cartooning.”

Without question, those of us who aspire to be better cartoonists, who love the art and craft of cartooning, are rightly disappointed that Richard’s career has been cut short. Every piece of art featured in the book causes me to pause and admire that what often looks like errant scratchy lines is really a brilliant piece of art. Richard is, in my mind, one of the modern masters whose work will be studied and admired for decades. This book will certainly make it easier to showcase an amazing career in cartooning.

The Art of Richard Thompson

One thought on “My review: The Art of Richard Thompson

  1. The world will be just a little bit brighter and a whole lot funnier with the release of this book tomorrow.

    Congrats to Richard, my Superhero!

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