Sunday, January 08, 2012

Happy Birthday, Peter Arno

Above cover nicked from Christopher Wheeler's wonderful site.

"New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno may not have invented the single-speaker captioned cartoon," so goes the opening line of his Lambiek entry, "but he surely perfected it."

Peter Arno was born this day in 1904.

My friend, New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin shares some opening paragraphs from his forthcoming Arno biography:

The New Yorker was Arno's weekly showcase, where his trademark full page cartoons constructed of confident swooping charcoal lines and bold washes wowed and teased the readership. His drawings of husbands' and wives' cat-and-mouse games, and husbands and lovers, and wives and lovers, crooked politicians, and less-than-Godly ministers, the common man and the cowardly man, the wealthy, the show girl, the scantily clad wife, aunt, jaded call girl, the wide-eyed college girl, the battleship grande dames, the sugar daddys, the precocious young and clueless elders all rained down upon a grateful nation. In the pre-Playboy era, he was The New Yorker's and America's guilty pleasure -- openly and gleefully celebrating sex.
Michael: please hurry up and write that book! Thanks!

The thing I admire about Arno is his composition. There is so much information there, so clearly laid out. He's a one man how-to-draw-a-gag-cartoon school. Just look at this seminal Arno drawing:

"Well, back to the old drawing board."

The whole story (above) is there: beginning, middle and end. A plane just crashed on an airfield -- we know this because men in foreground are running toward it; we can see the pilot is safe.

What tips the scales from a "good" to a "great" cartoon is the drawing of the designer, the one your eyes rest on, who dominates the foreground. The problem, that Arno solves here, is this: How do you draw a character who looks like the scientist who constructed the now-crashed plane? Arno's drawn him as a bookish, bespectacled sort of fellow with a blueprint under his arm. Bullseye!

That's a lot to take in in the requisite 4-5 seconds it takes to look at a gag cartoon. And Arno does it so well that it looks easy. And that's why Arno is important.

But it wasn't easy. Arno redrew his cartoons many times over before a final version satisfied him.

Above: one of many Arno scans from the Hairy Green Eyeball blog.

Here's a true story that I call Peter Arno's Favorite Part.

Some cartoonists like the beginning bit (the coming up with the idea, honing the gag) and some like the process (the sketching and layout) and some like the end (the sale and the check). My favorite part is coming up with the gag and drawing the doodle in my sketchbook. After that, it's not as interesting to me.

Not so with Peter Arno.

Arno would draw and redraw his cartoons sometimes dozens of times. There is a story that cartoonist Mel Casson would tell, about visiting Mr. Arno in his penthouse apartment. I'll do my best to relate it here, from memory of him telling it some 7 years ago as part of a National Cartoonists Society Connecticut Chapter speech Mr. Casson gave.

So, Mel Casson and a friend went to visit the one and only famous New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno. He had invited them to his apartment. And it really was a penthouse apartment. The lobby elevator went up, and the doors opened onto the Arno landing (no hallway -- the doors opened right into his home), from which one could see the Arno living room and, there he was, Peter Arno himself, mixing drinks and motioning them in.

After sitting down, having a drink and talking shop, Arno asked, "Do you want to see my studio?"

Well, of course! Who wouldn't want to see Arno's studio!

So, Arno walked over to a door, and opened it. The three of them walked in. Arno switched on a light. The room had curtains all around, from floor to ceiling, covering the wall, the windows. "I can't have any distractions," explained Arno. The only furniture: a very large drawing board, lamp, and chair. And on the drawing board, were two rows of 10 original drawings each.

Twenty originals of the same cartoon, drawn over and over. But, moving closer, one could see that the cartoons were not the same. Each one was had a slight difference: an arm bent a different way, a head turned, one character upstage of another, etc. Each one was a fully drawn Arno original, ready for publication.

I remember Casson telling Arno how surprised he was that he (Arno) did all of this work, painstakingly laboring over the cartoon, drawing and redrawing it in so many different, subtle ways -- all in finished ink and wash. Casson suggested drawing a series of thumbnails or pencil sketches instead of going to all this time and effort.

Arno explained that this was always the way he worked: drawing many different variations of the cartoon until he was satisfied. Casson repeated that it was so much work, drawing a large size finished piece over and over and over again.

"But you don't understand," explained Arno, motioning to the 20 drawings, "This is my favorite part."

Related: another great blog entry about Arno by Michael Maslin: An Arno on My Desk.


Revised from a previous grand old blog post of mine.

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