Saturday, April 12, 2008

Irv Spence - Perfect Cartoon-Animation Drawing Principles

Doing that Bickenbach post the other day got me to thinking about another classic animator who had all his principles down.

Irv Spence, more than any other 40s animator typified everything that represented the style. More than Scribner, Jones, McKimson, Kimball, Moore, anyone I can think of.

That's not to say he's better or more talented than those other giants. I'm saying that he puts all the 40s principles together in one package more completely and confidently than any other animator I can think of. He is great to study.

Irv has:

Solid Construction

Line Of Action

Clear Silhouettes and staging - easy to read the image
Flow All the details of his images flow along the line of action and construction of the larger forms.

Organic Shapes
Organic shapes means that the shapes are not perfect geometric shapes. Not circles, ovals, triangles etc. The curves do not bend exactly in the middle. S curves, asymmetry. Nothing looks mechanical.

No parallel lines. Even the hat and clothes are organic.

Design Balance-
Filled Spaces surrounded by empty Spaces -
to avoid cluttered design

This lion has much empty space in his design: his face around his eyes. The mane around his ears, the front of the muzzle versus the back. The jaw. Etc. This careful design makes the face very easy to read. If all the shapes were jammed close together you would get a jumble hard to read image.

Design contrasts
These characters from Tom and Jerry have many of the principles common to 40s cartoons, but they don't have any design. They are made of circles and ovals (somewhat organic) but without strong contrasts in the shapes and sizes. They are designed merely for the function of smooth animation, not for specificity.

Compare them to this more specific mouse. What makes it a specific rather than generic design? It's built up out of contrasting shapes. It's not just circles piled on top of each other.


Spence not only applies all the scholarly animation drawing principles, he applies them to a very cartoony look and feel. It's not merely "correct", it's fun.

The miracle: He makes them all work together
What's really amazing about Spence, is that he is able to balance so many principles and methods together and still make the result look effortless.

Many animators have some skills more developed than others. McKimson has perfect construction, clarity, dynamics but is not as flowing or cartoony as Scribner. Scribner is very cartoony, spontaneous, full of contrasts, but is less concerned with perfect construction and absolutely balanced poses. He understands them, but lets his spontaneity dominate his creative statements.

The top Disney animators have all the technical principles down, but lack spontaneity, design and specificity.

Spence manages to bring all this stuff together in perfect harmony.


When you look at his drawings, you can clearly see each principle at work-which is why I recommend to cartoon students to use these model sheets to study, copy and learn your basics from. I will warn beginners to stay away from Scribner, because you get distracted by how wild his drawings are and will pick up the things he rushes through (like sometimes hasty construction or unbalanced awkward poses).

Does Irv ever Cheat? Sure...but when he does it's totally on purpose, in the clear and obvious. It's not an uneducated collection of mistakes that some people call "That's my style, man".
In this drawing, George's eyes do not follow the center line of his head. They are tilted to the left-however, they still flow; they don't look flat and don't exist on their own plane in front of the head.

The few cheats are on purpose, either to make a funny expression, or to make a cleaner design.

I always thought Spence was wasted animating for Tom and Jerry cartoons. The animators basically just had to move Joe's drawings from pose to pose using Bill's timing. Joe's poses are great, butdo limited and repetitive. There wasn't a lot of room to express any of your own acting, posing or cartoony ideas. It was a formula.

A good animator could just do what he was told, make it smooth and finish early to go play golf. Which apparently is what Irv did every week. I heard he would complete his quota by Thursday, then take Friday off to go shoot a few holes.

I also heard from other classic animators that he didn't think much about cartoons in his offtime. It was just a good job to him. He was so natural to it all, that I guess he didn't feel like there was anything to explore.

Whether that's true or not, he was a great animator and his stuff is really fun to watch.

Irv's animation for Iwerks is a lot more inventive, cartoony and looser than his Tom and Jerry work. It's much easier to spot his style. Same with his work for Avery. There is also a story that he didn't like working for Tex as much as Joe, because it was harder. Maybe someone knows more about this and can add some stories in the comments.


I always assumed this was Irv's animation but someone has said he thought it might be someone else.

It sure looks like his stuff. Irv always drew teeth with rounded blunt ends, very balloony but flowing bodies and a certain way of drawing toes.

There are a lot of scenes (like this below) in this cartoon that look nothing like the lion in the model sheet that Irv drew,

but these others look just like it and move like other scenes in other cartoons that I know for sure are him.

Either way, it's a brilliantly animated and hilarious scene!

Not Irv Spence
[Henpecked+<span class=

Here are some drawings from scenes not by Irv. By comparison with his models, these look very stiff and awkward and have no inherent sense of design. The contrasts have been really toned down from Irv's models.

Of course the animation and gags are still really funny.

Here's a model sheet done by Walter Clinton, a very funny animator.

See, I wouldn't recommend young cartoonists study this, because:
The principles are not as clear or well understood as they are in Irv's drawings.
The line of action is broken up, the silhouettes are not clean, the construction is uncertain.

Of course, they are still funny drawings and much better than anything being done today, but if you trying to learn how old cartoons work, this will confuse you, because so many of the rules are broken.

Irv's drawings are crystal clear, so take advantage of them.

I stole these images from Kevin Langley's great site, so I hope he doesn't mind. Go there and discover lots more great stuff!


litlgrey said...

I'm not clear what you're trying to say here, John.

Is it that Irv Spence's model sheets are more 'together' than those of the artist whose work you posted for comparison, or is it that Spence's work is further out?

Or on the other hand, is it that Spence's work is materially superior regardless of the extreme poses?

Taco Wiz said...

Come on, John, you know that we want to hear more about your webtoon deal with Pontiac.

Thornhill said...

As far as I know, Irv only animated for Tex over at MGM at the very start, on 'Early Bird Dood It', 'Blitz Wolf', and 'Dumb-Hounded'. He only did layouts on 'Henpecked Hoboes', 'Slap Happy Lion', etc. . That scene with the lion's mane becoming a skirt was most likely Ray Abrams' animation.

I agree that Spence wasn't being used to his full advantage on T&J. He did some fine work on those cartoons though. And yes, he knocked out that footage fast- so fast his assistants didn't like it!

Raff said...

Nice. Animation-wise where would you start for exercises, with these materials? Walks?

Ryan Cole said...

Hey John! Spence's bear was a fun guy to draw, so I whipped up a really rough animation of him on my blogspot. Lemme know what you think!

<_< ig...ignore the feet.

Mattieshoe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks for going so in depth with these Mr K!

amir avni said...

Thanks for posting John, this is very helpful and very clear

Erik Griott said...

weird....yesterday in my character animation class my teacher gave me a handout with the lion drawings from avery...the exact same ones...its like you were thinking on the same wavelength!

Andrew said...

Yes, yes. I'll definitely study those sheets once I'm finished the lessons on the Preston Blair book.

PCUnfunny said...

I loved Irv Spence's early work in Little Red Walking Hood. His work was sort of sloppy but it was so cartoony and natural. The Wolf's poses kill me.

Jeff Read said...

Irv does not seem to be credited as an animator on "Slap Happy Lion".

One of the best cartoon shorts ever, btw. The image of the lion roaring his guts out will stay with me always.

pop;yeah said...

that roar gag is intense :0

Kevin Langley said...

Great post on Irv. Even though I love his T&J animation I'd have to agree with you. I'm sure he would've went nuts if he'd been one of Tex's animators.

I certainly don't mind you using any pics I post. It's not like I drew 'em.

Larry Levine said...

Irv Spence was a master in drawing FUNNY which is something ol' Robert McKimson, though more talented & noted as a 1940's animator, never understood (even more painfully so as a director).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another great post.

I've always thought that these Irv Spence MGM model sheets were the best of their kind. The drawings are of a much higher quality then in the actual cartoons. On top of that they're beautifully composed pictures by themselves.

Dooley said...

And if anyone hasn't seen it before, here's Irv Spence's Cartoon Diary for 1944:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing!
I think I'll go sketching now.


akira said...

these designs remind me a lot of the preston blair book drawings, except that they're funnier... did preston blair do much designing or was he just great at animating the designs of other artists who were better at designing???

patchwork said...

Holy cow, Irv's drawings are the utmost of funny and cute!!! They're like a slightly retarted version of Disney! I love it~

It's funny, I just started drawing George from the Blair book the night before! Love that lion, too!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

THOSE are Irv Spence drawings!!!?????? I was guessing it was Mike Law but since you mentioned it, I can see the similarity between these and other Spence things I've seen. If he could do masterful drawings like that then he was for sure one of the best, no doubt about it!

A wonderful post! Many thanks!

Kris said...

I watched a lot of Tom and Jerry as a kid, and I could pick Irv's scenes out easily. He had a way of drawing faces that was really easy to pick out--and he put more life in the gags than anybody else who worked on Tom and Jerry, it seemed.

The only other artist I could ever pick out was the most conservative, Disneyish one of the bunch, Ken Muse.

Of course I didn't know their names at the time, but both of them stood out to me.

Mark Kausler said...

Those animation drawings from "Slap Happy Lion" are by Walt Clinton, they come from my collection. Clinton did a lot of funny scenes in that cartoon, including the lion's panicked run with the bomb in his tail. They actually shot the drawings for that book outdoors on a picnic table, that's why there is a shadow on the bottom of the page. Good analysis of Irv's model sheets, John. I took Irv's animation class at Hanna-Barbera back when we had to shoot the drawings on film to see the action. Irv was a good teacher and we had lots of good exchange about his animation on Tom and Jerry and what the rest of the staff did on the series.

Dear Joshy said...

Humbling. Very humbling.

Gabriele_Gabba said...

AArrrrGGh this is such a useful post! Irv Spence's lines are amazing 0_0 I went off looking at other art now and it all looks so static! I think i'm gonna put more Irv UMPH in my drawings now, thanks John, great post!

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

He probably had problems with Tex because Avery pushed him harder.

And as a result, I love his work for Tex better than for any other director.

Thanks for these great drawings, Kevin!

PCUnfunny said...

Hey Mark ! Thanks for pointing out Irv's scenes in Little Red Walking Hood on the commentary for that film.

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

Mark Kausler needs to start a blog!

- trevor.

Jim Rockford said...

Probably the reason Irv Spence liked working for Joe and Bill on the Tom & Jerry cartoons was because they were so formulaic that he could breeze through them in his sleep. Just a guess.
Even as a kid I picked up on how generic the characters were,and always wondered why they didnt have more fun with it.
Still I liked Tom and Jerry's sound effects and over the top violence,and of course Scott Bradley was great!,but as a whole the series seemed very conservative and stuck in one gear.

you're right about
"thats my style man"
being used as a catch all phrase to make it seem like something poorly conceived or executed was actually a deliberatly decision to elevate themselves in their critics eyes-

I remember reading an article about Family Guy in which Seth MacFarlane was criticized for poor drawing skill and he made a statement along those same lines something to the effect of "What is good drawing,everyone has their own style,I have mine" or something along those lines.

I think Seth MacFarlane is a good voice actor,and use of Walter Murphy to score the show was great.
but to me its like putting an $8,000 paint job on a Pinto.

Whats funny is that he's got Family Guy and American Dad and he's supposedly being given the green light by Fox for another cartoon series "Cleveland" based on the character from Family Guy.
Figure that out! all they see are dollar signs and MacFarlanes laughing all the way to the bank.
(I guess it doesnt matter that his show "the winner" tanked.)
How come there isnt a network willing to give "The George Liqour program" a chance?????

JohnK said...

Hi Mark

thanks for the info.

How did you figure that out? Did Clinton animate that whole roaring sequence?

Would he have done his own posing?

Thornhill said...

Yikes- that was a fug-up on my part. Thanks, Mark!

BTW, he DOES have a blog.

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

John, can you be more specific?

The last model sheet, where you point out the errors.... I'm not animator enough to see these errors, and I've already drawn this model sheet twice.

- trevor.

Aaron J said...

thanks for the post john...very interesting. it's amazing to see the stark contrast of the tom and jerry cartoon drawings of the nearly geometric mice vs. the organic mouse! once you visually separate the shapes, it's hard to see it for the whole ever again in that picture!!! thanks for ruining it for me by golly!!!

Timothy Merks said...

Wow such control!

Students should learn to draw this before they get their license to draw their own characters.

Hell I should learn to draw this. That "Bums away" one is just beautiful.

Mark Kausler said...

It's been a long time since I've looked at "Slap Happy Lion" with an eye to who animated what. I knew Ray Abrams style very well from his Lantz work, his patented eye blink formula, etc. So that left only Bob Bentley and Walt Clinton to sort out. Bob's animation is very good, but the drawing is a little more conservative, I think he did the scene at the beginning of the picture with the lion in the wheelchair chain smoking and hitting himself in the head. Walt did just about all the really big emotional scenes in the cartoon, almost all the roaring sequence is his, including the animals reacting. He did the bomb swallowing scene, some of the ending sequence when the mouse really lets loose on the lion, and the mouse dialog at the start and finish. Walt Clinton worked on almost all the Tex Avery MGM cartoons from WILD AND WOOLFY through DEPUTY DROOPY. It's interesting that Irv Spence worked on the last two Avery MGMs-DEPUTY DROOPY and CELLBOUND. Mike Lah actually co-directed these two cartoons, so maybe Irv enjoyed working with Mike better, who knows? Both Mike Lah and Walt Clinton went on to animate and layout many of the early H-B Enterprises cartoons. Mike Lah did some nice limited stuff on "Pie Pirates" for one.

Anonymous said...

Hey John
I posted my first attempts here:

I got pretty close to the original (first time using overlays too). I'd like to hear what you have to say.

Josh Heisie

Vincent Waller said...

Well, I found my drawing lessons for today.

litlgrey said...

If Vincent Waller, a veteran animator, says he can learn from these model sheets, then that says a lot both about Spence's mastery of the form, and about Waller's dedication to the art.

Jason Miskimins said...

Nice post - you really know your stuff. Thanks for sharing.

bill said...

Great blog. Love the cartoon stuff.
It shoud take awhile to work through your blog.

I have some cartoon pictures posted on my blog.