Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Appeal in Ugliness - Basil Wolverton

Do you think this is ugly? I'm sure Frank and Ollie would. I don't. I think it's immensely appealing.

Don't look at the itchy details. Look at the shapes that make up the whole image. I broke them down into their construction up here.

Although there are many itchy artists who preceded and followed Basil Wolverton, many artists can get lost in the details that obscure what's more important - the overall instant impression of the drawing.

Basil Wolverton has traits that I find appealing:

FUNNY: The Illusion Of Life's 12 principles of animation left out the most important one - that cartoon drawings should be funny.

DESIGN: Basil has a great design sense. Each shape he draws is fun and interesting and he arranges them altogether with great skill and with the final purpose of making us laugh.

What the Disney animators consider "appealing" is not really invented design. Instead, they evolved a community style that at its best balanced a few cute approved shapes in a non-offensive manner. Bambi is the epitome of the style at its most appealing. You can see their designs evolving away from the rubber hose style of Donald, Mickey and Pluto towards Bambi from the mid 30s to the early 40s. Once they got their appealing balance of shapes and squirrel mask down, they kept it going for the next decade; Lady and The Tramp are exactly the same designs as all the Bambi characters. They just take their appealing squirrel masks and wrap them around slightly different forms - and all the forms themselves are basically the same - even the humans.

Disney resorted to a "safe balance" of shapes, rather than inventing new designs from scratch on a regular balance. As far as I can figure, they didn't actually have a designer - they just let the animators work with the characters on each movie until they naturally evolved into a functional evenly proportioned design that was non-offensive.

Basil Wolverton is a superior cartoon designer of the top-tier because of his great imagination and his control of shapes and hierarchy of sub-shapes and details.

The difference between these cartoons and some of the itchy ones I posted before is that these are not really ugly. They are cute and upbeat. Each of these characters seems to be unaware of his or her own ugliness - they seem to all be delighted to be ugly.

I know when a lot of young cartoonists try to imitate my style, they tend to focus on the scenes that were supposed to be ugly. There is a way to do pretend-ugly that is still appealing.

Here is a guy who is definitely blissfully happy to be ugly.
How does Basil make his superficially itchy detailed stuff look so unique and appealing?

He uses some of the same tools of design that animation designers use.

SILHOUETTES: His characters have a totally clear silhouette. That makes it easy to read, and it shows a command off design clarity. His designs commit to the idea. They aren't timid vague non-descriptive shapes.


This guy's face is well forward of his head. We can see his face clearly because of the space behind it - between the face and the ear.

This woman's head is bullet shaped. Nothing vague about it.

The bullet shape is the major form of the design. The next level of the forms do not distract from the bullet. They are smaller and move horizontally, rather than vertically like the bullet.

HIERARCHY: The 2nd level of forms also have clear overall shapes - the eyes, the nose, the mouth, and the ring of curly hair at the bottom. The details - the individual hairs, the warts etc. are then wrapped around the forms in the same directions that the forms themselves have.

This Russian guy has an overall boxy form. That's clear and non-ambiguous. Basil doesn't let the rest of the sub-shapes distract from this.

Within the overall form, the next level of forms has a lot of contrasts - in size, in direction, in shape. The image isn't cluttered. There is lots of space between the funny parts. Space is a designer's friend.
Speaking of which, there is a space on everyone's head that a lot of amateurish cartoonists ignore or are not aware of - that's the space between your face and the back of your head. The face is at the front of the head, it should never fill up the whole head. I have had to explain this to so many of my own artists, that I go into a trance whenever I have to explain it again.

I love Basil's cross-hatching. It doesn't fill up all the space in his designs. It helps define the forms. It isn't random noodling. And on top of all that it's funny. The sheer idea that characters who are so ugly deserve all this extra work refining them kills me. This is the inspiration for the close up detailed paintings in Ren and Stimpy. The best of them aren't actually ugly. They are very beautifully painted, with much love by the likes of Bill Wray and Scott Wills. I have seen this idea copied since (even in the Games Ren and Stimpy's) and perverted by actually being ugly, either by a cluttered mean looking drawing, or by later cartoons with just plain sloppy painting technique.

This style is not itchy at all to me. By "itchy" I mean useless floating cross-hatching that doesn't help describe clear entertaining forms. David has some thoughts on this too:

david gemmill said...
richard willaims. the dude tortures himself. who the #$%^* would want to animate that &*#%@? at least Anime has some sort of redeeming quality, like maybe the robot sequences and action scenes end up looking cool or entertaining..but all of richard william's $&%@# is always just painful to watch...and not entertaining. Only hardcore animation fans *%&^ off to the technical expertise that was involved to make it (not creative expertise though).I feel sorry for the people that had to inbetween. And he had the audacity to animate on ONES. on ONES.
Animate this *^&%$* design on ONES.You can look at scribner, and freddie moore and see pictures of them smiling, or you can look at pictures of Dick williams who looks very depressed and methodical.Animating cartoons is supposed to be fun, work, but fun. not torture.
Jonathan Harris said...
I will admit that I was inspired big-time by Robert Crumb at a certain point in my life, and that I do still admire his stuff. However, I do find myself wondering how much this is just a product of my being born in this generation, and thus having grown up being made to like ugly things (I've been considering this point lately and it's making sense of a few things).I do also find Raggedy Ann and Andy themselves quite appealing (in the faces, at least), but the rest of it does look a bit too much like animation #%$^&*@$#& (I still feel I should check the film out again, though).Also WOW I thought that link said "Michael's Porn Animation" at first! It made sense given the context, too!

There are many sides to the concept of "appeal" and I have barely scratched the surface. There is also "spicy appeal", a kind of appeal that grows on you. It's not instantly cute and might even make you mad at first but is much more human and honest than simple Bambi cute. Virgil Partch, Don Martin and many other artists fit that category.


Putty CAD said...

Another interesting and informative post, I must run off and look at the side of the heads on my drawings now!!! LOL

Merry Christmas Mister K, dread to think what you've asked Santa for but I'll bet it's funny! ;)

patrick said...

My 8-year old nice who likes cutesie stuff also likes Wolverton's work, so he must be appealing. (She also likes Ren & Stimpy.)

oppo said...

Do you think that the Basil Wolverton designs would translate well into animation? I was thinking they wouldn't, but then I remembered I saw a claymation student film of Lena The Hyena.

It was such a good film.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

A great post about a great funny artist!

Luke Farookhi said...

Agreed! You can do an appealing drawing of a grotesque subject. In fact, those drawings are usually the most interesting.

One artist who doesn't get enough credit as a good cartoon designer is Leonardo Da Vinci - true, his drawings of funny heads are detailled, but there's the same use of hierarchy of forms, it's just more hidden.

In the case of some of the early 'itchy' artists, the itchiness wasn't always their fault because their original drawings were traced over by engravers (generally not of their choice) who didn't always understand the design principles applied to the drawing.

Masked Stinker said...

I picked up Wolvertoons about a month ago.
I'm picking up The Original Art of Basil Wolverton tonight.

Most people react to the ugly aspect of his work first.
But I just love how imaginative his stuff is.
It's also easy to see that he understands form.

Very inspiring.

trevor thompson said...

Richard Williams doesn't have inbetweeners. Why would he? He's said that's cheating.

Dick can't be all bad. After all, if you're good enough to get Ken Harris and Art Babbit to animate and teach for you, you must be doing something right.

As for Basil, thanks for finally doing a post on him, John. I loave him!

- trevor.

Roberto González said...

>>There is a space on everyone's head that a lot of amateurish cartoonists ignore or are not aware of - that's the space between your face and the back of your head.>>

I usually design characters that don't have a lot of space there, and that was one of my biggest problems when I tried to draw George Liquor. But there are other characters that don't have that much space there like Daffy Duck or Brer' Rabbit in some of your recent posts. There is some space there but not very much and they're still well drawn. So how should I take this rule?

Also I don't want to be a pain in the ass, I just want to understand this a little more.That Shifu character has some space there but then you find his features too crowded together, so that means you have to include space there and also between the features? It's difficult to avoid the character face getting huge then.

I like that you are talking about Basil Wolverton cause I don't know too much about his work, he's not especially popular in Spain and I haven't seen many of his works.

Shawn said...

Basil Wolverton is one of my VERY favorite cartoonists! I went to the Basil Wolveron exhibit they did in Santa Ana last year...Seeing his art in person is even a billion times more mind-blowing than seeing it in print. The man was a GENIUS!

mike f. said...

Is this post your Christmas present to Eddie?

Phantom Spitter said...

Thanks John!! That made my day. I don't know why anyone, even the harshest of art critics, would not like Basil Wolverton. He was brilliant and visionary (I know that's an overused statement, but it is so true). By the way, John, do you like Stanislav Szukalski?

Keunemeun said...

this guy is cool! I can see why you find this appealing: these drawings remind me a bit of those close up paintings from ren and stimpy: lots of details but a simple structure underneath. Very solid stuff, but still disgusting. That's why i think it's so hilarious: That somebody would but so much time in a disgusting drawing/painting. :)

thiago said...

Priceless info and lessons you are sharing with us here, JK. Very nice, tk u.

Kym said...

Oh, it's great design, for sure. I can appreciate that. But I have such a visceral "ick" reaction to it that I have lots of trouble thinking of these as appealing, because I'm too busy wincing and trying to look away without missing anything.

Though I suppose that's really the core of appeal, you want to look at it. Even if you find it completely disgusting.

Ssin said...

love this stuff!

Ross Irving said...

Oh cool. Outlines of two of the heads. Sometimes I get a little confused when I get my eyes to trace an outline of the Wolverton heads.

I should do some kind of exercise tonight where I just try and find the major forms of the Wolverton heads and nothing else.

Anonymous said...

Genius post! It amazes me that so many people in my generation, the internet and Digg generation, LOVE to refer to themselves as "design junkies," yet their taste in animation doesnt extend beyond Pixar and Family Guy! Isnt it obvious that the same principles they love about software, wallpaper, and poster design should be applied to character design in animation?!?!

Also, I love that "Spicy Design" analogy you used, comparing certain cartoonists to salami and pickles. One time I was explaining to Kali or Max or one of those cats what I considered the difference between Clampett and Freleng, and I used food analogies. And they started making fun of me! Even though I was right! Food analogies rule! Everyone understands them.

Anonymous said...

Wolverton and Crumb used to give me nightmares as a kid. Now, they still do, but I have learned to appreciate their work.

I never even thought about the construction underneath. They always looked flat to me. O' how ignorant I was!

Diegogue said...

the best example of appeal in Ugliness

Happy Holidays

Mister 1-2-3-4 said...

This was a really eye-opening post. I was wondering how you would be able to make a meaningful distinction between Wolverton's art and the sixties "underground" cartoonists, but I totally see your point now. Wolverton's hatching style is rendered with military precision, major forms are crisply rendered against negative space, and important components are given thicker line weight compared to supporting details. You get the whole picture in an instant, then you can lose yourself in the minutiae. It totally encapsulates all the points you've been making on your blog.

P.S. Miss Poontney Spadafroont's nose is going to give me nightmares for a week.

HemlockMan said...


There's some good stuff there. One of those actually made me laugh out loud.

Some of the things that you say about Wolverton are also true of Jack Kirby--the observation of how the artist uses silhouette. Kirby was a master of that, too. (Didn't he start out in animation? Fleischer Studios?)

Rudy Tenebre said...

Your contempt for penwork and classical drawing has everything to do with the fact that you predicate absolutely everything in art on the basis of its practicability for animation, (for which hatching, spotting, and stipple are anathema)--even your allowance of Wolverton begs to look past his marvelous inking, and stresses the obvious formal competence of his anatomies. You and Eddie have this very idiosyncratic distaste for what you annoysomely term "itchy" or "scratchy" drawing. Your limits are suffocating and overbearing. No Durer, No Thom Nast, No Jack Davis, No Dore, No Brueghal, No Wood, No Mad #'s 24-28, No Canaveral Press Frazetta, No primo Wrightson, No 'fancy' Kelly, No Moebius... it's hard to keep your company on the basis of these negations.

Timefishblue said...

Fantastic post! I could stare a Wolverton pictures all day.

Moro Rogers said...

No Heinrich Kley, either.

Zoran Taylor said...

Rudy, from one overbearingly erudite raconteur to his equivalent, allow me to express the following sentiment in a rather caustic fashion: CUDJA TRY'N TALK LIKE A FRICKIN' NORMAL DUDE FER AWHILE?! GEEZ LEWEEZ!!!

Oh yes, and this Wolverton gent's footwear makes swift and firm contact with Admiral Posterior. *prudish titter*

Luke Farookhi said...

My definition of 'itchy' in a drawing would not be excessive use of line detail, but line detail used in a way that contradicts the form and loses sight of the image as a whole (as I mentioned earlier, this was often the result of an engraver interpreting the illustrator's drawing). In the case of Gustave Dore, he did fourteen full-page grotesque face illustrations for 'Contes Drolatiques', which manage to be just as appealing (scroll to the bottom):


With Dore It's not so much 'filled space vs. negative space' so much as a contrast between areas of heavier and lighter cross-hatching. Likewise the etchings of Albrecht Durer. In the case of illustration it needn't be limited to simplicity. There can be beauty and appeal in heavy detail.

Lucas Nine said...

Kley was a genius, and the same goes for that Simplicissimuss crew of designers (Buno Paul, Weine, Thony, Gulbransson, etc.). I 'd like to focus on them as other way to cartooning, but the whole thing about readibility, hierarchy, virtual spaces vs. filled spaces, contrast between spaces and forms, etc., applies to their work like a glove.
However, I find the “funny” thing as a cartooning principle a little bounding (as drawing with the happy happy joy joy helmet on). At least, funny is a poor word to define it.

Lucas Nine said...

For Rudy Tenebre:
Ok, I think the same about. If drawing or cartooning was only it, it would be depressing. It is necessary to take it as a particular vision of the matter, supported by someone who comes of animated cartoon (and one of the best in that field)

Anonymous said...

Trevor, the only reason Ken Harris, Corny Cole, and all those cats agreed to work for Dick is because it was either that, where they at least got to work in full animation, or work on Extreme Scooby Doo or whatever the %$%#$^ they were making in the 70s.

My store has been running 24 hours lately, which means for the first time I'm working with customers in the store. My boss bet me that I couldn't control my swearing, and I won the bet. So, see, John, even I can censor my foul mouth.

Jonathan Harris said...

I was wondering why you weren't posting that comment! I was afraid maybe I'd offended you somehow. For those curious, the censored word was nothing really awful, just a synonym for pleasuring oneself (which brings up interesting comparisons with David's comment...) Also, as a followup, I did try to check out the Raggedy Ann movie again, and found it too unsettling and insipid to watch more than 20 minutes of. The main characters are much less appealing in the animation than they are in those model sheets you posted.

This was a particularly inspiring and educational post, John. I hadn't seen Wolverton's stuff before and it's really fantastic. I think I'm going to have to go back to the R. Crumb work that inspired me so long ago and really re-evaluate it in light of this.

Leeann H said...

Hmm... I wouldn't call Wolverton's work 'itchy': his lines are very neat and tightly rendered around the basic shapes (of the faces). At closer examination, his pictures look like those 17th century woodblock prints featuring scenes of horror, plague and destruction... :)

Happy holidays to you, and to all who view this blog hereafter!

Bill said...

While the mucus details and such are kinda gross to me I like the drawings that had big easily readable eyes and I can see a bit of what may have influenced you in these for Ren and Stimpys detailed gross-close ups which were ripped off by Spongbob Squarepants and then the highly overated Chowder and Misadventures of Flapjack though they "disguised" the idea using clay. The "I haven't had a drink.." drawing looks great to me, too bad that MAD looks so poor now as the comics that I see in them aren't funny and look like that they were drawn by 10 year olds not to mention that it parodies pop culture which I barely know anything about or care for. The issue that had a peek at ofcourse had a Dark Knight parody sence that was the latest hit movie.

JohnK said...

Folks just to clarify a point: I'm not opposed to all cross-hatching, only when it's there to hide an uninteresting drawing underneath.

The drawing itself should be good, the details are just gravy (and should serve the drawing, not oppose or clutter it)- whether it's realistic or cartoony.

That's fundamental to all drawing. Big picture first, details last.

EalaDubh said...

Some of the things that you say about Wolverton are also true of Jack Kirby--the observation of how the artist uses silhouette. Kirby was a master of that, too. (Didn't he start out in animation? Fleischer Studios?)

Far as I know, Jack Kirby was always a comic book man first and foremost (his earliest 1940s work was with writer Joe Simon on the original Captain America and Biy Commandos). But he did do a stint as character designer for Ruby-Spears in the early 80s.


EalaDubh said...

Wally Wood was never 'itchy', much of his inking is characterised by starkly defined and contrasting areas of black and white, especially his depictions of science-fiction machinery. He has a lot in common with Jack Kirby that way.

Paul B said...



Ambassador MAGMA said...

What's so amazing to me about Wolverton is the commitment, as you said. All the "itchy" (I love that term, it is perfect!) cartoonists and animators feel like they were still sketching when they accidentally picked up the pen.

The fact that he labored over warts and contortions is what makes it genius. I love those cut-aways in Ren and Stimpy as well... perhaps even more because the poses are always a tad different than the cells, as if a portrait artist sat down to immortalized a rotting tooth or a rubber nipple. Genius!!!

Thanks for connecting the dots. It is (as always) so insiteful and inspiring!

Niki said...

Honest to God I still don't understand the Dick Williams hate.

I admit the pic you posted was damn ugly but from The Thief and the cobbler I like Zigzag for miles.

Although I do understand about him torturing himself, Chuck Jones said If it can be done simply do it simply.

But on appeal these up here look pretty insane, I actually thought you'd be against this kind of look.

I think I'll need to find some more butt-ugly appeal, and spicy appeal? this? I'm really eager to know!

Oh, and Merry Holidays. I've been on vacation for the past week and internet cost $4.99 for miles.

Pilsner Panther said...

Wolverton was a highly skilled medical illustrator gone off the deep end, if you ask me; compelling and disturbing at the same time.

There was a Wolverton book lying around the house when I was a kid (an early collection published in the 70's, I forget the title). I looked at it with a combination of sheer awe and sheer disgust, and then put it aside for good.

Wolverton was something like Edgard Varese, in classical music— a virtuoso of sheer ugliness, but still a virtuoso. Varese liked combining a huge symphony orchestra playing at full volume with the sounds of air raid sirens, plane engines, and shattering glass ("Ameriques"). If there was any sense of moderation or restraint in either of their psyches, they both did a fine job of keeping it out of their work!

Both men were sui generis, for whatever that's worth.

Andrew Mortlock said...

Hey john here is a very well made stop-frame animation based on a basil wolverton character, I figured you'd dig: basil wolverton ugly girl

The Artist Aficionado said...

No offense John but where does David Gemmill get off denigrating a great artist such as Richard Williams. Like you said on your Blog Comment Etiquette post quote

"I say, if you are gonna criticize someone with actual skill and talent, you better be able to back it up with your own drawings and considerable experience in performing the same or similar tasks, so you know what you are talking about."

Yet you showcase a much less experienced artists malicious comment against Richard Williams just because you don't agree with Williams principles?

Williams has accomplished a lot in this industry and I'm looking at David's work and while its good I think in no way he has anything to back up against Williams who has one of the deepest bodies of work in the animation industry.

I grew up seeing the beautiful animation he presented through Roger Rabbit. Though discovered through trying to break into the industry that he produced a lot of high quality animated commercials, film openings, short films, television specials, and the original version of Thief and the Cobbler that have strong stories and visuals.

Don't take this comment the wrong way. I consider it positive and a little defensive because what I'm defending is a strong artist who even managed to impress some of the nine magic old men through his work. I'm also defending as you say "someone that has achieved something amazing".

By the way no offensive to David either hes a good artist to but I can't just sit and see him attack Williams.

Mark said...

This is one of my favorite Wolverton stories


Mark said...

This is one of my favorite Wolverton stories


TParker said...

"I like the drawings that had big easily readable eyes and I can see a bit of what may have influenced you in these for Ren and Stimpys detailed gross-close ups which were ripped off by Spongbob Squarepants and then the ..."

Speaking of which, I saw an episode of the latter where one character starts a band, and there's a bit where he instructs the band to play loudly, and the noise blasts his face right back, making him look like a Wolverton drawing.
Sometimes, I think those guys are using the RIGHT amounts of appeal.