Sunday Mailbag

August 22nd, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: You seem to straddle the divide between traditional and digital illustration, with one foot firmly entrenched in the age old techniques of drawing and inking and the other in the modern techniques of digital color and painting. One thing I’m concerned about is the eventual disappearance of any form of original art once the digital world takes complete control. What’s your take on that?

A: It’s funny how things come full circle. Way back in the day before I was a working illustrator, artists didn’t even think about stuff like the resale value of their original art, especially for magazine or advertising illustration. They didn’t care about stuff like the archival quality of their work… they only cared about how it would look in print and the originals were disposable. Case in point, in the 50’s and 60’s one of the most popular mediums for doing color humor illustrations and cartoons were Dr. Martin Dyes. These were Synchromatic Transparent Aniline Dyes watercolors that had a distinct chemical nature to them that resulted in brilliant and consistent color. They came in liquid form and were true transparent. They were easy and fast to use and the color reproduced very bright and strong. The problem was they were not light fast, and faded/color shifted significantly in short order (especially the reds). Nobody cared because they only needed to look good until they were shot for color separation, then they went into a drawer or a closet of a trash can. The point being in those days even original comic book art had little resale or collectible value. Comic book companies routinely kept all the art sent to them and the artists didn’t get it back. MAD, for example, never returned artwork and Bill Gaines kept virtually everything ever drawn for the magazine.

In the 70’s and 80’s the rise of collectors made for a big secondary market for original art. Comic books and cartoon strips especially were in demand, but even magazine, newspaper and advertising art done by notable artists would fetch good prices at auction or via private sellers/galleries. In the 70’s comic artists like Neal Adams started campaigning for the rights of creators including the return of their original artwork, which by then was proving to be a source of secondary income through the selling of the art for comic’s artists. By the mid to late 80’s comic book companies changed their policies and artwork was returned to the artists who created it, split between the inker and penciller. MAD also started returning artwork at some point, although exactly when I am not sure. I have never sent a single piece of physical artwork to the MAD offices, so my originals were always with me, but I believe it was about the same time that comic book companies started returning art that MAD did.

Well, now we are coming back to the days when no one seems to care that there is no more original artwork coming from sources like comic books, cartoons and illustration. MAD hasn’t had a non-digital cover illustration in years. I believe the last one was Mad #484, a parody of the Rockwell Thanksgiving dinner painting “Freedom from Want” done by Richard Williams in 2007. Digital art is really cool and all, but hanging a shiny CD-Rom on your wall is anticlimactic. Not everybody has abandoned traditional media of course… not even most artists. There is still a lot of original artwork being produced the old fashioned way, but it will continue to dwindle. Maybe in as soon as 10 years most illustrators won’t have a dip pen, paintbrush or piece of bristol board anywhere within reach when they produce their work. When today’s young kids who are being weaned on pixels and gigabytes are the full grown working illustrators of tomorrow, original art will be hard to come by. I don’t think it will ever go away altogether, but the traditional mediums will become more of an oddity as the years go by.

My take on it is that it will be a sad day when you no longer get to hold in your hand a physical piece of art that some artist toiled over and poured his or her creativity, skill and inspiration into. The printed end results we see everyday will be just as fantastic from the digital artists as what the traditional ones produced, but there is something magical about the tactile interaction of artist, canvas and medium that working on a computer takes away. I’ll never stop drawing and inking physically because I enjoy the tactile experience too much, and the imperfect union of hand, pen and paper surface produces too much charm and warmth to give up in my opinion. Call me old fashioned, I suppose, but having something you can hold in your hand and say “this is my work” as opposed to a hard drive full of 1’s and 0’s has a kind of satisfaction it in.

Thanks to Grant Jonen for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Lee Fortuna says:

    Tom, Even though I’m not an artist by trade, I’ve been drawing since I’m 6yrs old & pushing 50 now, and I couldn’t have said it any better than you! I know you work digitally for speed reasons but PLEASE never stop the “hand to paper” process! How I dream of owning an original Davis or Drucker but will have to take a 2nd mortgage on my house to do so,lol! For now vintage Mad covers is my fix! Oh, and buying original Richmond inks(3)!! I just can’t get enough of your pencil roughs! Where have all the Davis’s,Drucker’s,Buscema’s,Frazzeta’s & Rockwell’s gone? No, I’m sorry, when it comes to art of any kind I want to SEE the blood & sweat in the artist’s work! Keep your Photoshop & your Painter, give me paper or canvas baby! I thank you Tom for staying grounded on this subject! Stay strong sir!

  2. TDawn Maddox says:

    this is entirely too true. I’ve seen evidence of the same thing even in sculpting circles, in the development of sites like Patchtogether… among other “digital sculpting” tools such as Zbrush. Right now it’s less common than digital illustration tools, but nonetheless…I take a certain satisfaction in knowing each one of my sculptures is created entirely by me, even the molds for casting.

    keep drawing and writing, I genuinely enjoy your blog. 🙂


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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