Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Second Look at Sempé (and some Blake, and More on Simplicity)

Despite the fact that not too many people seemed interested in my previous post about - and analysis of - the French artist Sempé, I wanted to share some more of his work with everyone, and maybe if people were put off by all of the words I wrote then they can just skip all the blather and just look at the pictures (click to see bigger).

Part of the resolution issue is that, sadly, the two books I have were printed on rather rough, cheap paper, hardly appropriate for the subtleties of his drawings! Ah well, click to see all of these bigger.

I shouldn't be surprised about the lack of interest in his work. I am about to make a huge generalization*, but it seems that the vast majority of people - both artists and casual viewers - gravitate more towards artists who are "showy", who put a lot of detail into their work and don't leave much to the imagination. One of my early posts was about Jack Davis and the fact that he draws to such a high level of concentrated detail in some of his drawings, and about how I found that his drawings worked so much better when he would suggest detail rather than drawing all of it, or simplify areas of detail so that they weren't fully drawn out. I was very surprised back then that nobody seemed to agree with me - when I went so far as to say that I found that some of his drawings became unappealing when they were too crowded with detail I got a bit of a backlash.

I never said that Mr. Davis doesn't draw well; but drawing well and drawing appealingly are two totally different areas. Then again it is easy for people to agree on who draws well and who doesn't, but when it comes to deciding what is "appealing" things become much more subjective and it becomes clear that everyone has a different definition of what makes a drawing appealing.

I find Sempé's work to be very appealing. Just like Quentin Blake, I love the way Sempé's work only has the minimum of what is required to make the statement he intends. Even Alex Toth, who most people would agree draws quite well, said that he felt like he didn't really know how to draw well until he figured out "what to leave out". Unfortunately, I think that to most observers, when an artist streamlines and leaves a lot of things out, it appears that the artist doesn't know how to draw, and I just couldn't agree less with that way of thinking.

Some of Quentin Blake's work.

I would make the comparison that when you watch a superb athlete play a sport, they make it look easy. Part of the reason it looks easy is because an athlete who knows what he (or she) is doing doesn't make any extra unnecessary movements or actions. On the other hand, watching an amateur can make the same sport look extremely difficult because the amateur expends a lot of extra energy and makes a lot more extra superfluous movements as he or she flails around trying to accomplish the same things that the professional does with a practiced minimum of effort.

I would say that the same thing applies to drawing. Don't make the mistake of thinking that a simple drawing is indicative of an artist who can't draw. Two of the hardest parts of drawing are knowing how to put everything in the right place and being able to make your drawings communicate what you intend them to mean. Both Blake and Sempé excel at this, often far beyond other artists - even those who add much more detail and fussiness to their drawings in an effort to cover up or shore up the fact that they've fallen down in these two other basic areas.

There are plenty of artists out there who do draw very simply and poorly as well; those artists who actually can't draw but hide behind a simplistic "style" to try and hide the fact that they don't really know what they're doing. The easiest way to tell the difference is the two areas mentioned above, especially the first. These types of people are easy to spot because they never put things in the right place. When Blake dashes off a sketch of a person, the elbows are always in the right place, the head always feels like it's placed correctly on the neck,etc. - all of the elements always feel like they add up to one clear idea. A good artist knows that they can dash off a quick sketch like this and then, if need be, later they can come back and go over the drawing and add detail if need be. As long as all of the pieces are placed correctly and the idea is communicating, then all of thinking has already been done and cleaning up the drawing is just an academic exercise. An amateur artist is one who thinks that doing a quick sketch just means drawing a sloppy scribble without effort. This type of person doesn't understand the difference between a quick sketch with all of the information placed correctly and a doodle that doesn't require much artistic effort at all.

Above all else keep in mind that this blog is written by a storyboard artist, and I can't help but write about drawing as I've come to understand it in relation to my profession. A story artist has every reason to learn to draw simply and communicate with as little effort as possible because a story artist has to think about building a whole story and a whole film as he or she draws. A story artist isn't focused as much on each drawing as they are on how the ideas stack up, build, and create a story and world of characters. Story artists churn out thousands (yes, thousands) of drawings over the course of a movie, and unlike an animator or a layout person, when a story artist draws they have no idea if that drawing will survive for an hour, a day, a week or three years before the idea behind it changes or is improved and the whole thing will have to be redrawn. So good story artists - for practical purposes, as well as for their own sanity - learn to draw with economy and learn how to say a lot with a minimum of effort, because they have to churn out so many drawings one after another. Detail and complicated drawings don't do much to help tell the story and any artist that spends too much time and effort on those unimportant areas in a story sketch will soon become very frustrated and move on to another department.

So those of us who pursue our lives doing storyboards could do a lot worse than to learn from Sempé. His staging is always flawless. He places the camera wherever it will best tell the story, and always has the subject as near to or as far away from the camera as will best put over the idea. He draws just enough to convey his idea and give us a real sense of where the scene is taking place. And his expressions and body language are always very clear and just right for the moment. His expressions are easy to dismiss, I suppose, because sometimes they might seem broad, but other times he tackles such subtle ideas and puts over such sublime human experiences and emotions that they would never work unless he was able to handle them with just the right touch and the right acting and expression for the moment. His carefully calibrated expressions and poses are amazingly precise for each idea, and it cannot be understated how impossibly difficult this can be, no matter how "simply" the drawing may be handled.

More than anything else, this is what suggests we study Sempé and try to apply what he does to storyboarding; the subject matter he chooses to portray. Some of his cartoons are broad and instantly "gettable", but many of his ideas are so well observed - he man to express some of the moments between people that we can all recognize, yet we don't really stop to think about them when they happen, or even if we did, we don't have the right words to describe (although admittedly I didn't scan many of that type here, because they tend to be spread out over several pages) - and that would be such a great thing to get into animation that we could do a lot worse than aspire to be as wonderful as Sempé. Not to mention the fact that most of his work communicates everything without resorting to the "crutch" of dialogue or the written word - another thing that animation should aspire to, but rarely ever does these days.

All of these Sempé drawings are from "Nothing is Simple".

*I believe it was Fox Connor who was credited as saying "All generalizations are untrue, including this one".


andreas said...

thanks for the new post on him.
i did not think that the lettuce picture was THAT well made, i would have missed the joke/lettuce without your text. (this might be because i have bad eyesight though)
those new examples are better and especially the one in the theater made me smile.

i never read a Sempé book.. not because i think that there is not enough detail but simply because the jokes are not that interesting.

but ill rent some things of him when im at the library tomorrow.
so thanks for the text and a great new year =)

sir jorge said...

this is one of the best blog posts I've seen in a very long time.


I'm french and I love Sempé! I grew up with the books "le petit Nicolas" and I always loved the drawings, so subtle and warm. And I like Quentin Blake's illustrations very much, too, especially the ones in Roald Dahl's novels.

Kevin Koch said...

Nicely put. Regarding Jack Davis, I missed the original debate but I have to agree with you. I love his playful, seemingly effortless style, but I bought all the EC reprint books not for his work (nor for the equally detailed Wally Wood stuff), but for Harvey Kurtzman's work.

Not sure if you're as big a Kurtzman fan as I am, but I think he's a fantastic example of an artist devoted to putting in just the detail necessary, with every part of every frame devoted to storytelling, not drawing virtuosity.

Anyway, it's great to see the Sempé stuff. Thanks.

andyg said...

Yes, the older lettuce sketch just didnt work for me at all. But all these new ones you posted are hilarious!

myke_bakich said...

Thank you! I have recently become very interested in similar work such as Quentin Blake and George Booth but hadn't yet stumbled upon Sempe. His work is Fantastic!

I feel extensive rendering and details can be impressive at first glance, yet content without context is superficial and enjoyment from such artwork is short-lived.

What inspires me is a drawing or film no matter how simple or crude, that tells a good story. In my opinion a good story has depth, dimension and captivates you on multiple levels.

I feel Sempe's intention is to tell a good story, not on making a "pretty" picture.

In General, thanks for all your posts. As an aspiring story artist, I find your posts always inspiring and educational.

All the Best,


james_oshea3 said...

Wow! I totally see the People 'hiding' behind their drawings with a certain style and the difference between people that KNOW HOW & WHY to produce a design.
this is really Great stuff here! I learn alot out of your teachings each visit I can...through this blog of course! ;P

may I link your site on my blog?

skraby said...

I just wanna say, that I really enjoy articles like this one :) So thank you for it :) I have couple of books illustrated by Sempé which I have read when I was a kid... I think now is the time to look back at them :))

Michael Sporn said...

I've made a couple of films adapting the work of Quentin Blake. When you try to draw the way he did, actually trying to reproduce some of his art, you start to learn how difficult it is to recreate the simplicity he's created. He's a genius, as is Sempé. The two are brilliant artists. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

zoe said...

In some ways, I find Sempe to be the poor man's Quino. I'm not sure why, but Sempe's covers for the New Yorker have always disappointed me.

Quentin Blake's drawings have so much soul and human vulnerability to them! I think he's miles and miles away better than Sempe.

Floyd Norman said...

When I moved into story at Disney back in the sixties, I quickly learned that good storyboarding is all about communicating ideas.

I still find it amazing how few artists seem to get that.

Mike Hell said...

Pleas just keep posting what you see fit and don't worry about those who don't seem to get it.

Each one of your posts is a learning experience.

William said...

I agree with your observations. Less is more. You should not draw what you see, but merely suggest. And yet, leaving out the details when drawing is somehow very difficult!

Jamie said...

I enjoy the simplicity in Sempé's drawings. the jokes to me work pretty well. I didn't really understand the drawing from your first post about Sempé, but the ones you showed in this post are pretty clever.
I think another artist who has very simplistic and maybe some would say crude drawing style (Sempé's drawings are not crude at all) is Virgil "VIP" Partch. His drawings are very limited in detail but express a lot and really sell the joke. I really enjoy his stuff. Thanks for telling us about Sempé.

Jean-Denis Haas said...

Thanks for posting about Sempe. I grew up with those drawings and love Sempe (which doesn't make me very objective).

One of my favorite ones is the spoiled guy who has everything you can wish for. But his expression is so great and the caption says: "I'm bored."

Ah, childhood memories.

Dave said...

A regular vistir to your blog, but I guess if people don't leave comments it may be misinterpreted as a lack of interest.
Your anylses are always intersting and educational.

Thanks for great effort.

Jean-Denis Haas said...

I second Dave, regular visitor. But the posts are so good that I feel too stupid to comment. :)

Jeff said...

I'm not one of "those" people! I like Sempe'!!! More Sempe'!!!! Sempe' Sempe'Sempe!!!!! Or I suppose I could just go out and get his book....

mark kennedy said...

wow, thanks, everyone, for such great comments!

andreas - hope you find some more good Sempé at the library. I think his jokes are very funny, but maybe I'm strange that way. Happy New Year to you, too!

sir jorge - very kind words, nice comments make the whole thing worthwhile, thanks!!!

aurore - I've never seen the Nicolas stuff but people keep mentioning it. I will have to seek it out. Glad you like Blake too, he's so great, I agree.

Hey Kevin - yeah, I am a big Kurtzman fan too, such a great energy to his work. Such great simplicity and powerful line of action...I've posted some of his stuff before, I don't have much other than "Hey Look!" but I do love his work. I love Jack Davis too, don't get me wrong, I've spent a lot of time copying and analyzing his stuff.

andyg - good, I'm glad - thanks for letting me know!

myke - yes, very true what you say that story is the most important. Everything else is just execution. Glad to hear that the posts are helpful, it's very useful to hear what people like and don't like, so thanks for the encouraging words and good luck with the journey.

james - of course you can link, I am in the (gradual) process of adding lots of links myself. So glad that you like the blog, I will try to write more stuff soon.

skraby - thanks so much for the kind words, and I am glad you are inspired to go dig out your old books!

michael - thanks for the nice words, and I can imagine how hard it would be to interpret his stuff. It's so deceptively simple that I can see how hard it would be to work with. I have seen a few adaptations made of Steig's work that was really successful, but Blake is a whole other animal...I will keep an eye out for the Blake adaptations, I would love to see them. Thanks for the comment!

zoe - thanks for the insight, Blake's work has a real special appeal to me as well. I am glad to hear that so many other people feel the same way.

floyd - amen. I find it frustrating too. Thanks for making that point.

mike - thanks so much! It is hard to know what people think - or if they are even reading the posts - when nobody comments, but thanks a bunch for letting me know that you like the stuff...I will try to write some more stuff soon.

william - yes, for some reason, it is a very hard thing to learn.

jamie - okay, now it's my turn - I have to admit that I am not a big fan of Virgil but I know everybody else is, so I am a big hypocrite unless I give all the Sempe and Blake detractors a break! Anyway, I have a book of his stuff somewhere that I will try to post from sometime. Thanks for the comment!

jean-denis - you are dead right that it's hard to be objective about stuff you grew up with. Thanks for the two comments!

dave - thanks for saying so, it is indeed hard to know what people think when they don't comment. Most of the time I assume that people either don't understand what I'm saying or don't agree with what I'm saying but are too polite to write a comment disagreeing with me. But leaving comments is a pain, I know, I don't always leave them myself of course, so I know how it is. I will try to be better about leaving them myself.

jean - denis -ha, thanks for the second comment, the posts aren't THAT great, never feel like you shouldn't comment, it is always great to hear from people and I learn a lot from people's responses! Whenever I go back and re-read my posts they sound pretty stupid to me and the comments always point out things that I was stupid or unclear about! But thanks for the kind words.

hey jeff - glad you like it, maybe I will tackle some of his cartoons that cover ten pages next! Thanks for stopping by!

TM said...

Sempé is brilliant. His work on le Petit Nicolas is a clinic in expressive cartooning; the drawings are magnificently simple and beautiful, not one excess line in them and they fully capture all of the humanity of their subjects. He's a genius, point blank.

Jenny said...

Gosh darn it, Mark!

I'd been planning a big ol' Sempe(forgive the lack of accent-me dumdum) post for some time, but you've scooped me again--and written it so well(typically)that I daren't even try. Waah!

Seriously, this is dynamite stuff, and I happen to concur wholeheartedly with you. Great post.
And I'm still going to put up some of the Sempe postcards & things I got in Paris etc,, because the more the merrier! And will link to this if you don't mind.

Dani said...

Great post Mark!

Sempé's storytelling is absolutely incredible! Insightful and subtle (and sometimes not so subtle), his observations on human nature are always illustrated by remarkably precise and humorous drawings.

Regarding the simplicity of his approach, I find the stir his work causes to be a good sign - it means it is stimulating and challenging our understanding. Progressive ideas in art aren't always instantly or universally understood, but everyone feels that there is something TO BE understood in them!

If I may, you absolutely have to read "Le Petit Nicolas" (Goscinny's writing shines!). I've only done so in French, therefore I can't speak for the translation, but the original stories are funny and touching. Nicolas and his young friends accidentally unveil wisdom far beyond their years, not unlike Calvin and Hobbes do on this side of the Atlantic.

mark kennedy said...

tm - thanks for the comment, I will check out Nicolas, it seems like that may be the best of his work. He sure is a genius, I completely agree.

Hey Jenny - I can't wait to see your post - I'd love to see what you've got, and so many people want to see more of him so I'm so glad you're going to post some. I know how you feel, I get "scooped" all the time too, it stinks!!! Sorry.

hey dani - yes, again, thanks for letting me know about Nicolas, I will check it out. Thanks for the great thoughts. I really agree that his insights into human nature are what make his work so superlative.

slowtiger said...

If you want some Sempé printed on better paper, search for books of him by swiss publisher Diogenes. These are the editions I grew up with. Unfortunately most of his work is out of print now, but I regularly stumble over some at second-book shops. I like his earlier work (without captions) more than his later stuff which suffers, to me, from too much dialogue.

Other european cartoonists from the 60's who deeply influenced me and were as "simple" as Sempé were: Chaval, Bosc, Paul Flora. I don't know how much of their work is known in America, I highly recommend it.

(Links: . seems to have several items on sale.)

tomm said...

sempe did the illustartions for teh French books we had in school. Inspired alot of us salooners at an early age. Paul Young in particular. They are trying to make a tv series in his style. Spirit in France did a GORGEOUS job of translating his style to animation afew years back really faithful. The tv series stuff ive seen is not so faithful but still lovely.

Draw Like Crazy said...

I found this blog a few days ago through a post on another web site. I wanted to say thank you very much for your efforts because I am learning so much.

I always had great respect for a cartoon that could get across a clear readable thought without the use of word and only through body language and acting, but unfortunately I find that many people that I meet are in love with what I have heard some call witty banter. Hope I spelled that right.It is either that or details that you can drown in. I really love these and I thank you for introducing me to Sempe. I think sometimes people don't see the beauty in a capturing a moment in time. It's like it bores them if it isn't exploding of the page in their face or something which is unfortunate.

I have talked to a few people about it. How everything in cartoons seems to be really action driven. Today I was watching "high Note" an old Chuck Jones cartoon which is done with music notes with an emphasis on design an body language and it was great. I mean the characters were basically stick figures and the plot was that the conductor of a music score was trying to get all the notes of the sheet music in there place so they could start there performance but one of them was drunk.

I have seen a bunch of online cartoons where they do something similar with stick figures fighting each other. I wonder sometimes though like if they have seen this and if they know that is has already been done and is nothing really knew about it. These little animations don't really have a story behind them but fighting and it looks cool and yells at you I am cool but there is no story. other than stick figure A fights stick figure B and it loops around.

Anyway thank you for driving home the idea of how beautiful a cartoon stripped down to the simplest terms can really be.

And how heart warming a simple moment in time try is. And I hope you don't mind I put up a link to your work on my blog.

TAW Blog Admin said...

Hello there, great blog in general, enjoyed your Sempé post. I'm also a fan and thought if you aren't already aware of it you might like to check out a brilliant little book called The Story of Mr. Sommer by Patrick Suskind (author of Perfume) as it is most beautifully illustrated by Sempé - but I'd recommend reading the book and arriving at each illustration as the story unfolds - it's a far richer experience of both if you do.

James from Dublin Eire

Tim said...

Good Job! :)

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