Some archaeologists believe that the oldest existing illustration of a fictional work on paper is this drawing of Hercules fighting a lion:

Known as the Heracles Papyrus, it was discovered under the desert sands outside the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus (named for a fish which, according to legend, ate the penis of the god Osiris).

The city was once the bustling regional capital of the 19th Upper Egyptian Nome. For a thousand years, residents dumped their garbage– including this noble little illustration of Hercules– in the sands outside the city. With the fall of the Egyptian empire, the city was conquered by successive foreign invaders (from Alexander the Great in 332 BCE to the Arabs in 641). Reduced to ruins, Oxyrhyncus was abandoned and gradually reclaimed by the desert.

But it turns out that the climate was perfectly suited for preserving the scraps of paper in the rubbish heaps outside Oxyrhyncus. The site had virtually no rain, a low water table, and was far from the Nile river (which flooded annually). The dry sand blew over the tattered bits of papyrus, covering and preserving them until they could be rediscovered by archaeologists. This was the ancient equivalent of mylar.

Thousands of years later, parents were still throwing away trashy illustrated stories of Hercules.



The remarkable Harry Beckhoff drew this tiny picture of a man scared by a black cat in 1913.

What a marvelous design.

Many artists would feel constrained by the actual size or shape of a cat. Or they might struggle over the fact that a cat walks on the ground around our ankles, so you are obligated to draw the entire body if you want to show the face.

But Beckhoff understood that the design comes first. Everything else flows from that.



Howard Pyle (1853-1911) was the father of American illustration. His powerful compositions (such as these horizontal stripes across a background color field)…

…had their origin in Pyle’s small sketchbooks where he developed the designs for his pictures.

In some of Pyle’s sketches we see him carefully mapping the placement of figures and objects in space:

But my favorites are the ones where we see Pyle wrestling with the abstract designs of his paintings:

These images are courtesy of the good folks at the Delaware Art Museum which owns a treasure trove of Pyle’s sketchbooks showing the master at work (Thanks, Mary and Erin!)



These unpublished sketches are by the illustrator E.F. Ward (1892-1990).

In an era before photography became convenient, illustrators filled sketchbooks with meticulous reference sketches of props and period costumes. Like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter, they kept records of little details and touches that might be useful for some future assignment.

Today, an illustrator who wanted to draw someone in an historical outfit would not have to go through this. They could easily pluck a dozen reference photos from the internet.

Lest you think that Ward’s detailed sketches are anachronistic, he also did a series of faster, smaller figure studies and gesture drawings. Done for a different purpose, they were drawn in a much simpler style:

In good, workmanlike fashion, Ward only devoted as much time to a sketch as its purpose warranted.

Ward’s sketches reveal a hard working, talented artist. We don’t remember him much today because he had the great misfortune to be working at the same time as Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker, Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth.



OK, technically these sketches are not from Will Eisner’s “sketchbook,” they are preliminary drawings he did to guide his ghost artist, Lou Fine, in creating the finished art for The Spririt comic strip.

I find it interesting that no matter how brusque and hurried these layouts are, and no matter how many thousands of panels he had already drawn, Eisner was still motivated to play outside the panel borders with little doodles and sketches:

These preliminary sketches showed the essentials of what Eisner thought needed to be in his strip.

All of the trademark closeups and angle shots can be found in Eisner’s road map.



Albert Dorne was one of the most remarkable characters in the history of illustration. The upcoming book, Albert Dorne, Master Illustrator (out in November from the fine folks at Auad Publishing) describes how Dorne used his drawing ability to climb from the depths of poverty and illness to international renown as an artist, business leader, educator and philanthropist.


From the introduction to the new book:

Starting with nothing but a talent for drawing, Dorne became (in the words of advertising titan Fairfax Cone) “the highest paid, most successful commercial artist of his time.” From that position, he used his drawing skills as a platform for building a multinational corporation that trained tens of thousands of students around the world in the creative fields of art, writing and photography. Now a wealthy man, he went on to use drawing to help the disabled, became nationally respected for his charitable work and was appointed by the President of the United States to The President’s Committee for the Employment of the Handicapped. Dorne consorted with glamorous movie stars and government leaders, amassed a major art collection and was sought after as a lecturer around the country.

Many thanks to the Famous Artists School, the Norman Rockwell Museum, Walt Reed and everyone else who helped us to assemble Dorne’s unpublished drawings and sketches for this book.
Dorne was able to take his drawings from rough thumbnail sketches to remarkably engineered, complex final drawings with lightning speed.

After a while, Dorne made so much money as the president of a multinational corporation that he could no longer afford to take the time to sit at a drawing board and draw pictures. Nevertheless, you can still find some of his “unpublished drawings” in his corporate correspondence, as in this affectionate letter to Norman Rockwell:



Today I am posting a garden of faces selected from Smith’s sketchbooks:

Even with just a quick sketch, Smith captured the personalities of the middle eastern musician (above) or the American housewife (below).

Note how Smith is never lazy. He does not draw these faces from a template that he learned in art school; he pays attention and works to understand and capture the unique qualities in each face. Otherwise, what would be the point of sketching?



Art, being bartender, is never drunk;

And magic that believes itself must die.

–Peter Viereck

This passionate drawing by Bob Peak shows how he became swept up by the fury and speed of a horse race…

…except it turns out that Peak made several careful studies to achieve that spontaneous look. He re-copied drafts on tracing paper, preserving the elements he liked.

He even drew faint pencil guidelines so he would know the best way to make his bold, slashing strokes appear free and unconstrained:

Peak employed old conjurer’s tricks to create the magic in art. (Viereck described art as “a hoax redeemed by awe.”) It might have been personally more cathartic for Peak if he reacted to the thrill of the race by making wild, unrehearsed scribbles but it would have made for lousy art.

David Seymour took this photograph of a young Polish girl who, after being freed from a Nazi concentration camp, was asked to draw a picture of her home.

The anguish in her face is unmistakeable. Her picture amounts to nothing more than a frantic jumble.

Long ago, Nietzsche wrote of the “self-conquest” necessary to make “torrential passion…become still in beauty.” Shakespeare, who also knew a thing or two about passion, lauded those with the power to move others while remaining in control of their own faces: