We asked Harry Bliss how he found his own, distinct voice in illustration recently. We were so fascinated by his telling that he agreed to let us post it here. Enjoy the many guises of . . . Harry Bliss!
Style came to me after years of being inspired by artists as far apart as Ben Shahn to Charles Schulz.
I spent years mimicking these and dozens of artists I'd admired in some form and it was very good for me in terms of developing hand control, familiarity with mediums or simply keeping my 'chops' up. If you go back and look at my work twenty-five years ago you'll see a lot of different styles, depending on the assignment.
I had illustration jobs (mostly book jackets) that needed, say, an Art Deco look or a renaissance feel, so all that influence came in handy. Still, at some point you want to find your own look and this comes, ironically enough, when you stop searching for a style.
For me, it was The New Yorker that really forced me into straight drawing, just an idea in my mind traveling from my brain down to my hand and onto the paper with nothing to look at— pure visual communication. This of course is the central component in drawing gag cartoons. Think of a James Thurber drawing, the crude beauty and expressions in those works— masterful stuff that was so pure. One day, a prominent New Yorker writer came across Thurber trying to copy something in front of him, working from life because Thurber felt his drawings looked too crude at best, and the writer said, "What the hell are you doing? Stop that! It you get any better you'll be mediocre!" Ha!
It's sort of tragic, but my father never found his visual 'voice' because he couldn't shed the other great artists whom he'd loved — all his stuff looks like a Gorky or a Avery or some impressionists he's trying to mimic. My uncle too, spent most of his life trying to be Andrew Wyeth. Here is one of his paintings. It’s great, but you'd swear it’s a Wyeth...
When I draw now, whether it's for a picture book, cartoon, New Yorker cover, or 'doodle', they all look like a 'Bliss' — it just happened. I guess the influence gets washed out of you over the years and that's when it gets really fun. I had a 75-year- old painting teacher, Lou Sloan at PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts), call it 'freedom' and I liked that quite a bit.
One of Ed Koren’s cartoons that always makes ME laugh depicts a suburban street and off to the right of the street, on a large lawn, are 30 or 40 elementary school-age kids hanging out/goofing off, and to their left is a big road sign that reads: Slow: Ragamuffins and Urchins...
This is my humor, I get this...but...
Not "getting it" is a difficult situation to be in. It's unnerving, awkward and makes us feel lost. We all want to "get it" because if we don't, we are missing out, we are left behind and we don't want to be left behind, we want to be out in front, with the cartoonist, getting it.
Ed Koren has been asking us to "get it" for nearly half a century. He has been drawing his sublime furry (sorry) characters at a terrific pace. Working alone, with pencil or pen in hand, Ed has been sharing his keen wit with all of us...and that's not easy. Being a successful cartoonist is a damn difficult thing to do. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard, and I'm sure Ed can attest to this, people say "oh, you just draw pictures for a living, that's not really a job." Really? Okay, picture this:
Ed is driving his Saab one day, he stops at a traffic light, sees something going on - a couple at a flea market. He watches and studies the situation, then the idea comes, yes - the idea! Turning it over in his mind, Ed thinks, is it funny, relevant, timeless?
Ed continues driving and as he drives, he replays the scenario he has just witnessed and decides, yes, by God, it was funny, relevant, and timeless! Ed punches the gas pedal, he wants to get home quickly to flesh out the idea before it escapes him. He, like many great cartoonists, has respect for the integrity of the moment and must capture it.
Ed begins to worry that he may forget the idea. He reaches into the glove box for a pen and paper unaware of his right foot, which is now accelerating the vehicle. "What the hell did Curtis do with all my pens!" Ed asks slamming the glove box. With one hand on the steering wheel, Ed reaches into the back seat. His hand searches unsuccessfully for a pen "Jeezum Crow!" he yells. Nine plus miles to go and Ed fears his idea will vanish into the abyss of great cartoon ideas not written down in the moment. Steadfast and now with both knees on the steering wheel, Ed turns completely around to get a proper view of the back seat of the car while the Saab passes an Elementary School letting out. Perspiring in his frantic search for the elusive pen, he flips his fire fighters helmet off the seat, whips his son's snow shoes into the back of the car and accidentally throws a snow scraper out of the half open window...it hits a nearby squirrel, killing it instantly.
The car rides the shoulder, inching toward a quaint farm stand where an elderly Tasha Tudor look-alike in an Adirondack chair sits screaming. Ed turns around just in time to miss the woman but slams into an antique poker table with pints of maple syrup, various gourds and homemade pies. He pumps the brakes to a halt moments before a Vermont state trooper arrives on the scene.
Ed wipes the sweat from his brow, tells the trooper he's a fireman in Brookfield in hopes of avoiding a reckless driving ticket - no dice. The officer hands Ed a $300 ticket. "May I borrow your pen, Officer?" Ed asks. Ed scrawls out a rough sketch of his funny, relevant, timeless idea on a scrap piece of paper while the Trooper impatiently looks on. "What's that?" the officer asks. "Oh, well - when I'm not fighting fires, I'm a cartoonist. A ways back, before all this mess happened, I had a pretty good idea for a cartoon - like to get it down on paper before I forget it." Ed finishes and hands the officer back his pen. The Trooper leans forward, cocks his head and studies Ed's rough sketch. "I don't get it,” he says.
Now, a Vermont State Trooper is not exactly Ed's demographic, but I tell this story because it illustrates the sort of devotion Ed Koren has to the craft of cartooning.
Ed doesn't take short cuts, his drawings are spot on, crowded with all sorts of stuff to look at, but never too much, he knows when to stop. Ed is what my father called "artists in total command of their craft," a Pro. It's the highest compliment I can pay to an artist and Ed deserves this title with Capitol Letters.
I have loved Ed Koren's cartoons all my life and it is truly an honor to know him and be here with him tonight - in fact, tomorrow I will be officially changing the spelling of my first name to H-a-i-r-y in honor of Ed. It gives great joy to introduce a Pro, my friend and artist to whom the 2011 Burlington Book Festival has been dedicated...Ladies and gentlemen, Ed Koren.