click to enlargeThe Unsung Sickles
How Noel Sickles Developed the Chiaroscuro Technique that Milton Caniff Made Famous

Noel Sickles is actually not unsung. In comics history, he is widely celebrated for developing the chiaroscuro technique of illustration that Milton Caniff adopted and made famous in Terry and the Pirates. But how and why Sickles developed this way of drawing has not been the subject of much singing. Until now. Now and here, where, snatched from the pages of my unpublished biography of Milton Caniff, we have a few paragraphs that describe Sickles' invention of his famed light-and-shadow technique.

            Scorchy Smith was created in 1930 by John Terry for the infant comics line-up in the Associated Press's Feature Service. Debuting September 19, Scorchy was intended to invoke the popular memory of Charles Lindbergh, the Lone Eagle who, just a few years before, had flown the Atlantic solo and ignited the adulation of millions. Terry contracted tuberculosis in 1933, and by the late fall, he was too ill to work. Sickles, who had joined the AP art department the previous spring, was tapped to substitute for the ailing artist. It was, for Sickles, the consummate artist, something of an onerous duty: Terry's drawing ability was primitive, and Sickles was instructed to imitate it, which he did, smoothing off some of the rougher edges as he labored over it. In place of Terry's scratchy, sometimes blotchy line, Sickles introduced a simple line of unvarying thinness and enhanced it with extensive diagonal linear shading. click to enlarge  Terry's illness turned out to be terminal, and early in 1934, Sickles inherited Scorchy and moved to improve the over-all quality of the drawing. Since Terry wouldn't be coming back, there was no need to preserve any vestige of his style. Sickles began the transformation by slowly dropping the stylistic mask of simplicity that he had donned in order to maintain the general "feel" of Terry's awkward technique. He  began brushing in splashy solid black shadows over the linear shading, and he piled up background details in his pictures. As the months passed, he dropped the fineline shading and drew everything in linear detail. Then he added a few solid black shadows. After a while, he brought back the fineline shading. By the end of the year, the strip had become more illustrative and much less cartoony in appearance, but it was still, for Sickles, a stylistic experiment: he hadn't settled on the way he wanted to draw to enlarge

            Sickles studied tearsheets from the AP member papers that used Scorchy. He was appalled at how badly many of the smaller newspapers were printed. His fine-line shading was lost in reproduction, lines were broken or run together in a muddy blotch. Whatever style he finally adopted would have to be capable of surviving on the worst presses imaginable. But he had other objectives in mind, too. He wanted a style that would make the strip's drawings seem realistic. And he wanted to bring it out on a page of comics. He knew that starkly contrasted black and white would do that: heavy black areas always draw attention to themselves, and the contrast with brilliant white areas would make the strip visually irresistible. "The reason so many comic strips of that era looked weak was that they lacked color," Sickles said years later as he reconstructed the train of thought he had followed then. "Now, color can be black and white. I felt they needed a greater contrast of light and dark in the comics. Roy Crane, for example, was using a lot of blacks but not in terms of light and shadows. What I saw all around me were outline and solid blacks [used as color]."

            In searching for a new style, Sickles remembered Monet and the other Impressionist painters he had studied as a youth. He had been impressed by their handling of light. And he began deliberately to formulate a style based upon his understanding of the Impressionist technique. Impressionist painters suggested, they did not delineate, the appearance of things. The principle of the technique was simple. In nature, there are no lines: the shapes, the edges, of things are determined by contrasting colors, textures, and—most important to Sickles—shadows. Everything casts a shadow, and parts of most things are in shadows in varying degrees of darkness. In a daily comic strip, there are only two "colors"—black and white. Sickles decided to use black for shadows, a seemingly commonsensical decision. But until Sickles began splashing black ink liberally into his drawings, black was treated by most comic strip artists strictly as a "color": a character would have black trousers or a black sweater. In Sickles's strips, once he was fairly immersed in his new style, black was sometimes a "color"; but more often, his strips seemed to contain no such "colors"—only light and shadow. Imagine a character standing in a room with a single source of light: half the character's form would be in shadow. A man's face: the features on the light-source side are drawn in fine lines with a pen, but the features on the side away from the light are lost in black shadow. Only the high points—a cheekbone, the top of an ear—catch the light, and thus they remain tiny flecks of white in a liquid sheen of black.

            That's the principle. In practice, most of the faces of Scorchy's cast were "in the light," but their figures were half bathed in shadow. Everything had a side away from the light source—furniture, appliances, automobiles, houses, people—so part of the shape of everything was suggested with deft strokes of a brush dipped deep into black ink, and unimportant props were all but lost in shadow. Sickles sculpted shapes with nicks of black, the shadows etching the forms. Shadowy folds on a figure's clothing, well done, define the figure; badly done, everything is reduced to blots of black. Doing it well, Sickles knew, required knowledge as well as drawing skill.

            "Once you understand structure," he said, "you can draw anything, no matter what the angle. But a complete rendering of every detail can be boring, and in some cases, it is less lifelike than just presenting an impression of the object. The eyes don't see a diagram. They see the shapes of the shadows left by the light source. With just a suggestion of the shape, the object becomes more real. That's what I was trying to bring to Scorchy."

            "The key to the style is eliminating unnecessary lines," Sickles explained. "Look at a Sisley painting. He's an artist I think grossly underrated. You can't imagine how he could have achieved the effects he did any more simply."

            As he began to bathe Scorchy more and more in shadow, Sickles disciplined himself to draw as simply as possible. To foreclose on the temptation to add more lines than were necessary, he started using his brush first (a Windsor Newton No. 3 watercolor, series 7), then his crowquill pen (170 or 303 point). "After penciling in the figures and the backgrounds," he once related, "I would work with the brush. With it, I would fill in the shadows, the ones under the nose, the backgrounds, everywhere. But I never used a brush on the outline of a figure or an object. What fascinated me about Hal Foster's work was his dry brush. But I never wanted to use dry brush in a newspaper because it doesn't have the life of the pen line. The pen has a mysterious quality of an outline and has a directness lacking in brush line. Using the brush prior to the pen helps you simplify your drawing. The style itself never seems to get old hat."

            But black and white alone, Sickles felt, was too startling for the realistic feel he wanted. "I learned from photo retouching when I was a staff artist in Columbus that nothing brings out blacks and whites better than a simple medium gray. For design purposes, I felt I needed an even gray tone to go with the white paper and black ink. The single tone Ben Day paper had that strong black dot-within-a-dot pattern that wouldn't break down so easily in a poor print job. This black, white, and medium gray could be reproduced almost anywhere."

            Sickles did not initiate his chiaroscuro technique overnight: he eased it into the strip over a period of three or four months. Although the fineline shading he'd been using disappeared suddenly the week of January 28, 1935, the shadows he put in its place encroached on the drawings gradually. During the next couple months, Sickles' new technique was most evident in his treatment of objects. Airplanes, ships, buildings, military vehicles—all were deeply shadowed on the sides away from imaginary light sources. Instead of drawing tiny circles for rivets on the side of a train, Sickles deftly suggested their shapes with nicks of black, the half-circle shadows defining form. Scorchy was in South America, embroiled in a revolution, and a lot of his activity took place at night. Depicting night scenes, Sickles let himself go and poured black ink onto the strips. By May, even daytime scenes were shadowed—not as deeply as night scenes, but shadows there were, in abundance. They gave buildings and objects shape and solidity, and they molded human figures. The celebrated Sickles style had matured. The Scorchy strips gleamed brilliantly, leaping off the comics pages. With Sickles' new treatment, more papers began using the strip. Scorchy's circulation more than doubled from the 100-or-so papers that had been running it when John Terry did the strip.

            Drawing was Sickles' passion, and the only part about doing Scorchy Smith he liked was drawing it. "Sickles was more concerned with method and technique than with setting up a cartoon character whose name could become a household word and provide a lifetime income," observed Caniff, his studio mate at the time. And as long as Sickles felt challenged by the graphic demands of the strip, he was happy. To keep himself interested, he experimented with a variety of ways of rendering Scorchy. Once he mastered the chiaroscuro technique he developed, he began playing with other techniques. When he took Scorchy to the Canadian north woods, he used the new chemically treated drawing paper, Craftint

Duotone. Sickles created marvelously photographic effects while he drew on this paper. Then he stopped using it. He took Scorchy and his friends to the Sahara Desert and rendered the entire sequence with a fine pen-point, producing pictures that looked as if they'd been drawn by Charles Dana Gibson. click to enlarge Every time he mastered one technique, he moved on to another. Setting himself graphic challenges and then surmounting them was about the only way Sickles derived any sense of achievement from doing the strip. The pay was miserable. When he took over the strip under his own name, the Associated Press raised his weekly salary to $70. It stayed there even as Scorchy began appearing in more and more papers.

            Meanwhile, Caniff's income grew as Terry's circulation increased. The AP's policy did not allow for its cartoonists to share in whatever profits were generated when a feature became popular. In fact, Sickles once said, the association resorted to "corporate chicanery" to keep circulation figures secret from its cartoonists. But Sickles was curious. He went to the AP's exchange files and thumbed through all the newspapers to see which of them ran Scorchy. He made a list. Counting more than 200 papers on his list (many, small town dailies), he figured that the AP was making at least $1,500 a week on the strip--of which he was getting $70. Armed with this evidence, he demanded and received a raise. To $125 a week. But even at that, his income was only slightly more than half of Caniff's earnings. And Terry appeared in only about 80 papers at the time (most of them, in contrast to Scorchy's AP clients, big city dailies that paid high user fees). Despite the irritation of this inequity, Sickles kept drawing Scorchy until the graphic challenge waned. By the fall of 1936, it was waning fast.

            Sickles hated writing his strip's story, and he had mastered all the rendering techniques he could think of for a newspaper strip. He was bored and he seized every chance he had to avoid working on the strip. "One of the reasons there are so many caricatures of me by him," Caniff said, "is that whenever he'd get bored or tired, he'd draw a picture of me. I never had time to draw any of him. Dunno if I could have done it anyway. He was so good at it."

            Sickles got bored or tired with increasing frequency. He often left his drawing board in the middle of a week's batch of strips to take a break. Since he habitually put off doing the strip until the last possible minute, his desertion of the drawing board at moments like this raised blood pressures among his editors at the Associated Press.

            "He'd just stop and go to the movies," Caniff said. "And the poor Associated Press'd go out of its skull. They'd call on the phone—Where is he? I'd say, I think he went to the dentist. After awhile they'd say, Some dental work. Bud didn't care. He'd come back and work all night to finish the stuff."

            In December 1936, Sickles and Caniff moved their studio to the nineteenth floor of Woodstock Towers in Tudor City, Apartment 1901, which had more windows. But Sickles was no longer doing Scorchy Smith. His boredom had at last grown greater than any satisfaction he could wring from doing the drawings in the strip. "He had performed all the loops and flourishes in the trade," Caniff once wrote. "Noel had licked all the problems he could find, and it was now a complete bore. So he quit and turned to other drawing worlds to conquer."

            For awhile, Sickles continued to work for the Associated Press, doing the daily "news" (editorial) cartoon for the comics budget. But there was little in the assignment to challenge him. The point of view in these cartoons, as always, had to be safely anemic. And the drawing task alone was not enough to keep Sickles interested. Finally, he quit altogether.

            "He did a lay-back for a whole year," Caniff reported. Sickles felt he was missing an education, so he spent the time reading—economics, philosophy, and history. He did a few freelance jobs to earn spending money, and Caniff loaned him money, too, from time to time. When Sickles decided to go back to work on a regular basis, it would be in illustration. He made a profitable connection with a studio and was soon handling several big accounts, Ford Motor Company among them. Sickles and Caniff continued to share the Woodstock Towers studio where Sickles lived, but only Caniff carried on the weekly battle with deadlines and the daily race against the clock.

            Here, from Sickles' last months on Scorchy, are sample strips showing the virtuoso taking his final bows in comics. In August 1936, he stopped using Ben Day, and the drawings got more complex, more realistic, as Sickles achieved his effects with linear qualities and minimal solid blacks. Then he began laying in shadowy black again, heavy layers of it over drawings that are now delicately etched rather than simply outlined as he'd been doing while introducing the chiaroscuro mannerisms two years before. From week to week, Sickles seems to be performing all the turns he'd perfected over those last two years—Gibson pen-craft, chiaroscuro—all of it, thrown into the mix for the finale. The strips reproduced here, not consecutive but separated by several days, show him running through the gamut of his illustrative repertoire, employing not only the penmanship of a Gibson but the chiaroscuro of his own invention.

click to enlarge

Return to Harv's Hindsights