The blog of Richard Thompson, caricaturist, creator of "Cul de Sac," and winner of the 2011 Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Chiaroscuro; now with more words

Chiaroscuro, (/kiˌɑːrəˈskjʊər/the art term so unspellable that I'm forced to copy & paste it, means light-dark in Italian, and strong contrasts between the two in English. And like most Italian words, it's fun to say and makes you vaguely hungry. 

Chiaroscuro is one of the four canonical painting modes of the Italian Renaissance, the others being Unione, Cangiante and Sfumato, something I just learned on Wikipedia. Of the four, I'd heard of Sfumato, of which the most famous example is Leonardo's celebrated Mona Lisa, and if anyone were to market a quiescently frozen dessert called "Sfumato," I'd eat my weight in it. Chiaroscuro is also one of my favorite ways of working because it makes a caricature look like more than it is. 

Consider this unfinished caricature of Mark Twain, which I intended as a Christmas present for my dad (long story). I was pretty obviously mimicking myself (see below).  The paper color is called Tobacco, and it was one of my favorites. Unfortunately, Canson changed the color of the paper, shifting it slightly toward red and spoiling it for my purposes. Every time I tried to use it, the drawing looked too "hot," the shadows and half-tones would be too warm, etc... I needed a more neutral color.

As I said, I was copying myself, using what'd worked before. Start with the highlights, then work darker, using the middle tones (in this case, the paper) as a fixed point.

This worked well, until I used actual paint. As long as I faked it with colored pencils and mixed media, I was alright. But I had pretensions that colored pencils couldn't satisfy, and a good subject to try them out on. A friend, Dave Bragunier, then the tubist and personnel manager of the National Symphony Orchestra, made the mistake of asking for a caricature of then-conductor of the NSO, Mstislav  Rostropovich (I copy and pasted that too) in the style of the Beethoven. Unfortunately, we don't have room on this blog to explore this digression fully, but suffice it to say I took years of dawdling to not finish the painting. This was as far as I got-

To find out the exciting conclusion of this unnecessary and irrelevant anecdote, pre-order Th Art of Procrastinatin' Sam, or whatever the hell it's called. (Which is now #1,000,000+ on Amazon's list. C'mon people, get with it!) 

By now I was completely in love with technique, usually at the expense of the art. My dad, a former photographer, after I'd shown off my latest pile of highly specialized brushes, said that there were photographers who fell a little too in love with the glamor of the equipment. I knew what he meant; I'd reread art catalogs and painters' guidebooks until they hung in tatters. The more obscure the better, and the most specialized was the Kremer Pigment catalog. Little bottles full of pure, powdered color, odd art supplies from 100-year-old shops have a great, alchemy-lab charisma.

Look at the above illustration, or rather the lower left portion thereof. That's an attempt at an underpainting in egg tempera. Egg tempera is one of the oldest blah blah blah, its permanence is tra la la, and it is excellent for underpainting an oil painting (well, an egg tempera-oil painting or mischtechnik. Y'see, there are all these paint layers that interlock as they dry...oh, Google it). There are thousands of recipes for tempera-oil painting and I had them all, the more obscure and poisonous the better (ask me about megilp). That green I used in the lower left is Verona green earth, historically ideal for shadowed flesh tones. Sounds good to me! So I had a store-bought tube of paint, and I also had a little bottle of pigment sitting on my shelf, ready to be left sitting on my shelf, unused, along with about a hundred other such jars filled with the most arcane stuff imaginable, also unused, but utility wasn't the point; having rows of little jars was.

The point was authenticity; no, not authenticity, it was needless complication. For the support I'd glue together (using rabbitskin glue!) two pieces of Masonite (it had better be unoiled!). Then, in an elaborate process, the surface was prepared. I got quite good at this. In fact, I've got a box of boards somewhere. I had trouble with the part where you put the paint on it to make a picture, was all. 

To prepare a board for mischtechnik (or egg tempera), you use gesso, which is NOT the acrylic gesso sold in buckets (feh!) but a white fluid paint made of gypsum slaked in water (I once slaked my own gypsum!) and animal glue. This is painted on the board warm, in layers of opposite direction and allowed to dry. Then you sand it smooth with several grades of sandpaper, ending with fine steel wool. The end product is a white surface that's utterly smooth & level.

I hadn't meant to get bogged down lecturing on technique. Those who've seen the documentary by Teller Tim's Vermeer know where unchecked obsessions lead; among other places a documentary by Teller. So I'm going to show some pictures-

Ollie North (remember how he rampaged around the country?) in tube egg tempera and oil. A bit stiff, I'm trying stuff I don't know how to do.

Phil Gramm, for Mother Jones. Kinda cool, with the hand. I like the sky.

Hector Berlioz. I worked on this forever. I had  intricate plans for doing this one; elaborate sketches, detailed notes, etc.. I even had a bottle of copper resinate  for his green jacket. But planning a masterpiece and being inspired are two very different things. The copper resinate smelled so vile I wiped it off and threw the bottle away. It may have been this piece that made me realize that I wasn't meant for plans and plots and inductions dangerous. It goes against my nature,, which doesn't admit to non-spontenaity. Replaced by this, a better work.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014



ONLY $14.7O!




Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Some Unseen Cul de Sacs

Sometimes I feel like I'm shaking these out of my sleeves, like Harpo Marx does with silverware.  These  are either too local or too unfunny to be in the Complete. So they'll go in the Compleat.

This one manages to be both- 

The real Alice wouldn't be so smarmy-

Here's one that became  obsolete because so many gags sprung from it-

What's the first appearance of Mr. Otterloop's car?

There!  Some additions to the Apocrycypha for all those who keep track.

Monday, August 18, 2014


My older daughter, Emma. just left for her sophomore year at VCU. She has an apartment this year and couldn't wait to leave, which is understandable, but I was in no hurry. Of course, I thought the summer flew by too. I always swore I wouldn't do a my-kids-are-so-cute blogposts. But she's 150 miles away, so why not?

Here are some drawings Emma inspired over the years.

She was an inspiration even before she was born. Let's see the rest of that Why Things Are illustration-

Eew is right. Here's a rough for an old Almanac-

And the final, which is in the collection of my dad-

And, to complete her embarrassment, the digital debut of an Almanac she did write, in 2002, Picnic-

(The part I like best are Emma's hands; they fidget just right.) The original hangs in our hall, festooned with a multicolored county fair ribbon that says Grand Champion (poetry, 10 and under),
 which came with a check for $15, a lot of money for a five-year-old. Emma, at about the same age, would take small rocks from the back yard and draw smiling faces on them. Then she'd release them into the wild to be found by future, puzzled generations. This sparked a sequence in CdS where Alice did the same thing; one of the few times the strip was so beholden to reality. That's Emma's sister, Charlotte, singing back-up. She's the tallest one in the family and she knows archery and lives at home. If you think I'm going to do any blogposts about what she does, you're crazy.

Sunday, August 17, 2014



This 20- step card is useful and educational, yet practical and an object of great craftsmanship too!

We've entitled this card the Old Heave-Ho; it's filed under "tragic."

Finally! A man's cap that won't bind or unduly squeeze his head, causing him to lose consciousness, while retaining its stylishness! And right on the front it says Cul de Sac! Correct spelling guaranteed at no extra cost!


Friday, August 15, 2014

Unseen Cul de Sac; the Bay

I'm currently sitting at a table in my old friend Bono Mitchell's family Chesapeake Bay house, on Kent island, you cross the Bay Bridge and make a right, go 7 miles and boom, you're there. I was last here 23 years ago and from what I can tell, apart from ongoing upkeep and the usual small improvements, it hasn't changed at all, thank god.

So I thought it appropriate to inflict this old CdS on you. It's scanned from the Post by the indispensable Mike Rhode, because the original's somewhere in the depths of my studio. The Oterloops were on the way to one of the Maryland beaches, probably Geek's Neck, and you cross the Bay Bridge to get there.*

I'm, I think, justifiably proud of that view of the Bridge in panel 3.

*Please refer to your copy of the Map of Cul de Sac and Adjacent Places.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

One Stop Shopping for All Your Cartoon Needs

If you will direct your attention to the lower right for a moment, you'll notice, amidst the tangle of links, a link to something called the Thompsoniana Store. This is because I'm gradually consolidating all my Zazzle stores into one big Thompson megastore, a place you'll find is more amenable to your cartoon shopping requirements. Eventually you'll be able to pretty much furnish your life with items featuring my old drawings, from stationary to tote bags. Then I will be eligible for my own public television station. And, hey, they're having a 50% off sale on all posters! I can't think of a better time to order the Map of Cul de Sac and Adjacent Places, can you?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Candide: the Ever-Unfinished Version

Candide is almost too illustratable. I used to know what I'm talking about, I knew the book inside-out (no great accomplishment, it's about 100 pages), I'd read 3 or 4 biographies of Voltaire (he never said, "I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it." and was a bit of a war-profiteer. Still, he had guts.) I coulda told you what provoked him into writing Candide (Alexander Pope and an earthquake in Lisbon I think, but then, nobody ever asked me). Candide, encountered at the right time in life, is a bit like Vonnegut or Heller in the unearned wisdom department; the world's a crappy place, and mom, stop using that new detergent on my laundry, it smells funny.

Maybe I'm just being cranky in the presence of so much of my of juvenilia. I was  inspired to try illustrating it from the age of about 20, when I first read Candide (by accident; in a Pogo book I was also reading, Porky the Porcupine is identified in the notes as the swamp's Alceste and I thought, hey, I gotta read that. But I got Candide confused somehow with The Misanthrope, a play by Neil Simon).

Candide is a comic strip in prose; a fast-paced picaresque yarn and a bitter satire of religion and society written when that sort of thing was dangerous. It was almost dashed off (the changes in tenses make it somehow even funnier and more immediate). Those familiar with the Bernstein musical (me! ooh, me!) know that it is not Voltaire's Candide, despite the smashing tunes. It's Candide with a happier ending. When you hear that Bernstein, who was writing West Side Story concurrently swapped out some songs ("One hand, one heart" was first in Candide) you're impressed at his virtuosity. But such emotions are foreign to Voltaire's Candide. Productions of   Bernstein's operetta tend to emphasize the crazy funhouse side, using puppets, masks and other inventive theatrical effects lavishly. My brother's theater, Arena Stage, put a on about 18 years ago and I remember it as full of trapdoors, magic tricks and suchlike coups de theater.

Maybe that's what makes Candide so alluring to illustrators; it's so much damn fun. And artists as diverse as Paul Klee and Rockwell Kent have responded, with varying degrees of success (I like Klee's more than Kent's). So, 20-year-old me, what's your take on Candide?  

I was deep in my Ronald Searle phase. I'd recently discovered him and was emulating all his tropes and techniques without, of course, understanding them. Pat Oliphant said that everyone goes through a Searle stage; the trick was in pulling out once you'd learned what you needed to.

It's a very decorative style, and that limits what can be done with it. Although I remember it as liberating; what you can do with ink. But the drawings weren't right. It needed something  smaller and faster.

This comes from 1986. I know because it says,"this is my favorite drawing of 1986" below it. I guess it was a slow year. It's certainly small and fast. I like the lettering and the scratchiness especially in comparison with the smooth flow of the lines in the preceding drawings.

 I've posted this before but here it's in context. I think it's the most (only?) successful Candide illustration so far. I love the cross-hatching, stolen, if I recall, from Brad Holland, and I like the character of Dr. Pangloss.

I last tried to illustrate Candide about two years ago. The only result was a pile of torn up drawings.That's the problem with Candide; it's unillustratable.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

better times

My old friend John Montrie, who commissioned this for a proposed card game years ago, just lost his wife Paula. I came across the image while looking for something else.

I'm not sure why I'm posting it except as a reminder of better times.

Auction Outcome

The auction of the three Pearls Before Swine strips, a collaboration between Stephan Pastis & Bill Watterson, brings in $74,090, with Heritage Auction's generous contribution. All of it is going to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.

I have some good friends.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Old & Lost Almanacs

Here are a few Almanacs that, because it was a local, DC strip or for one reason or another was too outdated, have not been seen since their original publication in the Post. Hey, I got a million of these. My objections follow each image.

Strained humor, of local interest only.

Out of date.

Of local interest only. Who's Marion Barry?

Too specific.

Outdated subject.

Too local. Plus, J.Carter Brown's dead.

Too local. How many times are you going to use this gag?

Too local. Also, I'd lost it.

Too weird.

Monday, August 4, 2014


The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum reports that on the last day of exhibition the combined Watterson/Thompson show broke the previous day's record of 350, attracting 444 cartoon-crazed fans. Including, if the photos smuggled from the event are credible, several nuns and a man in a hat. Again, we applaud their effort.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Last Two Days

As all things must end, the OSU Billy Ireland show is coming down on August 3rd, after 6 months and almost 4 million sets of eyeballs.  The carpet was replaced 8 times at a cost to the taxpayer of 17 trillion dollars, while if you laid end-to-end all the velvet rope used it would stretch from downtown Washington, DC to the Oort Cloud.*

Oort Cloud (approx.)

My deepest thanks to Jenny Robb and her staff, especially the indefatigable  Caitlin McGurk, without whom I wouldn't get to use the word "indefatigable" twice in one sentence. Ya'll done good! Thanks also to my co-exhibitor and roomie, Bill Watterson, for kindnesses too numerous to mention, like not pushing me right into the fountain at the National Gallery when I got too pompous.

Showroom new! With Caitlin McGurk.

It was fun! Let's it again!

*Fanciful and meretricious.