Edward Sorel Profile
posted: April 16, 2008
"I got pneumonia when I was nine years old, this was pre-penicillin, and I was laid up for about a year. By the time I got well, I was an artist. In those years, the shirts used to come back with cardboard and that was what I used: a box of crayons and shirt cardboard.
"Then when I was about 10, my mother heard about a class for poor children, that was being held in the Little Red School House on Saturdays.It was sponsored by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. So every Saturday I went down there, from the Bronx. I was given a set of oil paints and canvas and could paint whatever I felt like painting. That was the last time in my life I painted whatever I felt like painting.
"Of course, the art schools ruined me. All they cared about was design. And the abstract expressionists were in the saddle, so clearly the last thing you needed was to learn how to draw. And in point of fact, I didn’t learn how to draw until I was in my 40's. I went to Music and Art High School, and Cooper Union after the Second World War, when illustration was considered the lowest form of art, and drawing was considered totally unnecessary.
"When I came out of school in the 50's, it was impossible to fail, there were so many jobs around. I mean, you got fired from one job and you got another job that paid more money. There were a lot of people walking around thinking of themselves as great successes and self-made men, but the truth is it was impossible to fail in the ‘50s.
"I started Push Pin Studio with Seymour Chwast and then Milton Glaser came, and we were very successful and then I left to freelance and I hustled and I was a bottom-feeder for a couple of years. I just kept swiping from other artists until finally I did a picture that didn’t look like anybody else. I never did any work that I was really happy with until I was in my 40's.
"That was when I realized that my sketches have more artistic value than my finishes. My wife and I did a book called, 'Word People', which was about people whose names became part of the language like Sandwich and Boycott and stuff like that. And there turned out to be 60 or 70 such people. When I did that book, I resolved that I would do it direct, without tracing. And I think for the most part I did. So suddenly I had a book that looked like nobody else’s, sort of like a signature. If you don’t trace you get a signature.
"I'd realized that tracing was death and I tried to do more and more direct drawing, which is possible to do if you don’t have to have too much information in the picture. If you don’t have to compose Custer’s Last Stand, you can work direct; if you have to paint Custer’s Last Stand , then you have to do a lot of preparation and a lot of tracing. And composition is always very hard for me. That’s why I do a lot of parodies of great painters, because they figured it all out and all I have to do is make fun of them.
"Composition is very difficult. It’s the hardest thing. Gesture is hard because nobody pays enough anymore for you to hire models. I have all these movie books and the one I use most often is Laurel and Hardy because they were essentially mimes and so they have wonderful gestures. And that’s really what illustration is all about; illustration is really about gestures. And if people called it gesture drawing maybe they’d be closer to it.
"I was teaching, in the ‘70s. I was teaching the children of dentists in Great Neck, and all they wanted to do was dye their hair purple and smoke pot. They had no ambition. I mean, Milton, Seymour and I were the offspring of lower middle class families, and we were in business to be a success. These kids had no need to be a success, they were going to be supported no matter what. And I hated them. So I only did it for about a year, I think. It was fun hearing the sound of your own voice for a few weeks, but after that it was tiresome.
"I don't think of myself as a great success. I was telling a friend the other week that when you are a loser when you are young, you are always a loser. There are some guys who think of themselves as great winners, guys without talent, guys without anything, and they see themselves as tremendously talented, even if the world hasn’t recognized them. It’s a puzzle. I mean, maybe I wasn’t breast fed long enough.
"My problem these days is that I’ve reached a point where they won’t tell me that I’ve done a bad drawing and very often they don’t know that I’ve done a bad drawing. This just happened yesterday when I delivered a job and they were very enthusiastic but I'm going to do it over, anyway. It’s the one bad thing about being famous: nobody really looks at the work critically and says, you know, you could do this, you could do that. A few weeks ago I did a cover for the New Yorker and got paid for it and then there was a small revision they needed, and they sent it back and I begged the editor not to run it. I just didn't want people to see it. They didn't run it. And they didn't even ask for the money back!
"Because I never mastered life drawing, I’m at the mercy of the reference I can find. Getting the right gesture is crucial, so I spend a lot of time going through a lot of books and now you can use Google. But I never know if what I'm doing is good till it's done. But while I'm working on it, I'm filled with doubt. Working out of fear is something that I’ve done all my life, and I still get scared of the job after all these years. But what can I do? My only consolation is that Fred Astaire got scared before he danced, too."