Aesthetically Speaking


Arts & Culture

I learned not only how to read from comic books, but also how to see. I learned about line, shape, color, value, space, texture, color, balance, harmony, unity, contrast, variety, rhythm, repetition, emphasis, continuity, spatial systems, structures and grids, proportion and scale, and composition by studying and copying the drawings from the comic books of my Italian childhood. The word disegno literally meant drawing, but also design. Thus, the two were forever fused in my mind, each inseparable from the other: drawing is design, and design is, essentially, drawing.

Il Gatto con gli Stivali (i.e., Puss ’n Boots).

Il Gatto con gli Stivali (Puss ’n’ Boots).

This drawing is but one example of childhood drawings (many, alas, have been lost or destroyed). They were done between the ages of four and six, circa 1971–73. I consider this by far my best period as an artist. The drawings are careful, sincere, and free of pretension. If my house were to catch fire, the small box of my remaining childhood drawings is the only artwork of mine I would try to save.

Front cover of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory<, 2011.

Front cover of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2011.

I remember moping and brooding one day, lamenting the fact that I was never asked to draw one of the Penguin Books Deluxe Edition covers, as many of my fellow cartoonists have been invited to do, and then admitting to myself that, objectively speaking, I was not worthy. A few days later, as if by the miracle of thought transference, I was asked to draw the cover of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was elated, then terrified, and proceeded to procrastinate until the very last possible minute.

The Artist in His Studio (detail), 2007.

The Artist in His Studio (detail), 2007.

During the summer and autumn of 2007, I became severely depressed and found myself unable to draw. In order to (a) keep my hands busy and (b) avoid going insane, I decided to start making some three-dimensional objects (I hesitate to call them sculptures).

The Artist in His Studio nakedly symbolizes my mental state during that period, although at the time I was mostly trying to ease my mind about the daunting prospect of purchasing a house. I built a miniature room, to demystify things like wiring and floorboards and to solve the eternal puzzle, “What is the purpose of baseboards and crown molding?”

The little man in the room is actually a damaged piece of wood from my friend Chris Ware’s “discard pile” in his woodshop. I added legs and an eyeball and repainted it. The rest of the object is made of cardboard and other kinds of paper, not counting the paint, light bulb, brush bristles, tin foil, and a small piece of wood for the ink bottle and the brush itself. This object is less than seven inches tall.

72 Doodles (detail, 1998–2005.

72 Doodles (detail), 1998–2005.

I have probably thrown away thousands of these scraps of paper. I tend to scribble and scrawl compulsively, absent-mindedly, with the vain hope of incorporating some of the resultant spontaneity into my rather uptight “finished” artwork.

cat and dog

I collect toys, doo-dads, bric-a-brac, and other nonsense, and these sad, cute (but bordering on grotesque), often anonymous items inform much of my own cartooning. How can there be life behind those dead eyes? I suppose that’s what every cartoonist is trying to create: something alive out of something inert.

Images and text excerpted from Aesthetics: A Memoir, by Ivan Brunetti, published by Yale University Press. Used by permission.