Interviews November 1997

Drawing Without a License

His sharp-witted illustrations, instantly recognizable, have appeared in many of America's best-known magazines. Now, in a new book, Edward Sorel looks back over thirty years of "unauthorized portraits."
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Unauthorized PortraitsEdward Sorel's artwork stands out as faithful to a dying tradition of illustrative drawing. His on-target caricatures, witty cartoons, and distinctive style (characterized by loose, energetic lines) have made him one of today's most respected and sought-after illustrators. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Harper's, Esquire, The Nation, Rolling Stone, Time, and, most recently, The New Yorker. He has also written and illustrated a number of children's books.

Sorel's work appeared regularly in The Atlantic between the years of 1982 and 1995, during which time he illustrated several Atlantic covers and collaborated with his wife, Nancy Caldwell Sorel, a writer, on the regular feature "First Encounters," which depicted the first meetings of famous figures (such as John James Audubon and Sir Walter Scott, and Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando).

Some of Sorel's best work from the past thirty years has now been collected, along with commentary by the artist, in Unauthorized Portraits. Ever prolific, in just the past few months he has illustrated several more New Yorker covers, written and illustrated an article on film noir for the December issue of GQ, and produced another children's book (soon to be published by Simon & Schuster).

Sorel recently spoke with me by phone from New York.

Sage Stossel


Edward SorelIn the introduction to the Politics section of Unauthorized Portraits you describe your "tendency" as a child "to draw pictures by myself in a corner." How did your interest in art first manifest itself?

When I was nine years old I got pneumonia. In those days pneumonia was a serious illness—there was no penicillin. My pneumonia laid me up for about a year, and all I could do to entertain myself was draw pictures. Fortunately, in those days shirts came back from the Chinese laundry with white cardboard in them— that was my paper. I had a box of crayons and that was it; by the time I got well I was an artist. As to why I continued to make pictures, I suppose all artists want to create a world other than the one that they're living in. I certainly did.

There was also much conflict in my family. Especially along political lines. It was a very large family; half were communists and the other half just wished that we could all get together without discussing Stalin or Trotsky. I just found all of it very unpleasant, so I made my pictures and let the grownups yell away.

Did you use drawing as a kind of peace-making gesture?

No, it was a way of being off by myself and not getting involved with my family. I am essentially a solitary person, I think. I work at home with my wife, who is a writer; she works in one half of our loft, I work in the other. I'm happiest when I'm working.

What type of research and preparation do you usually undertake before doing a new caricature?

The first thing that you learn when you do caricatures is that you cannot do one from a single photograph. It's absolutely essential that you have several views of the face before you attempt a caricature. Sometimes a photograph doesn't look like the person. You have to have a profile, three-quarter, full face, and then you can really see where the unusual features are.

Obviously, if you're doing a caricature from life it's very different, but I'd say almost all the caricatures I've drawn have been from photographs.

How important do you think visual commentary on society and politics is, as opposed to written commentary?

Woody Allen and Mia Farrow
Illustration for a review
of Woody Allen's movie
Husbands and Wives in
Rolling Stone, October 1992.
(Click the image for
a larger version.)

In the early part of this century, and in the late nineteenth century, pictures on the editorial page always reflected the viewpoint of the newspapers themselves. The editorial artist was essentially a hired hand. After the Second World War, when the concept of the op-ed page in newspapers came about, writers were encouraged to espouse views that were contrary to the newspaper's. But artists were never given that same opportunity. To this day, the only editorial cartoonist who is able to draw whatever he wants without first clearing it with an editorial board is Herblock, of The Washington Post. Every other newspaper cartoonist, without exception, has to show what he's going to do in advance.

To answer your question, though: the visual has a different kind of power than the written word. Everyone accepts that Thomas Nast brought down the Tweed ring with his cartoons (which is not quite accurate; his pictures appeared in conjunction with editorials). But I think that pictures do have a kind of visceral power. That's why we don't have artists on the op-ed page saying whatever they damn please.

You describe yourself in the Unauthorized Portraits introduction as "someone who feels he's still learning how to draw." How would you describe the evolution of your artistic style over the years?

Well, I hope my drawing has become more spontaneous. When I started out I was a decorative illustrator, which means that I was working in a style that was acceptable to mainstream taste. It was impersonal—sweet, cute, the kind of thing you used to see on record-album covers in the sixties. It was ... decorative.

It seems to me that all the artists that I admire—Rembrandt, for example —got freer and more spontaneous as they got older. It corresponds to being more confident in their art.

The big problem for me that remains is composition. Composition, unlike the other aspects, never gets easier.

In a book review you wrote last year for The New York Times (of Ben Katcher's collected comic strips) you expressed a passion for German Expressionism. When did you discover the German Expressionists?

I really can't remember exactly. It may have been when I picked up a magazine called Simplicissimus. It was a German humor magazine from, I think, the turn of the century. The drawings were, in large part, German Expressionism. There have never been better magazine illustrations.

Did these kinds of illustrations inspire you early on?

No, I started out as a hack without any personal vision at all. What I wanted was simply to freelance. I didn't like having a job. The only way you could freelance was by doing decorative illustration for record albums, book jackets, and, occasionally, magazines. I evolved largely because of Vietnam, which made us all very very angry. I wanted to express my opinions and couldn't do that in the sweet, decorative style that I had been working in.

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Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, TheAtlantic.com launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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