Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Brief Lesson in Simplicity from a Master of Illustration: H.M. Bateman

Illustration No. 1

Two things immediately jumped out at me when I received a beautiful collection of caricatures by H.M. Bateman called Suburbia. Firstly; things have changed a lot in Suburbia since 1922! The dress code's slipped a bit for a start, spats and top-hats replaced by elasticated jean shorts and flip-flops. I'll wager there are no more piano-tuners or candle-stick makers down at your local strip-mall either.

The second thing that struck me was the wonderful simplicity of his calligraphic line, and just how sparing he is with it. He's distilled each element to it's absolute essence. Cartoonists have always been masters of minimalism and exaggeration, making the most out of the barest of means; simple blocks of color and a thin black line.

Nowhere is this skill more evident than in the backgrounds of these illustrations. Wishing to focus our attention on his simple yet elegant figure drawings he reduced the background detail to little more than an illustrative puff of smoke, yet it's here that we see just how talented he was.

Illustration No. 2

In Every Other Sunday [Ill. #1], we can clearly picture the quiet tranquility of the scene he's painted for us. Smoke lazily curling out of the chimney on a sunny mid-day (see those shadows?), and nobody on the streets. We can easily imagine that long back yard full of flowers and tall, overgrown shrubs that she just came through, sneaking out the back gate and into the arms of her lover.

In An Introduction to the Richest People in the Neighbourhood [Ill. #2], he dispensed with any detail whatsoever except for a shine on the floor. With those few scratched marks we know for certain that this is a pretty fancy interior; the highly polished floors are sparkling. He didn't need to draw the chandelier or the boiserie because we can already see them in our minds.

Illustration No.3

With no more than five black lines, The Mysteries [Ill. #3] sets the scene for us of the neighborhood promenade passing alongside a high brick wall, the details of the landscape all but obscured except for some high cumulus clouds. Our perspective on the scene is high, almost level with the top of the wall; Bateman has us looking down on the scene. Perhaps we too are rubber-necking and gossiping, staring at the couple from the window of a passing carriage.

Illustration No.4
Off Duty [Ill. #4] dispenses with background altogether! But at this point it's not even necessary. We already know the scene, because he masterfully placed it in our heads before we even turned the page.


  1. He understood what to include and what to leave to the imagination. The drawings are very distilled, giving us exactly what we need.

  2. As one who is forever drafting, I am especially appreciative of those, like H. M. Bateman, who are obviously both quick and sure in their linework. Just look at the puff of smoke from the chimney of the first cartoon, and one can imagine the movement of a champion skater.