Schools of comic book art: Painterly (non-comic book) artists

While at Comic Con last week, I was lucky enough to meet Bill Sienkiewicz who, (in an act of generosity) drew an insanely complex and rather vicious looking demon in my sketchbook. Then on Sunday night, (the last night of the convention) I found myself sitting across from Ben Templesmith. I showed him Bill’s demented demon, thinking that Ben would enjoy the sight of something foul and bestial, since it seemed to echo his own tastes. Ben immediately told me that Bill wasn’t an influence, and that people often think that, which I found rather strange. It seems to me that Ben Templesmith’s artistic style is entirely different to Bill Sienkiewicz’s, and that in fact, all they have in common is the ability to use paint and texture in their work.

As I thought about it, I realized that I’ve never really taken the time to look at the various comic book artists that I respect and admire in the way that I did the artists that I studied in college. When studying art history, we break up artists into “movements”, schools of thought which knit them together, as we seek to understand their infuences and work process. It seems to me that the comic book artists that I most enjoy could also be said to be part of three distinct movements. I’d loosely label those three schools of thought; Painterly comic book artists, Unconventional comic book artists, and Traditionalists. Of the three types, Templesmith and Sienkiewicz would obviously belong to the first group, and rather than having a great deal in common with each other, their only similarity is that their style owes as much of a debt to so-called “Fine Art”, as it does to that which is generally cited in the traditional comic book medium. Therefore I decided to examine this genre ofย  comic book artists first (and in the following weeks I’ll look at both the Unconventional and Traditional comic book artists too.)

Painterly, (i.e. non “comic book” style) comic book artists

Working far outside of the boundaries of what was previously possible using the original printing techniques of traditional comic books, these artists have exploited the full color, high-quality paper and new print technology that began to be commonplace from the 1980’s onwards. Using what was essentially a new medium,, due to these changes, these artists seek to share and explore all forms of visual expression within the storytelling medium that is comic books. These artists have more in common with what are usually termed “fine art”. Therefore it makes sense to list a few of the best, and examine their possible influences and compatriots outside of their chosen profession, and in the general arts community…

Ben Templesmith‘s (30 Days of Night) combination of angular line-work and rich, gritty textures has always reminded me of the work of Paul Klee, (though naturally Klee has a sweetness that Templesmith almost agressively shies away from.) Meanwhile his frenetic fields of filthy color have much more in common with the massively layered, detailed works of Jackson Pollock. Though they’re both abstract artists, like Templesmith they use their work to convey an almost primal atmosphere and evoke a depth of emotion that words alone couldn’t begin to touch.

Bill Sienkiewicz (Elektra: Assassin) has said himself that Robert Rauschenberg was an influence and I think that shows very clearly in his work, with the texture and collage techniques that he uses, as well as his subject matter and approach to it. I’d also compare him to expressionists like Anselm Kiefer, who’s epic, deeply textured, mixed-media paintings and sculptures often shock and inspire with their rawness. He also shares some similarities with an artist who brings an incredible edge of disturbing americana in his work; Edward Kienholz. The ability to play and layer, to draw influence from all aspects of life to create a disturbingly fleshy impact, these are the things that unite these artists.

Dave McKean (Arkham Asylum) manages to twin the ability to illustrate with absolute finesse and delicacy, with an intensely emotionally descriptive visual language. His detailed drawings have always reminded me of the sketchbooks of Leonardo daVinci, with this almost scientific devotion to describing reality in all it’s intricacy. Then he always blows it out of the water with his strangely surrealist take on storytelling and visual communication. This aspect of his work echoes an artist like Kurt Schwitters, who’s earlier expressionist and sparser dadaist works were rich with subtle depth and messagery.

Kent Williams‘ (Blood: A Tale) tall, angular figures have often seemed like an echo of Giacommetti‘s tall, erect, lumpen, people to me. In their stoic grace, they seem to stalk across the pages of William’s books like the bleak, slim creatures of Giacommetti sculptures brought to a sort of confused and lost half life. Evocative and vulnerable, at times they have the sadly folded limbs of Egon Schiele figures, their scratchy lines all too raw and ethereal. At other moments, the baleful landscapes could only be described in something like Edward Munch‘s plastic use of paint and color, sweeping across the page.

Alex Ross (Kingdom Come), with his utopian, almost photo-realistic love song to the great imaginary heroes of our age, can be compared to Tamara de Lempicka‘s depiction of the fabulous and beautiful people of her era. Her clean, art deco-influsenced elegant lines of cubist beauty share some of Ross’s lines of vision. But in many ways his aesthetically perfect specimens have just as much in common with Alberto Vargas‘ stunning pin up girls, (who drew the most aerodynamic and joyful pin up girls you’ve ever seen.)

Ashley Wood (Automatic Kafka) takes the stalking men and women of his books and charts their progress like Otto Dix before him. His characters seem uniquely detached, unmoved by their surrounding, like beautiful people at sea in their own environment. Dispassionate faces are belied by expressive body language, like the impressionist Edgar Degas before him, Wood seems to have an affinity for movement and light, flair and grace, and he exploits this technique to maximum effect at times.

There are many more great painters than the few that I’ve had the time to mention here, this is just a small sampling of greats that come to mind. These more painterly, expressionist artists working in comics are the professionals who are breaking down the boundaries of what is considered “comic book” art, just as the fine artists they emulate broke down boundaries in their own time, in their own chosen field. Using comic books to tell stories today, these artists are working with writers to weave a subtle synthesis of imagery and words for us to enjoy. Ultimately, these people are the pioneers of an artistic school of thought, and we must be grateful to them, not only for their beautiful, genre-altering work, but also for their bravery and willingness to attempt something new and brave. They’re at the vanguard of a new movement of visual art that is even now continuing to grow to fruition.

Sonia Harris lives, works, and plays in San Francisco. She’s originally from London, and has been enjoying art, in all it’s forms, for all her life. Please email here at


  1. Ashley Wood is such an underrated artist. He’s basically an even more stylish Ben Templesmith if you could believe that. Templesmith seems to be a much bigger name then he was a year ago. When is it Wood’s turn?

    Great article Sonia, if I could draw a straight line I could be an artist too.

  2. Great article. Thanks!

  3. Thank you for bring up this debate, Sonia. It’s great to see this subject on ifanboy. 

    It’s interesting that the fine artists you pick are all old guys. I wonder how much influence contemporary art is having on comics, if any. Comics are still influencing contemporary art such as Takashi Murakami, Raymond Pettibon, Yoshitomo Nara, Richard Prince, Marcel Dzama etc. Aside from that, isn’t the painterly comic a fad that comes and goes, Frank Frazetta, Simon Bisley…?


  4. This is a very interesting article. I am a relatively uncultured individual who has very, very little knowledge of art (modern or otherwise) and appreciate the way in which you clearly described how the works of these artists relate.  Thank you for bringing culture to the uncouth.

    P.S. I do not enjoy Jackson Pollack’s work. I understand that many people enjoy it and I respect that, but I don’t get it. [I often use his work in class when discussing opportunity cost. I have to be careful not do portray his work in a derogatory manner.]

  5. @lobo- I guess in contemporary art,say post-modern and onwards,with the trends of appropriation and the frowning upon of art-as-fetish-object-for-its-technical-virtue-alone,there isn’t too much that a comic book artist can’t draw upon in a more pure form from an older movement.

    Its a gross simplification on my part but modernism was about pushing the medium to match the artists subjective vision,much like these comic book artists have done.Post-modern and contemporary artists are more often concerned with critique rather than simple synthesis.This is just my point of view though.

  6. Fantastic article, Sonia. Doesn’t hurt that a good chunk of the artists you profiled are some of my faves!

    @TheNextChampion Ashley Wood has been in the comic book industry for quite a while, actually – much like Templesmith, he found a home at IDW and has been quite prolific.

  7. @fugmo. Well if we consider writing then it has been influenced by Postmodernism, the obvious example being Alan Moore. But you’re right contemporary art has been dominated by appropriation and therefore there is perhaps less stylistic innovation in pure visual terms. However, I personally wouldn’t rule out the possibility of contemporary art being a source of inspiration for comic book artists.

  8. Fantastic stuff, as always

  9. Great article, Sonia. I love taking a look at comic book art from this angle…I must admit, I linked the work of Templesmith and Sienkiewicz as well…their images have a haunting quality, and some of inky "splatter" aspects seemed to echo each other.  I like how your conversation with Ben was able to produce such a thoughtful article…really well done…

    I hate how the damn bar keeps getting higher and higher.  I need to go to the library this weekend and do some research for Wednesday….


  10. You even managed to avoid the obiligatory Norman Rockwell comparisson in your Alex Ross section

  11. Ashley Wood has some of the most energetic art in comics. He did one of the covers in Brian K. Vaughan’s The Escapist that just blows my mind everytime I see it. Love the interiors of the Metal Gear Solid comics. There’s this really subtle thing that I love in that book. When the action ramps up the lines tighten up and things come into a sharper focus. Just brilliant!

  12. @lobo-I agree,I think there is room for contemporary art to influence comic book artists ๐Ÿ™‚  I hope I wasn’t coming across as being cynical,I always want to punch people when they say nothing new can be done.Whether they are correct or not they are generally so smug its infuriating.

  13. @ash: Oh I think he’s a bigger name then he was a couple of years ago. But overall; Templesmith seems to have been lifted to be a bigger name then just IDW’s ‘baby’. I haven’t seen much of Ashley Wood lately, which is a shame.

    Everyone should read the ‘Zombies vs Robots’ series. Those are amazing books right there. 

  14. Sonia = Good

  15. @Fugmo. No I didn’t think you were cynical, you had a very good point. I welcome the debate; it’s got me thinking.

  16. I loved this article. Easily one of your best Sonia and one of the best for the site as a whole. Looking at comics as art and from an academic perspective is so important. Thanks so much. And where do I register for Comic Art Appreciation with Prof S Harris?

  17. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    *dons dunce cap*

    Awesome, awesome stuff.  

  18. You know… I once tried my hand at sketching… needless to say it was a fruitless attempt on my part. Now looking up Templesmith’s works I wonder if I might be decent at painting….

  19. Fab article. In another slice of my life I teach at an art college and try and get a comic related brief in once a year (hey, unit 44: narrative illustration is my friend). Pretty much all of the artists you mention are on the research list (with Sienkiewicz, Williams and McKean getting highest billing in my own personal likes) as are the more left field on the tradional side like Sim, Veitch, Eisner and Peterson. The artist inspiration list you offer is pretty amazing as well with only the two Gustavs: Dore and Klimt missing from my list from memory. And  the obvious Lichtenstein, but that’s mainly for the kids who miss the deadlines and need something quick to aim at.. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thanks for the piece. Always fun to read. 

  20. @Sonia Great, great, great stuff. Will ‘School of Comic Book Art’ a new ongoing type of article for you, or has it being going on this whole time and I’ve just failed to notice? 

  21. @Adam: This is the first article I’ve written like this. I plan to write about the other two types of comic book art that I’ve identified as Unconventional and Traditional. Might even do it next week…

    Thanks for all the feedback folks, I’ve having tons of fun thinking about this.