Do Artists Improve With Age?

Drawings by Chuck Jones

Do artists improve with the passage of time or do an artist’s skills begin to deteriorate at a certain age? Animation director Will Finn explores this fascinating topic on his blog, using as an example the late work of Chuck Jones. It’s a thought-provoking read that argues that Chuck was actually a better artist when he created artwork intended for the animation process instead of static pieces of fine art.


  • http://thad-k.blogspot.com Thad Komorowski

    Alright, so it ain’t neat. I’m glad Chuck was able to get some cash (heavy emphasis on ‘some’) before he checked out anyway.

  • http://www.tjrmusic.com TJR

    Since I really don’t know how to draw, I will draw a parallel with something I do know.

    Speaking as a professional musician, I have always said “If we do our jobs right we get better with age”.

    IE: If you continually practice your craft you should just keep getting better.

    Chuck Berry (one of my biggest influences) I have heard continues to deteriorate as a live performer. The main reason though (so I have heard) is because he simply does not practice and not for any health reasons.

    But there are so many factors that can play into age. If you health deteriorates than SOMETIMES so can your abilities.

    There are certainly many artisits. musicians, writers, etc that this can hold true for.

    Having said this, I can remember several years ago seeing the original Comets (Sans Bill Haley who had passed away years ago) play live. They where old men. After they where done playing they walked off the stage like old men (stiff and slow)….but while they where on stage, they played with the vigor and spirit of teenagers
    still hungry for the world. It was an amazing sight.

    Pete Townsend can still play guitar as well as ever, Rodger Daltry’s voice on the other shows the wear of age.

    I feel that there really can be no definitive answer to this.

  • http://www.commanderkitty.com Scotty A

    I can’t say if Chuck Jones was a better artist, but his paintings of a dandified, mascara wearing Bugs Bunny always give me the creeps.

  • Stephen

    Age improves some artists and erodes others. Generally, youth is the most creative period, but skills may develop later in life that help to better express that creativity. You have to take it one artist at a time.

  • http://www.awprunes.blogspot.com/ Larry Levine

    Chuck Jones is my idol & I think he was an artistic master second to none in all his creative periods.

    A perfect example of Chuck’s beautiful later work is his late 1970′s syndicated comic strip “Crawford”. Chuck’s brush lines are incredible!

    Like any artist, Chuck’s style evolved over the decades and it’s impossible to compete a 1950 Bugs Bunny drawing to a 2000 one, each is distinguished by the period he drew them in & both are equally beautiful.

  • Dan Varner

    A very similar situation can be seen in Carl Barks’ late “easel paintings” compared to his earlier duck comics. The magic seems to disappear; but I imagine they were a good source of revenue.

  • http://www.awprunes.blogspot.com/ Larry Levine

    Here’s a beautiful Sunday installment of Chuck Jones’ 1978 comic strip Crawford:

    http://www.cartoonresearch.com/crawford1.jpg

  • http://www.shawcartoons.com Scott Shaw!

    Obviously, physical health — such as eyesight, carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, etc. — is a major factor in a cartoonist’s artistic longevity.

    But I really believe that it’s a cartoonist’s satisfaction with the quality of his/her own work. Around 1965 or so, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY printed a double interview issue with Ray Bradbury and Chuck Jones. I don’t recall the particulars, but even though I was just a high school student, I was rather horrified at how eager Jones seemed to be regarding elevating himself above a “mere” cartoonist. Those times I encountered him socially (primarily at National Cartoonist Society meetings), he seemed to still have that same attitude. And once Chuck had fallen in love with his own stuff, it really began to suffer.

    On the other hand, even into his eighties, Will Eisner’s drawing got better and better. Sure, he adjusted his still for his shakier hands, but his eye for observation and acting was never better.

    Sergio Aragonés is another cartoonist whose work has never been better, and he’s been drawing professionally for well over fifty years.

    Another guy who’s cartooning just got better and better was Owen Fitzgerald. Having worked with him on many projects, I was always agape with the apparent ease of his cartooning.

    Joe Kubert’s in his eighties, but his drawing is better than ever.

    Floyd Norman’s another one whose cartooning continues to improve.

    I know I’ll NEVER be able to draw as well as I’d like to. But I suppose that’s a good thing; when a cartoonist starts to take himself too seriously, it’s the beginning of the end.

    Aloha.

  • http://willfinn.blogspot.com/ Will Finn

    Thanks Amid, I jut ask anybody who sees this to please take the trouble to read my actual post carefully, and the ensuing comments which are lively and interesting as well.

    Given the immense and singular contributions Chuck Jones made to the medium versus my own various paltry assignments makes me seem like an absurd candidate to criticize the master. In fact, that is not my object of the post. However, so many of my peers also regard his later gallery stuff as skeptically as I do, I wanted to go to some pains to show that under non-gallery circumstances, Chuck Jones was still doing recognizably exemplary work, right up to the end.

  • http://Incoherent-thought.blogspot.com Vincent

    I think Scott hit it on the head. As soon as you think you’re 8th wonder of the world,you start to stagnate.

  • red pill junkie

    Well, some artists like Picasso are early achievers who reach their peak and acquire fame at a young age, and their art slowly decrease as they get older; whereas some other artists like Cezanne were late experimenters that gradually polished their talent until they reach their peak at a much older age.

    In animation, maybe we could say that Fred Moore was more like Picasso, while Ward kimball was more like Cezanne.

    Personally I think Chuck was somewhere in the middle of these tendencies, although maybe his art began to be some-what repetitive in his later years. But with an amazing career like his, who could avoid repetition?

  • DM

    Well art, in any form, is in some degree a skill and takes time to hone and develop. At the same time it takes something more than just expierence to create “great art”, it takes creativity. Health factors can lead to a decline in an artists work but so can their overall mindset. Art has no boundries so if any artist ever thinks he’s at his best he won’t really improve till his mind changes because the creativity he had is lost in the process. Taking pride in ones work is one thing but to be an artist there has to be a bit of openmindedness of ones work. If a cartoonist thought there was nothing left to joke or tell in his stories than his art would lose meaning and deteriorate because he isn’t trying to put ideas into his cartoon. It takes new ideas along with developing skill to really improve upon art. So those who age and still hold to their ideas and openmindedness usually improve with age sicne skill improves also. While those whose skill might improve but lsoe some of their creative insight might see their art deteriorate a little. Art is really just expression of a new idea whether its just and old idea with a new twist or something completely outlandish, only thing is, the skill is to express the ideas.

  • Jorge Garrido

    If you compare it to his early WB work, then no, Chuck didn’t get better, he got worse. That’s not fair, though.

    If you pretend that earlier work never existed, Chuck’s post 60s work was brilliant on its (and his) own terms. Absolutely inimitable and unique. Thank god we had him.

    I have the same theory for Chuck’s T & J cartoons, on their own terms, and if you pretend HB had never made any T&J cartoons, those are damn fine post 60s Chuck Jones cartoons.

  • PCUnfunny

    Jorge: Yes they do look better without the comparison. Still, I really dislike those Tom and Jerry’s he did. Tom and Jerry, especially Tom, just looked frickin’ ugly. And the timing was as slow as molasses.

  • http://www.j3d.com.au Josh

    If you compare his later still frames to his early frames for animation then yes they are rather off model but honestly, he probably hasn’t drawn them for over 40 or 50 years so it’s only natural that he wouldn’t be as accurate as he was when he was doing them day in, day out.

  • C. Augusto Valdés

    Finally! Someone put into words what I have felt all these years! I dared not speak my heart when I noticed latter-days Chuck Jones’ Looney Tunes being ‘not right’ because his being a legend and stuff. Thanks for sharing this.

  • http://bestcartoonblog.blogspot.com/ Daniel Ted Feliciano

    Of course they do. It all depends on how people perceive their developments.

  • http://www.j3d.com.au Josh

    This doesn’t make him any less of a director, but as we all know animation is a very collaborative thing. While the director provides direction, he is backed up by great story and gagmen and a bevy of other talented people to help bring ideas to life. If you’re surrounded by greatness that’ll shine through in the animation, if you’re surrounded by mediocrity that’ll also shine through loud and clear (ala T & J).

  • Ed Kirk

    Whilst the ‘high art’ style of the drawings shown here are not to everyone’s taste and could never be held in comparison to the classic Looney Tunes drawing style, they are obviously an affected design to achieve a certain look. If Chuck made a few quid out of it then good luck to him. The recent post re Tex Avery highlights the perils of the animators lot and a guy’s got to earn a living. I saw Chuck Jones at an on stage interview and screening on the South Bank in London in his later life and he did some sketches on stage and they were as ‘classic’ as ever – the man could still draw, in the style we all love, when he wanted to.

  • http://www.cementimental.com Tim Drage

    At seventy-three I learned a little about the real structure of animals, plants, birds, fishes and insects. Consequently when I am eighty I’ll have made more progress. At ninety I’ll have penetrated the mystery of things. At a hundred I shall have reached something marvellous, but when I am a hundred and ten everything I do, the smallest dot, will be alive. – Katsushika Hokusai

  • http://www.perennialpictures.com G. Brian Reynolds

    A couple of observations… wasn’t Al Hirschfeld 100 when he died? He was apparently still at the drawing board and still doing marvellous things up until the end.

    I loved Chuck Jones’ stuff from the ’50′s. I thought he had hit an apex on the design of the WB characters he used. I was not fond of the later stuff, and was glad when Warner went back to some of the earlier designs as their standard. There seems to come a time when the model sheets of a character reach a point where they shouldn’t be tampered with – but they usually are – and then five years later someone realizes it and pulls it back to the “classic” design. The list of model sheets that “jumped the shark” in my opinion, is long.

    But, there is a difference between a studio freezing a style, and expecting a human being to freeze his or her style at some point and not change and grow. Charles M. Schulz is a case in point. People have said that the 1960′s Peanuts strips hit the apex of both writing and drawings and then weren’t as good from then on. Well, they’re different. Charles M. Schulz changed as he grew older – for example, he loved his dog, Andy, and that love changed Snoopy’s behavior in the strip. Charles Schulz had a tremor, and was not able to create the precise line that he had in the past. Does this mean he should have “quit while he was ahead” in 1970? Or frozen his style? The funny part, is that if he had, people would have criticized him for being stagnant and unimaginative. And, if he hadn’t grown and changed the strip as his circumstances changed, we would never have had the strips from the 1960′s, because they’re very different than the early ones.

    I realize I don’t really have a point here – just some observations.

  • Altred Ego

    As a huge fan of Jones’ work and was fascinated by his autobiography (one of the first animation books I ever read), I think he’d find this whole debate very funny. It always seemed as though Chuck Jones drew first and foremost for himself. He had to pay the bills, and he also grew as an artist during the early times. I seriously doubt for a minute he worried about whether or not he was getting “better” as he aged. He was getting better. His understanding and love for the characters were growing. He pushed beyond his cartoon roots into other mediums without fear. Did he worry about the Jones-faithful who would be put off by his classic approach? I highly doubt it even crossed his mind. By the end he drew and painted for himself. If you think it’s better than his early stuff, that’s good. If you think it’s worse, that’s fine too. He never seemed overly concerned about his “legacy”. He knew who and what he was. He seemed to find peace with that understanding and his drawings had the confidence of no longer worrying about what ‘people’ will think.

    Personally, I think this debate is silly. Who really cares? He lived. He drew what he wanted. He passed away.

    Seriously, life is way too short for this.

  • John Tebbel

    And there’s something about painting that really grabs some people, often later in life. Beats me.

  • http://www.awprunes.blogspot.com/ Larry Levine

    There are factors that people may not realize when critiquing samplings of Chucks limited edition art:

    When Chuck would create a cel, he would begin with a very loose concept sketch, these drawings were always my personal favorites & much closer to the classic layouts. He would then do a series of tighter sketches with various changes, followed by a VERY tight final drawing which he would ink, or as his health declined, the graphite lines would be silk screened onto the cel.

    When you look at some of the limited cels, keep in mind as with any great collective work, a few pieces are always going to be lesser than the total sum. Chuck would draw the same image numerous times and in some cases the spontaneity of the initial sketches may have been lost. Chuck was still very much on top of his game in his later years.

    The most important thing is that Chuck was still drawing away with his beloved Blackwing 602 pencils well into his late 80′s! We all should be that lucky!

  • Gerard de Souza

    Off model? Perhaps. “..stiffer and creakier…”. I strongly disagree.
    The look of looney tunes characters in latter years I think has less to do with a degradation of draughtsmanship than it does with the animation artist interpreting the characters; putting their personal spin on it. Look at many old comic books by animation artists and how different the characters look. I think the artist, free from the corporate style sheets as today or the conformtiy or consistency neeeded between many artist, is simply having fun. We can argue based on the character drawings if he lost his touch but looking at his doodles and sketches in both bios Chuck Jones grew as an artist.

    As a student I was witness as CJ brsitled when a student (who would go on to great things) asked as to WHY CJ Changed the character design to the more angular of What’s Opera Doc, the student expressing his like for the appeal of the Mckimson /Clampett Bugs. CJ corrected the student sayong the question shouldn’t be “WHY did you change it?” but HOW did it come about.

  • http://www.awprunes.blogspot.com/ Larry Levine

    I just wanted to clarify when I said “a few pieces are always going to be lesser than the total sum”, I wasn’t referring to the two images used for this post. I think both are beautiful, as I do with all of Chuck’s art.

    What I meant to say was Chuck being a perfectionist & often redrawing the same image numerous times, the inital spontaneity of the looser concept drawings may have been lost on a small number of the limiteds, which may be why some people refer to his later work as being more posed than the vintage layouts. Hope I worded it better this time.

    I love ALL of Chuck’s later work, but I especially love his looser concept drawings which are just as expressive & animated as his 50′s layouts. As I said earlier, Chuck was still very much on top of his game as we entered the 21st century!

  • John A

    I had read that back in the fifties, Ken Harris would take Jones’ rough poses and redraw them, to bring them closer to to standard model of the characters, using what worked in the sketch and adjusting some of the things that didn’t. When Jones started animating Bugs again in the seventies, animators were instructed to leave the drawings exactly the way Chuck drew them. I guess we can argue whether this practice brought us closer to the artist’s intent, or whether this took us further away from the cartoon character’s ability to emerge as seemingly independant entity.

    Personally, always found his later cartoons depressing–depressing to see such lively and free sirited creations so firmly squashed under the thumb of their creator.

  • http://www.awprunes.blogspot.com/ Larry Levine

    John, That’s not true about Ken Harris. Chuck Jones’ 1950s layouts were animated by Harris, Ben Washam & the rest of Unit A exactly the way Chuck drew & posed the characters. You may be thinking of Hawley Pratt redrawing Friz Freleng’s layouts.

    If I may ask, what exactly was depressing about Chuck’s Bugs & Daffy opening segment in “Gremlins 2″? Or the scene from “Mrs Doubtfire”? Or “Chariots of Fur”? These all had the magical stamp of Chuck Jones at his best.

  • Nancy B

    Chuck’s paintings have nothing to do with his age. It would be more appropriate to state that he drew better when animation than still drawings.

    I worked with Chuck on MRS. DOUBTFIRE and his drawing, and timing, were perfect. You can also see some lovely late work by Chuck in DAFFY DUCK FOR PRESIDENT, a book he produced for the Post Office in 1996. The artwork is comparable with his layout drawings for Warner cartoons done forty years earlier.

    Do not blame his age. That is an inaccurate statement.

    Another artist I admire, A. Kendall (Ken) O’Connor, kept his drawing chops to the end (98). So did my colleague and friend Joe Grant. So did Grim Natwick.

    An artist I worked with (whom I will not mention out of respect for his memory) lost his timing and drawing skills in his late sixties, but it turned out, after he died, that he had Alzheimers’. I pitied him. But it was the disease that did it, not his age.

    Chuck was one of the team that CREATED these characters, who are we to tell him that he did them ‘off model’? Warner characters evolved by unit and by decade. Some are more appealing to us than others, but we are the ones who have to follow Chuck’s lead. He didn’t need to follow anyone.

  • Nancy B

    Another artist I admire, A. Kendall (Ken) O’Connor, kept his drawing chops to the end (98). So did my colleague and friend Joe Grant. So did Grim Natwick.

    An artist I worked with (whom I will not mention out of respect for his memory) lost his timing and drawing skills in his late sixties, but it turned out, after he died, that he had Alzheimers’. I pitied him. But it was the disease that did it, not his age.

    Chuck was one of the team that CREATED these characters, who are we to tell him that he did them ‘off model’? Warner characters evolved by unit and by decade. Some are more appealing to us than others, but we are the ones who have to follow Chuck’s lead. He didn’t need to follow anyone.

  • John A

    Larry, Did you REALLY find that bit of animation in Gremlins 2 funny? I found it as painful to watch as a long past his prime Bob Hope fumbling with his cue cards. The oringinal stuff he did, for Doubtfire and a John Ritter film called ‘Stay Tuned’ (that had a really nice long animated sequence with John Ritter as a mouse.)showed that he hadn’t lost his touch as a director. His later Looney Tunes work,however, even the more polished looking stuff was just a pale imitation of his more brilliant, earlier short subjects (I never saw Chariots of Fur, maybe THAT was exceptional, I don’t know.

    As for my comment about Ken Harris, I’m pretty sure I came across that information in an interview with Ken from over 25 years ago. I’d have to dig through my library(currently in boxes in various locations) to find an actual quote. (off the top of my head, i believe it was in the book, The American Animated Cartoon)

  • http://www.awprunes.blogspot.com/ Larry Levine

    John, Yes, I find the opening Gremlins 2 animation very funny, as I do the end title bits with Daffy & Porky. If you can find an old VHS of Chariots of Fur you will be in store for a great Jones/Road Runner cartoon just like he used to make ‘em.

    Re: Ken Harris, Chuck’s vintage layouts are easily available to compare with the finished cartoons. CJ: Extremes & Inbetweens even has a segment inter-cutting between the layouts & the final animation showing how the animators followed Chuck’s poses & expressions to the letter. Chuck never would have permitted changes to his layouts & they exsist today as originally drawn–and matched to the final animation with perfection. When you watch a Chuck Jones cartoon from any decade, it’s always Chuck’s vision up on the screen.

  • julian chaney

    iwao takamoto never lost it he was another great who never stopped drawing and only got better.

  • http://www.kwanzoo.com Seven

    I think there are a few things to consider. On one hand, you can argue that you get better with age, because you are gaining more experience at your craft over the years; with age comes experience and generally, knowledge.

    On the other hand, his craft is art. As he gets older, his body get weaker – he can shake when he holds his brush, pen, etc. His limbs get tired faster. If he was arthritic, he would experience pain. None of these are conducive to good art.

  • Jim

    The “Gremlins 2″ animation was not timed by Chuck. Chuck farmed it out to another animator/director who had, unfortunately, lost it. The flak Chuck took for the way the “Gremlins 2″ stuff turned out resulted in him doing the timing, design and posing on “Stay Tooned” personally. The difference in the two sequences is night and day. Look at the robot mouse design in “Stay Tooned” – classic Chuck. His timing hadn’t lost anything, either. He couldn’t always pull it off to that degree as he got older but he nailed it on “Stay Tooned.”

  • RAB SMITH

    it is a real shame that MOST artists have to struggle for years, before FAME beckons: if they are lucky, the big companies pay them a living wage…………..if they hit the commercial jackpot, they can only capitize later, —–after the ‘rich pickings’ have dissipated.

  • http://geritopiablogspot.com GeeVee

    Great comments here. I don’t think there’s a rule regarding this subject but my take is that artists can stay technically vital, given reasonable physical health, their whole life. But usually after an energetic discovery and expansion phase, it seems like the soul of their work often loses ground. There’s an arch to most careers, which is why I think the best creative people are constantly moving forward and reinventing themselves.

    As far as Jones’ art goes, it was like a signature. Signatures are a form of short-hand. It’s a cliche, I know, but his characters began to resemble the artist.