Portraits in the Wall Street Journal
October 16, 2007 7:57 AM   Subscribe

Want to know the story behind those iconic drawings used by the Wall Street Journal for their mug shots? The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery has the scoop. (The site's layout is not the best, but it's worth digging around.) You can see how two artists render the same portrait of Yahoo's Jerry Yang. And read about how the first rendering of Gorbachev left out his signature birthmark. An artist named Kevin Sprouls started it all. Lately, Slate wonders if George Bush is looking a little frowny.
posted by veggieboy (11 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
First invented in 1979, The Wall Street Journal’s distinctive portrait heads, known as “hedcuts” or “dot-drawings” have attained the status of an American icon

Invented? Hah!

In engraving, the technique was invented by Giulio Campagnola in about 1510
posted by prostyle at 8:08 AM on October 16, 2007

A previous Metafilter post by ColdChef about the (at least then) current portrait artist.
posted by jedicus at 8:11 AM on October 16, 2007

Oooo, izzums not getting all the torture he wants? Poor widdle fing.
posted by DU at 8:17 AM on October 16, 2007

Mmm... thanks , jedicus. Maybe this is double-ish, then.
posted by veggieboy at 8:22 AM on October 16, 2007

Today I learned that Jerry Yang is the co-founder of the world's most popular internet browser, Yahoo!
posted by hellphish at 8:42 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

My dad always wanted to get a dot drawing in the WSJ... he did a few years ago and has the tiny little thing framed. Appeared next to Pope Ratzinger.
posted by phrontist at 2:52 PM on October 16, 2007

There are actually 6-9 production artists cranking these out at any given time each day. Most of them have been at the paper for many years and have side careers as fine artists and illustrators with their own distinct styles, and so they shy away from advertising the fact they are tracing out these images for a living so as not to detract from what they consider their own personal art or illustration.
For some reason (a hefty dose of self promotion I would wager) a lot of people think that just one of the artists employed by the paper is responsible for the drawings. Inside scoop says there's some annoyed illustration staff members because of this.
posted by stagewhisper at 8:22 PM on October 16, 2007

In the Bahamas the local paper would run a generic solid black head-shaped blob with the name of the featured person run as a caption under it for any stories that didn't have real photos.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:34 PM on October 16, 2007

Stagewhisper, wow you really don't like these guys! A few months ago I replied to another one of your comments concerning the Journal's hedcuts, but this time instead of writing my own opinion I was curious to know what would the illustrators in question have to say. I emailed Noli Novak for her reaction. Amongst other stuff she wrote:

"I don't like replying to haters. They obviously have their reasons to dislike what my colleagues and I do. I know we're incredibly lucky to have a full time gig doing what we love doing the most, but I also understand that can rub some artsy egos out there in a wrong way."

"Right now we have 3 full time, 1 part time and 4 freelance illustrators "cranking out" the heads every day. Yup, we sure are like a factory. Last week, the 8 of us made 42 drawings for the Journal.
This is not fine art but good old spot illustration done for a daily newspaper nothing more, nothing less. It's sole purpose is to show the subject's likeness and it has to be completed in 2-5 hours using a very tedious pen and ink technique. Tracing the photo is an important step in the process . It offers guidelines mostly indicating different values of gray .... but the real artistry is in the technique itself. As a matter of fact, I stopped tracing a few years ago after finding ways of speeding up the process since the daily deadline pressures force us to draw faster and faster each day. It never occurred to me some might find that step to be "cheating" as that commentator seems to be suggesting."

"The fact that some might think that only one illustrator is doing the drawings is exactly how the paper wants it! We are trained (yes, each one of us was trained for months before we "got it"!) to draw very closely in style, so that to a reader it appears as if only one person is doing the illos. Variation in style is strongly discouraged and we're not all happy about that since individual interpretations are always aching to burst out."

"Not all of us have websites, and I know mine gets blogged and commented on a lot, but I never (ever!) tried to take the credit for all WSJ headcut illustrations. I always try to correct any such mention when I come across it in the blogosphere. As for the "heavy promotion" comment ... Nonsense. I only have a website and the best promotion one can dream of: the Wall Street Journal. Is that so wrooong?!"
posted by dellonarts at 7:23 PM on October 19, 2007


I apologize if I came across as "hating these guys", although I'm stymied as to how you extrapolated that at all from my post. In fact, I was pointing out that a lot of the people employed to do these spot illustrations actually have successful careers as artists and illustrators separate from the work they do for the WSJ.

this must be the previous comment of mine you are referring to, the one that it seems set you off enough to register for this site in the first place in order to offer your rebuttal.

In that comment I was simply delineating examples of the two extremes people think of when they hear "drawing from a photograph" (the extreme of *directly* tracing over a photo rather than using it as a visual reference) and "drawing from life" (using only the live model for one's work, not photographing the pose to work from later, not using photographic processes as a supplement to the finished piece).

For the purpose of the discussion, I thought these were two working processes and types of portraiture that most people on MeFi were familiar with and could relate to. I did not see your reply, and I agree with you that it is *very* difficult to create good art from a photographic image. In fact, that was my point. That it was impossible to do was not.
To re-rail this trainwreck of a thread:

An (absolutely) incomplete short list of past and present staff and freelancers:

Hai Knafo , who also does the spot illustrations for The New York Observer

Randy Glass , who seems to do a lot of "feature" illustrations and is given a bit more leeway with having a personal style

Laura Levy , a landscape painter

Richard Baratz, the famous Sardi’s Restaurant’s sole caricaturist

Richard Yeend is an accomplished font designer, newspaper designer, and illustrator.

There are many more who I'm sure I'm either forgetting or don't know about.

I do apologize for what does look like a snide comment about Ms. Novak, in the light of day, many weeks later. I usually let things slide (and have on this subject in the past), but after the 3rd main topic post to the metafilter blue where lots of people chime in to tell everyone that she's the artist responsible, it's a bit much. There have been a few stepped on toes. (Not mine, so I should shut up. I know.) That, coupled with the insane amount of crop dusting of her site in the past on every art-related blog imaginable brought out the worst in me.

When googling "hedcut" just now, it seems like virtually all of the 300 links to this particular illustrator were made over a period of a few months by the same person or persons. Et Tu, dellonarts? 3 comments on MeFi, 2 of which are about this person?
posted by stagewhisper at 4:12 PM on November 15, 2007

P. S.-I have never met Ms. Novak, I'm only familiar with her name because she was the singer in my husband's old band long before I met him. I know her only through coming across her in the virtual worlds of flickr and art blogs. I have met a few of the other illustrators and they were quite personable. I'll assume the best and of her as well and therefore offer my apologies if it sounded as though I was calling her work and her colleagues' work "bad". I wasn't. However, everyone should be lucky enough to do the things they love for a living, whatever those things may be. It's the American dream, isn't it? If other people don't always appreciate the results fully, that's only their opinion and they are fully entitled to it. Who really cares what they think as long as you're satisfied with it?
posted by stagewhisper at 4:34 PM on November 15, 2007

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