BY Dan Nadel in Frieze | 03 MAR 03
Featured in
Issue 73

Quick on the Draw

The Lost Art of 'Chalk Talks'

BY Dan Nadel in Frieze | 03 MAR 03

Currently confined to arts and crafts shows on children's TV, live cartooning once flourished in the form of 'chalk talks': early 20th-century entertainments that have (like flea circuses, dime museums and bona fide freak shows) passed into history. These theatrical events - in which a cartoonist produced pictures in front of a paying audience - were widely popular in America during the golden age of vaudeville (1880/1930), though they continued for a couple of decades after World War II as a parlour game and strictly small-time spectacle. Today only their traces remain - chalk talk manuals moulder in flea markets and gather dust in second-hand shops. These books (offering tips or potted histories of the illustrious pursuit) share a common assumption: that anyone can draw; all it takes is a little application.

Chalk talks were, in essence, sequences of sketchy sleight of hand played out on the performing cartoonist's blackboard. What at first seemed like a simple egg shape would become a bearded face, say, or the letters DOG would - by the addition of a few lines, a flourish and the suspension of no small amount of disbelief - become a canine caricature. For all its entertainment value, however, chalk talking was also considered an economically viable (even attractive) method of making a living. In early 20th-century America Sunday newspapers sometimes published 32-page, full-colour comic supplements in which each strip (Krazy Kat or The Gumps or Gasoline Alley) would occupy a full page. The American public was entertained by this stuff - it boosted newspaper circulation, increased ad sales, and its practitioners were well remunerated. Cartoonists such as Bud (Mutt & Jeff) Fisher and Richard Fenton (Buster Brown) Outcault were national celebrities and much in demand as public speakers. As with today's film star press junkets, turn-of-the-century newspapers sent cartoonists on the road from Manhattan to Des Moines to promote their strips, and through them the mother publication.

On stage, chalk talks were a combination of conjuring tricks (the wizardry of creation), comedy show and 'how to ...' lecture. A classic example is recounted in Chalk Talk and Crayon Presentation (1922), by cartoonist Bart (Charles L. Bartholomew): 'Clare Briggs [When a Feller Needs a Friend] and Sidney Smith [The Gumps] frequently appeared together. The Sunken Ship was produced by these two humorists. Mr Smith drew a golden frame, announcing, "My friend Mr Briggs is as famous as a marine painter as cartoonist, only it is not generally known. He will now produce his famous painting The Sunken Ship in one line." Mr Briggs smeared a little blue crayon across the centre of the space within the frame, made a wavy line across the top of the blue tone, bowed and retired, Mr Smith announcing: "Gentlemen, ladies, you have before you the masterpiece The Sunken Ship. The ship has sunk completely out of sight, therefore you don't see it."'

The dominant kind of chalk talk was trick drawing (cut-paper illusions and prefabricated cloth shapes were other variations), which saw its own sub-genres outlined in numerous manuals. (Many of the formats, it should be noted, depended on racial caricatures.) There's the upside-down drawing (a horse's head flipped around becomes a jockey wearing a fez), the aforementioned line-by-line transformation (called 'evolution' drawing), circle-square-triangle assemblages and alphabetical tricks. More difficult and thus less popular was the single-line sketch (a duck, for example, drawn with one curvaceous line). At their simplest - and, some might say, their most effective - chalk talks relied on a familiar visual shorthand of letters, numbers, cartoon symbols and stereotypes. No drawing was without some easily recognizable element to guide the viewer towards completing the picture. Like cartooning in general, the technique depended on the easy recognition of a shared language of symbols. As performance, chalk talks gave viewers the pleasure of seeing, first, the creation of something from nothing, and second, the satisfaction of seeing that something transform into a different species of picture all together.

At a creative level chalk talk cartoonists expressed their kinship with their drawings by literally showing their hands. In this sense chalk talks are related to the old comic strip trope wherein the creator appears in a panel, or the characters suddenly understand that they are in a comic and peer out at the reader.

Cartoonists have been unmasking themselves since the comic book's beginnings. The practice of chalk talking is thus part virtuoso drawing, part a pre-Postmodern public recognition of the absurdity of the artist's own medium, with its arbitrary constraints (panels, word balloons, continuity) and characters. Cartoonists treated their characters as puppets, made to do what the pen willed, no matter how silly. Again and again characters speak to the readers and to their creator, and vice versa. Unlike film, for example, there's no pretence of reality or dramatic remove.

Despite the didactic elements of chalk talks and the accompanying manuals, the attainment of real cartooning mastery remained - for the average practitioner at least - tantalizingly out of reach. In a piece of deception worthy of their magician counterparts, chalk talkers promised to make anyone a decent draughtsman (their demonstrations, after all, made the cartooning process manifest) and then, through cleverness, made acquiring such artistry seem impossible. Yes, anyone can draw that, yes, it's just that simple, but wait, how'd they think of it? And is it really that easy to draw a perfect circle? Just try. After all, the finest cartooning is made by expressive line work, composition and real play. Anyone can learn how to set up a gag, but only a true cartoonist can make it sting.

Like the best performances, chalk talks let the viewer in and then pushed them out. As true professionals, the authors of chalk talk manuals made readers believe that they could cut it as a cartoonist, but knew they never could. It's a lot like those how-to-draw books that take you from stick figure to sculpted muscleman in two easy steps - these, too, never work. Though the show has long since closed, early 20th-century chalk talks amounted to a sustained peering behind the curtain: a deus ex machina that both revealed its guts and retained its mystery.