Expressive Movement

Daily Draw May 27th, 2012

Today from my box of Vanity Fair postcards I drew one of my favourites.

Vanity Fair MARCH 1919

This is so evocative of the influence of Isadora Duncan in dance of the time, and perhaps contains that slight whiff of hope after the war, the idea of reaching for airy, uplifting ideas after the conflagration.

Up until now with these cards, I haven’t explored the artists themselves but I love this piece by Warren Davis so much that I’m going to look him up and see if I can find any information about him.

Warren B. Davis (1865-1928) was an American painter and illustrator. He worked in oils on canvas or board, tempera on paper, pastel, graphite, drypoint etchings, and was most active in the New York area. He painted landscape scenes, nudes, lots of nudes, and illustrated books and periodicals. Several of his etchings were released in signed series’ and can be purchased even today at auction. I guess that means his work hasn’t caught on in popularity, which baffles me as it is so lovely.

He did commercial work for Vanity Fair, and The Ladies’ World magazine which started in late Victorian times and bumbled into the 20th century, folding several months before WW I ended. Times and women had changed, but I think Warren figured that out in his artwork long before the editors of this magazine did.

The pictures he did for The Ladies’ World are more old-fashioned, more idealized women in billowy, floaty dresses with flowers and enormous hats. This is probably a reflection of the style and cult of domesticity of the time. It’s odd to think of him going from this type of painting to the wonderful nudes he was so fond of.

His oil paintings of women often featured vibrant solid-coloured dresses and dogs; he seemed to like featuring dogs as well as women in both painting and illustration work.

He is supposed to have done work for Life magazine, but I could only find one example and that is only “attributed” to Davis, so is not signed I guess. You can see this quality of observance and affection he brought to the dogs he painted in a detail of that cover.

I was interested to learn the difference between the drypoint etching that Warren Davis favoured, and engraving.

Drypoint etching is similar to regular etching and engraving but it produces a scratchier looking softer-edged line, more like a graphite sketch. Because of the fine burrs on the copper plate, you can only make limited prints before the pressure of inking and printing flattens the burr and thus the definition of the print, whereas normal etched lines are more deeply impressed and last longer. It’s quite a fiddly art to produce these. You can imagine that lighter pressure must be used, and then when you wipe the ink off the plate it has to be done in a certain direction, so you don’t get too much ink piling up—you want to retain that sketchy look but still make prints.

The technique has been used for centuries, even Albrecht Dürer gave it a go but got fed up and abandoned the process. Rembrandt combined it with other etching techniques. Some more recent artists have done coloured drypoint which is pretty. I can see where the process would be lovely for prints because of its graphite look, but Warren Davis must have had a tremendous amount of patience. Here are some examples, and you can see that the one with the dancers is reminiscent of the postcard I drew today.


I find printmakers in general are very, very patient. I’ve only done silk screen, mono printing, and lino printing one-offs and it was enough to tell me that wasn’t where my calling was. I admire and respect people who can produce this sort of art. Intaglio comes from Latin and means “to engrave,” but it is such a lovely word, rolling off the tongue, making you feel the specialness of the craft.

As with many illustrators today, there seems to be a lack of respect for illustration not being “real” art, as if it doesn’t deserve full recognition. It is my preference in art though, and Warren Davis is a terrific example of why I love illustration and illustrators. Expressive movement, technique, and talent: Warren B. Davis had all those things.



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