Theory: Olaf Gulbransson And The Magic of Drawing

Magic Poster

The average person who looks at a drawing doesn’t see the thought process that goes into creating it. He just sees the image. If you don’t understand the principles that go into organizing a piece of art, the act of drawing appears to be magic. That’s why moronic displays like this continue to amaze non-artists…

Any artist knows what’s going on here. The performer has simply memorized a formula that he’s playing back along with plenty of empty flourishes and simulated drama. No thought process is going on. It’s just spitting out a predetermined image in a way that impresses people who have no clue about how real paintings are created. It’s just a simple magic trick, and it’s only amazing if you don’t know how the trick is done.

Stage magic is an art form, not unlike drawing and painting in some ways. The difference between mediocre magicians and great ones isn’t the cleverness of their “tricks”… it’s the quality of their application of the fundamental techniques of magic. These principles are organized to create a convincing illusion. Here is a wonderful example of that concept in action, by the brilliant magician, Teller…

Teller’s partner, Penn Jilette narrates the fundamental principles of magic that Teller is employing to create a magical illusion of normalcy. The average person viewing these actions on the street might not see anything out of the ordinary; but when we know what’s going on, it becomes amazing. Knowing how the trick works makes the magic more amazing, not less. That’s REAL magic.

The audience is as much responsible for the effectiveness of the illusion as the performer. A skilled magician leads the viewer through a series of actions which set up a certain expectation. When something completely different happens, it seems like magic. But without the expectation, the magic would dissolve into simple random occurrences. In this next clip, Penn & Teller reveal all their secrets and still manage to create a mystifying illusion. We can see how it’s being done with our own eyes, but Penn & Teller’s compelling direction of the action and our own expectations are so strong, we’re still surprised.

It isn’t the trick… it’s the skill with which the fundamental principles are applied to create an illusion. Truly great drawing is like that.

Olaf Gulbransson

I’m going to introduce you to one of the most magical cartoonists who ever lived. Odds are, you’ve never heard of him. His name was Olaf Gulbransson, and he was a cartoonist for the German satirical magazine Simplicissimus between the early years of the 20th century and the second World War. I’ll have more biographical information on him in a later post. But today, I want to get straight to showing you his amazing drawings.

Gulbransson’s sketches are simple line drawings… but they are deceptively simple. The images have been refined down to a few quick lines, but their simplicity and directness masks a depth of thought and planning that is almost superhuman. Here are a few sketches from Gulbransson’s Spruche und Wahrheiten (Sayings and Truisms) from 1939.

Olaf Gulbransson

Olaf Gulbransson

In art, he who is not the best is nothing.

In the cartoon above, notice how a single line defines the right cuff, elbow, arm, shoulderblade and fabric tension. It is very difficult to depict a strong pose from the rear- especially when draped in a long heavy coat. But Gulbransson pulls it off dramatically in a few sweeping lines.

Olaf Gulbransson

The full belly does not recognize the empty belly.

He is a master of exaggeration and caricature.

Olaf Gulbransson

More die in the bottle than the war.

Notice how he depicts the weight of the bodies lying on the ground, along with the pull and drape of the clothing covering them. The characters are grouped into a visual hierarchy, directing the eye from the foreground up to the drunks inside the stein at the top. Even though the shapes are open and plain, the volumetric structure is clearly defined. Some artists would render an image like this out with hatching, shading and lots of detail, but Gulbransson pulls it off with a remarkable economy of line.

Olaf Gulbransson

There’s no fool like an old fool.

A single line defines a silhouette, frames a character and leads the eye through the composition. The specific attitude of the characters and the stark contrast between their sizes enhances the irony of the caption.

Olaf Gulbransson

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Look at all those appealing organic shapes! Again, the contrast in scale puts across the humor in the caption.

Olaf Gulbransson

In the home, usually the chicken crows and the rooster clucks.

Complementary lines of action, solid drawing, specific attitudes, strong poses, beautiful negative spaces, clear silhouettes…

Olaf Gulbransson

The lazy and the idle are like brothers.

…rhythmic line, texture, personality…

Olaf Gulbransson

A man is judged by his actions.

…clear staging, line of action, flowing shapes…

Olaf Gulbransson

When we bathe, we’re all equal.

…keen observation of real life, contrasts…

Olaf Gulbransson

The bloom must fade in time, but in the mind, the fruit never withers.

…and sophisticated interaction defining the relationship between characters. Gulbransson could do it all- sometimes he did it all in a single brilliant drawing like this one!

Olaf Gulbransson

Man thinks. God leads.

His compositions are powerful and unique…

Olaf Gulbransson

All’s well that ends well.

…and he has a clear point of view. Who else would depict life’s end with an angel lifting a baby off a chamber pot?!

mess of characters

The average person loves detail and complexity. It makes them feel like they’re getting their “money’s worth” from a drawing. But to me, putting everything across with simplicity is even more amazing. The artist can’t hide behind details piled upon details, shading and cross hatching. His idea is presented naked and clear for the world to see. It’s like Penn & Teller doing the cups and balls with transparent cups. Real magic.

Stephen Worth
Animation Resources


This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit entitled Theory.
Magazine CartoonsMagazine Cartoons

This posting is part of the online Encyclopedia of Cartooning under the subject heading, Magazine Cartoons.

17 Responses to “Theory: Olaf Gulbransson And The Magic of Drawing”

  1. DmL says:

    Well, I wouldn’t call the first video moronic. It’s certainly not sophisticated in any way, but again… simplicity can be amazing… Also the second video is marked “private.”

  2. Vincent Waller says:

    Thank you for posting thoughs Steve.

    Beautiful work.

  3. Paul Badilla says:

    This is the direct inspiration of Al Hirschfeld!

    Thanks so much for putting this!!

  4. uddip says:

    I am not an artist, but I am visiting this site for 4 years. I wanted to learn to draw. But, now I realize why I don’t like my drawings. I am sure I will never be able to learn the intricacies, I am too old. But, I am so happy today, because when I saw these I knew why I liked these so much, and found a few of them noted by by you. These 4 years have not gone in vain, I have at least learnt to enjoy great drawings. Thanks a lot to Stephen and Animationarchive. This website is the best learning tool any artist could ever wish for…

  5. peter bangs says:

    hey uddip Don’t give up on drawing after a measely four years. I’ve been drawing for 38 years and I’m still not half the artist I’d like to be but the fun is in the journey. Most artists have at least 10,000 bad drawings in them before they come close to being decent and I think you’ll find very few of the artists you admire are ever truly happy with what they produce. They’re optimists who move on to the next drawing in the hope it will be better. Try drawing with a pen in the park or street where there’s lot’s going on, or if you don’t fancy that dop what I do when I’ve 15 minutes to spare. Run a photo slideshow on your pc, with each picture up for maybe 45 seconds, and see what you can draw from each one in that time. You’ll end up with a mass of recyclable paperwhen you start out but eventually you’ll get some very cool, stripped down and efficient pictures.

  6. Thanks for a wonderful post, Steve. The baby image is kind of terrifying.

    It’s taken me absolutely ages to realize the value of economical drawing… for a long time I was a little scared of it, and a little suspicious of those who used to it to ‘show off’… I never wanted for my drawing to become ABOUT flair or economy, I wanted it to be about the thing it was about. I guess as much you can be distracted by detail or use it to mask weak foundations, I didn’t want to be distracted by achieving economy and somehow missing what I was getting at in the first place. But that’s a problem of clarity of vision which is not necessarily related to how many lines you use.

    As I’ve got older I’ve grasped more the enjoyment of elegant things.

  7. uddip says:

    While going through the videos again, I noticed certain elements of good animation (I learnt those here) are also important in magic like, clear and convincing poses, keeping it simple so that audience does not get confused and fludity of the movement. I did a little search about psychology of magic, and came to wonderful article the link I have mentioned down below. I find new animators would be helped by those. (If someone wants to break the rules successfully, he must know them thoroughly.)

    Sure, Peter Bangs, I will continue drawing. I will never be an artist, but this is a great hobby for me. Your slideshow idea is really great. Will try them soon.

  8. Rooniman says:

    Thats real talent right there.

  9. Jo says:

    Gulbranssons drawings remind me very much of the line drawings of Jo Spier. A great illustrator, he also drew comic cartoons. He worked around the same time in the Netherlands, and later in the U.S.A.

  10. Kirk says:

    One can appreciate the ceiling of the Uffizi without feeling as though one is satisfied with the amount of paint used relative to the price of admission.

    The limited brush strokes in a zen painting are one thing, the Book of Kells, another.

  11. bruce says:

    I think it was called ‘moronic’ because it’s christian and the guy acts like a fool.

  12. No, it’s moronic because the fella is putting on a big show of painting a picture, but he’s painting like he’s painting a house. Art requires thinking and making decisions. There is no thinking going on in that video, just slopping on paint like a paint by numbers.

  13. uddip says:

    The thing that I diliked most in the video is the artist’s attitude of making it sensational. He probably gave a lot of thinking before planning and painting that, but his execution in the video is nothing but a gimmic. Good art works in a deep psychological level, and average art just amazes us without producing any effect inside. That is exactly where the artist fails. I am quite sure after a week or two I shall remember Gulbransson’s drawing if I see them again or someone copying them, but the same I can’t say about the video or the comic pic. I feel that’s the difference between them. I have noted that today’s media and everything are interested in gimmics and sensation to make some quick bucks, but a real art will endure the time forever.

  14. Giacomo de Plonque says:

    When an artist works harder at drawing attention than drawing anything else, I tend to focus on the eyes of the smiling girl just over there.

  15. I knew there is a reason why I’m not very impressed by todays comic art in the comic industries as I read comics! Thanks for posting this Steve!

  16. shakil says:

    I really don’t know what I’m talking about, so I’ll just shut up and try not to seem too stupid.

  17. Steve says:

    I have been searching for this post since the first time I saw it a couple years ago and I finally stumbled back across it! I absolutely loved the work of the cartoonist posted here and the ideas about simplicity really spoke to me. I love simple clear styles and ideas. I hope to pare down my own scribbly drawing style to something as elegant and stylish.

    Thanks for this blog!

    Don’t discount all comic art yet! Check out Cory Walker’s first run on Invincible #1-6.

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