Take Five: An Interview with Arnold Roth


GROTH: After the experience with Humbug you moved to England?

ROTH: Yeah, the second year of Poor Arnold’s Almanac, in ’60.

GROTH: Can you tell me about Poor Arnold’s Almanac and how you got that syndicated?

ROTH: I had borrowed money from the Brubeck guys, their record company, to keep pumping money into Humbug. I wasn’t desperate for money, but I was desperate to pay back my loan. Damn it if I didn’t earn enough to do that in the first year, just on Poor Arnold’s Almanac.

I drew up four samples and sold it immediately to the Herald-Tribune Syndicate. They had a great editor there, a guy named Harry Welker, and he was really bringing good talent to the syndicate. Around that time Al Jaffee sold them Tall Tales. And Johnny Hart was doing B.C. and Mell Lazarus was doing Miss Peach for them. They didn’t have many comics, that was about it. It was a writer’s syndicate, but really good quality — Walter Lippman and Red Smith were there. They must have had two or three dozen writers and a few comics.

GROTH: You moved to England in the middle of the run?

ROTH: I went there in August of ’60.

GROTH: Why did you move to England?

ROTH: I had always wanted to go and I had that steady check. I could speak the language — or I thought I could — and I thought I would never get the opportunity again. My kids were two and four then. (I mean two and four years old; I don’t mean I had six kids separated into two groups.) I went to stay for two years. We took everything we owned with us. But the strip was dead by the next May.

GROTH: The strip failed because of lack of sales?

ROTH: No. I got all this second hand from Johnny and Mell, but there was an internecine battle between the New York Herald Tribune newspaper and the syndicate. The newspaper eventually canceled my feature. I didn’t know any of this was going on. In fact, when my contract had to be renewed I wrote to them and got back an informal note saying, “Don’t worry, everything’s fine.” Later I got this formal letter saying “We’re terminating your contract.” I even did about four strips that never ran. I wrote to King Features, but by then I had lost all my papers. As soon as a syndicate decides to kill you they tell all the papers the strip is ending. Being in England, it took a long time for me to find all this out. I don’t know about the guy at the paper but the guy who headed the syndicate was a real oaf. I had about 40-some papers — which doesn’t sound phenomenal, but for a full-color Sunday that was a lot, there weren’t all that many. Since their flagship paper canceled it, the syndicate said the strip was too difficult to sell. “Everyone says, ‘If it’s so good why don’t you carry it?’” which is a lot of crap.

I was doing a lot of work for Punch by that time, although their pay was not very good. I was also doing some work for Harvey at Help and a lot for Esquire. That’s how I managed to stay in England as long as I did. Finally, I went broke and came back. I borrowed money and within two months I was getting work again.

GROTH: What was working for Esquire like?

"For Your two Legs Only" - Esquire (1981)

“For Your two Legs Only” – Esquire (1981)

ROTH: Esquire’s been an off-and-on thing for me since ’54 or ’55. It was fun. I sold them full-page, full-color jokes and I, illustrated articles too.

GROTH: How did you come to Punch?

ROTH: In the late ’50s, right after Humbug folded. I sent them six ideas and I think they bought five. It was unbelievable. They had known my stuff from American publications.

GROTH: These were gags?

ROTH: They were gags. A lot of them were sequential. Then I was doing full-page things. The cartoon editor was a wonderful guy named Russell Brockbank who was a very good cartoonist himself. He drew cars, all sorts of cars. He brought in the most inspired people. Punch was much more open than The New Yorker. He had really good heavy-weight guys. Ronald Searle and Smilby were working for him. He picked up Scarfe, Steadman, Michael ffolkes. You’re talking about a lot of cartoonists. Punch was a weekly and they ran about 30 cartoonists a week.

GROTH: Did you do something every issue for Punch?

ROTH: For a while it seemed that way.

But to jump ahead a few years later. In ’65 I was in England again, on a trip. At that time, P.G. Wodehouse, who was in his 90s, was doing the “Report From America” for Punch, two pages a month. He would cut out oddities from the news — The Daily News or Time magazine — and paste them up. He wasn’t even retyping them or writing connecting sentences. Well, they decided to ask him not to do it anymore. Bernard Hollowood, who was the editor of Punch, said to me, “We’d like you to do the ‘Report from America.’” I said, “Sure.” I came back to the States and wrote what I was sure were the funniest two pages ever written in English and mailed them off. They came back and in red on top of the page in big letters it said, “You fool, I meant draw two pages!” My wife said, “Gee, they’re really angry at you.” I said, “No, if they don’t call you at least a swine, they’re not even serious.” [Laughter.] So I drew two pages and I did them up until about a year and a half ago, every month. Ironically, just after they invited me to carve my initials in their table,* I did about three more reports and then, because of certain circumstances, editors leaving and that sort of thing, I haven’t done them again.

GROTH: That was two pages a month from ’65 to ’88, a lot of them in full-color?

ROTH: A lot of them were in full color, in the ’80s. I did other stuff for them too, occasionally.

"Street Musicians" - Punch (1961)

“Street Musicians” – Punch (1961)

GROTH: You worked for Help!?

ROTH: Yeah, in the early ’60s. In fact, when I lived in England he sent me to Berlin right before Christmas and to Russia right before Easter — the two pleasure domes of Eastern Europe. [Laughter.] I did spreads on what it was like there.

GROTH: Was Help! defunct by the time you got back from England?

ROTH: Oh, no. In feet, it was even after I moved to Princeton in ’63 that I met Terry Gilliam, who worked for Harvey. In fact, Terry visited me in Princeton. Everybody visited me — Gerald Scarfe, Michael ffolkes. It’s a beautiful town and I could give them a kip. My wife is great at entertaining.

GROTH: For the magazines you mostly illustrated articles. Do you prefer to do your own humorous cartoons rather than illustrating?

ROTH: Yeah. But when I illustrate, I’ll do a funny drawing about that subject. I won’t just illustrate an occurrence in the story. I want the drawing to be comprehensible and entertaining apart from the piece. My experience is that people look at the pictures first and then they read the piece. If you’re a straight illustrator you depict an incident from the story and the reader thinks wow, that looks exciting. But the way I draw, it looks disgusting. [Laughter.]

GROTH: Why do you say that?

ROTH: What’s the point of me drawing Joe putting his hat on the rack while Mary shoves her lover out the back door? You can do that with a photo now. Straight illustrators used to do those things. I figure my function is to entertain the person and get them into the piece.

GROTH: Is the work you did for Help! more satisfying than say the work you did for Esquire? Did you make that distinction?

ROTH: Yeah, because it was humor. But I enjoy all the work I do because each job presents a different problem. It’s not just somebody saying I want you to draw a guy hanging from a chandelier and the dog is giving him a hotfoot or something. That’s not interesting to me. I might come up with the same idea, but then it’s interesting.

GROTH: When Help! folded was that demoralizing?

ROTH: Actually Help! didn’t play a big part in my life. It was very incidental for me. My next connection with Harvey was Annie Fanny around ’63. He was always falling behind in production, so I helped him draw a couple. It was a desperate situation. On one I didn’t do any drawing; all I did was watercolor. It was like getting somebody to paint your house. I would never do that sort of work for anybody except Harvey.

GROTH: Was that more of a favor than a paying job?

ROTH: No, it paid well — but that’s not what I wanted to do. I tell you there are 10 million funny stories.

GROTH: See if you can tell just a couple.

ROTH: Al Jaffee and I were staying at a suite at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. We were there trying to get some Annie Fanny strips done for Harvey. The hotel only put 30 watt bulbs in the lamps, I guess because they expected you to steal them. We had to put so many damn lamps around us to get enough light to work in color. It was blazing hot because of all the lamps. Al and I were painting these things in a panel at a time. We didn’t get a full page.

GROTH: Why weren’t you getting pages?

ROTH: Because there were a lot of guys there working and two guys can’t work on the same page at the same time. It was crazy. And the way Willie [Elder] worked they were fully painted — which takes forever.

Anyway, after awhile I say to Al, “I’m getting punchy. I swear I painted in this panel before.” He says, “It can’t be because there’s no color.” But there were traces of color. We were painting them and then if Willie didn’t like what we had done, he’d soak them out. I guess he didn’t want us coloring in his panels — which is only why we were there. It was this crazy house.

GROTH: Why would he soak out the color and just give it back to you without instructing you how to do it differently?

ROTH: Because he didn’t want Harvey to know. I don’t know; it’s like asking why a nut wears a banana on his head. I can’t say it’s for protection, but that would be my first guess. [Laughter.]

GROTH: Would you get a penciled panel that you then painted?

ROTH: Yeah. You’d paint it and then Willie would do the final rendering. Why he took out what we did I’ll never know. We didn’t put in heavy, dark contrasting colors. We were laying in the foundation color.

GROTH: And what did Harvey do?

ROTH: He supervised. But when he found out that Willie was soaking them out, he put an end to that because he was going crazy. [Laughter.]

Hefner ended up flying Harvey, Willie, Al and me out to the mansion. We had to finish it out there.

GROTH: Good God. Just to finish Annie Fanny?

ROTH: Yeah. And Harvey had another couple of guys — I can’t think of their names. I think they ended up in the mansion too. The expenditure was unbelievable.

GROTH: Why would it make a difference whether Annie Fanny ran in that issue or the next one? Do you know why he was so obsessed to get it out?

ROTH: Well, with a monthly like that you have to plan for the color forms and he’d marked them up for Annie Fanny. And it was a hot idea and they wanted to push it right then. From the word go they were talking about making movies and who knows what else — cockamamies and breakfast mugs. Everything was going to be Annie Fanny. Never happened.

GROTH: So what was the mansion like? Was it actually the hotbed of depravity and debauchery that we’ve all been led to believe it was?

ROTH: No. Unfortunately. We got there and in half an hour they got drawing boards for us and we were sitting there working. Al Jaffee kept saying, “Everybody comes here for girls and booze, and we’re sitting here working.” [Laughter.] It’s a terrible thing to be in a place like that and be thinking, “Gee, I got to get out of here.”

When I actually helped Harvey draw Annie Fanny, I did it at home. When I did the backgrounds I told him I would only do it in pen and ink — the way I worked. I didn’t want to make that strip my life’s work.

GROTH: How long did this stint last?

ROTH: Three or four days. Al used to go out there for a few years. Jack Davis worked on a few, too.

GROTH: So that must bring us up to —

ROTH: Well, the end of Help! and the start of Annie Fanny was around ’63 or ’64. As I said, I made my living doing magazine work. I also did four books for kids during the ’60s and I illustrated tons of books and book jackets. You name it, I was doing it. I did illustrations for Sports Illustrated, TV Guide, Playboy, and a lot of other magazines that don’t even exist now.

GROTH: What did you do for Sports Illustrated?

ROTH: I did tons of work for them. I like sports. I like people putting themselves on the line. I wouldn’t want to do drawings about how an insurance company works or how investment houses operate.

GROTH: Didn’t you do work for Politiks?

ROTH: Yeah. But that was just one black-and-white page a month. Politiks lasted about half a year. It was a national newspaper about politics that came out every other week.

GROTH: Were the illustrations you did for Politiks very political?

ROTH: Yes and no. For instance, in one cartoon I had Ronald Reagan fainting when a Panamanian kid spit in our canal — that kind of thing. But they weren’t like, “We ought to hang all the Republicans by the neck,” or torture all the Democrats or kill all the communists. I did one on the Republicans and Democrats choosing their national emblems — so it was more a commentary on the nature of the parties.

GROTH: How did you get that assignment? Did they come to you?

ROTH: It had to be around 1970 because it was right after all the hippy stuff. I don’t know how that editor knew to call me, but he did. He probably knew my work from Punch.

GROTH: Then you worked for National Lampoon?

ROTH: Yeah. I started off doing some black-and-white illustrations. As I remember they weren’t very good. Then I started to do regular full-color pages. For about the first three years I had something in practically every issue. I could do whatever I wanted, although if the issue had a theme I would stick to that. Their themes were like “barfing,” so I’d do the history of barfing. Then they decided to do an issue making fun of themselves, their 25th anniversary issue — which was only when they were about three years old. I really made fun of those guys and everything they did. Then they called me and said, “Don’t send us anything. We’ll let you know.” I think some of the English guys probably thought I was an old fart because I worked for Punch. That’s the business.


GROTH: Now, when you worked for Punch and Politiks, were you given pretty much complete freedom?

ROTH: Yeah. I think once on a Politiks thing the editor wanted to change the caption over my objection. I thought it was funnier the way I had written it. He put it into better English, which kind of killed the idea. It’s like changing the song “I Ain’t Got Nobody” to “I Don’t Have Anyone.”

GROTH: Have you had any difficulties when working for magazines of annoying editorial interference?

ROTH: Yeah. Any interference I consider annoying. I usually lay down some ground rules. I tell them, if you want my best work, the work you’ve seen, this is how I do it. I won’t do sketches and I won’t draw what they tell me to draw — they can’t give me the idea. I won’t make piddling changes. They have to trust me. I’m not going to do a cartoon about a rainstorm if the story is about furniture. If it’s a new magazine or I don’t know the people very well I’ll ask them if there are any taboos, if there’s anything that’s a sin to draw.

GROTH: Do you impose those ground rules purely in a professional sense or is there an integrity you’re guarding?

ROTH: No. Although, I think that would be a good enough reason. I just don’t work well without them. I tighten up. I get to be too careful. I start considering too many ancillaries. It takes the mickey out of the job.

I’ve been working for Esquire straight now for about eight or nine years, every issue. I told them how I work and they said, “But we always get sketches.” I said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll do the drawings and if you don’t like them, I’ll sell the originals and you won’t owe me anything. I’ll bring them to you early so you can finish with someone else.” They’ve been delighted with what I bring them and that’s the way I work. I’ve since learned that they started asking for sketches because the artists always said, “I’ll bring you sketches.” They also told me that a lot of the artists ask them for ideas. I can’t work that way. It’s like a band leader telling a guy what to play in his jazz chorus. Well, if you have to tell him, he shouldn’t be playing a jazz chorus to begin with.

GROTH: Have you ever simply sat down and done something and then thought about who you were going to give it to?

ROTH: Not for a long time. I stay so busy with commissioned work that I don’t have time to develop other ideas. But I’m doing them for my own pleasure. That’s the way I do everything. It’s not like I’m doing all this hack work that’s preventing me from doing what I really want to do, I’m doing what I really want to do.

GROTH: Have you ever done what you would consider hack work?

ROTH: Oh, yeah. Back in those early days.

GROTH: In the last 15 years, anything?

ROTH: No. But maybe I’m blotting something out. I’ve gotten into some uncomfortable situations. The worst is when I feel that because there was a misunderstanding I’ve got to meet them halfway. There have been cases like that.

GROTH: Now after you stopped working for Lampoon — which must have been around ’75 or ’76 — aside from doing regular work did you have any special gigs?

ROTH: I did the book jacket for John Updike’s Bech, the Book, a collection of stories. I thought they had made a mistake when they called me. There are a lot of guys named Roth who draw. But Updike had asked for me. Thirteen years after that I did another one. Bech is Back. I told my wife, “I have a steady gig. Every 13 years I’ll do an Updike cover.” [Laughter.]

The next steady thing I did was “The History of Sex” for Playboy. That was for Michelle Urry, the cartoon editor. Hefner has a way of wanting to get into the act on everything. If you drew everyone who lives in China he’d pick one guy out of a billion and say, “Couldn’t you make his eyes a little rounder.” I mean, who the hell cares? [Laughter.] So I made a deal: if Hefner doesn’t like something I’ll replace it, but I won’t do it over. If you agree to changing things and doing them over, you’ll be doing it to everything. I don’t want to collaborate with him. Although I admire and value his editorial judgment I think he can’t leave well enough alone. I only had to replace a few things out of lots of cartoons I submitted. It was filthy and fun — though I think with one or two exceptions my favorite jokes were clean ones, they had nothing to do with sex.

GROTH: You just started a strip recently.

ROTH: It’s a daily panel and a Sunday sheet. It’s my old title, Poor Arnold’s Almanac.**

GROTH: Is the new Poor Arnold’s Almanac the first regular thing you’ve done since Playboy?

ROTH: Yeah. This is my last hurrah, I’m afraid.

"Poor Arnold's Almanac" (1989)

“Poor Arnold’s Almanac” (1989)

GROTH: Don’t say that.

ROTH: Well, I’ll always work. But this is my last try at something like this. I’m making a living doing magazine work and I can keep that schedule well in hand.

GROTH: What’s your ideal work, panel cartoons, or magazine illustrations?

ROTH: The ideal work would be like what I was doing for Punch, especially the full-color things. Unfortunately, I never had a lot of time to do stuff for them. They paid poorly and I was always so busy. The amount I’m paid has to figure into it — simple economics. If I could really give my work more time and concentration I’d monkey around with the art a little more instead of rushing through it. Now, if I’m doing a drawing and it isn’t exactly the feeling I wanted, I’ll just go on to the next one. But maybe I’ll get like Harvey in my old age.

GROTH: In your career have you felt under the gun economically?

ROTH: I’ve gone broke around four or five times. The last time it happened I had a house and a car, but that was it. What I made every week is what I had. If I didn’t get any work, I didn’t even have food money. That’s how bad it was.

GROTH: Have there been times in your career when you’ve had a surplus of money and felt at ease?

ROTH: Yeah, then I would fix my house up. We eventually sold the house for a nice price and bought an apartment up here in New York. That was five years ago. Now I pay a lot of rent for this studio — I hate to tell you. That puts the pressure on, but I like to come in here every day.

GROTH: You wouldn’t feel comfortable having a studio in your apartment?

ROTH: Well, I would, but I like this. I walk through the park each way, about a mile. I like that, being out of the house. For many, many years I worked at my house and I would work all the time, day, night, and weekends. It wasn’t the money. I don’t worship money and my life isn’t centered around it. When you’re successful after years of not having been … It’s like this, I don’t feel honored if Time magazine calls me, but I feel that I owe them. I want to do a job for them if it’s any way possible. Then there are other magazines that will call me and I’m just curious what it would be like working for them and what I would do with the job. Smithsonian I do something for once a year. I never know when they’ll call.

It goes on and on like that. I’m constantly under pressure to produce. I don’t mind the pressure, but when it gets really horrendous… This syndicated feature, I’ve never felt so really panicked to get something into the mail. I’m conscious of the pressure because it’s constant. With the feature I have to get two weeks’ worth in every two weeks. Meanwhile I’m doing the magazines. I’m not enjoying that aspect of it.

On the other hand, it’s like fighting a bull. Once you realize he’s the one hanging up dead, hell, it feels good. [Laughter.]

GROTH: Do you ever draw for yourself?

ROTH: No, I do so much stuff. I don’t like to have time off. I would work 24 hours every day. But I like to play my saxophone, I like to do work around the apartment, carpentry — of course, I don’t do much of that here. I like to prune trees and work in the yard. The apartment manager gave me permission to work on their trees, which I do.

GROTH: Do you practice? Do you sketch?

ROTH: No. I’m working all the time. It’s like a singer who does gigs every night, you don’t have to run too many scales. However, my stuff changes all the time — it doesn’t always improve … It’s not conscious. The way I use the materials, and handle stuff, I think, as I look back over the years, has changed slowly.

You can’t change your style drastically. If a guy calls me tomorrow with a job and I bring him something that looks like nothing I’ve ever done — it could be a masterpiece, but that’s not what he wants. That’s to be considered, also.

GROTH: Do you ever feel a bit straitjacketed by the commerciality of the work?

ROTH: No. I’m working in complete freedom. I know I’m working in a commercial field and I think it’s great. I feel very journalistic about it. If a drawing is a little weaker than I want it to be, then I’ll just make the next one a little better — if time allows. If time doesn’t, I make it as good as I can under the circumstances. There’s no other choice. If you break your leg and need to run for help, you can’t say, “I’m not going to run, my leg’s broken.” You run as best you can.

GROTH: Do you do jobs that are really artistically satisfying, where you derive great pleasure from them?

ROTH: I try to make them all that way. I make mistakes. I pick jobs that I really shouldn’t.

GROTH: But most of what you do is very rewarding personally?

ROTH: Yeah, I enjoy it. I try to give myself little problems. Brubeck, years ago, was on a symposium and somebody asked him “Would you describe what playing jazz is?” He said, “It’s getting yourself into and out of trouble.” I thought that was a good way to put it. If you’re not doing that, you’re really hacking it, doing the same thing over and over. I always want to push it a little.

"The Reader" - Holiday (1955)

“The Reader” – Holiday (1955)

GROTH: If you had no commercial jobs, and you had more than enough money to live on, what would you do? Do you have any dream projects?

ROTH: No. I might like to do a book of drawings. And I think I would like to try opaque painting, but it’s not a burning desire. I’d like to see what I could do with oils once I became familiar with them. I try to paint with them like watercolors, which is horrible. And I rarely have tried …

Who knows? I haven’t ever been in that situation. I’ve been working since I was 10 years old.

GROTH: You said something that I thought was really acute. You were talking about style and influences, and you said that style isn’t something that you begin with, it’s something that you arrive at. And then you went on to say that many novices make the mistake of contriving a style, using bits and pieces picked up from others, as if a self-conscious compilation of influences will automatically make it something original.

ROTH: I didn’t know I was that articulate, but I’ll take my word for it.

GROTH: I was just wondering if you could expand on that? I assume that your own style and approach is very organically arrived at.

ROTH: Yeah, I would just draw. It’s like handwriting. My style has changed over the years, although it sort of leveled off about 20 years ago.

Of course, you can take style to the extreme. Otto Soglow. I loved his work, but I wouldn’t be Otto Soglow for all the money in the world. To draw everything exactly the same way for all those years, it’s like using a set of potato prints, as far as I’m concerned.

GROTH: Like Ernie Bushmiller.

ROTH: Exactly. Bushmiller made lots of money, you know. That was one of Harvey’s old jokes. He said, “If a person killed somebody, he should go to jail for a long time. But if he blows up a busload of crippled orphans, he should have to draw Nancy.” [General laughter.] That was our ultimate punishment. Don’t tell Jerry Scott I said that.

I think style should evolve from the way that you look at things and respond to them. You can fall into habits. I have them to this day. You have to be aware of them and try to avoid them — avoid your own clichés. If you’re always going to draw a hand exactly one way, what’s the point of drawing them any more? It’s too boring. That’s why I like jazz, that’s why I like cartooning, it’s always different. It’s never the same.

GROTH: Is there a point at which technique stops and style begins, or are they inseparable?

ROTH: I think they’re two separate things. A sense of style is completely different from technique — and it can drive you nuts. I could show you people who have lots and lots of technique and style, others who have no technique and lots of style, and, of course, vice versa.

GROTH: Right, especially vice versa. There are a lot of technicians out there who have no distinguishable style at all.

ROTH: It’s the feeling in the work. That’s where personality comes into it. You can have very cold, very competent, very well-done stuff. It’s like eating food with no spices.

GROTH: Ideally, I guess, style and technique should harmonize …

ROTH: Yeah, that’s when you really get top-notch work. You don’t do it everyday, but that’s what you strive for — a cartoonist, a musician, a chef, or anybody.

GROTH: This might be a tough and even unanswerable question, but looking over what you’ve done, do you have a body of work you think is the best you’ve done?

ROTH: No. But if I went through everything I’ve ever done I could make piles of what I think are good, better, or worse. In fact, I did that when I moved. I threw away about a couple hundred originals, from when I was really really young.


ROTH: I just didn’t have the room for them. I didn’t like them. They weren’t very good drawings, a lot of old TV Guide jobs.

I had this big pile to throw out. My sons were there at the time so I asked them to throw the stuff out for me. Later I went to hear some rock ’n’ roll bands playing on the Lower East Side and all of these young people were coming up to me, saying, “Hey, Mr. Roth, thanks for the picture!” My sons had given them to their friends. So if you want to see a lot of my really bad drawings, they’re still around.

GROTH: How do you feel about the state of cartooning?

ROTH: I think it’s great. There’s tons of it. I don’t go looking for cartoons, but if they fall in my lap I’ll look at them. I just don’t have the time to keep up on it. The political cartooning is terrific. There’re so many talented people working. Cartooning is a great field. It’s a field most kids want to go into, so it’s like playing major league baseball.

GROTH: Have you been pleased with the cartooning profession?

ROTH: Yeah, I think it’s a great way to make a living. The work, by its nature, is fun. Most people are decent; it’s really a goodwill industry. There are real thieves, real crooks — like with the Superman situation. But I’ve only had a couple bad experiences. Generally, you can take people at their word.

GROTH: I’m quoting from an article here. You once said that when you’re working in black-and-white rather than color, you have to supply your own color via black and white. You also said, “Black and white is color with a very limited palette. Lines can be very colorful, especially if the blacks are handled well. Design possibilities are endless. You can achieve depth and form simply by playing densely worked areas against white space.”

ROTH: Well, you know, I never read that. [Laughs.]

GROTH: Those all strike me as being very formal skills, black-and-white patterning and that sort of thing.

ROTH: In art, though, you learn by doing. It’s a hand-eye thing. You can’t think about that sort of thing consciously. It would be like playing a jazz chorus and saying, “Oh, I’m going into this mode.” You don’t, you just play it. You can’t think quickly enough, and you’d be a boring player if you could.

GROTH: This may be another unanswerable question, but I’ll throw it at you anyway. When you’ve got a white piece of paper and you’re designing a page, how much of that composition and drawing and so forth is intellectual and how much of it is intuitive?

ROTH: It’s all intuitive now because of experience. It’s like driving a car. You don’t say “Push in the clutch, move the gear …” But when you have a piece and it isn’t working the way you want it to, then the intellectual comes in. You have to lean back and say, “Why isn’t this working?”

GROTH: You have to analyze it.

ROTH: Right. My wife’s a very good artist. She rarely asks me for criticisms, but when she does, I find it a lot easier to criticize than if I had been the one to do it. That’s the way it is in artwork and writing. I know there are pitfalls, but you have to be honest and ask yourself, “What am I really trying to say? What’s important here?”

GROTH: Do you do full pencils when you do illustrations?

ROTH: Usually I’ll just block it in. Sometimes I’ll do more pencil if it’s a very complicated piece. A lot of times I’ll just put in the main figures and then fill in the ancillary jokes in the background — since I don’t know what they’ll be. Other times — I know this sounds strange — I’ll block in a big figure and then start with the background, since I won’t have my central idea.

GROTH: When you do a watercolor, do you pencil that in entirely?

ROTH: I draw in pen and ink first, then I watercolor.

Illustration by Arnold Roth

Illustration by Arnold Roth

GROTH: So you don’t have to pencil it in first?

ROTH: Like every little detail? That’s doing it twice! Although I find now, with my feature, I tend to do pretty complete pencil drawings — for me, anyway — because I might be in the middle and have to leave it to get some dailies done. But usually I work through a piece. Once I get started I’ll draw it all. I might put a drawing aside a day or two to really let it dry so that I can paint it. I’m doing unusual things, now.

GROTH: Is not penciling completely a matter of expediency or because you want a more spontaneous line …

ROTH: It’s more fun. Pencils aren’t usually needed. If I want to be sure something’s going to fit in, if I want to make an expression exact — which is not usual with me — then I will do pencils, sure. I have nothing against it. I know guys who do really tight pencils and do beautiful, free work. I know guys who do the same drawing 15 times over, and it gets better and freer every time. If I did it 15 times it’d be like a block of concrete. I’d hate it.

GROTH: How fast are you?

ROTH: Not as fast as Jack Davis.

GROTH: I don’t think anyone is.

ROTH: I’m pretty fast. I can do a full-page, full-color, fairly complicated, peopled drawing with architecture, in a day. But I’d rather not. Now I’d rather draw it and then draw something else, and then go back and paint it.

GROTH: I don’t think this is a terribly delicate question, but are you slowing down as you get older?

ROTH: No. As a matter of fact, I’m doing much more than I have in a long time because of this feature. I’d like to slow down. I really would like to. I’d like to be more contemplative about my work, not as compulsive. My ego is never in the work. I’m egotistical about a lot of things, but I’m never egotistical about what I’ve drawn. I don’t feel a drawing is good because of me. The pleasure is in the doing — to really get into it and see how it goes. That’s the fun of it. Playing, I call it. •

*Editor’s note: every week since 1855, the editors of Punch have met at the same wooden table to plan the following week’s issue. The table is inscribed with the carved initials of staff members and celebrity contributors, from Mark Twain to Prince Charles.

**Editor’s note: the second run of Roth’s Poor Arnold’s Almanac, was syndicated for over a year through the Creators’ Syndicate and ran from September 1988 to January 1990.


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