Life of the Mind

Draw Me a Story

The art and animation of David Cowles

by Robyn Rime

You could say it all started with MAD magazine. Like most of his generation, Adjunct Professor of Art David Cowles grew up with the magazine’s zany cartoons and satirical illustrations. Al Hirschfeld’s celebrity caricatures soon followed, and Cowles became hooked on the art form.

“A caricature has got to be recognizable, to really get at the essence of a person,” Cowles says. Drawing on photo or video references, he distills his portraits to swatches of color with instantly identifiable personalities.

“Many artists have captured the quirks and idiosyncrasies of their subjects,” says Ron Netsky, professor of art, in the introduction to The Art of David Cowles (You’ll Put Your Eye Out, 2006). “But only Cowles can nail them with little more than a few lines, a squiggle or two, and simple shapes of vibrant color.”

In addition to depicting people, Cowles enjoys the challenge of telling stories with illustrations. “I can’t tell the whole story—my job is to get audiences to read your story,” he explains. “I get to coax them in, to put some candy on your gingerbread house.”

Since his days reading MAD magazine, Cowles’s own caricatures and illustrations have appeared in national publications such as Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Time, Newsweek, Playboy, People, Vanity Fair, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and The New Republic, among others. His artwork also appeared recently in the Nazareth College exhibition Good Works: The Illustration Art Invitational, which he co-curated with Associate Professor of Art Kathy Calderwood last winter.

These days, Cowles challenges himself by adding motion to his artwork. “I’ve been a fan of animation in one form or another for my whole life, from the Hanna Barbera fare and Gumby on TV to the Disney movies,” he says. “My brother and I even tried making some claymation movies in our youth. The thing that held me back from getting into animation sooner was the idea of doing 24 drawings for one second of film. But some of the new computer programs finally made it feasible for me to give it a try. And I haven’t looked back.”

With a style of illustration that lent itself to animation, the transition was both natural and fruitful. Cowles’s first animated short, “Superfunk & Freaky-Dee,” won the Grand Jury Prize for animation in the New York Independent Film and Video Festival in 2000. He has also produced a pilot for Playhouse Disney and several award-winning videos for the Grammy Award-winning rock and children’s group They Might Be Giants, including “Seven Days of the Week,” and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett (in Outer Space).” Recent animation projects include videos for Sesame Workshop, Rochester Institute of Technology, and an award-winning PSA for the “H2O Hero” campaign.

Cowles believes that “making stuff move around” will be a bigger and bigger part of not only his own artwork but the illustration field in general, and he notes with anticipation the interactive potential of magazines’ online applications. “Animation isn’t separate anymore from illustration—it’s all part of the art stew,” he says. “It’s scary, but it’s also exciting.”

Robyn Rime is the editor of Connections.

Pixar's 25th by David Cowles

David Cowles, Pixar's 25th.