We are burdened by many of the constants in our lives, but sports is not one of them. The games are always there, but simply because of the way they play out, sports provide and represent one of the last true bastions of unpredictability in our culture. Did you see that high school girl dunk a few weeks ago? Did you see that all-time great get upset by a nobody? That game winner or that meltdown? Did you see the Cubs win the World Series? Then you know.
Sports are exciting, they inspire awe and surprise. So why is it that contemporary sports illustration is so damn boring? How can something this alive produce art this inert and uninspired? There are a number of factors that go into the answer, but the first thing to remember is that it wasn’t always like this.
In the early 1900s, Willard Mullin set the bar for sports illustration obscenely high. Focusing on baseball, Mullin’s loose lines in black and white played up the peculiar physicality of professional athletes. Pitchers’ knees swung eight feet above their heads in their windups, wooden bats had Paul Bunyan barrels, and every mark of the nib was playfully precise.
Mullin acolytes and understudies carried this style forward in the 1950, ’60s, and ’70s. Murray Olderman penciled and shaded photo-realistic renderings mostly of football and tennis players. He then filled the frame with highly-stylized gags full of stats and jokes. He was—is now, in his late 90s—a polished polymath and pioneer in the field, an original whose only critique is that he maybe slummed it up in caricature work a bit. Olderman more than made up for that with his productivity and in the fact that he was also an accomplished journalist in his own right; he had a hand in creating the MVP trophy in many of the professional sports leagues.
Olderman did singular work, but he was not alone. Karl Hubenthal could give personality to a chinstrap. He giddily embraced the portmanteaus and puns that come naturally when two teams with hyperbolic names take to the gridiron, and played with personification and glee. Hundreds of illustrators and gag cartoonists filled the nation’s sports pages during his era, but these three artists defined their professions—and it was a true profession at that time!—until another illustrator launched himself from the free throw line in the mid-2000s.
For better or worse, we’re still trying to catch up to Jacob Weinstein. Illustrating the quintessential blog FreeDarko as well as their two hardcover books—this is probably the right place to note that he also created The Classical’s logo and signature illustration—Weinstein took his inspiration from Minimal Realism and mid-century “modern” cartooning and married them with impeccable configuration and humor. Look at the structure and color palette in his depiction of Leandro Barbosa from 2008 to see an artist at the top of his game; that he happened to be working inside the sports illustration micro-genre is a happy coincidence.
Today, the world of sports illustration is living A.W.—the After Weinstein period. This is a time where the Reuben Award for cartooning no longer has a sports category. A time where teenagers digitally manipulating AP photographs of Tom Brady in Photoshop get more Instagram likes than any brilliant artist struggling to capture what makes sports so popular, exciting, and erratic. A time where The New York Times has published an article about sports cartooning on its deathbed. More to the point, it’s a time when nearly every person has a camera at the ready. This means, when handled correctly, that illustrations can be sublimely novel again. Factor in the new platforms upon which athletes are allowed to express their individual eccentricities and styles, and it seems even more inexcusable that the sports art we have is so derivative.
There is some hope, though. In 2016, a few artists stepped up to create something both topical and timeless, and did so by refining what I consider to be the four main features of successful sports illustrations: action, exaggeration, composition, and originality.
Lara Kaminoff created this gouache painting for the Seattle Sounders last year, and what strikes me first about it are all the active angles the players’ legs take. There are shifting thighs and calves in the foreground and background; they fill up the entire piece with pumping strength. Kaminoff captures the seesawing dynamic of brute and beauty.
In the next example of action, Cameron Weston Nicholson atomizes the game of tennis into simple kinetics. We don’t know if this is one volley, set, or an entire game. This stoppage of time allows for us to focus on the strained, outstretched body, the gnashing teeth, and beads of sweat bouncing off the court faster than the ball. These two examples can make you feel either energized or spent with their inventive portrayals of activity and pursuit.
The great sports illustrators have always used exaggerated anatomy to their advantage. Mark Ulriksen and Christoph Niemann did just that for their respective New Yorker covers last year. Ulriksen’s portrait of the Met’s Noah Syndergaard features the impossible twisted body of the pitcher against a somber sunset. The cover’s embellishments also give us interesting use of negative space between the flowing hair and oversized mitt. Niemann’s blocks of colors frame the giant, sensationalized hand setting up a serve while the ball fills in for the missing “O” in the title of the magazine. The splayed legs and fraught arm give this illustration a sense of drama as well as wit.
J.O. Applegate might be sports illustration’s foremost draughtsman. The exceptional symmetry he uses in this piece about the 2016 Olympic Games is a perfect example. The blue lane lines of the pool bring your eye to the middle of the drawing, where the line then becomes a yellow gymnastics balance beam. From there, similar lines form on the ceiling, tied together with the lone yellow support amidst the bars of green. The arrangement scaffolds the athletes; it’s architectural.
Cun Shi created a close-up likeness of Carmelo Anthony with a surreal scene in the background that represents the complicated struggles of an emerging social consciousness. Where an athlete centered in profile ordinarily might not be the most breathtaking composition, Shi uses the angle of the face, the lighting, and the collar of the shirt to give Melo a sense of regality.
Originality can mean many different things, but we know what it is not. It sure doesn’t mean riding someone’s style, suspicious photo referencing, or any of that faux vintage garbage. Wilfrid Wood works in clay and sculpted this rendering of runner Meb Keflezighi. The photo of the face in front of a single-toned background doesn’t give us any evidence as to the size of this work, which leads the viewer to make the correlation to the mythic marble busts of Roman Olympians. The three-dimensional element imbues it with stunning freshness.
Keith Negley’s mixed-media collage charts a frustrated golfer in free fall. The loosely scribbled face and the abstract flourishes that make up the sand traps and crevices of the course are intriguing details. I also like to think the text on the golfer’s shirt are tomorrow’s sports page headlines, the future he’s imagining as he gets deeper and deeper inside his head.
The marketplace is the marketplace, and it has been a long time since it was a friendly place for artists or art. But these works point towards a future in which sports illustration is vital and vigorous; the defibrillators are in the artists’ hands.
They can’t do it themselves, though. Sports magazine and website art directors have to expect more from their audience; they must reach out to artists outside their static and self-made comfort zones. This could mean extending to comics and fine art; it should mean becoming acquainted with the worldwide arts community. We always hear about the popularity of basketball in Asia, how baseball still rules in some Caribbean and Latin American countries, how massive soccer is all over Europe. Do you know what else those regions have other than an impressive sports following? A rich history of illustration and design. Any future worth celebrating for sports illustration would do well to start there.