Ralph Bakshi: Construction of an Ink Slinger

Ralph Baksh in his studio

I’ve known Ralph Bakshi for decades.  While Ralph is most well-known for his innovative work and career in animation, I’ve known him as someone who is both a lover of the cartoon arts and a passionate artist.  Ralph and I have had many conversations about art and art-making over the years.  Whether talking about the supple, naturalistic line of George Clark’s The Neighbors, the wildly rambunctious line of George Lichty’s Grin and Bear It, or Philip Guston’s powerful paintings and drawings, one thing is clear: Ralph looks for honesty and integrity in the work.  What does that mean?  There are many artists who are technically proficient, but lack an honest and clear vision, relying instead on visual tricks, like a beautiful façade covering a flawed interior.  Ralph has no need for such a façade.  While he clearly has the skillset to show off that technical proficiency, Ralph looks for a more direct line to the heart of the matter in his work.

To call Ralph an ink-slinger is a bit narrow.  Yes, he incorporates incredible movement of ink into his work, but the work is far more than ink-slinging.  Many, if not most of the pieces, are constructed in more than one media, including ink, paint, collage and sometimes three-dimensional elements.  Construction is the operative word here, as the works are built layer by layer, with marks, spaces and figures all responding to one other.  The physicality of those elements is vital in Ralph’s work, as it leaves a map of the process behind.

Take Covid Trapped, for instance.  This mixed-media piece, executed in 2023, has a wonderful physicality about it, as marks and material combine, resulting in a work that is both stable and unstable at the same time.  The composition is largely centered, with the trapped figure smack in the middle of the picture-plane, along with the detritus on the floor leading to the figure.  But the work is anything but static.  There is a depth to the line weight and mark-making, creating a back-and-forth movement in the piece.  It conveys just enough unease; a subtlety in a sea of physicality.

Covid Trapped, 2023

There is something else.  Anyone familiar with Guston’s work will be aware of the objects and symbols that Guston incorporated.  A hanging light bulb, shoes, an odd profile, cigarettes, etc.  In Ralph’s work, you will also find elements of a visual language that he dips back into.  There are a couple of these that you’ll find in Covid Trapped and other pieces, all adding to the compositions, tension and symbolism in the works: nails/tacks and wood.  The nails/tacks tend to be drawn and painted in a linear fashion, acting as an anchor of sorts, holding sometimes tenuous spaces together.  Those tenuous spaces are created in large part by the drawing/painting of wood that Ralph incorporates into the artwork.  In many cases, these show up as floorboards, but it’s not unusual to find the wood creating stages, desks and walls.  The wood is never that nice laminate flooring you might find at a big box hardware store, but warped, angled and misfitting pieces that helps lead the viewers’ eyes in and around the image.  I’m not sure of the importance of these elements to Ralph, but I think back to some of his earlier three-dimensional constructions, and you can be sure that wood plays an important part to him. 

Jim Tyer (1904-1976) was a well-known animator who worked for many companies during his career, including Fleischer Studios, Disney, Harman-Ising, and Bakshi Productions, but it is Tyer’s work at Terrytoons for which he may be most recognized.   A young inker named Ralph Bakshi first encountered Tyer and his work at Terrytoons in 1957, where he became both a colleague and a mentor.  In 1994, Ralph wrote the following about Tyer:

“I was stunned by Jim’s drawings.  They were the funniest I had ever seen. They squashed and stretched on every frame; they changed shape everywhere; volumes were solid then loose and then long then smaller by sixty percent of the drawing before and after it.

They fluttered and spit; they twirled and stopped and spent four feet on themselves on singles, going nowhere but changing shape subtly. The closest cartoonist to Jim that I can think of is George Herriman. Jim’s animation had the same feel as the Krazy Kat strip, pure cartooning that’s had to explain.

A jazz improvisation is how I saw it later. It was a brilliant way to free the animator to be himself, to allow his giddy feelings quickly into the music of the scene before it was lost on rules.” (In His Own Words: Ralph Bakshi on Jim Tyer)
Jim Tyer, 2023

Ralph also recalled about Tyer: “To my mind, Jim taught me about the possibilities of a different kind of animation than the kind being taught by Disney or even Warner Brothers. The kind of motion that is closer to John Coltrane and Miles Davis than to anything else.”  The last two sentences above the image, as well as the recollection at the beginning of this paragraph, conveys a sense of Ralph’s current approach to his studio work beautifully.  They are improvisational, with one thing responding to another.  A mark, a stroke, a color, a collage element; all working in a call and response fashion.  You can see that approach present in Jim Tyer, executed in 2023.  Clearly an homage to his mentor and friend, the piece is constructed on multiple pieces of paper, which works in concert with the other collage elements incorporated into the artwork.  First, let me start with the composition.  As with Covid Trapped, the focal point in Jim Tyer is nearly centered, but once again, Ralph pushes against that, creating a composition that moves and whirls.  The floorboards are a subtle and brilliant touch in the composition, as they are arranged in a curved fashion, causing the viewer to almost forget that the bottom edge is flat.  The brush work throughout the piece is expressive and varied, from the dark blacks of the floorboards to the sepia-sienna colors of the papers on the back wall. There are all of these wonderful collaged figures brought into the work, including a cat in the upper left who bears resemblance to a 1940s Krazy Kat.  Then we have this rickety desk/shelf unit, with a pile of collage papers precariously situated above, along with that incredible record player.  That angled desk lamp and animation disk (with thanks to John T. Quinn III for the reference) brings in the animator’s tools in beautiful fashion.  Now let’s talk about Jim Tyer himself.  Ralph often incorporates figures into his work that I lovingly refer to as Brooklyn Mugs.  This figure fits into that category for me.  When you look at photos of Jim Tyer, you know that Ralph was not going for a portrait of his mentor, but a vibe.  When you read about what Ralph has written and discussed about Tyer, that’s what this figure represents to me.  He is an encapsulation of the permission he gave Ralph to explore any and all avenues in his work.

A few final words about Jim Tyer.  When I view this work, I cannot help but think about Alberto Giacometti, the Italian artist.  Known largely for his sculptures, Giacometti was an incredible painter who knew how to maintain the energy in both his portrait figures and spaces.  Ralph addresses the elements in a similar fashion.  Not the way that Giacometti painted, but the care in which all the elements are treated. 

Finally, yes, the nails and tacks.  There is something about how they function in the image.  Those objects remain quiet within a sea of anything-but-quiet.

Cat Nipped, 2023

Cat Nipped, another work from 2023, presents a different approach to the picture plane than the two previous pieces.  While Covid Trapped and Jim Tyer played with the depth of space, Cat Nipped pushes the subject matter to the front of the picture plane.  11 cats of all shapes, sizes and expressions, are perched upon a fence-like form that is somewhat reminiscent of Louise Nevelson’s constructions.  If you know anything about Ralph’s studio work over the past couple of decades, you will be familiar with some of his three-dimensional constructions that harken to a city, which I take to be Brooklyn.  Cat Nipped has that same feel to it, with fencing material that that has a city silhouette vibe to it.  But on closer inspection, compare the upper left form to the work table in Jim Tyer.  There is a work table light, a stack of papers, and a rough animation disk, the light table used by animators.  Given the multitude of cats in Jim Tyer, one can only wonder if this piece is a continued exploration of the same concept.  Those cats have those same stretched, pushed and pulled attributes that Ralph wrote about, referring to Tyer.  There is one pencil-wielding cat who seems to be leading the cacophony of visual wonderfulness, held together by a single tack.

Bad Back Blues, 2023

There is a good deal I will write about Bad Back Blues, but first things first, it makes me laugh.  In some ways, there is little to find that is funny about the piece, but the character playing and singing the blues, with those Mickey Mouse gloves, exaggerated body and wonderfully elongated mouth, well, it makes me laugh.

Bad Back Blues has a rather somber color scheme.  Ralph employs warm grays, running from reds to yellows.  The reds of the nose, tongue and vest visually pop off from the neutral background, creating focal points in the center of the composition. The figure creates movement in the piece, but the real star is the space itself.  As we’ve seen in other pieces, Ralph uses the floorboards as a way of directing the viewers’ eyes inward.  Those boards then travel up the stage, to the area behind the stage, continuing their upward trajectory.  The curtain runs across the stage from right-to-left, but maintains the same texture and color as the floorboards.  With all of the neutral gray, one might expect the space to remain relatively flat, but it is anything but that.  The movement of the ink and paint work creates most of the movement in the piece, up and all around the composition.  The black line work varies thick-to-thin, as well as speed, and is supported by red color pencil lines in various parts.  Finally, the lower plane plays a bit of havoc with our view.  We see the table on the right from a bird’s-eye view, while the table on the left is drawn clearly in a worm’s-eye view.  Disorienting yes, but purposely and effectively so.  Let me just close by saying how much I love those shoes on the floor at left.  There’s a story there, one we’re not privy to.  Yet.

You & Me Babe, 2023

You & Me Babe is the final piece from 2023 that we’ll look at.  As with the other four pieces, one of the first things you notice is the space, made up of those precarious boards that shape the direction of the depth and height of the space.  If we were to flip the scene in Bad Back Blues, these two characters might make up the audience.  The warm grays are pretty close, as is the use of the boards.  This piece though, has a different sense of construction.  You can see the physicality of the layers as Ralph applied the paints and medium.  There is also an interesting use of reds and yellows that cause the viewers’ eyes to travel around the figures in a circular motion.  The figures—the woman, in particular—almost seem to be made up of the same material as the space.  But as you can see, everything, and I mean everything, moves in this work.  There are two things that strike me in particular, and they are both in the same portion of the artwork.  The viewers’ eyes are led into the image by the upturned floorboards at the lower left, showing a wonky subfloor beneath.  We are then led to the green of the table support.  It is the only such use of green in the entire piece and acts as something of an anchor in that quadrant of the piece. 

10₵, 2017

In the years before this Inkslingers blog site existed, I had a different website devoted to all things ink-slinging.  Inkmunk was created on an old platform that was getting harder and harder to keep updated in a way I was happy with.  When my trusty old web guy left the business for greener, non-template-based pastures, I created Inkslingers as a WordPress site.  But that meant that the material I published on Inkmunk was no longer available.  Ralph was the first artist I wrote about on Inkmunk and the pieces I featured are still favorites of mine, so in order to keep them in the public’s eye where they belong, I’ll present them here.

10₵ is something of an homage to Golden Age comic books.  Incorporating collage elements, Ralph has brough heroes and Brooklyn mugs alike into a wonderful painting and drawing, reminiscent of a comic book cover.  The brushy, expressive colors are all supported by the dark lines, which, while they fade into the background, lose none of the power of the figures.  Ralph leans into the warmer colors for most of the piece, allowing for the central character in the foreground to remain largely neutral.  On a personal level, I’m a sucker for the masked characters, especially those in the background with the Batman-like ears.

Untitled, 2017

This untitled piece, which I refer to as Many Masked Moody Figures was created by Ralph during the first months of the Trump presidency.  Ralph created a number of dark pieces during the time, incorporating imagery that reflected his mood.  This one struck a chord with me because of its seriousness.  The wonderful line work is still present, but the warm grays take over, creating a foreboding atmosphere.  The shadow work in the pieces reminds me of Daumier, who would often use ink wash tones to support the line work.  In this case, those tones work as both a way to create volume and atmosphere.

Untitled, 2016

This mixed-media drawing/painting, marked with Leonard Maltin’s name up top, was executed in 2016.  Much like the 10₵ piece, this one features a cast of Bakshian characters, from superheroes to Brooklyn mugs.  I absolutely adore the guy in the background to the right with the fin-head and would pay cash money for a comic book featuring him.  This piece is so much about process, in which the color pencil lines act as both a starting point and an armature for the ink and paint work that came after.  In some figures, the paint is stronger.  In others, the color pencil work shines through.  You’ll also note a lack of defined space.  It’s like a line-up of the characters that exist in this place and space.

Untitled, 2016

The final piece I’ll share is this wonderful and wonderous array of characters, all drawn with beautifully expressive ink-slinging.  Some of the characters, like Raggedy Ann, will be familiar, while other characters might seem familiar, even if we cannot put our finger on how we know them.  The guy in the yellow suit at the upper right, for instance, seems like such a character from a Bakshi film.  The pose and attitude of the figure seems like someone we know.  Other characters are twisted and tweaked, pulled and pushed, just like Ralph wrote about when it came to Jim Tyer.  It’s almost like a still-life arrangement of figures that will never ever be still. 

Ralph’s figures and environments will always and forever be expressing something about his personal explorations.  When he talks about his love of “pure cartooning”, that’s one of things he seems to strive for in these mixed-media works.  They have a visual language of their own, steeped in the history of cartoons, comic strips, paintings, etc., but speaking with a voice that remains honest and passionate. 

To view all things Bakshi, head over to Ralph’s website. You’ll find an archive of wonderful work, a gallery of Ralph’s newest pieces, and can even purchase a Bakshi original.

Ralph and me, 2017

Rob Stolzer has been collecting original comic strip and cartoon artwork for over 40 years. He has written numerous articles for Hogan's Alley, the CFA-APA and other journals. Stolzer taught art at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for 33 years, where he taught Art Seminar, Drawing, Figure Drawing, Graphic Narration, Illustration, and Painting courses.

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