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  • Writer's picturePaul Rivoche

Alex Toth on "Double Lighting"

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

A while back now, I interviewed the late Alex Toth about his art techniques. I was restless and impatient to improve, and there was no one better than Alex to learn from. We were already in correspondence and he agreed to answer a series of letters containing five questions at a time. He was kind enough to send me back the replies, written in his inimitable hand-lettering, via postcards, or sometimes in longer letters. I then transcribed these and combined them with my questions, ending up with a long article which was published in Comic Book Artist magazine.

A letter from Alex...he went the extra mile!

Not only was he a brilliant artist, but he was a fountain of technical information about cartooning; and he was glad to share it. He was a student of the craft, and he understood it piece by piece, from the ground up, in a way which few bothered to emulate. Not only that, he knew so much of the history of comics and cartooning, having come up through the business as it was developing, and of course, influencing its development with his amazing work.

As the years pass, I am so glad I made the effort to do this. No one else had, to my knowledge, done such a detailed interview with him, although there were many previous opinion pieces he put out which were published in various fanzines. Some of these focused on the state of the comics industry, some on technical aspects such as using markers, but I tried for more comprehensive coverage of a range of topics that working cartoonists have to grapple with and attempt to conquer-as he had conquered them!

In this small excerpt from my article, I asked him what he thought of fancy "double lighting" sometimes used in comics. It had occurred to me that he rarely used it, and there has to be a reason - thought and study - behind this decision. As you can see, he pulled no punches in explaining!


Rivoche: After studying your artwork, it seems to me that you rarely used so-called

"double lighting"--a la Wally Wood, Al Williamson, or Neal Adams, etc.--lots of reflected light thrown back onto the subject's shadow side. Why did you avoid it? Was it because you found that it broke up the graphic black masses too much? Was it too "photographic"?

A visit with the master cartoonist, circa 1984.

Toth: If needed, I used split lighting, in days of yore - given a good reason, I did!

Gimmicky, for *me*! I tried it but overdid it - like Wally, and all you cited, did!

Schtick!!! Wally's trademark! He did it well - but didn't need it, mostly, no! Remember how badly Caniff used it throughout 'Canyon'? Ye gods! Big moplike brushblacks on faces (all wrong, too!!!) to divide light/color fx! Aarrrgh! But, too, all over unpainted aircraft fuselages and wings!!! Awful! Clutter! Hay! Distracting ugly stuff! So unlike the

Milt of 'Terry' years! 'Til, the end split lighting's not rim lighting! Big difference. Watch movies / TV - well, mebbe not!' Cuz every director / lighting director /

cameraman's doing it, lately, too-too much! Sweaty, slimy, wet-looking folks, faces, beasties, at night, with 'hot' split lighting, all to reveal more creepy textural detail, in two colors, left vs. right - it's a disease! A plague! In spook/horror/sex/film noir - voluptuous fleshy babes, or scaly monsters! But - in days of fewer extremes, night scenes used key light to 'pull' a figure from the black-shadowed background/surround, with a softer light on the other side to rim light figure's shadow side, to 'separate' it, make it 'whole'. Without it - using only key light - you'd have Rembrandt-lighting, on one side - the figure would melt into shadows away from the light! Simple - dramatic - effective - it helps to know facial/figural anatomy, and various weight/textures/styles of clothing, and how *they* take light and dark! Study study study! Anyhoo - a little glossyglitzyshinywetstuff goes a long way with me. If I need it, I use it - but only then! I've done it well - and gets in the way of nega/posi/tive shapes in black scenes - night shots - when/where silhouettes can be so dramatically-used.

But, nowadays, few cartoonists know how to do so wisely - they just don't get it! And it *ain't* 'schtick'!


P.S.: Alex's daughter Dana is self-publishing a book about the latter stage of his life. She is funding it through IndieGoGo. Please have a look, I'm sure she'd be grateful for your support, find the campaign here.

And here is Dana's video explaining the project and the story behind it:

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