John Groth stands publicly accused of being a sadist. During a recent television talk show, this war correspondent-illustrator, who has sketched his way along the front lines of six wars, was called a lover of violence.
The silver-haired artist drew himself up and retorted, "I guess you'd have to say the same about every artist who ever drew the Crucifixion."
Groth's pictures center on the day-to-day life of people caught in terrifying circumstances -- armies occupying cities, soldiers sweeping roads for land mines, bullfighters facing death.
"It is only at war that I feel complete," Groth says. "There, you meet all sort of men -- farmers, mechanics, college professors. It rains on them and it rains on you. The shells burst in the air, and you are there, too."
The shells burst on Groth in France, Germany, the Soviet Union, the Congo (now Zaire), the Dominican Republic, Korea and Indochina. In quieter times, he has traveled through Mexico, Ceylon, Burma and parts of Africa.
"John is one of the gentlest people in the world," says his long-time friend and former photographer for Life magazine, Bernie Schonfield, "and he always gets himself into the wildest hell hole."
Groth, who now lives in New York, came to Northern Virginia recently to take on another role, that of teacher, at the Springfield Art Guild. There, he demonstrated his lightning-quick sketching ability and his talent with watercolors.
Groth's sketching techniques are rooted in some early advice from an editor.
"He told me to go home and turn out 100 sketches a day," Groth says, "and like a damn fool, I believed him. I turned out 100 sketches a day for years."
He found plenty of material for his sketches during the Depression -- soup kitchens, police brutality, people out of work. But his favorite subject was sports: "I would listen to the games on the radio at night, and sketch the plays. It made me very quick."
During those years Groth expanded into "every medium except oil -- I did etching, woodblock, watercolors, anything." His versatility led to his first big break at an art show in Chicago, when the dapper young editor of a new magazine called Esquire strolled over to examine his work.
"The way (Arnold Gingrich) told it," Groth says, "he found this barefoot, bearded kid in the park, and the next day made him art director of the world's leading men's fashion magazine. But I swear I was wearing shoes."
Groth stayed with Esquire for about two years and then began a career as a free-lance correspondent and illustrator for a variety of publications, including Sports Illustrated, Collier's, Saturday Evening Post and the Chicago Sun. In between, he was art director for Parade magazine and also continued to contribute to Esquire.
Groth's biggest story came in 1944 when he broke the news for the Chicago Sun that the "Yanks are in Paris!" The story scooped the Sun's rival, the Chicago Tribune, bringing such elation to Groth's editor that he cabled Groth $2,000 and a note to "stop sketching, keep writing."
In Paris, Groth was determined to find Picasso. So, using his best investigative skills, he looked in the phone book under Picasso, Pablo.
Arriving at Picasso's house, Groth requested an audience. Picasso, he was told, was not receiving.
Groth repeated his request, saying that he was a war correspondent and an artist. He soon was ushered into a room filled with members of European intelligentsia -- Georges Braque, Jaime Sabartes. There also stood Picasso, dressed in an undershirt, boxer shorts and sandals.
These were the artists, poets and writers of the French resistance, it was explained, and they had gathered to compose a book in honor of the liberation. Each person was to create a picture, poem or a statement on one page of the book. Would Groth like to watch Picasso make his?
Groth followed Picasso into a tiny room nearly filled by an enormous rolltop desk.
"Watching Picasso showed me that some artist's problems are universal," he grins. Picasso's picture did "what many of my own pictures do -- it went completely out of control. Pictures tend to grow larger as you work them, and this one exceeded the page."
Then a small blot accidently marred the page. "I learned the Picasso technique for coping with this difficulty -- rub it in! It got worse, of course, so he spit on it, and pretty soon the watercolors were running through to the other pages of the book."
Then Picasso decided he needed more space to view his work. So Groth was urged to stand on a stool and hold the book high overhead, while Picasso lay on the floor and viewed his work.
Groth employs less dramatic techniques for his illustrations, though the problems he encounters are the same. "You must think big and start big," he told his Springfield audience as he sketched hedge-jumping horses. "I get some students who start with the models's bellybutton."
Groth begins his watercolor by sketching the barest outline of the horses in pen and ink, concentrating on the motion. "You have to exaggerate your movement to get them across," he says. "Rembrandt did that -- he started with caricatures of his people."
The motion comes across through Groth's reliance on diagonals. Using a French painting pen that he says does "everything a quill pen should do -- makes lines as thin as my old hair or as thick as my noise" -- the artist creates a series of divergent angles. The positions of the horses' and riders' legs vary deliberately to draw the viewer's eyes to the front of the picture.
Then he starts to fill out the inked outlines, a process he says usually takes him two or three days:
Finally, Groth applies the watercolors, working in broad sweeps and muted colors at first to create a general impression of the work and "define its perimeters."
Then he applies what he calls the "heavy artillery" -- vivid colors -- dabbing them at the top of the picture and picking up the same color at the bottom "to draw the eye forward."
A self-trained artist, Groth developed his natural, quick style by practice and by imitating old masters: "I like to think I'm in the traditiona of Daumier, Hogarth, Lautrec. Although I admire the abstract artists . . . their art doesn't communicate with the numbers of kinds of people I want to speak to."
Groth's primary audience, in fact, is the same as his subjects -- the military. "John has such a feeling for the foot soldier," says Schonfield. "You can see it in the drawings he did for 'All Quiet on the Western Front.'" This is one of two antiwar books illustrated by Groth, who also did an edition of Mark Twain's "War Prayer."
"John started his research on the period, but said that he didn't want to draw a German soldier -- he wanted to show a universal soldier," Schonfield says.
"He did nearly 300 pictures for the book, and the first time I look through them, I was all wrung out and my eyes were filled with tears," says Schonfield. And who was he crying for?
"Humanity," he says. "John has a real understanding of man, the totality of man. But the totalaity he pictures is only dramatized by war."
John Groth stands publicly accused of being a humanist.