He grew up in Chillicothe, Ohio. His father was a railroad man who drew intricate, loving and naïve pictures of his railroad memories. Noel Sickles’ formal art education came from the Landon School of Art, a correspondence course in cartooning. His informal art education came from the study of illustrations found in the books and publications at the libraries he haunted. He once told me that Charles Keene (1823-1891), the English cartoonist, and Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), the Paris-born English impressionist, were his great influences.
At 19, he was a full-time political cartoonist for the Ohio State Journal. Three years later he began a cartoon strop which became a challenge to that art forever after. Scorchy Smith still remains the ultimate model for the adventure strip cartoonist.
When I first met Noel in 1940, he had abandoned cartooning to begin his career in free-lance illustration and the work he was producing was, to my young eyes, nothing short of magical. The ease with which he drew and the scope and variety of his abilities were awesome. As the inevitability of WWII became obvious, Noel’s knowledge of military hardware led to commissions from Life to acquaint its readership with the events to which the camera was not privy. At the time, he had married his beloved Louise and had left New York City for Valley Cottage in Rockland County, N.Y., not far from his old and close friend, Milt Caniff. My wife, Wende, and I rented a house nearby and it was from there that I left for Washington, D.C. A year later, I recommended Noel as a civilian employee in our group, the Identification and Characteristic Section of Navy Intelligence. For almost three years, we shared a studio close to the Lincoln Memorial. In those years, Noel produced some of his finest works. The illustrations for Newsmap, a joint Army-Navy venture, were adventuresome and bold, enormously detailed and drawn without human models and under impossible deadlines. For Dr. Howard Rome of the Navy’s Neuro-Psychiatric Section, Noel drew highly sensitive works in a style that would come to full fruition in his revolutionary “Old Man and the Sea” illustrations. Until Hank Ketchum arrived, Noel did most of the cartooning as well.
Near the end of the war, Si Coleman, our tough and brilliant art director, laid out what was to be the last Navy Day poster. Noel painted it. That poster is noteworthy because Edward Steichen, the great Navy photographer, had ideas of his own for the project. When presented with Noel’s painting, Capt. Steichen, a wonderful and gifted painter, cheerfully admitted that there was no contest.
Full recognition came to Noel following the war years. At one point the Saturday Evening Post offered him a carte blanche arrangement in which he could choose from any manuscript he might find appealing. Now his work appeared in all the major illustrated magazines and in many of the books published by Readers’ Digest. The quality of the work was superb. Never content with his output, Noel destroyed many illustrations that would have elated art editors and left most of his contemporaries thoroughly envious.
And of course, he attracted many imitators. The style however, was dependent on a remarkable sense of drawing that was the undoing of so many of his photo-oriented followers. Noel’s illustrations could involve 70 figures, horses, wagons and rugged landscapes. Each face in the figure described a personality and the costumes were not only individual but accurate.
Noel continued his assignments for Life. Some were done with brush (he chewed the tips and used the frayed and tattered ends to indicate shrubbery, grasses, etc.), India ink and charcoal. The color illustrations were done with colored India inks until the value of his work was fully understood and he changed to the more permanent media, Life sponsored an exhibition of his work that toured the world. In Cairo, Egypt, the exhibition was stolen and the originals to “The Seige of Leningrad”, Heminway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, the WWII Trials and many others were lost forever. Happily some of his best works are in the collections of the National Geographic and Reader’s Digest.
In his last years, Noel devoted himself to an old love – the depiction of the West. His Saturday Evening Post illustrations of the West were of such excellence and created such interest that he was encouraged to continue in that genre. The paintings that followed have a verity that has escaped many of the recent painters of the West. They are infused with history and are unrelenting in the recapturing of the space and light and the vastness of the early West.
Noel had no hobbies – there was no golf or tennis. He had two loves – Louise and his work. He worked constantly, researching and ever improving that miraculous ability to draw. In his moments of relaxation, he was a charming companion. Bob Blattner of Reader’s Digest told me that he never knew anyone to enjoy humor as much as Noel. He was a good and loyal friend, always willing to share a new enthusiasm or discovery.
In his Christmas Day, 1982 Steve Canyon strip, Milt Caniff wrote: “This restless genius was the greatest natural cartoonist I ever knew. Now he is dead! All that talent still unused and every cartoonist feels cheated of what might yet have come from his magic hand.” Noel is gone and the wonderful work he produced is scattered. He was a cartoonist, an illustrator and a painter. He was an exemplar, a mentor and a giant who now takes his place with those rare few greats whose names appear in the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.