Wednesday, August 15, 2007


I recently posted some illustrations by the great watercolor artist John Gannam, who had an astute eye for color.

But before he became famous for his use of color, Gannam did hundreds of black and white spot illustrations in the 1930s and 40s for lesser publications.

Many artists treated such assignments as hack work to rush through. However, Gannam applied himself and learned valuable lessons from black and white pictures which served him well when he later painted color illustrations.

Specifically, he learned from black and white illustrations to master value, which refers to the darkness or lightness of a color. Working in black and white, Gannam taught himself to control the "value structure" of his pictures, balancing blacks and whites and grays. He mastered tonality and contrast and learned to make his pictures eminently readable.

I find Gannam's control over the value scale in pictures such as this one absolutely astounding:

If you don't think this is hard to do, try it sometime.

For years, Gannam refined his color skills by doing black and white pictures.

As Gannam's career advanced, color slowly crept into his illustrations:

When Gannam later graduated to full page color illustrations, he had great appreciation for the values of the colors he used. Much of the strength of his color paintings came from the lessons he learned during that long apprenticeship doing black and white pictures.


Anonymous stiftet said...

I remember many simmilar in style magazin-illustrations from my gandmothers attik . They realy made an great inpact on me then, so many details made with such an easy hand. It´s a tradition and a skill few today master. For me it´s very inspiring to look at those inkwashings (?) with maybe hundred different values of black and white. They realy makes me want to learn more.

8/19/2007 9:22 AM  
Anonymous bob cosgrove said...

I love Gannam. It shouldn't be lost on anyone that the compositions you posted are often quite complex with lots of figures, scenes with lots of opportunity to muck up the values.

stiftet, one or two of these do have a transparent quality and could be ink wash, but I suspect most are gouache.

8/19/2007 12:45 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Amen, Bob-- artists will recognize that these compositions present many potential pitfalls. The natural temptation is to go too dark, or too light, or otherwise flatten out the values, but Gannam controls the values in an uncanny act of levitation.

8/19/2007 10:50 PM  
Anonymous IllustrationFan said...

I have always been a big fan of John Gannam but I had never seen any of his black and white work until now; wow. Now I am really really a fan of his work. Thank you for sharing it with us.

8/20/2007 12:42 AM  
Blogger SpaceJack said...

These are great. They seem like illustrated theatre or something. I especially like the first one; the placement of the guy's head in front of hers is unusual but works. The pointing fingers is another interesting touch.

8/20/2007 8:14 PM  
Blogger leif said...

What a great mini-lesson in value, David -- thanks! And to think Gannam accomplished this with watercolour... probably the toughest medium to control... it really makes you appreciate his tremendous skill and discipline.

8/22/2007 7:25 AM  
Anonymous Randy Ranson said...

Gannam taught himself to control the "value structure" of his pictures, balancing blacks and whites and grays. He mastered tonality and contrast and learned to make his pictures eminently readable.


Notice the Man with the gun and his posture and his bent arm they present a similar angle and shape, now follow the line of shadow along the floor and up the wall and across the window, see how it rhymes with the body language and shape of the gun cocked arm. This marriage of shadow shaped objects (in rhythm) brings together the composition of the whole picture. The dead man on the floor is also supported by other shadow and material shaped images. Isn't dissecting art fun, there's so much to learn, not only about the work of art, but the thought process of the artist in producing it. Thinking about art this way, one can see that the essence of the artist as a human being is kept alive through his art, long after he's past away. His temperament, his attention or not to detail, are all apart of his content of character.
I love art, and all those who thrill me with their enormous contributions to it. We pass ourselves off for what we are, by and through the works that we do.
Randy Ranson

8/27/2007 6:40 PM  
Anonymous Randy Ranson said...

If you notice the woman on the porch, holding a rifle, you will notice how the stairs leading up to the porch, form a spoke like perspective leading the eye to the rifle, which is the main part of the unfolding story. The line from the rifle, runs along the line of the back of the horse which is facing in towards the lady with the rifle. These connections are well planned to lead the viewers eye, in out and around the subject matters at hand. They are masterful approaches to solving delicate problems that in the end, seem to not exist at all. This is the test of an artist. To make you feel it SIMPLY, couldn't be any other way.
Read a picture and make your own comments too.

p.s. it would be great if the pictures were identified, like a.) b.) c.) or 1 2 3, so when discussing a picture, it could be referred to by it's ID number. To ease discussion.

8/27/2007 7:16 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Randy, for your very thoughtful analyses of these pictures. One of my main reasons for doing this blog is that I can't stand to see such beautiful work mouldering in old magazines, so I am especially delighted when people linger over them and give them the attention they deserve.

8/28/2007 1:26 PM  
Blogger Carolina Bensler said...

His art is really incredible and your blog is very interesting ;)

8/28/2007 5:45 PM  
Blogger Bryan said...

Wow. That is some amazing art work. At first I didn't think much of it, but when considering the amount of time and dedication to each of those illustrations he drew. Some of them look like photographs, its very detailed. I like it. Thanks for the blog.

8/28/2007 9:07 PM  
Blogger Trailer new said...

very cool

8/29/2007 2:09 AM  
Blogger em said...

I absolutely agree...the grayscale and depth of the tones is beautiful. I had to look twice at a couple of the drawings because they looked like photographs from old movies at first glance.

8/29/2007 2:28 AM  
Anonymous isim said...

Nice blog

8/29/2007 5:28 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks Carolina, Bryan, Trailer, Em and Ism. I am glad you see the qualities in these paintings that I see.

8/29/2007 6:12 PM  
Blogger designempress said...

David, do you know if this artist's work was used for psychological testing? There is a series in which a viewer is asked to tell a story based on an illustration, then offer a possible conclusion to the story. The ones I've seen are dated in hairstyle and clothing, but there is an underlying humor in some of them, including one that nods to 3 different time periods and styles with the look of Grant Wood in the background, Flemish-Vermeeerish in the mid ground, and what looks like a Nancy Drew schoolgirl in the foreground, thus negating any interaction between the characters. There are also some salacious ones in the style of the welfare-government sodomy image you posted.
Art for the mind and body at

9/03/2007 10:21 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Designempress, I have seen artwork used for psychological testing and I find them fascinating. I have never heard that Gannam's work was used that way, but then almost any picture offers a psychological test of one kind or another.

9/04/2007 8:29 AM  
Blogger Paulo Moura Humor & Artegraphia said...

Estou postando de Teresina-PI, Brasil. Excelente o trabalho de ilustração que representa bem a década de 1930 e seguintes. Temos um ilustrador que segue esse estilo hiperrealista, chamado Benício, que atualmente mora em Nova York.

9/04/2007 12:10 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Paulo, I looked for Benicio but could not find his work. You will have to give me more clues on how to locate him!

3/17/2008 9:17 AM  

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