Monday, November 17, 2014



Jim Silke has written about the style of illustration "derisively called the 'big head school of illustration,' a name derived from the fact that every picture was dominated by a huge close up of a beautiful woman...."  These 1950s illustrations, often painted on a plain white background, were sometimes viewed as less ambitious than the fully painted scenes from previous years.  Illustrator Al Parker explained the popularity of this style:
Readers demand pretty people in pretty settings forming a pretty picture. The larger your audience, the more limited its taste. It prefers subject matter to design and girls to men. It wants no message other than girls are cute and men like cute girls.
But take a look at the details of this original painting by the great Joe De Mers  and you will see how much wisdom and talent and even audacity went into some of those "simplified" paintings.
Note the bold palette and abstract brushwork in the woman's hair.  Note the wild difference in hue between the shadows beside her nose and in her nostril; this is an artist who knows what  he is doing.

At first glance that hand looked tightly painted, but study it in isolation and you'll see that De Mers conveyed accuracy using loose and spirited brush strokes.  These hands frame the face but they are not painted as tightly or realistically as the face, lest they t distract the viewer from the focal point of the painting. De Mers understood priorities.



The three top illustrators in this genre-- De Mers, Coby Whitmore and Joe Bowler, were each brilliant in their own way, and were very close friends.   They worked together at the famous Charles E. Cooper Studio, learned from each other and stayed close after retirement. 

A friend recalls that after De Mers died, his two comrades Whitmore and Bowler got together and looked through all his artwork.  They concluded that De Mers had been the best among them.

You can put De Mers high on my list of under-appreciated illustrators who are long overdue for a renaissance.


kev ferrara said...

Gotta say, in that third image up from the bottom; the way he rounds the form over the wrist from the head of the radius to the tarsal bones... that is sweeeeet painting. Whew. Thanks for that close up.

Larry MacDougall said...

Anybody know what he's painting with? It looks like gouache.

wesley lowe said...

This is when great art was used and appreciated for what it was capable of doing for the pages of magazines and book covers.
Beautifully painted in guache medium by a skilled artist. Love the simplicity of brush strokes and the values. Sadly, very little use for this today and not many capable of this level anyway. Art schools don't teach it anymore and probably because the lack of application after art school.

wesley lowe said...

I noticed something in the composition of this illustration that keeps bringing me back to the face of the girl.

The mans right arm and hand leads my eye to her face. Then I am led down her right arm and stopped by the mans left hand which seems to guide me up her left arm and back to her face.

An armature is being applied to this composition, beautiful.

Richard said...

Love the purple in the skin tones. Especially the man's hands.

Odd decision to lose the value separation forearm from chest.

Richard said...

Interesting that because of the modesty of the time, kissing was a much bigger turn on, so they can push the girls lips to an extreme for effect that today comes off strangely.

Much like the nineties obsession with breasts looks childish to people today, and today's obsession with giant Butts will no doubt seem silly to connoisseurs of ... I don't know, labia?

Journeyman said...

David, thanks for this post so much to learn from studying the painting, the close ups are an excellent learning tool.

Laurence John said...

great painting David.

it's interesting that, because gouache is quick drying and semi-opaque, virtually every separate decision is still visible in the final painting.
nothing has been blended together the way it might be in an oil painting.
you can practically see the construction of the whole painting from pencil on white board to final white highlights.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I'm glad you like this. I've posted scans of tearsheets by De Mers before, but the difference between the originals and the printed version is night and day.

Larry MacDougall-- I think you're right, although casein was also popular in those days with that crowd.

Wesley Lowe-- I agree 100%. A couple of weeks ago I was writing about how mechanically drawn "circle heads" are now fashionable in the most prestigious publications. It's hard to believe that 50 years earlier these "big head" illustrations were being criticized as a reduction in taste and sophistication. Judging by that trend, it looks as if our visual taste is in free fall.

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "Love the purple in the skin tones"

Agreed. There are a number of unorthodox color choices here, including greens and grays and reds. De Mers liked to experiment with such combinations, but the total effect somehow turned out lovely. During one period, he used certain colors that faded over time, upsetting De Mers' delicate balance. You can spot these pictures because they have chalky purple/gray patches on the skin. Fortunately, this period of his work did not last long.

Journeyman-- Thanks for writing.

Laurence John-- Excellent point. De Mers could have done more to cover his tracks, blending those colors and working with a finer brush, but I'm sure he would have viewed such efforts as old fashioned, Norman Rockwell stuff. This was the 50's, abstract expressionism was hot stuff, and I'll bet showing the steps you describe was De Mers' way of being stylish and cutting edge.

chris bennett said...

Morandi made a whole world with a few dusty bottles.
The best of these guys did the same with pretty women. A forest inside a lock of hair, a desert through a shoulder, a matador's swirling cape within a smile.

Thanks for posting these David.

Donald Pittenger said...

I also don't see why the "big head" school got such a bad rap.

One conjecture is that the guys who did the Saturday Evening Post style covers and story illustrations with full backgrounds felt that painting only key subjects with a hint of environment was a lazy way out.

Yet in the 1920s and 30s it was common to see "vignette" illustrations for stories and most SEP covers. Rockwell, Cornwell, Schaeffer and many of the rest did this, whether it was their tune or the art director's that their brushes were dancing to. Maybe"big heads" weren't such an aberration after all.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- Well put. There is clearly enough variety in these faces-- even in pretty, glamorous faces-- to present years of artistic challenges. No one ever faulted Holbein for his series of "big head" drawings.

Donald Pittenger--A good question. Personally, I suspect that some of it stems from illustrator Robert Fawcett's disdain for Jon Whitcomb (who was not nearly as talented as De Mers, Bowler, or Whitmore in my opinion, but who was more commercially successful). Fawcett was not shy about expressing his personal opinion about artistic quality or commercial compromise, and seems to have faulted Whitcomb on both. Who know, perhaps Fawcett was jealous of Whitcomb's cover spots. But the barricades may have been drawn there.

Unknown said...

What a nice illustration that too with detailed explanation! Thanks for sharing one of the style of illustrations.

Tom said...

Wesley Lowe wrote
"The mans right arm and hand leads my eye to her face. Then I am led down her right arm and stopped by the mans left hand which seems to guide me up her left arm and back to her face." 

It is not just up and down the canvas  but the man's hands hold or frame the woman's head perpendicular to the to the surface of the canvas in the direction of his foreshortened left thumb. Directing the eye into the depth of the canvas from front to back and around her head, not just across the x and y coordinates of the canvas.

 I really like the way DeMer's gets his contrast via the complimentary pair red in the light and greens in the shadows.  The colors remains me of DeKooning's palette and those 1950's lips really remain of DeKooning paintings.  The DeMers painting was done from a photo?  Right? Just curious.

Speaking of large heads David, I didn't think of Holbein, I thought of  Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, especially his unfinished pastel portrait drawing, where ther is only a head is portrayed. and the facial feature are full of animation.

Since Morandi was mentioned an artist have always like, but the experience of seeing one of his painting in the Vatican museum was quite a revelation for me.   The collection of the art works in the Vatican museum  are fully  connected to the coordinates of it's  galleries, they connect to the whole of which they are a part.   Creating a great sense of stability and strength  a symphony so to speak everything resonates as a powerful whole.  Now what really made aware of the pleasing sensation was walking past the Vatican' modern art wing on the way to the Sistine chapel.  I saw a  Morandi hanging on the wall.  Morandi's painting in that context looked  like a  weak, helpless, almost like a little pile of pebbles a child might have stacked.  The painting only seemed to relate to itself. There was a Francis Bacon painting right next to the Morandi that just look dreadful and lopsided like a child's scrawl.    This had nothing to do with the subject of the pervious paintings I had seen, but it had to do with how those paintings had been arranged and composed.  Which somehow  harmonized to the space they occupied and also harmonized with my own internal sense of balance.  But it was seeing the Morandi and the Bacon painting they really made the understand what I had felt in the pervious galleries.


Richard said...

Art idea: With my next baby I'm gonna collect all his poops and sculpt them into a giant sculpture of my baby pooping!