Thursday, September 10, 2020

WORTH FIGHTING FOR

My current column for The Saturday Evening Post is about Robert Fawcett, the outspoken illustrator who didn't hesitate to offend clients when he felt it was necessary to protect a picture.

For example, when a client instructed Fawcett on how to change this illustration, he refused.
Fawcett believed the client's changes would degrade the picture, and rather than sell a bad picture with his name on it, Fawcett gave up the assignment and kept his illustration. 

Similarly, when an art editor instructed Mead Schaeffer on how a picture should look, Schaeffer sent this reply: 
Artists fight for many things-- money, credit, returned originals, status, copyrights-- but as I study the history of illustration, I'm repeatedly struck by the way some of the best illustrators fought for a picture. 

Austin Briggs destroyed his finished cover for The Saturday Evening Post right in front of the art director rather than make a change he considered racist. 

When the young Bernie Fuchs started out, a client rejected his finished painting of a car.  He threw Fuchs' painting on the floor and called Fuchs a "prima donna" because Fuchs tried an approach which strayed from official corporate policy. 

It was once considered heresy to illustrate a car in the shadows, or with an obstructed view, or at an odd angle.  Clients expected a sharp, well lit product center stage.  Fuchs fought to sell cars using mood and lifestyle. 
A few years later that same client was standing in line with others, begging for Fuchs' services.  One of Fuchs' co-workers from that era gleefully recalled, "All the local art directors kept calling up saying, I want Bernie! I want Bernie! But Bernie got tired of doing pictures of people holding drinks and just said, 'shove it.'"  He quit his by then lucrative commercial art studio and moved out of town to take a chance on free lance assignments that gave him more freedom.

Cartoonist Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, famously took a stand against his own syndicate, turning down what he called "trainloads of money" in order to protect his creation from merchandising.  During the conflict, Watterson discovered there were very few precedents on his side: "When cartoonists fight their syndicates it's usually to make more money, not less."
One common theme to all these stories is that the illustrator had to be prepared to take a significant financial hit.  As Robert Fawcett lectured his fellow illustrators (as offensively as possible): 
It should be the aim of every illustrator to withstand the tendency of publications to force his work into a mold, to make him conform to an accepted pattern. This is a difficult thing to do — the financial rewards of conforming are great.... We must be ready to refuse work unless it allows us to conform in some degree to standards that we ourselves set....
Where did this strength come from?  

It's not as if these artists didn't need the money.  Most of them started out desperate for work and would say or do almost anything to get assignments.  In order to understand the measure of their  courage you have to understand how they scratched and clawed for those early commissions.

Mead Schaeffer got his first major assignment by furtively poking around the desk of the art editor at publisher Dodd, Mead.  Schaeffer spotted a manuscript for Moby Dick lying on the desk and volunteered for the job. The art editor explained that he was just about to call illustrator N. C. Wyeth with the assignment.  Schaeffer blocked him and offered to work for free:
 I suggested the following plan. If he would let me have the manuscript I would start at once on a dummy for the salesman. This would include three full-page color illustrations, frontispiece, and papers and jacket. If any one of the staff did not like the work or feel I could not do the finished work, all bets would be off and they would owe me nothing. 
Mr. Chase [the art director] was a little startled, told me to wait, that he must speak to the president Frank Dodd. I waited what seemed like hours until he returned with the boss. He warned me about the cost, that this was a very important assignment but that they would take a chance. I floated out onto the street clutching the precious manuscript so tight that even Sam Huff would have trouble getting it from me. Took subway uptown to 101st, ran up six flights of stairs yelling to [his new wife] “look what I got.” That night we sat up making plans.
Yet, this is the same Mead Schaeffer who told an art editor "stuff this" when the art editor tried to dictate the creative decisions in an illustration.

At first I wondered how such hungry, desperate artists ever transformed themselves into such confident, arrogant artists.  With time I came to realize that there was no inconsistency.  They might not fight over money or copyrights, but they found the courage to fight over what was more important to them.  Illustrator Bob Heindel explained it to me when talking about his friend, Bernie Fuchs:
I know Bernie has tried to choose his assignments, and I know he has done some work he is not so proud of....That's how you learn. But you learn to protect yourself, and mostly if you care about it you learn to protect your work. Bernie was always very protective of his ability. Not that he was vain-- quite the contrary. But he knew what he had. And he always wanted the opportunity to do his very best.
All of the artists I've discussed here had something to protect.  The only reason we know that today is because they protected it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

THE STRUGGLE BETWEEN ART AND TIME



Time puts handcuffs on us all.  Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes bad.  But for certain artists, time creates a special challenge.

In the 17th century, the great poet John Milton went blind at age 44.  He lamented that he had been robbed of the time necessary to fulfill his god-given talents:
When I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account...
The English illustrator Raymond Sheppard was diagnosed with cancer around age 33.

As a boy, Sheppard had won several prizes for his drawing ability.  He worked diligently to become an artist, spending countless hours at London zoos learning to draw the birds and animals he loved.












Sheppard became a successful illustrator at a relatively young age.  (A wider variety of his illustration art can be viewed on line at his gallery.) In addition to magazine and book illustrations, he was commissioned to create a book on How to Draw Birds (1940) which became an international classic, as well as Drawing at the Zoo (1949) and More Birds to Draw (1956).  But his cancer put Sheppard in a race against time and he lost that race in 1958, at the age of 45.

I would like to say two things about Raymond Sheppard.

First, even though he was running out of time, Sheppard refused to take short cuts. For years he fought the pain of cancer and the dulling effects of morphine, steering a course between scylla and charybdis, trying to make sure that his drawings turned out as well as he could possibly make them.  It would have been so easy to cut corners with a faster, looser style but Sheppard would have none of it.  I spoke with his daughter Christine who recalled that her father was "not a satisfied artist.  I witnessed his angst.  He'd say, 'No, that's not quite right, I haven't got that right."  It's difficult to maintain high standards even when you have a long life ahead of you.  When you are mortally ill, each decision to go back and "do it better" comes with a dearer price.  

Second, Sheppard realized that the job of art is to rise above realistic details and find the poetry in your subject.  Making hyper-realistic drawings might've served as a helpful diversion from cancer, but Sheppard wasn't interested in diversions, or mindless copying from nature.  He wrote, "When you look at a bird your eye is full of a lot of really unimportant details.... It takes quite a lot of study to be able to see properly, and quickly too, the important shapes and main lines of rhythm of a pose."   He criticized "those awfully boring and tedious sort of 'feathered maps'... looking as flat as pancakes in natural history books."  

A baby rhinoceros sleeping in the straw 





Sheppard was robbed by time, but he responded like a true artist. 





Friday, July 17, 2020

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 63


I love this drawing by British illustrator Raymond Sheppard (1913-1958) who was famous for his brilliant pictures of birds and animals. 


Sheppard wrote and illustrated several books on how to draw wildlife.  He honed his skills drawing at the London zoo, where his keen powers of observation enabled him to capture the special characteristics of everything from airy feathered creatures to rolls of fat on lumbering ungulates.

Note in the following detail how Sheppard follows the line of this hippo's spine to show us that there is a skeletal structure somewhere within this mountain of lard.  Also observe how that single leg props up his bulk as fat cascades over the top. 


I've never seen a better drawing of a hippopotamus.

In the following detail, we see Sheppard capture that ponderous head pressed against the ground. All the muscle and bone piled up behind him have collapsed in a jumble, giving up trying to keep that head aloft.


Sheppard achieves what photography can't do.  He clearly loved animals, and this love, combined with patience and a keen eye, reveals what's happening both inside and out of this hippo.

In my view, this is what on-the-site, observational drawing is all about.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

NEW BOOK ABOUT MEAD SCHAEFFER




The newest arrival from Dan Zimmer's Illustrated Press is a major book about illustrator Mead Schaeffer.   To write the book, I interviewed Schaeffer's daughter in her home in Vermont and was given exclusive access to Schaeffer's personal scrapbooks. 

Schaeffer was unusual in that he had three different incarnations as an illustrator. 

From the introduction:

The first time Mead Schaeffer became nationally famous, it was as an illustrator of adventure stories such as The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Les Miserables and Moby Dick.  Schaeffer was “one of the foremost illustrators of the romantic era of American fiction” according to illustration historian Fred Taraba. Critic Arpi Ermoyan, in her book Famous American illustrators lauded Schaeffer’s “romantic, swashbuckling and theatrical” paintings which earned him a spot in the illustrators’ Hall of Fame. Schaeffer worked for decades painting evocative mood illustrations for some of the top fiction books and magazines of his day.




The second time Schaeffer became famous it was for a tighter, more realistic style of painting for a very different kind of subject. The harsh realities of World War II changed popular taste from the escapism of costume adventure stories to sober realism about modern day threats. Schaeffer played a significant role during the war years with a series of popular and highly regarded covers for The Saturday Evening Post, painted as tributes to branches of the US armed services. Unlike Schaeffer’s earlier work, these new paintings were precise and accurate down to the last detail, from the buttons on the uniforms to the configuration of the stars overhead. 


After the war, Schaeffer became famous a third time. He traveled around the country as a reportorial cover artist for the Post, chronicling American domestic life. Cities, towns and businesses competed for Schaeffer’s attention, eager to win a prized spot on a cover of the Post. By showing the patchwork quilt of America in the 1940s and ‘50s, Schaeffer helped to educate the country. Readers learned about the varied scenes and lifestyles in far corners of America, some of which had previously escaped national attention. In this role, Schaeffer presaged the popular illustrator-as-journalist movement of the 1960s.


By the time Schaeffer retired to a satisfying life as a fisherman, he had become successful and well known for each of these three roles.

The book is now shipping.  For those who think they might be interested, you can find a preview on the Illustrated Press web site.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

A CONVERSATION WITH RALPH STEADMAN


This morning I had an illuminating chat with the legendary illustrator / cartoonist Ralph Steadman.

Fifty years ago Steadman became famous for his scandalous political drawings and his illustrations for Hunter Thompson's books, such as Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.

Henry Kissinger (detail)

Ronald Reagan (detail)
Today his work is appearing in the very modern virtual art exhibition by Fluorescent Smogg, which they describe as  “cutting-edge showcase... using the latest in 3-D rendering technology to create a totally unique exhibition.”


Steadman's drawings from decades ago remain as relevant as today's headlines:




Viral Menace

GOD Gets the Hell Out

Steadman's fiery indignation has not softened a bit over the intervening years.  ("Trump is the worst creature who lives on this earth," he tells me.)

I spoke with Steadman about his distinctive combination of looseness and control.  His drawings often incorporate accidents of nature-- splatters of ink delivered Jackson Pollock-style-- along with the technical drawing skills of a former draftsman for an engineering factory of the De Havilland Aircraft Company.




A wall decoration at Steadman's recent retrospective exhibition

He described his receptiveness to the accidental:
In a way it starts out like an abstract work of art....  Sometimes I put a piece of paper down...  and I'll drop the water [that I use to clean my brushes] on in it from about 3 foot up.  The smellier the water, the more interesting the patterns you get when it dries. You get textures and things that are marvelous. Decay is an interesting part of the process.  
Steadman also flings ink and sprays color which he blows through a tube.  He says he enjoys the surprises that result from such abstract beginnings:
It surprises me as much as anybody else.  That's what makes drawing interesting. I look at the accidents from the splatters and ask myself,  "How did that happen?"  
That's what he dislikes about using computers for art:
The only thing I like about using a computer is that it can fill in a color.  Otherwise computers are too beholden to rules and regulations.  There aren't so many surprises. With a drawing [by hand] you can still say, "oh my god, that's interesting."
After those spatters "express a creature or a person or a group.... " he develops the drawing with "the straight lines and circles" that he learned at the De Havilland Aircraft Company.

Given his receptiveness to chance and experimentation, it shouldn't be surprising that Steadman's all time favorite artist is Marcel Duchamp because of Duchamp's discovery process.  He says, "Duchamp's work is so unexpected.... Everything's an experiment, and that's how it should be."

After a conversation that spanned fine art, illustration and cartooning I asked Steadman what he considered himself.  "A Welshman" he replied.


Saturday, June 20, 2020

ERIC SILVA


"I like music, I like it sweet I like it blue
But music makes me do the things I never should do." 
                                     -- Ginger Rogers, singing in  Flying Down to Rio                                                                          

I love this poster by Cuban graphic artist Eric Silva. 

Countless thousands of artists have attempted to illustrate jazz.  Most of them resort to standard cliches: hot colors, a trumpet, dancers.  Is there anything left in the tool kit for a young graphic artist who aspires to be original?

Silva's insight was to show the seductive power of jazz with the woman's hands trying to keep her dress down.  While her hands demurely protest, "no!" she continues to stand astride that ithyphallic trumpet which urges "yes!"

With bright colors and a beautiful design (look at those wonderful feet!) Silva takes just an instant-- about as long as we would require to view the poster through a passing streetcar window-- to remind us of a story we already know: the story of propriety unraveled by the music of desire.  This is the same tune that Bacchus played for his corybantes in classical antiquity and it remains in the heart of every commuter on that streetcar.

How does Silva convey this visually?  Well, note that the highest contrast portion of his image (and therefore the part that draws our attention first) is the woman's hands vainly trying to keep her dress down.  (Of course, Silva takes no chances: even if those high contrast colors escape our attention, that glimpse of thigh is guaranteed to grab us.)


Next we follow his design to learn that it is "jazz" that imperils her inhibitions.  Finally we are escorted off the page by the muted colors of the trumpet.

The names of the musicians Silva was assigned to include don't break up the flow of the image because he has wisely reduced their opacity and converted them to air swirling up her legs.

Poster art is a specialized art form, big and sensuous and instantaneous,  Recently it has become less popular but I think Mr. Silva has given us an excellent example of how effective it can be.

Eric Silva showing his work in Havana



Saturday, June 06, 2020

THE ENERGY OF THE 1960s, part 4

At the beginning of the 1960s, Peter Max was a talented, if conventional, illustrator .


By the end of the 1960s, he had popularized a new psychedelic style, with bright pop art colors and cosmic, magical tropes.  For a few years his style became emblematic of the 60s counterculture.





That was long enough to make Max a very wealthy man.  He worked in an 18 room art studio overlooking the Hudson River and drove a Rolls Royce which he had decorated.


Another talented artist who worked in the 60s psychedelic style was Heinz Edelmann, the art director for the ground breaking animated movie, Yellow Submarine.

Edelmann

Edelmann
Edelmann traveled from Germany to London the year Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, because he wanted to be "where everything was happening." In London he worked with the Beatles on Yellow Submarine, a bright, colorful and phantasmagorical mix of graphic art, animation and rock music.



While Yellow Submarine contains some conventional and even mediocre passages, it also contained highly imaginative and evocative segments.  Edelmann kept the film brimming with energy, resolving that "the style should vary every 5 minutes or so."  Consistent with the adventurous mood of the era, Edelmann went around to the art schools in London hunting for interesting students to work on the movie on the night shift. Op art, collage and finger painting all found their way into the film.

The 60s were too hot not to cool down, but it's difficult to think of another cultural period since that time when art, music, clothing, design and media all came together with so much intensity.




Thursday, June 04, 2020

THE ENERGY OF THE 1960s, part 3

As far as I know, Toulouse Lautrec was the first illustrator to develop the technique of making solid colors more vibrant by painting them in a series of chopping, vertical strokes.

Lautrec
His contemporaries made colors shimmer by painting them in dots or stray marks, but Lautrec's paintings always seemed more vigorous to me because he used slashing marks, drawing rather than modeling with his paint brush.

Lautrec (detail)
Years after Lautrec died, illustrator J.C. Leyendecker used a similar approach, painting everything in slashing strokes, but Leyendecker enhanced the style by tilting his strokes at a jaunty angle. 

Leyendecker
Using this technique, his pictures looked more vigorous and lively than the work of other illustrators.

Leyendecker (detail)

Years later this style of painting turned out to be a natural fit for the energetic1960s.  Bernie Fuchs resurrected the "diagonal line" look, turbo-charged.

Fuchs


Fuchs


Fuchs
Fuchs

 
Fuchs sometimes skewed the entire composition to match those lines, or enhanced the lines with an angle shot perspective.



Pretty soon everybody and his brother was using the slanted line formula.  It was easy enough to adopt, and for a few years was wildly popular with art directors.

Stan Hunter

Robert Andrew Parker

Charles Schorre

Bob Peak

William Shields
Not long after the 60s, this fad died out and illustrators moved on to different styles.