Thursday, July 02, 2020


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


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


"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 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.

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. 

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 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. 

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

THE ENERGY OF THE 1960s, part 2

Prior to the 1960s, most illustrations would dutifully focus on the subject matter being illustrated.  The content would normally be placed front and center.  But as illustrators acquired more freedom, the aesthetics of the picture increasingly dominated the subject matter.

For example, believe it or not this is an illustration of an airplane:

Verne Bowen

And here is an illustration of an aircraft carrier: 

Austin Briggs

And this is an illustration of a commuter train:

Robert Weaver

Even fairly conventional depictions of subjects such as technical machinery could be jazzed up with bold brushwork and bright colors in the background:

Neil Boyle

Sometimes the efforts to make machinery look "arty" were more successful than others:

Ed Broussard
As an example of the changes brought by the 60s, this picture of a refinery was painted by Al Dorne around 1950:

Al Dorne

But by the 1960s even refineries were looking for a bolder, more artistic image:

Dave Passalacqua

It can be fun fun to trace the development of individual artists during this era.   Robert Handville started the 60s working like this:

Robert Handville

By the end of the decade, his illustrations were far more radical:

Robert Handville
Some of the artistic freedoms that opened up in the 1960s remain available to illustrators today.  Some died a well deserved death.  But the 60s were remarkable as a period of strong experimentation where illustrators were eager to try new things, and after a while art directors and even clients encouraged them to do so.

Monday, June 01, 2020

THE ENERGY OF THE 1960s, part 1

In the 1960s illustration exploded with energy.

 The '60s were a decade of revolution and free love, of rock n' roll and civil rights protests.  After decades working on careful, skilled images, illustrators were unleashed to experiment with bolder,  more innovative styles.

Some tried an uncontrolled look, with spasmodic, convulsive lines and spattered, loose washes.

Bill Hofman

Bernie Fuchs

Another popular style was slashing, violent lines suitable for the dynamic times.

Neil Boyle

Neil Boyle (detail)

Austin Briggs

George Roth (detail)

John Gundelfinger

Cliff Condak

Cliff Condak (detail)

 Jim Jonson

Jim Jonson (detail)

I like this look for its aggressive energy, its spontaneity, and most of all for its very human fingerprint.  There were many other stylistic innovations in the 60s as well.  Advertising agencies would advertise for artists with hot new ideas.  This 1963 ad from Young & Rubicam made clear what kind of talent they were seeking:

I've previously told the story of Bernie Fuchs, whose innovative work in the early 60s for magazines such as McCall's made him the hottest illustrator in town. When art director Richard Gangel hired Fuchs for his first assignment for Sports Illustrated, he demanded that Fuchs push himself even further: "I don't want any of that shit you do for McCall's," he said.

With time, some of the innovations of the 60s became moderated and domesticated. They remain today as cliches of illustration, like the faint echo of the big bang. But I thought it would be fun to spend a few days looking at them in their original savage state, to see if they have anything interesting to offer.