Saturday, October 24, 2020

A LAST LOOK AT THE BRIGGS ARCHIVES, part 5: painting in retirement

In the 1940s, Austin Briggs was desperately trying to break away from the comic strip field and win illustration assignments, which he believed would be more challenging.

Look magazine featured a monthly illustrated series called "American Heroes." Each episode told the story of an American soldier in World War II.  When Briggs was assigned an episodes, he was delighted.  However, when the Art Director suggested that Briggs mimic the style of a popular illustrator of the day, Al Dorne,  Briggs flatly refused:
[The Art Director] told Austin to look over the jobs from the same series Al Dorne had done and for him to get a little of Dorne's stuff in his pictures.  Austin's answer to this was simple and direct, that [the Art Director] had Dorne's telephone number. 


Briggs' illustrations for Look magazine, done without regard for Al Dorne's style 

Despite his stubborn attitude, or perhaps because of it, Briggs became one of the preeminent illustrators in America.

Briggs' wife (left) discusses one of his award winning illustrations with the wife of Al Dorne and the wife of Robert Fawcett at a reception at the Society of Illustrators

Living the lifestyle of a famous illustrator of the time, Briggs built himself a mansion in the hills of Connecticut, with a separate art studio and guest house.

Toward the end of a long and successful career, Briggs was diagnosed with leukemia.  He sold his house and his studio and went to spend his final days living and working in Paris.  

There he married Agnes Fawcett, the widow of illustrator Robert Fawcett (in the picture at the Society of Illustrators, above).

He shared some good moments with local Parisian tradesmen.  Like them, he prided himself in earning a living with his hands.

Most of all, this last period of his life set him free to create pictures any way he liked, with no editors or art directors.

Briggs' new wife, Agnes, at breakfast with flowers

Briggs passed away in 1973.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

A LAST LOOK AT THE BRIGGS ARCHIVE, part 4: hundreds of drawings

Most of Austin Briggs' major drawings-- such as his TV Guide series-- have been reproduced all over the internet, but going through the family archives I found hundreds of spot illustrations and lesser known drawings from his later decades that are rarely seen today.  I'm taking this opportunity to put some of them back in public view.  

As you can tell, the following six spot illustrations from one article are small and relatively inconsequential.  Yet, their quality remains consistently high. 

Briggs also did numerous spot illustrations in ink: 

Briggs' ink drawings tended to be brash and blobby...

But ultimately I think his stronger drawing was done with litho crayon or charcoal:  

There's a wealth of art buried in magazines and publications of the 20th century that may never see the light of day again.  But here at least is a sampling of Austin Brigg's contribution.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020


 Austin Briggs was perhaps the leading proponent of the "new realism" in illustration-- unposed figures in unguarded moments, with all the awkwardness and spontaneity of real life.  

We can find the emergence of this approach in Briggs'  archives.  Briggs began his career drawing idealized figures in traditionally staged pictures.  Like other illustrators of his day, he sought to find the peak moment, the heightened leap, the most dramatic expression.  

By the time he finished eight years of working on Flash Gordon, Briggs had drawn thousands of such pictures and was sick of them.  

By the end of the 1930s he was starved for more authenticity.  We see him beginning to paint figures with their faces turned away from the viewer.  He moved the focal point of the picture from center stage to off screen. 

In the 1940s his compositions were chopping off important body parts altogether.  Scenes were tilted, as if a photograph had been snapped with a hand held camera during a melee:

Faces of main characters disappeared behind angles:

The following unusual illustration of a boy drowning caused a stir when it appeared.  

Briggs also stopped using attractive models, insisting on putting "real people" in his pictures.  On several occasions he was criticized by art directors who pointed out that they were paying him enough so that he could afford real models.  Briggs refused. 

By the late 1950s, we find Briggs' approach in full flower in a distinctive series of drawings.

In the middle of the 20th century, artists began to rebel against the formal, academic staging of art.  They felt that the posing of idealized figures in carefully structured environments was too artificial and distant from reality as we experience it.  Film makers tried to narrow the gap between art and reality with approaches such as cinéma vérité, catching more of spontaneous unfiltered truth of life. In literature, authors such as William Burroughs tried to shake off the historical structure of the novel with nonlinear books.  Burroughs noted that when we walk down the street talking with a friend, the experience is nothing like the experience is conveyed in a traditional novel; our thoughts are interrupted by a barking dog or a honking horn and by the sights we see as they go by, and by our own thoughts about whether our laundry is ready to be picked up.  

Briggs loved avant garde art-- he became a charter member of the Museum of Modern Art when it opened.  So it should not be surprising that he strayed from the academy to experiment with a movement that reexamined realism.  The surprising thing is that, after initial resistance from art directors, he made such a success of it.

In his award winning series of drawings for TV Guide, he drew executives in all kinds of odd and informal positions, scratching themselves, nodding off, smoking, or looking away from the viewer. He said, 

I am attempting to be very truthful about them.  I have not idealized them in any way....John Updike recognized what I was trying to do when he said that in my drawings, "Madison Avenue personnel were captured in all their dapper fatigue." 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020


In the 1930s and 40s, Austin Briggs did a huge number of illustrations for "noir" stories-- dark pictures of hard boiled characters in trench coats and fedoras.  Gun fights under street lights on rain soaked city streets.  Deep shadows and angle shots.

The magazines that published these stories are long gone and their illustrations are unlikely to be reprinted any time soon.  So here is a good selection of images from Austin Briggs' personal files.

Just as "film noir" was traditionally filmed in black and white, black ink drawings with chiaroscuro effects would seem to be the ideal medium for noir stories.  But by 1950 Briggs had graduated to a full fledged painter.  Look how he handled the same gritty urban subject matter using the values and contrast that color afforded him:   

This is an artist who was maturing.