Saturday, September 09, 2006


When I was younger (and dumber) I didn't pay much attention to illustrations of cars.  Sure, the illustrators had great skill, but I viewed them as technical specialists rather than true creative artists. If there was ever a subject matter that cried out for photography, it had to be cars.

I began to pay closer attention when I realized that some of the best illustrators of the day-- Austin Briggs, Fred Ludekens and Robert Fawcett-- were doing car illustrations. But my eyes weren't fully opened until the day I heard the illustrator Bernie Fuchs discuss car illustrations the way a poet might rhapsodize about a flower.

Today Fuchs is famous for his lush, impressionistic paintings, but in the 1950s he worked in a Detroit studio painting car advertisements (including these).  He worked closely with car painters and still holds them in the highest regard. He recalls one car illustrator as "a great observer of light and color" and another illustrator as "terrific at painting values using payne's gray. He was able to create sunsets reflected in the side of a car, or a sky reflected in the hood."

Fuchs reserved special praise for the work of Ben Jaroslaw, the illustrator who worked on the car paintings reproduced here. Fuchs admired Jaroslaw's talent and high standards. He credits Jaroslaw with showing him the ropes and helping him develop into the artist Fuchs later became.

Photography made car illustration obsolete in the 1960s. However, it will not surprise you that many years later, the fine art community suddenly recognized the beauty and abstract qualities of realistic car paintings when "fine" artists such as Richard Estes began painting cars for upscale galleries and museums:

All it took to transform car painting from despised commercial art to revered fine art was to move the picture from the pages of the Saturday Evening Post to the walls of a museum and hang it in an impressive frame. does not mention Ben Jaroslaw, but it does heap praise on Estes:

Richard Estes is a god among artists today, with legions of followers acknowledged and unacknowledged, aspiring to his masterly style (and few, if any succeeding) and decades of lofty prices in the commercial market place also attesting to his preeminence.
In my view, Richard Estes is not as talented as Ben Jaroslaw, but Estes became independently wealthy because he had the good sense to package his art properly and sell to a less discriminating market.


spacejack said...

I must say, I'm not really liking the Richard Estes piece. I hate to slag any artist who manages to become a success, but compared to the Jaroslaw pieces, it looks like a boring photograph.

Granted, I'm sure I'd get more out of it looking at it in person, but at that size it's not nearly as interesting as the Jaroslaw ones.

Anyway, the thing that I think makes Jaroslaw's pieces work are the unsung heroes: the people. The cars are certainly the main attraction and you examine their shiny chrome first (precisely as the advertisers wanted, no doubt) but the people are essential to making these illustrations 'transcend the genre' (so to speak.)

Like with the Sicles drawings, I had great fun examining the figures and looking at what each one was doing. My favourite is the old guy in the first illustration, sitting in front of the playouse, watching the busy activity of the youngsters going on around him.

Justin said...

I completley agree with Spacejack.

I too hadn't even considered the technical skill it must take to do car illustrations... I always thought "too much tech to bother with." Which is Ironic in a way, because I spend so much time on the school bus looking at how light and color reflect off of cars, I never even stopped to consider how difficult it must be to actually render it out in paint.

Thank you Dave for another engaging article!

Hilus Anendorf said...

A few years ago i had to paint a car, and i was feeling so upset, but had to do it anyway. To my surprise, i soon became fascinated with all the lights, colors, reflects and abstract lines yuxtaposing each other. Never painted a car again, but that experience was fantastic! (And a very good exercise, in a "zen" way)

David Apatoff said...

Spacejack, I agree with you about Estes. I think he is a strong, meticulous painter but I don't think he has the basic talent that Jaroslaw had. Jaroslaw worked faster under more primitive technological conditions, achieved a better result and was paid less for it. As for the figures you like, Fuchs and Jaroslaw conspired together to put cars in real life situations and they carefully plotted those figures. In doing so, they transformed the nature of car advertising in the 1950s.

Anonymous said...

Vast majority od artists who has really mastered the basics - and 90% of the museum artists has not (most likely they have heard terms like pictorial composition, color theory, design, chroma, value, shapes etc, but they have not bother to master it) SHOULD be able to paint in photorealistic manner (if they want). It is not that hard, however it is much more hard to infuse such paintings with that elusive substance which divides Art from technical rendering.
In art, developed skills (as well as good taste and other things) is absolutely necessary ingredient, but it is a tool, not the goal in itself.
Besides, PAINTERLY realism (even tightly painted realism) is different than photo realism.

For those reasons I prefer people like Jaroslaw (and numerous others) over Estes, Close and the army of virtuoso renderers lacking soul.

Hilus Anendorf said...

Indeed. Hipperrealism wants to MIMIC reality, wants to confuse the viewer into thinking he's viewing a photo.That's its main goal.

Painterly realism? mmm, Take for example "Las Meninas". From a distance, its almost 3D, the textures, faces and light soooo real. But as you gets closer and closer, all that amazing "reality" begins to disolve into a "madness" of so freely, abstract, "Pollockian" brushstrokes.

Anonymous said...

Those cars are beautiful. I love the tradional 40s-50s illustration look of his work. Very hard to do. Everything can't be ground breaking and experimental. That guy was a genius at what he did.

RJ said...

I met Ben Jaroslaw back in 1980. I had just graduated from Detroit's Center [now College] for Creative Studies, with a BFA in illustration. Ben was the owner of Art Staff, one of the premiere commercial art studios in Detroit at that time. I was interviewing for a job as a staff illustrator; unfortunately, I did not get the job, but Ben was very gracious and gave me a lot of encouragement. Fortunately, I was hired in short order by another major studio in Detroit, McNamara Associates, where I worked for eight years.

For a number of years, decades ago, Detroit was one of the most important cities for commercial illustration. Unfortunately, by the time I got into the business, the heyday of illustration in Detroit had already passed. However, I was fortunate to get into the scene before it totally dried up, and had the opportunity to work with many great artists. I heard many stories about things "back in the old days", from guys who were there.

I was able to sustain a career as an illustrator in Detroit for over twenty years, but the scene in Detroit was in a slow, steady decline. I had some great times, but after twenty years I decided I had had enough. I am now a high school art teacher, teaching drawing and painting, in my seventh year of teaching. I really enjoy working with my students, and have a lot of fun sharing tales of working in the illustration biz in Detroit "back in the day".

Debra Cross said...

Thats my great uncle Ben!
His talent is mind-bogling! said...

for David Apatoff:
David, I have been searching these Oldsmobile paintings and their origins and came upon your blog today. My father was the national sales manager for Oldsmobile in the 50's, and I have all the original paintings for the illustrations in your blog, the little theatre with the Fiesta wagon,the baseball game, the golf tournament,as well as the painting on the cover of the Taschen book "theGolden Age of Advertising"( the grey '98 with the ocean in the background) as well as one of a modern house at night with a naval officer, all of which I have seen over the years in books and illustrations. I am facinated to know of Ben Jaroslaw and Bernie Fuchs and am interested to know more.

Smurfswacker said...

Damn, those paintings are beautiful! Someone mentioned the people--I wonder if these paintings used a team of car and background specialists, like the Art Fitzpatrick / Van Kaufman team that did those incredible Pontiac Ads.

Anonymous said...

I remember watching and admiring my uncle Ben Jaroslaw create these ads with colored markung pens in his office at his home in Birmingham in the 1950’s. R.I.P. UNCLE Benny!