Monday, November 16, 2009


Bob Peak started out in the 1950s as just one of many young, capable illustrators.

But in the 1960s, Peak caught fire and began turning out radically different work. His line work had roots in the Viennese Secessionist movement (particularly Schiele and Klimt) and in the great Rene Bouche, but Peak's hot, fluorescent color combinations were unprecedented; his extreme angles, cinematic style, and space age dynamism were blazingly original.

Nobody else was doing work like this at the time.

Peak's work was "radical" in the truest sense of the word (defined as "going to the root or source.") Note in the following unpublished picture how Peak is not merely fine tuning details-- instead, he goes all the way back to the simplest most fundamental questions of design, composition and color and comes up with a striking result.

Literally, a "revolution" occurs when something completes a full cycle and returns to its starting place.

Peak's salad days in the 1960s were a remarkable, vibrant period, but he was too hot not to cool down. As Peak matured, he remained commercially successful but his innovations came fewer and farther between. He had a lucrative career making movie posters that seem to me to be repetitive and uninspired, the type of art that might be sold on vacation cruise ships.

Even if Peak's innovative period was not sustainable, there was a moment when he found the voice for his time and place. That was enough to establish a legacy that can't be taken away.


Rob Howard said...

Peak was perfect for the time. Modern graphic design was literally being born (or reborn) with incredible vigor and the melding of influences as diverse as Hans Hoffmann's "pull-push," with radical breakthroughs in typography and new colors (fluorescents were still quite new) and, as you point out, Secessionist holding lines all culiminated in Bob Peak.

Aside from being able to walk the walk, he actually looked like what we though a successful illustrator should look like...he came from Central Casting.

I hadn't seen that pieces of the kissing faces and it's astounding.

Antonio said...

I had no idea he had done those movie posters...never would have guessed it.

Love the cheerleaders, the girl with the gun (great strokes on the background). But those traces of klimt/schiele in those fashion (?) illustrations with the pedantic young rich guys can't save the whole thing from gag reflex...that kind of line was never meant to delineate the shape of assholes :)

Oh, and the american footballers, the jockey, and the kiss, all great stuff. Thanks David for another great post.


Juan Álvaro said...

And the jockey is just great. It reminds me some of Steadman's stuff, with such fierceness.
Astounding the shooter too.

Unknown said...

An amazing talent. His portfolio was always a source of inspiration for me. His early movie posters (Camelot, My Fair Lady, Funny Girl) were exquisite. That "unpublished kiss"!

Anonymous said...

Such a great illustrator. I always loved his superman the movie poster (biased in part because its an all time favorite of mine).
My sister in law let me go through her albums to take what I wanted, and she had Funny Girl. I had to take it just for the cover.

Wynne Reynolds said...

Wow, David thanks.

I recognize Peak's drawing style in ads from my youth. What a blast from the past. But I wouldn't have know it was the same illustrator from the movie posters. Although now that I look, the Kirk definitely resembles his earlier work.

Although his works may seem to have drifted into cruise ship art range, I consider the taste of the times. It is very 1980s as his earlier work feels very 70s. Perhaps he wasn't pushing the envelope anymore but he was still pleasing his clients. (as I think he did early on as well ie the Old Hickory ad)

I remember loving The Search for Spock poster when I first saw it. (Bias for Star Trek noted) And now find Peak did Funny Girl et al. My illustrator knowledge is poor at best, but am making up for lost time with all the new blogs I am getting.

Keep 'em coming.

kev ferrara said...

No doubt Peak was really attuned to the 1960s and near the forefront of its style, along with some of his compatriots. But he was certainly helped by the fact that the 1960s had definable styles.

A case can be made that the cultural psychology of the 1970s was so fragmented, that in some ways, it had no particular style at all. It was schizo and gonzo.

In that sense, I think Peak kept with the times to the degree it was possible (and ended up being a darn good player in the grand scheme of things.)

For instance, if we look at his Penny Serenade work in comparison to Missouri Breaks in comparison to Rollerball... there are three of the major cultural themes of the 1970s... Nostalgic Fantasy, Wild let-it-all-hang out existentialism, and Distopian Sci-Fi. And each of those posters is done in a style that suits the idea.

And a lot of the techniques Peak abused elsewhere (as you illustrate in your post), were perfectly used in his classic Apocalypse Now poster.

If you think about how difficult it is to "renew" realism and keep it exciting, graphic and fresh without losing integrity, his Apocalypse poster is really an amazing achievement. It is as iconic as anything from that cultural moment and one of the very very few mainstream (rather than fantasy) illustrations from that late 70s era to have a cultural impact. Maybe, in retrospect, that poster was the last time mainstream illustration had such an impact. (The Struzan Indiana Jones Poster and the E.T. Poster, seem like the point at which fantasy took over the mainstream.)

Having said that, I agree that Peak's take on things seemed out of tune with the suddenly formal let's-all-button-it-back-down-and
invent-some-software 1980s.

jonnyspace said...

Excellent post, I enjoy this style of illustration.

David Apatoff said...

Kev, I agree that Peak worked on posters for some of the most significant movies in later eras, and I would not dispute that his style for those posters was more appropriate for their era than a recycled 1960s image would have been. My problem with Peak's later work is that he seemed to have lost that exciting creative spark where each new picture was an adventure. In the earlier work I posted, Peak seemd to throw out the rule book and start from scratch. In the later work he seemed to return again and again to a series of tired, often corny solutions that (in my view) weren't very impressive to begin with. I think his diffracted light gimmick (one of his favorites) had none of the juice of his earlier work. Same with that rainbow device. And I think that his recurring wet media look did not produce results with nearly the same commitment or integrity as his earlier work.

(In fairness, I think movie work, which was fabulously lucrative, came with a ton of restrictions from Hollywood about the size of the faces and the priorities of the different actors, etc.)

If you look at one of Peak's Sports Illustrated projects from the 1960s, you might see 6 different illustrations with 6 dramatically different approaches employing different media and effects. Peak seemeed to be an overflowing fountain of creativity. In the last decades of his career you might see a single (less innovative) approach stretched out over 6 assignments. But hey, nobody could be expected to keep up Peak's original pace forever.

PS-- when you refer to the Apocalypse Now poster, do you mean the red one with helicopters or the black one with Brando's face?

David Apatoff said...

Rob-- that kissing faces picture has never seen the light of day before. My friends at Illustration House found a small cache of Peak's designs and preliminary studies when he was toying with different approaches in the 60s. Nice stuff.

Antonio-- not only were Peak's fashion drawings (for Puritan) of "young rich assholes" but the clothing he was drawing was made of polyester! One of the Peak's accomplishments was that he could draw an ad for shoes or polyester shirts or tennis rackets and not be diminished by the product. Instead, his approach bestowed class and vitality on the product. I have about a dozen of those Puritan clothing images-- purple skin with blue hair, wild 60s lettering-- and they are great. If an artist is good enough, he can run rampant through ads for polyester shirts.

Juan and Tony-- thanks!

LCG-- I agree with you about Peak's early movie posters; they were beautiful, especially the three you mention. (I wrote about that great Camelot poster in an earlier blog post.) It seems to me that he lost a lot of that in the 1970s.

David Apatoff said...

Wynne, for me going through piles of old images is like going through Ali Baba's cave. There is so much richness, so much talent and creativity and hard work of the past gathering dust. I am just like you: "My illustrator knowledge is poor at best, but am making up for lost time." There seems to be an endless supply of undiscovered and under appreciated artists out there.

Johnnyspace-- thanks very much!

MORAN said...

I agree that Peak went downhill but you are the first person I've ever heard say it out loud. Not sure if that's good or bad. I thought we were all supposed to pretend that his later work was good. That kissing picture is amazing though even by today's standards.

kev ferrara said...

The Apocalypse Now poster I was talking about was the American 1 sheet (I guess that would be the red one.) which several of my friends had up on their walls. Although I think all his work for that film is classic, making for great foreign posters (Although I didn't see any of the foreign versions until recently)

I guess I just can't agree that his later stuff is de facto weak. I certainly agree that his Excalibur poster is about as bad as a thing can get.... like he tried to airbrush his way out of a lack of an idea. And, yeah, his diamond-diffraction technique is, as the saying goes, "pure cheese".

But, a lot of his stuff from the 60s is also cheese... well, in my opinion anyway. And boatloads of his 70s stuff is great.

I just took a look at the "official" website and did a quick online search... and when I compare, say, his Giants of Jazz pieces from 1980 or so, with his 60s ads for hats, it looks to me like the difference between a fine artist and fashion illustrator.

I don't say that idly... I don't know if you've ever looked through old AD annuals from the 1950s but Peak's peak 60s style really looks similar to early 50s fashion illustration, especially the Charles Gruen-Merle Bassett Neiman Marcus ads. And there was so much rough-lined realism already going on.

Whereas his stuff from the later 60s, when he starts incorporating more psychedelic abstract elements (Glaser influence?) seems to me more original. (That's about the time that his signature starts getting more free and wild too.)

kenmeyerjr said...

Oh of my heroes...I even did a comic cover paying homage to and aping the painting for Apocalypse Now (you can see it at I pored over every Peak image I could posters, TV guide covers, magazine illos...virtually every image was magical. Heck, David, I haven't even read the blog yet!

Unknown said...

<<I wrote about that great Camelot poster in an earlier blog post.<<

That's a great post ...thanks for pointing me to it. It does look like he had fun with that hair. The exploring that Peak did with his flat color work has that fun feeling; whether it's playing with flowing lines or the juxtaposition of color, it looks exciting and like he had fun. For my eye, too, that element is missing in his later more rendered, 3-D work.

Lefteris C said...

Those 60s illustrations are brilliant. The Winston tobacco ad reminds me of some of Toulouse Lautrec's work for posters. I am sad that the Excalibur piece lacks that same vitality, what with the actual film being one of my favorites in the genre. Although the film itself does use the "shiny" effect a lot!

Douglas Ferreira said...

I allready knew his work,but I didn't know about the Star Trek poster.Beeing a Trekker I admire that poster ever since I was a Kid!
Good to know it was Bob's.

norman said...

i wouldn't define his linework as secessionist, aside from them both drawing with charcoal. i think it's a crib from fashion illustration. after interviewing several elderly illustrators from that era, it seems to me that jack potter was the one that introduced a looser, exaggerated, drawing style similar to that used by 50s fashion illustrators.

peak pushed it along even further with pop art color and cinema cropping.

he seems to be getting a lot of flack for his later work, but i would the blame for this on how horribly art directed the industry became by this time. often in the 60s you didn't even have to submit a comp for an assignment. there was much less of a guiding hand in the glory days.

great post!

David Apatoff said...

Norman, as they sang in the Sound of Music, "Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could..." I agree with you that Jack Potter was an influential contemporary of Peak's; I also agree that both Peak and Potter learned lessons from great fashion illustrators (such as Rene Bouche and Eric). Call it timing, call it a lucky pitch, but for me, Peak is the one who tore the cover off the ball.

As for the similarity between Peak and the secessionist style, there is one comparison here but it is not difficult to find other examples where he directly lifted elements from Klimt paintings-- Klimt's curly symbols on gold backgrounds, for example-- or where he used that spartan Schiele line to great effect.

Finally, you make an interesting point about the art direction. I have heard (but do not know for a fact) that the quid pro quo of working for Hollywood was that you worked in a straightjacket created by publicity agents, movie star contracts and backers. On the other hand, some of the best work done by Peak and others in the 1960s was done for the celebrated art director Richard Gangel at Sports Illustrated, who really kicked illustrators in the butt to motivate them to stretch and experiment.

David Apatoff said...

Kev, I didn't mean to suggest that everything Peak did before 1970 was great and everything he did after was terrible. Obviously Peak was a talented guy and he continued to have bursts of inspiration. For example, I think his 1975 Time covers of Mother Teresa and King Faisal were great and I do like his Apocalypse Now poster. But I have not seen the "boatloads of his 70s stuff" that I would consider great, and by the time the 70s ended I think there was just no comparison. He couldn't put down that diamond-diffraction style, perhaps (as Norman has suggested) because that's what his art directors wanted. Hey, if he'd found a winning formula, why change?

I do agree with you about those ads for hats, which I think were mostly done before he hit his stride. But I will say this on behalf of his less successful art from the '60s: when he missed, it seemed to be because some new experiment didn't work out-- he pushed it too far, or it required further development. But at least they seemed fun and adventuresome and loose. For me, his less successful work from at least the mid 1970s on was largely because he was being repetitive and conservative. I tend to give more credit to failures that result from too much courage than failures that result from not enough.

David Apatoff said...

Kenmeyerjr-- "Heck, David, I haven't even read the blog yet!"
Ken, as with many of these posts, if you've looked at the pictures you've seen the important part.

LCG-- I agree completely about that "fun," exciting element. You can really tell the difference.

Lefteris, If Peak had limited that "shiny" technique to Excalibur I would overlook it. Unfortunately, it seemed to become his trademark.

Douglas, there is no point talking with a Trekker about any artwork related to Star Trek. The subject matter magically seems to take over their otherwise astute critical! faculties.

Anonymous said...

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Josh (musarter) said...

I agree with you for the most part. Although I will add that his later work was rendered well and pretty, but as you said uninspired.

The composition is amazing on the earlier work. I think his most impressive and inspiring work are all the pieces that imply movement (girl w/ shotgun, jockey, cheerleaders, and the kiss).

By the way, thank you so much for sharing the "kiss" piece. Sometimes great concepts never see the light of day. Regretfully this usually happens for business and/or legal reasons. That is part of the tragedy of working as an illustrator.

David Apatoff said...

123 123-- thank you so much for sharing the link to your escort service with us. Somehow, it redeems my faith in humanity that predatory animals who traffic in the flesh of young and vulnerable women nevertheless have a sincere interest in reading more about the artwork of Bob Peak. If you go to Peak's official website,, they have reprinted a couple of articles which you might enjoy. And of course, Illustration Magazine devoted a full issue to Peak. After you have had a chance to review these materials, I hope you will come back and share your views on how Peak's work from the 1960s compares with his later work.

kev ferrara said...

Well, I guess I can agree that the 3 bad late peak pictures you show were worse than anything he did in the 60s.

The 60s stuff has a certain amount of reckless freedom that is undeniable... without sacrificing integrity of line.

And there certainly is some kind of 1900 feel going on... Vuillard's loose yet strict patterning as well as Klimt's. Hard to know as surely that Schiele was an influence, because so much rough linework was already going on.

Anyhow, Peak's tipping point from freedom of line to something else does seem to stem directly from his changing workload between the 60s and 70s. He certainly did less work in the 1970s, (I didn't say the loaded boats had to be ocean liners)...

Whereas line was the mainstay of his 60s work, with form barely a consideration, I think -- just guessing here -- part of what happened to him in the 70s is that with these bigger commissions for movie posters, he had to address form more than line. He had to make more volumetric works.

And to try to be as innovative with form as line, yet still remain realistic is about as hard a thing as an artist can attempt. (I can count on one hand the great innovators in form who retained integrity) This may be why Peak took up the airbrush and frisket... he was looking for a "free" way to get some volume into his work.

The problem of course is that the airbrush gives the artist freedom, but is very prone to deadness, like photoshop blur effects. Airbrushes tend not to have an innately expressive aspect. It is very difficult to get serendipity working on your side with an airbrush. At the same time, airbrush lacks that physical touch of mark-making.

Yeah, its all the airbrush's fault.

StimmeDesHerzens said...

lieber D~ now this comes from the last post but...its not breaking the rules right?.
Re:"Rob, Einbildungskraft, Wynne and others: well, this discussion surely earns the trophy as the most coprologic yet. I generally steer clear of excrement as a rhetorical device..." HOW you make me laugh, you lovable thing! Now, I will have to look up 'coprologic' for the vocab lesson of the day.
Re: the springtime of Bob Peak. I just love the 'unpublished picture' OR 'kissing faces picture'... fabulous. I ditto Wynne's "wow."
Re: "I am just like you: "My illustrator knowledge is poor at best, but am making up for lost time."
ok the second part is surely true (fortuitously for us), but not the first...
gEschoenes Wochenende!

StimmeDesHerzens said...

Re: the word coprologic
ok, its not in the paperback edition of the Oxford disctionary. (coppice,copse,copulate!)
Did you make it up? Now I will go to my HUGE antique "Webster's New International Dictionary" 1920 which belonged to my grandfather when he was at Princeton.
copra-dried coconut meat
copraemia-blood poisoning due to retention of feces (!)
copro- greek--for dung, excrement
coprology-to collect dung; A collection of ordure;--also used fig. of filthy literature or art.

really David. Amazing!

David Apatoff said...

Josh-- thanks for your comment; I certainly agree with you about those early compositions. I think one of the highest uses for blogs such as this is to circulate high resolution images from originals, especially ones that have never been published, so that people can see and evaluate the talent of these artists up close.

Einbildungskraft / Beth-- if you start paying close attention to the things I write on this blog, you're going to force me to do the same, and then where would we be?

Anonymous said...

You are a tough critic. I'd hate to have you passing judgment on my work, but you are also very honest.

Valentino said...

I wouldn't say that David is a particularly harsh critic. I follow this blog for a long time (it is on my Top 10 list) and IMO, he is just a keen observer and says things as they are.

Sure, every judgment is subjective, but I have to confess that my views on art and artists are very similar to David's and
that (*) is the reason why I follow this blog.

(*) - that and, of course, the opportunity to read about both my fav illustrators and masters with which I may not be too familiar.

Rob Howard said...

>>>You are a tough critic. I'd hate to have you passing judgment on my work,<<<

You should steer clear of professional art buyers like pro art directors who are familiar with the printing process and marketing. because they are paying, they feel justified in pointing out flaws in a less than gentle manner and then tell you to fix them in two hours or forfeit the money.

That's a little too harsh for the more poetic souls.

william wray said...

Some of the Peak poster work were definitely a mushy combination of air brush and pastel, a gross combination of media he was using (I'm guessing) to save time and get it done when he didn't care. I blame the art directors and clients for killing his sprit on the later work. The old adage of never show the weakest rough as the client will pick it. I look forward to the book being put together on him. I hope they concentrate on the Peak, Peak. He did a lot of great TV guide covers I don't see often.

theory_of_me said...

Rob Howard: "You should steer clear of professional art buyers like pro art directors who are familiar with the printing process and marketing."

Yes, definitely steer clear of people like that. You don't want greedy assholes affecting your aesthetic sensibilities.

David Apatoff said...

William Wray-- I'm with you on the relative merits of his early and later work. As for why he changed, it could be that art directors and clients killed his spirit, or perhaps he just ran out of juice. That level of intensity must be hard to sustain.

Caroline said...

It's fascinating to see his progression through time. Thanks for the post!

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Matthew Joseph Peak said...

Hi, Nice to see this post on my late father! For those who would have an interest...I have started a new OFFICIAL BOB PEAK site with lrg pics with correct color. Plus I'm including project info and video clips.

Also an online gallery that carries his original work (and others)

If anyone has any questions about my dad, shoot me an email (I was his apprentice too), Matthew Joseph Peak

Wayne McLennan said...

So glad to see this ongoing discussion of Bob Peak's work and his contribution to con teibution to the evolution of commercial art. I am a fan of his style in the 1960s and have been a collector from that era. Love the purity of line and the play with psychedelic and complementary colours. I would like to add that he may have been influenced by the 1960s fashion illustration work of the great Antonio Lopez as well. Check out his 1960s illustrative work.

Hans Christian Brando said...

If only today's advertising artwork had this kind of class, color, and artistry. And the movie posters (except "Mame," which is Peak not at his peak)!