Wednesday, May 30, 2012


In 1928,  F.R. Gruger was so popular that the Saturday Evening Post published a cartoon by another artist about ways "Gruger could guard his famous technique from the hundreds of ambitious young artists who would possess it." 

But Gruger's "famous technique" wasn't all that secret.  Essentially he used pencil on cardboard.  Sometimes he supplemented it with a little wash.  His only protection against imitators was his talent.

Gruger drew on a cheap board that he discovered when he first started out on the staff of a newspaper art department.  Newspaper printers used thin cardboard, called "railroad blank," as a backing for silverprints.  Gruger found stacks of the stuff lying around, and nobody cared how much he used.  He discovered that the soft surface took his pencil well, and he soon began experimenting with an eraser and smearing carbon for special effects. The board later became famous as "Gruger board," in recognition of the miracles that Gruger was able to perform on it.  But many wonderful Gruger originals are no longer with us today because the treacherous Gruger board was so flimsy.

The artist began an illustration with a light pencil drawing on the cardboard. He would sometimes go over this preliminary drawing with a wash made from black watercolor, to block out his tonal composition.  Then he followed up with pencils, starting with a hard pencil and finishing up with a Wolff carbon pencil which produced a "rich, velvety black" that was so often lost in the reproduction process.

Let's see how this approach worked in some close ups from another Gruger original:

“The King’s Minion” by Rafael Sabatini, American Magazine, September 1930

Note how Gruger draws important faces in relatively sharp focus, but then quickly drops back as he pulls away from those focal points.  He indicates surrounding elements such as hands in softer terms so they don't compete with the faces:

Gruger deliberately went back and smudged this hand with an eraser.

By the time Gruger gets to background figures,  they are mostly just shapes added for compositional purposes.

No fingernails here: these hands are a lovely little abstraction.

But for me, the most impressive thing about the way Gruger prioritized his drawing was his control over the value scale. 

That's why it's such a shame that most people only know Gruger for the etiolated images on the inner pages of old magazines.

Gruger drew on cheap board which is already crumbling around the edges, and his completed work was printed on cheap magazine paper which robbed his drawings of their dark and light accents.  Sandwiched between these two limitations, Gruger nevertheless put his heart and talent into 6,000 carbon illustrations. Before his original marks disappear altogether, they deserve an appropriate audience.  


James Gurney said...

The Gruger board was a big improvement over the six-inch-square pieces of tissue paper he used as an artist-reporter to cover the America's Cup Race in 1899. Why such light paper? So that his drawings could appear in the next day's paper in Philadelphia, flying there by carrier pigeon.

David Apatoff said...

James Gurney-- Hah! That's a great story, and one I hadn't heard. When you think of all the ways those illustrators had to compensate for the technical limitations of their day, it's amazing that they were still able to produce work of such quality.

Unknown said...

Is there a nicely reproduced volume of Gruger's work out there? I'd like to get my hands on one if so. I have seen a few of his originals and the draftsmanship is stunning. I heard that he was so adept at drawing the figure and that his memory was so keen that he rarely used models- is that true?

Smurfswacker said...

Greg N: Back when Watson Guptill were publishing collections of Leyendecker, Flagg, Parrish, etc. they issued a book called "F. R. Gruger and his Circle." It was an excellent volume. It boasted plenty of reproductions, though unfortunately many were small. The text was fantastic. Extensively researched, it offered many behind-the-scene glimpses of the period's illustrators. The book seems to have sunk without a trace, which is a shame. I treasure my copy.

Tom said...

Wow nice drawing. The floor plane is awesome. I like the way their shoes rest on it. And you are right about the values David.

chris bennett said...

Tom-- That's a nice observation about the floor plane.

Chris Chena Duarte said...

i really like it

LondonYoung said...

Here are some home movies of F.R. Gruger relaxing around his house. Many other famous illustration artists can be seen visiting him.

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