Tuesday, July 28, 2020


Time puts handcuffs on us all.  Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes bad.  But for certain artists, time creates a special challenge.

In the 17th century, the great poet John Milton went blind at age 44.  He lamented that he had been robbed of the time necessary to fulfill his god-given talents:
When I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account...
The English illustrator Raymond Sheppard was diagnosed with cancer around age 33.

As a boy, Sheppard had won several prizes for his drawing ability.  He worked diligently to become an artist, spending countless hours at London zoos learning to draw the birds and animals he loved.

Sheppard became a successful illustrator at a relatively young age.  (A wider variety of his illustration art can be viewed on line at his gallery.) In addition to magazine and book illustrations, he was commissioned to create a book on How to Draw Birds (1940) which became an international classic, as well as Drawing at the Zoo (1949) and More Birds to Draw (1956).  But his cancer put Sheppard in a race against time and he lost that race in 1958, at the age of 45.

I would like to say two things about Raymond Sheppard.

First, even though he was running out of time, Sheppard refused to take short cuts. For years he fought the pain of cancer and the dulling effects of morphine, steering a course between scylla and charybdis, trying to make sure that his drawings turned out as well as he could possibly make them.  It would have been so easy to cut corners with a faster, looser style but Sheppard would have none of it.  I spoke with his daughter Christine who recalled that her father was "not a satisfied artist.  I witnessed his angst.  He'd say, 'No, that's not quite right, I haven't got that right."  It's difficult to maintain high standards even when you have a long life ahead of you.  When you are mortally ill, each decision to go back and "do it better" comes with a dearer price.  

Second, Sheppard realized that the job of art is to rise above realistic details and find the poetry in your subject.  Making hyper-realistic drawings might've served as a helpful diversion from cancer, but Sheppard wasn't interested in diversions, or mindless copying from nature.  He wrote, "When you look at a bird your eye is full of a lot of really unimportant details.... It takes quite a lot of study to be able to see properly, and quickly too, the important shapes and main lines of rhythm of a pose."   He criticized "those awfully boring and tedious sort of 'feathered maps'... looking as flat as pancakes in natural history books."  

A baby rhinoceros sleeping in the straw 

Sheppard was robbed by time, but he responded like a true artist. 

Friday, July 17, 2020


I love this drawing by British illustrator Raymond Sheppard (1913-1958) who was famous for his brilliant pictures of birds and animals. 

Sheppard wrote and illustrated several books on how to draw wildlife.  He honed his skills drawing at the London zoo, where his keen powers of observation enabled him to capture the special characteristics of everything from airy feathered creatures to rolls of fat on lumbering ungulates.

Note in the following detail how Sheppard follows the line of this hippo's spine to show us that there is a skeletal structure somewhere within this mountain of lard.  Also observe how that single leg props up his bulk as fat cascades over the top. 

I've never seen a better drawing of a hippopotamus.

In the following detail, we see Sheppard capture that ponderous head pressed against the ground. All the muscle and bone piled up behind him have collapsed in a jumble, giving up trying to keep that head aloft.

Sheppard achieves what photography can't do.  He clearly loved animals, and this love, combined with patience and a keen eye, reveals what's happening both inside and out of this hippo.

In my view, this is what on-the-site, observational drawing is all about.

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.