Tuesday, September 22, 2020


Legendary animator Richard Williams chased his masterpiece, The Thief and The Cobbler, the way Captain Ahab chased Moby Dick.  "The path to my fixed purpose," cried Ahab, "is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run."  Neither man could swerve from the rails which led ineluctably to their fate. 

The story of Williams' obsession with his film has been well documented elsewhere.  For 24 years, from 1968 to 1992, Williams exhausted one backer after another (including a Saudi prince) in his heartbreaking pursuit of perfection.  He spent 14 years on the first ten minutes of film alone, reported to cost about $31 million (adjusting for inflation).  But what an astonishing ten minutes they were.

To scratch together funding for his project, Williams had to spend much of his time on commercial assignments and negotiating with lawyers and bankers.  Ultimately the film was taken out of his hands.  To cut their losses, Warner Brothers and a financing company sold the pieces to Miramax, which re-cut them and released the movie in a simplified form as Arabian Knight

Before he died, Williams said, "What have I got if I haven't got those awards? I've got nothing; I've got the building and the staff that's in it. And an unmade picture." 

I'd disagree with Williams' valuation of his assets.  

These are some of the preliminary drawings that Williams made over the years as he was working on his masterpiece.

In them, you can see him teasing out the designs and shapes that would later be incorporated in his animated film.

These small drawings are miles from the corporate funded and globally distributed artwork that Williams wanted.  On the other hand, they're also miles away from bankers and lawyers.  The time he spent doing them, and the talents he summoned to create them, had to be more artistically satisfying than the time and talents he spent with corporate backers.   

I'd say that these building blocks of design are a whole lot more than "nothing."  Their perfections are different from the perfections of an animated feature film, but as the great Walt Whitman instructed us, "I do not call one greater and one smaller, that which fills its period and place is equal to any."

Thursday, September 10, 2020


My current column for The Saturday Evening Post is about Robert Fawcett, the outspoken illustrator who didn't hesitate to offend clients when he felt it was necessary to protect a picture.

For example, when a client instructed Fawcett on how to change this illustration, he refused.
Fawcett believed the client's changes would degrade the picture, and rather than sell a bad picture with his name on it, Fawcett gave up the assignment and kept his illustration. 

Similarly, when an art editor instructed Mead Schaeffer on how a picture should look, Schaeffer sent this reply: 
Artists fight for many things-- money, credit, returned originals, status, copyrights-- but as I study the history of illustration, I'm repeatedly struck by the way some of the best illustrators fought for a picture. 

Austin Briggs destroyed his finished cover for The Saturday Evening Post right in front of the art director rather than make a change he considered racist. 

When the young Bernie Fuchs started out, a client rejected his finished painting of a car.  He threw Fuchs' painting on the floor and called Fuchs a "prima donna" because Fuchs tried an approach which strayed from official corporate policy. 

It was once considered heresy to illustrate a car in the shadows, or with an obstructed view, or at an odd angle.  Clients expected a sharp, well lit product center stage.  Fuchs fought to sell cars using mood and lifestyle. 
A few years later that same client was standing in line with others, begging for Fuchs' services.  One of Fuchs' co-workers from that era gleefully recalled, "All the local art directors kept calling up saying, I want Bernie! I want Bernie! But Bernie got tired of doing pictures of people holding drinks and just said, 'shove it.'"  He quit his by then lucrative commercial art studio and moved out of town to take a chance on free lance assignments that gave him more freedom.

Cartoonist Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, famously took a stand against his own syndicate, turning down what he called "trainloads of money" in order to protect his creation from merchandising.  During the conflict, Watterson discovered there were very few precedents on his side: "When cartoonists fight their syndicates it's usually to make more money, not less."
One common theme to all these stories is that the illustrator had to be prepared to take a significant financial hit.  As Robert Fawcett lectured his fellow illustrators (as offensively as possible): 
It should be the aim of every illustrator to withstand the tendency of publications to force his work into a mold, to make him conform to an accepted pattern. This is a difficult thing to do — the financial rewards of conforming are great.... We must be ready to refuse work unless it allows us to conform in some degree to standards that we ourselves set....
Where did this strength come from?  

It's not as if these artists didn't need the money.  Most of them started out desperate for work and would say or do almost anything to get assignments.  In order to understand the measure of their  courage you have to understand how they scratched and clawed for those early commissions.

Mead Schaeffer got his first major assignment by furtively poking around the desk of the art editor at publisher Dodd, Mead.  Schaeffer spotted a manuscript for Moby Dick lying on the desk and volunteered for the job. The art editor explained that he was just about to call illustrator N. C. Wyeth with the assignment.  Schaeffer blocked him and offered to work for free:
 I suggested the following plan. If he would let me have the manuscript I would start at once on a dummy for the salesman. This would include three full-page color illustrations, frontispiece, and papers and jacket. If any one of the staff did not like the work or feel I could not do the finished work, all bets would be off and they would owe me nothing. 
Mr. Chase [the art director] was a little startled, told me to wait, that he must speak to the president Frank Dodd. I waited what seemed like hours until he returned with the boss. He warned me about the cost, that this was a very important assignment but that they would take a chance. I floated out onto the street clutching the precious manuscript so tight that even Sam Huff would have trouble getting it from me. Took subway uptown to 101st, ran up six flights of stairs yelling to [his new wife] “look what I got.” That night we sat up making plans.
Yet, this is the same Mead Schaeffer who told an art editor "stuff this" when the art editor tried to dictate the creative decisions in an illustration.

At first I wondered how such hungry, desperate artists ever transformed themselves into such confident, arrogant artists.  With time I came to realize that there was no inconsistency.  They might not fight over money or copyrights, but they found the courage to fight over what was more important to them.  Illustrator Bob Heindel explained it to me when talking about his friend, Bernie Fuchs:
I know Bernie has tried to choose his assignments, and I know he has done some work he is not so proud of....That's how you learn. But you learn to protect yourself, and mostly if you care about it you learn to protect your work. Bernie was always very protective of his ability. Not that he was vain-- quite the contrary. But he knew what he had. And he always wanted the opportunity to do his very best.
All of the artists I've discussed here had something to protect.  The only reason we know that today is because they protected it.