Thursday, April 20, 2006

Peak at the plate

By 1967 Bob Peak was well past being the hot young newcomer who had turned the commercial art world on its ear. He had already been named "Artist of the Year" by the Artists Guild of New York in 1961 and would be elected to the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame just 10 years after this piece appeared in Boy's Life in April of 1967.

Walt Reed's Illustrator in America tells us that Peak had decided early on to stop looking at the work of other artists and focus on thoughtful experimentation from his own unique point of view. Pieces like the one above were the result and subsequently brought him unprecedented success - and countless imitators.

You can see this illustration at full size in my Bob Peak Flickr set.


  1. Interesting post, Leif. Peak was quite the comet, streaking across the firmament of American illustration in the '60s. I'm accustomed to seeing his sizzling hot advertisements and illustrations for women's magazines and movie posters, but I'm not sure I would have picked him to illustrate an Americana theme like baseball. Leave it to you to locate the most obscure illustrations and educate us all!

    When the Famous Artists School went looking for younger illustrators in 1965 to make their training materials more relevant, the rumor is that Austin Briggs and perhaps other senior illustrators were opposed to letting Peak join. They apparently felt that sometimes he was too much flash and not enough substance. If you strip away the special effects in the background of this illustration and focus on the drawing, you can see what they meant.

  2. Thanks David - but I have to argue that perhaps Briggs ( and you ) rushed to judgement: after all, if we "strip away the special effects in the background of this illustration" we'd be left with half an illustration, wouldn't we? And it was exactly these new approaches that Peak was experimenting with that made his work relevant to the audience of the time while the Famous Artist School artists became increasingly irrelevant.

    Interestingly, the same old school snobberey was repeated in the 80's when a diverse group of new-wave illustrators including the likes of Lou Brooks and Sue Coe were denied entrance to the Society of Illustrators. The old boys felt these kids' styles lacked substance and were all flash...

    The younger group's solution was to form their own "society", publish their own annual and in short order they became the darlings of art directors across the land.

    Within a couple of years they had all been admitted to the Society of Illustrators and were winning top prizes.

    Same as it ever was.

  3. Fair point, Leif. It's a tough judgment to make. There are some artists, like (in my opinion) the comic artist Jim Steranko who make a name for themselves with visual pyrotechnics but who simply don't draw very well. They divert the attention of the audience with flashing lights and distracting noises (an old conjurer's trick) so the fans don't notice that the perspective and anatomy are off and the linework is hackneyed.

    I don't think Peak is in the same category as Steranko-- when Peak was good he was absolutely superb--especially his drawing. For me, he's a little more like the artist Jeff Jones. I think Jones' best work is great, yet if you look at some of the comics that he drew the art was painfully bad-- all style and no substance. It was hard to believe that the same artist did both.

  4. This all relates so well to some of the bigger issues you've done such a great job analyzing on your blog, David - allow me to wade in!

    If you think of design and illustration as two creative camps and then imagine all illustrators as living somewhere along the line between the two, I think you'd find the Bob Peaks and Jim Sterankos houses are closer to the design end of the street.

    When I was at Sheridan College's illustration program the Illustration course director, a man named Frank Neufeld told us something fascinating one day: he said that when he was working on an assignment he spent quite a long time thinking about it, sometimes days or even weeks.

    By the time he finally scartched out his first rough he was so thoroughly finished with the image that he'd just as soon have someone else complete it.

    I couldn't understand that at the time but I do today. Some artists are more interested in the concept and design of the visual than they are in the rendering. These people are really designers trapped in an illustrator's body. They may enjoy the process of crafting a finished piece to a greater or lesser extent, depending on their talent and willingness to hone it, but their true creative joy comes from the conceptualization - not the execution. I believe Peak was such an artist. I believe Steranko is as well. The most popular current example of such an artist in comics today would be Mike Mignola.

    This may confound some of us if we are looking for great drawing or painting, anatomical accuracy or a lovely skilled flourish to the linework of a piece, but that doesn't mean the work lacks merit in its own right.

    As I've said before, art is far too subjective to weigh and measure and quantify mathematically (but that's not to say we can't continue to debate and exchange points of view).

    You started out by saying you're not sure you would have chosen Peak to illustrate an Americana theme like baseball - another TI subscriber emailed me privately just now with this comment:

    "Yesterdays baseball illustration, it was the best I've ever seen as far as baseball goes!"

    See what I mean? ;-)

  5. Emily8:20 PM

    Thanks so much for this. I think I might have a Peak original hanging in my bathroom. The signature surely fits with his other works, and it seems like no one has seen (or really appreciated, my mother hates it) the one I have. I think it's original because it has a bit of a rough sketch on the back with a different color paint, and the brush strokes are really vivid. I love his work though, and will have to look more into him.