Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Exacting Standards

As a boy Dean Cornwell, the son of a civil engineer, loved to draw machinery. Even then he could not gloss over the details of his subject matter. At age 13 he would stand on the riverbanks near his Louisville, Kentucky home, returning again and again over several weeks, drawing, erasing and redrawing the details of the steamships that passed by. 18 years later, during a lecture he was giving at the Art Students' League, Cornwell said, "Unless you consider illustration so fine a thing as to be worth your last ounce of strength and effort - don't be an illustrator."

Dean Cornwell's exacting standards must have been one of the reasons his war-themed illustrations were so popular with both his clients and the public during WWII. He would study photographs and documentary footage at length to make sure that details were as accurate as possible.

Sometimes, his efforts confounded the military departments who necessarily had to approve his illustrations: though they at times withheld "secret" details of military equipment, Cornwell would ferret them out through meticulous research. One such incident involved an illustration of an anti-aircraft gun Cornwell depicted with such accuracy that the War Department called him figuring that there had been a security leak. The "top secret" part was the addition of some sort of electronic device attached to the gun, which Cornwell saw in some tiny photo, and included in his full page painting for General Motors in all the magazines.

But the artist simply could not help himself. A 1942 article in American Artist had this to say about Dean Cornwell: "The goal for [Cornwell] is always over the hill of today's achievement: a seven-day week of work and study is insufficient to attain it."

*Much of the information and some of the images this week are from a 1999 article in Step-By-Step magazine written by Holly Angus. My sincere thanks to TI list member Tom Palmer for generously taking the time and effort to make this and other material from his Dean Cornwell collection available to me. Thanks Tom!

*All of today's images can be seen at a larger size in my Dean Cornwell Flickr set.


  1. Hi Leif,

    Gorgeous work!

  2. I can only agree, Eric! ;-)

  3. There's agreat chapter on Cornwell in the book '40 illustrators and how they work' published in the late forties early fifties. .

  4. If you have that book and could email me a scan or two, Dom, I'd really appreciate it!