Thursday, August 31, 2006

Two More from '54

Another great composition, beautifully realized, by Joe Bowler. But wait - where's the gun? Oh yeah - there it is, pointed down and away at the edge of the frame! In spite of my (minor, facetious) criticism, I am constantly wowed by Bowler's fabulous illustrative skills. It's not easy making a green hue work on skintone, but it adds an effective air of tension and dread to this second piece.

* Don't forget, you can see all of this week's scans at full size in my Joe Bowler Flickr set.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

What a Difference a Year Makes

Now this is more like it!
My collection of Collier's magazines is far from complete, but from what I do have, I get the impression that Joe Bowler began painting crime story illustrations for Collier's in 1954 and continued to produce them through 1955. What a difference a year makes!

Compare yesterday's piece from 1954, The Desperate Hours to Monday's and today's pieces from 1955's Invasion of Privacy. While all the pieces are, of course, expertly designed and executed, the Invasion characters are clearly trapped in a genuinely threatening situation - punctuated here by a window-cracking bullet hole.

Somewhere between '54 and '55 Bowler seems to have found his "crime legs".

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

True Crime Illustration?

Its so odd seeing a Joe Bowler character holding a gun. I can't help but think that Bowler also found it odd to be painting a character holding a gun.

When I first found this illustration I thought it was a more-typical-for-Bowler romance scenario, not unlike the many beautifully executed compositions he was doing for Good Housekeeping or Ladie's Home Journal... then I noticed the gun. Everything about this piece displays Bowler's chops at designing and painting a great illustration - just not a crime illustration. I get no sense of menace, of forboding from the characters or the composition.

The villian is small and set in a corner, his gun pointed away from the victim and placed even further into the corner as if to hide an embarassment. His expression is one of bemusement, not threat. The girl, large and imposing by comparison, filling the majority of the image area, seems more frustrated than frightened. Hardly the picture of a member of "a family held captive by three warped, violent men". I wonder if Bowler was perhaps not entirely comfortable with the crime genre and can imagine how differently someone like Austin Briggs would have handled this particular assignment.

Still the powerful and dynamic, modern composition, the flawless execution, are wonderful to behold. Joe Bowler was a true master illustrator - just perhaps not a true crime illustrator.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Criminal Bowler

Joe Bowler was one of the Cooper Studio's best and most prolific illustrators. I always think of him and Joe DeMers as the natural heirs to the throne of boy/girl "clinch" art, of which Coby Whitmore and Jon Whitcomb were kings.

What I didn't ever imagine was Joe Bowler's characters involved in crime scenes - but a recently acquired stack of mid-50's Collier's mags reveals a criminal side to Bowler's work.

This week, a look at some of those pieces.

Friday, August 25, 2006

A Thought to Consider

*Today, in conclusion, three unconnected and brutally abridged (by me) passages that make a point...

Now here's a thought to consider. Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American walks in a week. For 93 percent of all trips outside the home, for whatever distance or whatever purpose, Americans now get in a car. On average the total walking of an American these days - that's walking of all types: from car to office, from office to car, around the supermarket and shopping malls - adds up to 1.4 miles a week, barely 350 yards a day. That's ridiculous.

Nobody knows how many people hike the Appalachian Trail, but most estimates put the number at around three or four million a year. That four million include[s] a high proportion of what you might call Reebok hikers - people who park their car, walk 400 yards, get back in their car, drive off, and never do anything as breathtaking again.

There may be more demanding and exciting summits to reach along the Appalachian Trail than Mount Washington but none can be more startling. You labour up the last steep stretch of rocky slope to what is afterall a considerable eminence and pop your head over the edge, and there you are greeted by, of all things, a vast, terraced parking lot, full of automobiles gleaming hotly in the sun. Beyond stand a scattered complex of buildings among which move crowds of people in shorts and baseball caps. It has the air of a world's fair bizarrely transferred to a mountain top. I felt for some minutes like a visitor from another planet. I loved it. It was a nightmare, of course, and a desecration of the highest mountain in the northeast, but I was delighted it existed in one place. It made the rest of the trail seem perfect.

This week; illustrations selected to accompany short passages from A Walk in the Woods © Bill Bryson 1997.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry is an interesting place for a number of reasons. First, it is quite pretty. This is because it is a National Historical Park, so there are no Pizza Huts, McDonald's, Burger Kings, or even residents, at least in the lower, older part of town. Instead, you get restored or re-created buildings with plaques and interpretation boards, so it doesn't have much, or indeed any, real life, but it still has a certain beguiling, polished prettiness. You can see that it would be a truly nice place to live if only people could be trusted to reside there without succumbing to the urge to have Pizza Huts and Taco Bells ( and personally I believe they could, for as much as eighteen months), so instead you get a pretend town, attractively tucked between steep hills at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.

It is a National Historic Park because, of course, it is a historic place. It was at Harpers Ferry that the abolitionist John Brown decided to liberate America's slaves and set up a new nation of his own in northwestern Virginia, which was a pretty ambitious undertaking considering he had an army of just twenty one people. To that end, on October 16, 1859, he and his little group stole into town under cover of darkness, captured the federal armory without resistance (it was guarded by a single night watchman), yet still managed to kill a hapless passerby - who was, ironically, a freed black slave. When news got out that a federal armory of 100,000 rifles and a great deal of ammunition was in the hands of a small band of lunatics, the president, James Buchanan, dispatched Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee (at the time still a loyal Union soldier, of course) to sort things out. It took Lee and his men less than three minutes of fighting to overcome the hapless rebellion. Brown was captured alive, swiftly tried, and sentenced to be hanged a month hence.

One of the soldiers sent to oversee the hanging was Thomas J. Jackson - soon to become famous as Stonewall Jackson - and one of the eager onlookers in the crowd was John Wilkes Booth. So the capture of the federal armory at Harpers Ferry served as quite a neat overture for all that followed. Meanwhile, in the wake of Brown's little adventure, all hell was breaking loose. Northern abolitionists like Ralph Waldo Emerson made Brown a martyr, and Southern loyalists got up in arms, quite literally, at the idea that this might be the start of a trend. Before you knew it, the nation was at war.

This week; illustrations selected to accompany short passages from A Walk in the Woods © Bill Bryson 1997.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


The Forest Service is truly an extraordinary institution. A lot of people, seeing the word 'forest' in the title, assume it has something charming to do with looking after trees.

In fact, mostly what the Forest Service does is build roads. I am not kidding. There are 378,000 miles of roads in America's national forests. That may seem a meaningless figure, but look at it this way - it is eight times the total mileage of America's interstate highway system. It is the largest road system in the world in control of a single body. The Forest Service has the second highest number of road engineers of any government institution on the planet. To say that these guys like to build roads barely hints at their level of dedication. Show them a stand of trees anywhere and they will regard it thoughtfully for a long while, and say at last, "You know, we could put a road here." It is the avowed aim of the U.S. Forest Service to construct 580,000 miles of additional forest road by the middle of the next century.

This week; illustrations selected to accompany short passages from A Walk in the Woods © Bill Bryson 1997.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Remarkably Delicate Thing

For all its mass, a tree is a remarkably delicate thing. All of its internal life exists within three paper-thin layers of tissue - the phloem, xylem, and cambium - just beneath the bark, which together form a moist sleeve around the dead heartwood. However tall it grows, a tree is just a few pounds of living cells thinly spread between roots and leaves. These three diligent layers of cells perform all the intricate science and engineering needed to keep a tree alive, and the efficiency with which they do it is one of the wonders of life. Without noise or fuss, every tree in a forest lifts massive volumes of water - several hundred gallons in the case of a large tree on a hot day - from its roots to its leaves, where it is returned to the atmosphere. Imagine the din and commotion, the clutter of machinery, that would be needed for a fire department to raise a similar volume of water.

This week; illustrations selected to accompany short passages from A Walk in the Woods © Bill Bryson 1997.

Monday, August 21, 2006

A Walk in the Woods

I'm a little ashamed to admit, I haven't read a lot of books in recent years. Newspapers, magazines, blogs - yes. Books, no. So when good friend and neighbour Carl gave me Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods for my birthday this year, I was a bit daunted. Had I lost the ability to read an entire book? I decided to put off diving in until I went away to the cottage last week.

Well, let me tell you, this book is an absolute joy to read! I can't recommend it enough. It had me laughing out loud, thinking deep thoughts and reading passages to anyone who would listen. Carl got me this book because a walk in the woods is part of my daily routine. I take my dog, Zero, out to one of the many nearby trails after lunch each day for an hour of squirrel chasing, tree marking, and bush whacking. I transport this activity to the rather more isolated trail network near the cottage we rent each summer in Haliburton. There are no bears around where we live, but lots and lots around the cottage. I'm always a little nervous hiking those remote areas alone, and reading the following passage didn't exactly help:

Now imagine reading a nonfiction book packed with stories such as this - true tales soberly related - just before setting off alone on a camping trip of your own into the North American wilderness. The book to which I refer is 'Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance', by a Canadian academic named Stephen Herrero. If it is not the last word on the subject, then I really, really, really do not wish to hear the last word. through long winter nights in New Hampshire, while snow piled up outdoors and my wife slumbered peacefully beside me, I lay saucer-eyed in bed reading clinically precise accounts of people gnawed pulpy in their sleeping bags, plucked whimpering from trees, even noiselessly stalked (I didn't know this happened!) as they sauntered unawares down leafy paths or cooled their feet in mountain streams. People whose one fatal mistake was to smooth their hair with a dab of aromatic gel, or eat juicy meat, or tuck a Snickers in their shirt pocket for later, or have sex, or even, possibly, menstruate, or in some small, inadvertent way picque the olfactory properties of the hungry bear. Or, come to that, whose fatal failing was simply to be very unfortunate - to round a bend and find a moody male blocking the path, head rocking appraisingly, or wander unwittingly into the territory of a bear too slowed by age or idleness to chase down fleeter prey.

This week; illustrations selected to accompany short passages from A Walk in the Woods © Bill Bryson 1997.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Stylized Alex Ross

In his book, Illustrator in America, Walt Reed tells us that Alex Ross "painted many experimental pictures in watercolour and mixed media." I like to think that the work he did for Collier's magazine's Nero Wolfe detective stories is an example of the early stages of Ross' experimentation. Like other early styists David Stone Martin and Bob Peak, Ross shows us his desire to push the envelope of the look of mainstream magazine illustration through pieces like these. One can sense a radical departure was just around the corner when work like this became acceptable to the American magazine audience. Just a couple of years earlier you would have been hard pressed to find much , if anything, like it.

Kudos to Collier's art director, Leonard Jossel, for allowing Ross to stretch - and for assigning him not just the large full colour spread, but the smaller accompanying spots when he did Nero Wolfe.

These small spots are really worth looking at more closely. Ross had early ambitions to become an industrial designer, and this aspect of his nature comes through in the designiness of those spots.

* Just a reminder that all this week's images can be seen at full size in my Alex Ross Flickr set.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Who was Alex Ross?

In Illustrator in America, Walt Reed tells us that Alex Ross was born in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1909. He came to America at age three and aside from two years of night classes at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Ross was a self-taught artist.

He worked first at the Rayart Studios, then the Pitt Studios, and finally joined the prestigious Cooper Studios in the early 1940's.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The lascivious Alex Ross

As much as they were called "love stories", sometimes the portrayal given by the artist suggested the story was more about lust.

Not just any illustrator had the ability to reinterpret the sqeaky-clean romance scene of the 50's as a place bubbling over with unbridled sexual desire. But from the first Alex Ross 'romance' illustration I ever saw, I had the sense that this guy was different.
Ross' couples have a certain knowing look about them. They clearly intend to take things well beyond a chaste kiss!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Alex Ross' dark side

For approximately ten years, from the mid-forties to the mid-fifties, Alex Ross had a steady gig doing covers for Good Housekeeping magazine. That's an awful lot of cute kid paintings! One can imagine that an illustrator might become typecast by potential clients when one is so well known for doing such specific subject matter. but that didn't stop the good folks at Collier's from hiring Ross to illustrate their Nero Wolfe detective series.

And Ross did not disappoint: not only did he push the boundaries of his style by developing a more graphic, expressionistic approach, but he did not shy away from the kind of lurid, pulpy imagery that fans of the genre love. This facet of his work places Ross in my mind right up there with the always excellent James R. Bingham.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Original Alex Ross

If you're new to Today's Inspiration and have never heard of the original Alex Ross, you may be a bit confused. Many people are well aware of the wildly popular comic book artist Alex Ross. This is not that guy. This week we'll take a look at some of the original Alex Ross' cooler, more stylized work.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Whatever became of Andy Virgil?

One last example of Andy Virgil's work can be found at but again, no biographical information. This December 1962 piece from the Saturday Evening Post is the latest example I've got of his work.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Goodbye 50's, Hello 60's

As the 50's became the 60's, magazines used less and less illustration in general, but more specifically, there were fewer short romantic fiction stories - thus fewer boy/girl 'clinch' illustrations were required. Old standard bearers like Jon Whitcomb and Coby Whitmore had all but disappeared from the scene. During that latter period you're more likely to find the names of illustrators like Mike Ludlow, Howard Terpining... and Andy Virgil.

You can find all the images from last week and this week in my Andy Virgil Flickr set.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

You've come a long way, baby

This illustration from MCall's November 1959 issue is the first piece I ever saw by Andy Virgil. It made me want to find more work by the artist. Compare its dynamic and complex compositional approach, its daring, vibrant colour scheme, its confident, masterful painterliness to the tentative, though competent illustration credited to one "Andrew Virgil" shown at the bottom of this post. That illustration from a 1955 issue of Collier's is the earliest example I've found by the artist.

That's why I find it so frustrating when there's no information available on the careers of illustrators like Virgil; how'd he get to be so good in such a short span of time? Was he sharing studio space with some other more established artist(s)? How did he manage to get assignments from the best national magazines when so many other talented artists could not? Was he part of a major studio's staff or did he have a well-connected rep?

In just four short years, the talented new-comer, Andrew Virgil, had become the daring and confident Andy Virgil - a worthy competitor to top dogs like Joe Bowler or Joe DeMers, and in my opinion, a rung above other third generation boy/girl artists Kurt Ard and Mark Miller. How he came such a long way in such a short span of time remains a mystery. For now.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Tornadoes, Tournaments and Today's Inspiration

This is the first time I've missed a daily posting on Today's Inspiration. Why, nothing short of a major power outage caused by a tornado would stop me from this pleasant self-imposed obligation. Coincidentally, that's exactly what happened.

Friends invited us to join them at a cottage in Haliburton last Wednesday. We packed up the kids and the dog, I loaded in my iMac and tablet, and off we went for a couple of days of working vacation in cottage country. We arrived at dinner time and a major storm arrived just an hour later. The power went out a 7:55 pm and was still out the next morning. The one kilometer walk to the paper box required running an obstacle course through downed trees draped in broken power lines. Our sideroad alone had five 40' tall trees snapped off like twigs.

That day the supermarket would only sell ice, bottled water and newspapers at the front entrance and rumour spread that power would be out for up to five days. We still had a great time but had to deal with inconveniences like boiling water on the barbeque to make a pot of coffee - and of course working on my computer and using the internet became impossible.
I was scheduled to meet a second group of friends at another cottage about an hour away for our annual summer fishing derby that coming weekend, so Wendy and the kids dropped me off as they headed home last Friday. The power was back on at the second cottage but the storm had wreaked havoc with the water levels in the river, and the fish had become all befuddled. We spent a pleasant time drinking beer and not catching fish.

I'm back home at last and I still have enough Andy Virgils to get us to Friday so I thought we'd just pick up where we left off so unceremoniously last week.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Attack of the EZ Sleeper Frankenstein Kids

Its been a little joke among a group of illustrator friends for years: things we hate to draw. Always near the top of the list is "children". Every time an art director calls with a storyboard assignment we say a small, silent prayer... "Please God, let it not be for disposable diapers."

That's why I give Andy Virgil a lot of leeway on this ad from Good Housekeeping's September 1957 issue. Its hard to draw realistic, well proportioned, cute children. There's lots of nice smooshing about of paint that speaks to the artist's obvious abilities with a brush - but let's be honest, those are some scary lookin' kids! How'd the client even accept this?

Nonetheless, Virgil vindicates himself further on in that same issue with the lovely editorial piece shown below.