Right from the beginning in 1953, although he was a salaried employee at an art studio, Tom was also trying to get freelance assignments from the magazines to illustrate fiction stories. "The salesmen [at the studio] weren't interested in that stuff," explains Tom, "because there wasn't enough money in it."
But Ray Walters (one of the partner/owners at Rapid Grip and Batten) was happy to see Tom getting published in the magazines. "He didn't mind that I did work nights and on weekends for magazines because if his artists' names were attached to these widely distributed magazines, that added to his studio's reputation. And he controlled the advertising art that resulted from that reputation."
When Tom was first starting out he managed to land assignments from Canadian Home Journal and Liberty Magazine. He was still just eighteen years old at the time. Then in 1955 he moved on to the art department at Bomac Engraving. "Illustration was almost a loss-leader for the company," explains Tom. "They made their money on the engraving and they provided the art for almost nothing."
It was at Bomac that Tom met another young artist, Jerry Sevier, who would become a life-long friend. "We shared a little room [at Bomac] and they stuck a sign on the door: 'Tom & Jerry', like the cartoon," Tom chuckles.
"I think we helped each other, we learned from each other."
The type of work Tom did at Bomac became a little more specific than the general art chores he had handled at Rapid Grip & Batten. "The biggest money makers for the studios from the time I was 20 until age 30 was automobiles... because photography wasn't very good. We used to do car catalogues. It would take all summer to produce a car catalogue."
"Detroit would send up an 8 x 10 photograph along with a clay scale model... that's all we had! And we'd have to transpose that into a drawing... stretch it, make sure all the ellipses were correct..."
"I didn't do many cars. I usually painted the scene or stuck people in cars. That's when I really started to be in demand. I could have gone to other studios. Its really tricky to create a character who has class or age or social standing in a spot that's smaller than your fingernail. Will [Davies] could do it... two or three other guys in town could do it..."
"...and it turned out I could do it too."
Tom says he often had a sort of running battle with the technical artists who painted the cars. "I'd ask them, where are you putting the light? Where's the light coming from in this scene? And they'd inevitably sort of brush me off and say, 'Aw don't worry about it'. But I wanted to compose it and then light it from a certain direction. So a few times I did the car, too. A few times."
A great admirer of Bernie Fuchs' work, Tom relates the story to me about how the Detroit artist began placing people in front of the cars in his illustrations. "That's a no no," says Tom. And as though to emphasize just how demanding the auto makers could be he tells me, "I did a few paintings of cars for a tri-fold brochure (above). And they sent the artwork back... because when I rendered it I was sort of casual about it and I had bubbles in my paint. And they said 'we don't make rusty cars'."
Next weekend will see the launch of "Tom McNeely, 50 Years of Visual Arts", a book showcasing work from every period in Tom's career. If you would like to order the book, you can contact the artist at fmcneely(at)rogers(dot)com
My Tom McNeely Flickr set.