Monday, February 11, 2008

Barbara Bradley: "I began by drawing early and often"

TI list member Barbara Bradley has already been of invaluable assistance when she previously offered her insight into the work of Al Parker. This week, I've asked Barbara to share with us the details of her career, but with a nuanced focus on what it was like for her, as a woman, to compete in a male dominated profession.

I am grateful for her revealing commentary, which will help all of us better appreciate the nature of the business - and really, of society - as it was half a century ago... and how things may (or may not) have changed since those days:

Like many illustrators (but not ALL!), I began by drawing early and often. My first drawings that were kept were drawn when I was about three. The subject was Mae West, a pattern that, interesting enough, remains true to this day: the love of drawing people in storytelling clothing, full of expressions in face and body. I'm still grateful to a long forgotten kindergarten teacher who called my parents to school to discuss my drawing ability. She warned them never to allow a teacher to try to change my left-handedness or the direction of my paper. Neither parent was artistic so they didn't understand where it came from. But they were all for it. They were proud and also supportive but they were nervous because “artist” meant “fine artist”. Commercial art was OK to them. Fortunately for me, almost all of the artists whose work I admired were illustrators. Though I didn’t know even know the term “illustrator”, I knew I wanted be one of them.

My favorite comic strip artists as a child were Hal Foster (Prince Valiant) and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates). Even thought the subjects were men, my most influential artist was probably Lyle Justis, whose illustrated “Treasure island” (below) I repeatedly read (and subconsciously studied). These artists all drew great legs, something I’ve loved to draw for years. Thank you, Hal, Milton, and Lyle. It wasn’t until college years that I saw the work of such illustrator giants as NC Wyeth and Arthur Rackham.

Movies were a constant source of inspiration for me. Using my favorite Mongol colored pencils, I filled drawing tablets with Maid Marions, Marie Antoinettes, and contemporary ultra-fashionable ladies. I never drew from life but somehow from observation or figuring gestures out. (Drawing from one’s imagination usually really means drawing from what has been observed and mentally recorded.)

Colored pencils were a great medium for this kid. Once I discovered the trick of “shading” one side of a shape cooler and one warmer, I could win any coloring contest in sight. I then tried the same with watercolors. It was one of these contests that won me a short-term Saturday class scholarship at a San Francisco Art School, run by a clever female Commercial Artist. I learned a great deal about technique there; about illustration board, transferring pencil drawings, watercolors, rubber cement, and the wonderfulness of a Winsor-Newton series 7 sable brush. We worked from photographs only... no drawing from live models. (That had to wait ‘til Art Center) I stayed on there during my high school years; I was exposed to very few magazines at home so it was there that I learned of Jon Whitcomb. He, with his starry-eyed glittery shiny haired women, immediately became my God. However, in a short while, his place on the pedestal was taken over by Al Parker, who has held it ever since.

I learned so much from that little place but my memories are marred by realizing how unethical were some of her practices. Still in high school, I not only taught Saturday classes for younger kids but also ghost-illustrated work for her. The parents whose kids were taught by another kid were cheated. I did one storewide Santa Claus Christmas campaign for her for a chain shoe store. She gave me an $18.75 War Bond, I got a thrill from seeing my work in print, but, in retrospect, it was still exploitation.

The person from those days to whom I am still most grateful was my high school yearbook advisor, physics teacher Robert Barry. He took his personal time to seek advice for me, the clueless yearbook art editor, on where to get appropriate training for illustration. These pieces above and below were done for a circus-themed high school yearbook. I was about 16. What a commentary on the times, as well as how much I had to learn.

From the engraver who did the yearbook plates, Mr. Barry learned of Patterson and Hall, the best professional art studio in San Francisco. He arranged for me to have a review of my work by Mr. Patterson and even took me to the appointment himself. There, I learned of Art Center in Pasadena, the place from which I eventually did go on for my art education. Thank you, wherever you are, Mr. Barry.

However, three years of study at UC Berkeley preceded Art Center. One class in the Art Department, during which the idea of illustration was so scorned, was enough. From then on I took other courses, so many of which provided valuable background for an illustrator: Art History; History of Architecture, of Interiors, of Costume; History, Lit, Ancient Civilizations. I met my first husband at Cal where we worked on providing posters for Cal Clubs. He did the lettering and layout and I did the cute sexy gals.

We married, moved to LA to Art Center. I planned to attend only one summer, and then finish at UCLA. One semester of Art got me hooked and I stayed. In fact, though a few years ago The Academy awarded me an honorary doctorate, I never did receive a BA. Seven years of college and no BA. Hah! Though Art Center didn’t award degrees in those days, it was just what I needed. It was full of WW II vets, all of whom were serious about making up time. The competition was fierce. It was there that we heard Norman Rockwell speak, also speaking so admiringly of Al Parker.

I seldom felt any prejudice at Art Center about being a woman. Again, in retrospect, one or two of the teachers may not have taken me as seriously as they did the men, but that may have been because they related more to male-oriented subjects than to the subjects I leaned toward. One tended to get more respect by drawing well. Good drawing is often more impressive than good layout, ideas, etc, even to fellow art students, who should have known better. I laugh remembering one of my favorite perches for drawing, sitting atop two drawing benches, on piled over the other. I loved a high eye level. Now I couldn’t even climb to board them.

(The Band piece below was an AC portfolio piece.)

When it came time to leave, there was no doubt in our minds that we had to go to New York. Some grads thought about going to Chicago. I now realize what great work was coming out of Chicago. However, at the time, working in Chicago seemed comparable to becoming a nurse instead of a doctor.

About portfolios… I think too many young graduates expect that their portfolios should consist of the best work they have done at Art College. I believe that it should represent the best that they can do by they time that they graduate. Often, a piece done earlier that has good ideas, research, etc, and is short on execution or whatever, can be redone in a comparatively short amount of time. In addition, one should take a hard look at a portfolio, looking for weaknesses or areas that do not represented what one can do. We spent about two solid months reworking our portfolios. It was worth it. We got the jobs we wanted, where we wanted them. Our portfolios got us to the places where we could keep on learning.

Barbara Bradley received the 2007 Outstanding Educator in the Arts Award from the Society of Illustrators. She is the retired Director of Illustration at the Academy of Art University. The Academy has created a blog, in her honor. She is also the subject of an in-depth interview and related article by Neil Shapiro in the current issue of Illustration magazine.

My Barbara Bradley Flickr set.


  1. I was really happy to see this post, having enjoyed Babara's commentary on Al Parker. Thanks for sharing! It is great to get such insight and see your beautiful work.

  2. Wow, those two pieces she drew at the age of 16 are amazing! What natural talent!

  3. Great article. I had Barbara as an instructor at the Academy of Art, and she was an inspiration. Illustration lives in her soul.

  4. It was a great honor to have studied under Barbara Bradley at the San Francisco Academy of Art in the late 1980s and I exercise my bragging rights often.

    Thanks for the "tough love" knowledge Mrs. Bradley. It has served me well for many years.

    Brian Clarke

  5. Like Les Toil, I must express my bragging rights as well. I am probably one of Barbara's earliest students at the Academy of Art. It was 1958, and I believe it was her first year teaching there, and my first year as a young wide eyed student. Barbara, along with a few other excellent teachers, helped shape my future as a successful illustrator for the next 40 years. She was a very dedicated and informative teacher, and I am proud to have had the privilege of having her as an instructor. And, needless to say, her talent as an illustrator is huge. I also enjoy very much, our recently renewed e-mail friendship.

    Tom Watson

    1. Hi Tom, I wanted to reply to you because I was part of Barbara's final classes. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to take her course a bit in early in my schooling. Her expectations were very high, but fair and I'm in her debt for sharing all of her considerable artistic knowledge.

  6. Anonymous3:59 PM

    LEIF...Fine blog, fine bio, charming illustrations. What a talent! Can't believe I don't recall her work. Our paths must have crossed several times, San Francisco, P&H, Art Center, etc. Great figure illustator...and her high school year book illustrations were light years better than mine! Thanks a lot.... Chas.

  7. Anonymous5:19 AM

    I also have a great instruction book, Drawing People, by Barbara Bradley. Thank you Barbara, for the book--it's great! Judy

  8. amazing! i have to get caught up with these + barbara bradley's commentary, when my daughter goes to sleep tonight :)

  9. Wonderful art by Barbara Bradley, and wonderful commentary on her development-- five stars!

    I am one of the world's biggest Lyle Justis fans, too, by the way . . .

    When is the redoubtable John Fleskes going to do one of his books on L.J.?

    I would burn my fingers getting my wallet out to buy it!

    Beautiful work, Barbara.


    ( Norman Mallory)

  10. I am also lucky enough to be able to say that Barbara was my teacher (92-97). She was so totally passionate about drawing and the form and I've never known anyone else more committed to teaching. The lessons I learned from her will stay with me always and I am so grateful to have known her.
    Thank you Barbara.

  11. Anonymous1:52 PM


    I was looking after the Lyle Justis work. I have the Treasure Island book in spanish, with Lyle ilustrations. I really love it!


  12. Fun to read. I heard a lot of stories about Lyle Justis while I was growing up. While at the Philadelphia Sketch Club my father became good friends with both of the Justis's and I've been fortunate to inherit both a sketch and an illustration (unpublished). Peter Boyle was a part of their little group, as well.
    Thanks for keeping his name alive.

    1. Anonymous10:00 PM

      Barbara had a serious talent with an enquiring mind about human affairs and a generous personality. i met her in london i think it was 1994 at BA summer school at camberwell art school .she was a dream of a teacher she restored my faith in my designy abilities. i wont forget her-