Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Frank Reilly: "highly intelligent, complex, and really interesting"

Turn to Frank Reilly's biography in "The Illustrator in America" and you find this first sentence:

"Frank Joseph Reilly was a great teacher."

Having heard now from several of Reilly's former students, I continue to be impressed by the almost reverential tone they use to describe him.

Yesterday I received this email from an artist named Candido Rodriguez:

"I was one of Reilly's class room monitors for two years," writes Candido. "During that time I came to know Mr. Reilly (as all the students always addressed him) quite well, he was a highly intelligent, complex, and really interesting person, I've never forgotten him."

"The most vivid scene I remember with Frank Reilly was his first critique of my work. I met Mr.Reilly at his morning drawing class at New York's Art Student League in the fall of 1954, I was 17 and he was 47."

"Reilly would critique the drawing classes once a week on Tuesday. These classes (morning, afternoon, evening) were huge and Reilly never had enough time to see every student. It took a few months before he finally got to me. By this time I had a pile of drawings done in class and at home. Reilly quickly scanned through them, turned to me and said, "Son, if I told you everything that is wrong with these drawings you will need a physcharist". With that he took my pencil, broke it to an appropriate length, showed me how to sharpen and hold it. He then demonstrated his famous six-line figure. All this took about five minutes, he moved on and he didn't get to me for another few months."

"Years later I asked him about this first critique (I don't believe he remembered it) "wasn't it a bit tough?" I said. Reilly's answer was cryptic, (remembered that Frank Reilly was one of George Bridgman's star pupils, became his teaching assistant and took over his class at his death), "Bridgman introduced me to Dean Cornwell. I took that introduction as an opportunity to show Cornwell my work. Cornwell looked through the portfolio and said 'you are ready to learn how to draw'. He took me under his wing". Reilly said no more on the subject."

Continuing, Candido writes, "The reference to the Frank Reilly "Method" is a bit of a misnomer, as is the statement that he was an illustration instructor. Reilly taught the craft of drawing, painting, and Picture Making in the tradition of the French Academy. Reilly had in his possession school paintings done by J.C. Leyendecker at the Academy Julian, these paintings could have come straight out of the Reilly class."

"Reilly's great innovation was his use of the Munsell Color Notation System to quantify the natural world. In addition he developed a clear, rational vocabulary to explain what a student should do in the areas of drawing, painting and picture making (no artsy talk or mystic references). Reilly always showed up in a three piece business suit and he was all business."

"Reilly died in 1967 and his surviving students are getting long in the tooth. And sadly so much of what he taught is slipping away."

*My thanks to Tom Palmer for providing all the scans for today's post and to Candido Rodriguez for sharing his recollections of Frank Reilly.

My Frank Reilly Flickr set.


  1. My word! Not even the faculty of my art school wore white shirts and ties, let alone the art students!

  2. This is another terrific week on a nearly forgotten excellent illustrator and GREAT teacher. Frank Reilly’s method of training is necessary for every illustrator and fine artist, to have a solid foundation... THEN, and only then can they effectively find “their own voice” or direction they want ot pursue. With most of today's art training, the emphasis is all about the student's FEELINGS, ignoring whether he or she is equipped with the knowledge and skills to execute those FEELINGS.

    Academic realism was shunned and even trivialized after the 1950's, unless it was a social, political or self psychoanalytical statement. During this time of focus on Abstraction, Modernism and Expressionism, Frank Reilly understood the importance of self discipline and learning the fundamentals... without shortcuts. Teachers like Reilly are few and far between, but there will always be those students that hunger for the necessary academic training that it takes to separate excellence from mediocrity.

    Thanks Leif,
    Tom Watson

  3. Anonymous8:53 PM

    Thanks for , yet another, posting of a terrific talent of the past.
    We had the good luck to stumble onto classes taught by one of Reilly's many successful students, Fred Fixler.
    Fred mentioned that , in the two years he studied with him, Reilly sat down at Fred's board a total of two times. Reilly would spend most of his time teaching the advanced students who in turn would teach the newer students. A terrific system which really solidified the students' ability to articulate what they were being taught.
    It also intensified the atmosphere that the students were studying/mastering the basics which was somthing to be shared and discussed together.
    To the new students who were fearful that learning the basics would somehow bury or mask their true artistic voice, Fred would say, " If you've got something to say, it'll come out through the basics. If you don't, at least you'll be able to make a living."