Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Paul Nonnast: A Sensitive Line

While I'd seen and enjoyed Paul Nonnast's work in various 1950's magazines over the last few years, it wasn't until I came across his contributions to the October 1953 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine that I really came to appreciate his work.

What a beautiful, sensitive line Nonnast was capable of delineating.

I'm sure he spent far more time on the double page spread for this story (one article describes him spending five 14-hour work days on a typical full colour illustration) - and it is a beautifully composed and evocative piece...

... but its his unpretentious, spot-on-accurate line drawings that really blow me away.

Once again I must sing the praises of Robert C. Atherton, Cosmo's art editor, for choosing the right illustrator for this assignment and allowing him to play to his strengths. The story of a 4-year old boy and his injured father struggling to survive alone on an isolated beach and Nonnast's spare linear ink drawings are a perfect match.

There is a kind of organic, reportage-like quality to his drawings, like they were done on that beach to accompany notes jotted in a diary. They transport us to that time and place. You can almost hear the waves crashing and the gulls crying...

Nonnast gives us this tiny, simple drawing of the father and son's hands as his closing image. The old adage 'less is more' comes immediately to mind. After the tense life and death circumstances of the story draw to a happy conclusion, this iconic image, which probably took the artist no time at all to draw, speaks volumes and symbolizes so much.

By not presenting a complex, highly-rendered scene that would have distanced the viewer from the experience of the characters, Nonnast allows each of us to imagine ourselves in their place (who hasn't experienced the beauty and vulnerability of a young child's hand placed in yours?), creating a much more emotional, personal bond.

My Paul Nonnast Flickr set.


  1. Leif, I couldn't agree with you more on your response to Nonnast's perfectly illustrated drawings. Howard Pyle was probably the first illustrator to teach his students the importance of conveying emotion and drama to an illustration.

    I don't understand why Nonnast seemed to fade away after the mid 50's. Maybe he wasn't one of the handful of great innovators, but IMO he was certainly one of the great illustrators of the 50's.

    By the end of the 50's illustration was a very fickle business, and a lot of first class illustrators disappeared one way or another... and very talented illustration students settled into other lines of work, some related to art and some not.

    I hope members or friends of Paul Nonnast will see this blog and respond.

    Tom Watson

  2. P.S. How did the father get out of this terrible situation? Nonnast has got me hooked!!

    Tom Watson

  3. Taylor6:45 PM

    Hey Leif, my name is Taylor. I read your wonderful articles on Paul, and I just wanted to give you a little history after his "heyday" in the 50's. He continued creating up until his death. Many more illustrations, and paintings and sculptures. My personal favorites are a set of balsa wood busts, that he cut and painted by hand. One is of Chairman Mao, and the bust balances on a red star. The second is of a Native American and it balances on his two braids; and the third is of a Slave who balances on a twisted chain with a broken link. These pieces were made in the mid 70's I believe. After Marie died he met a lady named Anne. Her last name will remain a secret because she is still alive, and enjoys her anonymity. They were never married but she was with him until his death. She became my "surrogate" grand mother, after my marriage to my wife. My wife is not a blood relative either but, Anne and Paul were part of thier Family for many years. Since were the closest thing to family I know of, I figured we would answer Tom's blog. Thanks again for showcasing Paul's talent. He was truly a great person and artist.