Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bad News, Good News, Bad News, Good News!

The Bad News: Yesterday morning my iMac G5, which has operated flawlessly since I got it three years ago, suddenly froze solid for the first time ever. I could only turn it off with the power button, and when I started it up again I got a black screen, no start-up chime and the fan was on overdrive. Using one of the laptops in the house I did some research online and discovered that my Mac had all the symptoms of a catastrophic logic board failure. Even worse, after much frantic scrambling through mountains of old files and folders, trying to locate my warranty info, I discovered that my Apple Care had expired two months ago. Very Bad News.

Outside of the warranty, the repair to my Mac was going to cost almost as much as a new computer! Even worse, all my jobs, past and current from the last three years - plus all the the scanned images and written research I've done for Today's Inspiration - EVERYTHING! - was locked up on my dead machine. After a day of much weeping and gnashing of teeth I was little more than a pathetic ball of nerves, curled up in the fetal position on the kitchen floor. That's how my darling wife found me when she got home from work.

There are many reasons why I married this girl, but here's one of the main ones: without a moment's hesitation, she took the bull by the horns, said, "go get your computer. I'm going to get it fixed and I'm getting it fixed for free." - and in a flash she was off to our local Apple reseller/repair shop to kick some ass and take names. I love it when she does that!

The Good News: after an hour at the shop and another hour on the phone, she managed to get Apple to agree to completely cover the cost of the repair, despite the computer being two months past the warranty!

The Bad News: All of this year's remaining 'Countdown to Christmas' material is now sitting in the shop on that ailing machine, and I don't have the time or energy to rescan everything, or re-research all the accompanying text. That means this year's Countdown has come to an unscheduled, abbreviated conclusion a week ahead of time. Sorry gang.

The Good News: After a hiatus for the rest of this year, Today's Inspiration will resume on January 5th, 2009. I already have several weeks of new material planned, and no doubt the new year will bring all sorts of interesting surprises.

So as much as I hate to say it, this is good bye... for now. Here's hoping everyone has a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year and a wonderful holiday break! Many thanks to everyone who has shared their art, information, comments, suggestions and words of encouragement - and to all of you who have simply dropped by to look and read. You all make the effort of putting this blog together a huge pleasure.

See you next year!

* And meanwhile, be sure to drop by Charlie Allen's Blog for the Christmas installment of the CAWS.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Jon Whitcomb: "I don't think of myself as an artist. I'm a manufacturer"

Long-time TI list member Armando Mendez caught up with last week's discussion on Jon Whitcomb a bit late, but had much to add... so, with his permission, I decided to revisit the topic and present his corresponence as today's post. I know you'll find it both informative and thought-provoking, as Whitcomb, in his own words, reveals quite a bit of his character and personal philosophy:

In the introduction to his 1947 Advanced course written by Alden Hatch, there is this exchange between Hatch and Whitcomb:

"How do you want to be presented?" [Hatch] asked Whitcomb. "That is, how do you think of yourself in relation to your public and the students you will teach?"

"You can say that I don't think of myself as an artist. I'm a manufacturer, supplying something editors want to buy. Somewhere I discovered what these people want and through a fortunate chain of circumstances I find myself able to produce it."

Then he pursued his philosophy, which combines a purely practical approach with his own enthusiasm for innovation. "You've got to be something new every year," he said. "As long as I can, I'll keep a non-static quality. I don't want to be dated. . . ."

" . . . The self analysis required in preparing a course makes me terribly aware of my limitations," he told me. "On the other hand, I believe that the things that make artists interesting to a buyer are their shortcomings. Flaws plus virtue add up to character . . . ."

. . . in answer to my question as to ambition for the future. Very serious for once, he replied slowly. "I haven't a sturdy ego or a good opinion of my work. Often I hate my pictures five minutes after I've finished them. Some day I like to go to where I can do things to please me. I have no ambition to paint for future generations. All I want is to be good right now."

In Al Parker's Advanced course, you can see how he delights in finding the novel idea, the fresh approach, the unexpected chord, just like the improvisational jazz he loved (and could play too). Parker said the hardest thing he had to do in his career was selecting which single idea out of ten or twenty he came up to settle on. I think of Parker like his musical namesake, Charlie Parker, one of the many jazz greats Parker's son remembers coming to Westport to jam with his dad. Dizzy Gillespie, another Be Bop revolutionary, said once you heard Bird play, as every musican of the era can recall, "you knew the music had to go his way."

For Whitcomb, on the other hand, "innovation", "a non-static quality" meant something far different than Parker. "Something new" meant forecasting what would be in fashion or popular in six months. That's what gave him his motivation, his kick. He believed that movies and the press had determined what a pretty girl looked like and how to stage action. So you don't see much change in how he idealized his women (and when you look at his reference photographs and compare them with the illustrations, you can see that his women were elaborately constructed confections) or the endless tight close ups.

But in his commentary to his pictures, he points out again and again with pride how he correctly guessed hemlines were going to be longer or shorter the following season, how women were going to wear their hair, what accessories were necessary or would be left home, forgotten for good in a drawer. This is what preoccupied him. Every chapter somehow returns to this theme.

His formula (as stated in the Advanced course):

A. Know what the public is beginning to like.
B. Know what you are beginning to like.
C. Know what you and public both like.
D. Take C and imagine what you would like even more.
E. Take a good guess as to the next development.

Whitcomb cared about what he did and he worked hard, 12-16 hours a day. He did make an enormous amount of money and had a lavish lifestyle. (It's hard to remember illustrators were once the highest paid professionals in the country, surpassing even the movie industry. His home in Darien Connecticut was amazing. I wonder if it still exists.) But turning down a job wasn't for him. But it came with a price. In his commentary, he often showed how his ideas were supressed or exaggerated by clients.

Finally, Whitcomb wrote this about what kept him motivated:

"An eminent illustrator whose reputation comes from work he did fifteen or twenty years ago told me once, 'You think you are working hard now, after three years in this business. Wait until you finish your first five thousand pictures and then tell me how you feel.'

He went on to explain that he was bored to death with sucess, with painting, with being a celebrity and with life in general. This attitude flavored his work and he is not seen these days in magazines.

Almost all creative imagination grows out of not being bored. The whole trick to maintaining a fresh imagination is to remain curious about life. If you stay interested, you stay interesting."

I imagine when Whitcomb no longer could trust his judgement "on what you and public both like" or maybe when he was no longer interested, he stopped, just like that.

According to Fred Taraba's "Jon Whitcomb: The Spirit of Beauty" (Step By Step Jul/Aug 96), Whitcomb characterized his wartime service as a Navy lieutenant as "Nobody had a more miscellaneous war than I did," since he served in variously in minesweepers, did recruiting and factory production morale posters, and served as a combat artist in the Pacific Theater.

But Whitcomb also admitted his most effective contribution was the WAVE recruiting pictures which convinced young girls "if they joined the Navy, they would look like a Whitcomb picture."

The portrait of the WAVE officer reproduced in the Advanced course,

...unlike his standard pretty girls of "Nurse Cadet" or "Join the Navy Nurse Corps" efforts,

seems to be a portrait with a idealized likeness of a real woman under his eye, foreshadowing Whitcomb's late career movie star illustrations...

...which accompanied his celebrity columns for Cosmopolitan and the society portraits he did after retiring from illustration.

What I find most interesting about the Community Silver step by step is threefold: look how closely "the rough" resembles the finished product;

...the reference photograph: although listed step 4, really might be his first step after he saw the agency layout--note how the spacing and arrangement between the hair and eyebrows, nose, and mouth are consistent through all the early examples.

Whitcomb applied his usual idealization formulas, tracing the photo with a Balopticon (a large scale projector); the pencil sketch shows the asymmetry in the jaw and mouth that Whitcomb felt was always necessary to show real beauty in the flat POV of a magazine, "the reason why absolutely perfect faces occasionally encountered in real life fail to be entirely satisfying"--and that countless artists later copied.

Fred also makes a very fine point about Whitcomb's lifelong philosophy of "living in the present." Quoting from a Society of Illustrator's bulletin that was published when Whitcomb passed away in 1988, the bulletin quoted Whitcomb as saying:

"About the time I put on long pants I developed an aversion for antiques. This particular prejudice extends to anything older than five or six minutes. I admire new hats, new actresses, new architecture, new plays, and new gadgets. Fate has played a trick on me . . ."

*Whew!* Many thanks to Armando Mendez for this exhaustive presentation on Jon Whitcomb. I'd say that if there was still any doubt about Whitcomb's motivations as a commercial artist they've been laid to rest.

* Thanks also to Charlie Allen for providing some of today's images.

* My Jon Whitcomb Flickr set.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Merry Christmas, Lucia Lerner...

... wherever you are...

I've had such good luck connecting with friends and family of those who created the work I showcase here on Today's Inspiration (and ocassionally, even the artists themselves) that I'd almost begun taking it for granted.

I had hoped by now that someone related to Lucia Lerner would have found the numerous posts I've written about her and sent word of whatever became of her. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened.

Thanks to Will Nelson, an artist who worked with Lucia in the Chicago studio, Stephens, Biondi, DiCicco, we at least have a rough character sketch of Lucia during the 1950's...

Since that week of posts, I had one brief correspondence with a gentleman name Ken Krull. Ken wrote, "I was with SBD 33 years starting in 1954 as a lettering man/keyliner. Went into sales in'58... became V.P. in charge of sales, chief executive officer and eventually president in the 70's.

Reno Biondi/artist and Frank DeCicco/sales were the sole owners. Barry Stephens was a N.Y rep -- they used his name so as not to sound too Italian. Lucia was the only artist to be on a 70/30 commission split... all others were 60%/ 40% - artist receiving 60% of commision, studio 20%, and the salesman20%. New artists started at 50/50. Lucia moved to the west coast in the early 60's to be with her brother. She was missed, but we still had a great staff of artists including: Ed Augustiny, Bill Randall, Bill Baker, John Langston, Andy Aldridge, John Henry, Geraldo Carigotti... and of course Will Nelson."

Ken's note once more confirms how respected and valued Lucia was at SBD AND in the Chicago commercial art market. Her exceptional arrangement with the studio is particularly remarkable considering she was a woman competing in the 'man's world' of the 1950's.

What became of Lucia Lerner after she moved to the L.A. office of SBD in the early 60's remains a mystery. But just seeing some more of her excellent work is a gift in itself. Many thanks to David Apatoff for providing the tearsheets from which I scanned the images above.

* My Lucia Lerner Flickr set.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Roy Doty Draws the 'Holly Daze'

Tom Heintjes has put together a great article on Roy Doty's Christmas cards over at Hogan's Alley.

It got me digging through my old magazines in search of more 'Holly Day' art by Roy -- and in no time at all I located this spread from the December 1949 issue of Good Housekeeping.

Roy tells me he doesn't recall much about this particular job. "I was working for damn near every magazine at that time," he replied to my query. "Do remember the drawing... but no story connected to it."

Never one to pass up the opportunity to pester an old timer with questions about work they did half a century ago, I fired off another scan to Roy... this one from Coronet magazine. I've always wondered about these tiny page toppers in Coronet (and Reader's Digest). Besides Roy, many other fine illustrators and cartoonists regularly did them. I asked Roy if he could recall anything about how much they paid, and if they were assigned in batches or one at a time.

Ever the good sport, Roy got right back to me with the following:

"You certainly are dredging up oldies. Sorry, but I don't remember what they paid for the illustrations. They were assigned one at a time. Everything in those days was based in New York. We all made the rounds and either saw the art director or the editor. They called, we came. Coronet illustrations were tiny, but not as tiny as the ones we all did for the Readers Digest. Now those were really small..."

"...but they paid better."

* Be sure to visit Hogan's Alley so you can marvel at fifty-plus years of Roy Doty's Christmas card art.

* My Roy Doty Flickr set.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Noel Sickles Pays the Bills

An interesting discussion has been continuing in the comments section of last week's Jon Whitcomb post. It revolves around a variety of nuances regarding the merit of certain illustrators and types of illustration. A point was raised that some artists, Noel Sickles among them, would rather turn down a commission than simply give the client 'whatever they want'. With respect, I submit this Noel Sickles series from Fortune magazine, circa 1951.

To be fair, the ads in Fortune were never intended for a broad public viewing. Those businesses advertising were directing their message to other businesses, as is the case with this American Airlines freight-shipping series - but I gotta tell you - boy, this is some dull stuff!

This is what we in the doodling racket call "paying the bills", and its lacklustre appearance is usually the result of an agency presenting the illustrator with layouts that have been nailed down tighter than a drum, with absolutely no wiggle room left for the poor soul tasked with rendering the final execution.

You'd think with a talent of Noel Sickles' stature and ability that he could somehow turn this water into wine, or that on principal he would have passed on such a tedious series if the client refused to budge from their lame concepts and dreary compositions. But the truth is everyone needs to make a living. And a series of national ads for a major corporation pays very well... even better in 1951 than it would today.

With a name like Today's Inspiration you might be wondering what merit there is in seeing these ads, but in spite of everything said above I wanted readers to consider several important points: that even unspectacular Sickles is still Sickles, that seeing work like this reminds us that illustration is the business of crafting art in the service of utility, and finally, to quote an old friend, "Indoor work, no heavy lifting... where's the down-side?"

* My Noel Sickles Flickr set.

* Is it too late to ask Santa for Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles? I don't know - but it couldn't hurt to try!

* So how do you take what could be pretty mundane subject matter and set it on fire? Check out Charlie Allen's latest CAWS for the answer.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Storybook Style is the Christmas Style

As discussed in previous posts, advertisers found plenty of opportunities to employ the Storybook Style, as it was defined by the Golden Books group of artists: Art Seiden, Aurelius Battaglia, the Provensens, etc.

At no time of year was this more evident than at Christmas - a natural fit for illustration reminiscent of childhood, fairy tales, toys and decorations.

Unfortunately, most of this artwork went unsigned. But ocassionally, for those of us keen to identify and catalogue the work of specific mid-century illustrators, even the hint of a signature on a small spot like this is enough to verify a hunch.

I was thrilled to see Naiad Einsel's neatly printed name on this quartet of Christmas characters.

Newer readers will not regret going back through the Today's Inspiration archives and reading about Naiad and her husband Walter's careers, first posted in June 2006.

Want to see more? There are plenty of other examples in my Mid-Century X-mas Flickr set.

And for even more examples (though not necessarily with a Christmas theme) go to my Ads with 50's Storybook Styles Flickr set.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Austin Briggs' Christmas Stories

You could hardly find a more diametrically opposite approach to advertising art from Jon Whitcomb than that of Austin Briggs.

Where Whitcomb excelled at creating a world populated by impossibly perfect, glamorous dolls, Briggs masterfully conveyed an engaging realism that the viewer could completely relate to. Briggs' family could be anyone's family. The husband in this ad couldn't be more everyman if he tried.

Especially charming about this everyman is that Briggs intentionally did not obscure his bended knees. He could have placed gifts or wrapping paper in that part of the composition, which would have made for a more idealized scene. I like to think he felt it was important that we see those legs and feet - not just to clarify the position of the man's body - but because it adds an endearing sense of humility and humanity to his character. This man adores his wife. He didn't stand over her or sit in a chair across the room while she opened the package. This is a cherished gift for the love of his life. His manner reflects extremely well on the client's product.

That sentiment is reflected in the expression on the wife's face. You can almost imagine her remembering the moment he proposed. And his daughter's rapt attention to this intimate exchange between her parents is equally important. Briggs placed her at close quarters because he wants us to appreciate that her participation is meaningful - she will look for that quality she sees in her father in the man she one day chooses to marry. This is the remarkable thing about Briggs' abilities as a visual storyteller.

Finally, amusingly - and let's face it - very realistically, is the way Briggs has the little brother off in his own world, focused entirely on his new toy train. How typical! Another illustrator would have had the whole family front and centre, eyes as big as saucers, outlandishly huge smiles on their faces, everyone slavishly enraptured by the product, which would have been blazing like the sun itself. Not Austin Briggs.

Just a week later, another Christmas-themed painting appeared in the Post, also by Briggs, but for a different client. There's just as much storytelling here as in the piece above -- but I'll let you do your own analysis on this one. I'm mainly showing it to demonstrate how in-demand Briggs was, not just for editorial work, which seems a more natural fit, but with advertisers as well.

* My Austin Briggs Flickr set.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Jon Whitcomb's Community Christmas

Change may be the only constant, but during the 40's and 50's the steady stream of Community silverware ads that came out of Jon Whitcomb's studio were not only constant, they were largely unchanging.

The Community ads are representative of a long-held criticism of Whitcomb's work: he was prolific... and formulaic, say his detractors. But his influence on a generation of artists who specialized in the "big head" or "clinch" style of romance illustration is undeniable.

Actually, Whitcomb did have his admirers... Barbara Bradley once wrote to me, "I believe his abilities and skills are underappreciated today. He could draw! He made people look the way he wanted them to. He designed their gorgeous clothes. No one, even if they wanted to, could make eyes sparkle, lips as moist, and hair shine quite as much as did Whitcomb. His technique in watercolor and his brushwork were amazing: fluid, controlled, and varied. His portrayal of women date more than those of many other illustrators, probably because of their almost exaggerated glamour. When he painted a housewife, she wore stiletto heels, her apron ties were starched, and the flowers in her hair were fresh. But, how he could paint!"

"Whitcomb was the first magazine illustrator I really noticed. He was actually number 1 in my Hit Parade in my early high school years." Barbara concludes, "I think that he was incapable of drawing a less than beautiful girl or handsome man. He was a masterful illustrator!"

And to drive home the point, TI list member Thomas B. Sawyer (a masterful illustrator in his own right) shares this revealing anecdote:

"I remember an incident [at the Society of Illustrators] -- I think from before I was actually a member. I was at the bar with Leonard Starr, and the club was having a show of Jon Whitcomb's work. A couple of older members were beside us, making smartass remarks about Whitcomb, putting him and his illustrations down. As they wandered off, Teddy, the club's wonderful bartender, confided, as he cleared away their glasses: "I hear a lotta members make fun of Mr. Whitcomb and his work, but y'know, in the last ten years, Mr. Whitcomb ain't made less than $100,000 (in those days, a lot of money), and I don't think there's another member of this club can say that."

Tom writes, "While I do not think that money is what it was all about, I sensed, as did others, that there was a certain amount of (judgmental and financial) envy."

* My Jon Whitcomb Flickr set.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Eric Gurney's Tiny Santas

Your looking at some of Eric Gurney's earliest work as a freelance illustrator.

Gurney, who grew up in Toronto, Ontario, not an hour from where I sit as I type this, left home in 1938 to work for Walt Disney studios in California.

Ten years later he was in New York City, represented by Lester Rossin - the same agency that also repped David Stone Martin - and this December 1948 ad for Proctor was undoubtably one of his first assignments.

Gurney, who won the 'Best in Advertising and Illustration' award from the National Cartoonists Society in 1961 and again in 1971, went on to both write and illustrate children's books which, as he says in his NCS bio, "sold in the millions."

* My Eric Gurney Flickr set.

* Eric Gurney's 'Calculating Cat' at GoofButton.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Happy Kaiser Kristmas!

Isn't this 1948 Kaiser Aluminum ad a gas? Its a veritable Christmas morning cornucopia of all things metallic... an expression of the unbridled enthusiasm a client can have for its own product. Kudos to Kaiser for pushing the concept WAY over the top.

I mean yes, the brand new bicycle is a familiar motif in scenes of Christmas morning...

... but a full-size aluminum playground slide in the living room? Yow! -- I wonder how late dad was up building that monstrosity!

Our own Charlie Allen did his share of Kaiser Aluminum ads, so I took the liberty of asking if he recognized this one. Charlie replied, "Wow....as usual, thought I knew everything about SF illustration in the old days. Had not seen that one. Have a strong hunch...judging from the figures..."

"...strong values..."

"...the dalmatian 'firehouse dog' (he liked those), etc..."

"... that it was done by Stan Galli. Before I got to P&H, for sure. The date of the ad also points to Galli. I joined P&H in l948, and probably did my first Kaiser ad in l951. Wonder if there are more out there?"

If there are, I'll be on the look out for them, Charlie - and many thanks for the assist!

Speaking of Charlie, he's got the latest installment of the CAWS posted, so head right over to Charlie Allen's Blog. "It'll keep the doctor away."

* My Mid-century X-mas Flickr set.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Jan Balet Sends a Christmas Gift

Most of you will recall our recent look at the career of Jan Balet. Among Balet's many high-profile assignments was his long-running series of Lee's Carpet ads.

As we once more kick off 'The Countdown to Christmas', I'm delighted to share with you this note I received from Jan Balet himself last month...

Along with the note came two books - one, a beautiful collection of the artist's recent work; the other, a wonderful photo collection by Martin Möll celebrating Balet's 85th birthday. The book is copyright 1998, meaning that Jan Balet is now 95.

I'm sure you all join me in hoping he makes a speedy recovery from his time in the hospital, and I look forward to presenting a second week on his career based on our eventual correspondence - hopefully some time early next year!

* My Jan Balet Flickr set.

* Photo © Martin Möll