Like most children, when Bernie Fuchs was a boy he enjoyed drawing and doodling in his school notebooks. But he had no ambitions to become an illustrator (at that young age he didn't even know what an illustrator was) and he never painted a single picture in high school. The summer after graduation Fuchs lost three fingers on his right hand in a terrible workplace accident, making it almost impossible to hold a pencil. The following year he found a job on an assembly line in a puppet factory, painting the cartoon heads on puppets. He was fired because he was so bad at it.
Ten years later Bernie Fuchs was one of the top illustrators in America.
How a little boy from the coal mining town of O'Fallon, Illinois who's father abandoned the family when Bernie was only four...
... became the Artists Guild of New York's "Artist of the Year" by age 30 and the youngest person ever elected to the Illustrators Hall of Fame is a remarkable story of triumph over adversity and a celebration of what can be accomplished through hard work and determination -even during one of the most trying times in the history of illustration.
Walt Reed, author of "The Illustrator in America" said that "his pictures are probably more admired - and more imitated - than those of any other current illustrator."
David Apatoff wrote an issue-long (now out of print) article on Bernie Fuchs in Illustration magazine #15. He shared this anecdote with me recently and, with David's permission, I'm sharing it here with you:
"The first time I met Bernie ... was when I wrote that article. He and I were getting acquainted in his huge studio and the walls were plastered with drawings and paintings, some by Bernie but mostly from his peers who he admired (Al Parker, Bowler, Briggs, etc.). Bernie didn’t know what the heck to make of me; he assumed I must be just another dopey newspaper reporter who didn’t know anything about illustration. I saw an Austin Briggs drawing on the wall and I said, “hey-- nice Briggs.” Bernie immediately perked up, because Briggs was Bernie’s mentor and one of his closest friends. He said, “You know Austin’s work?” Somehow we got into this game where he started testing me by going around the room, saying “Who is that?” I was getting them all correct, one after the other. I felt like Annie Oakley sharpshooting targets at a carnival: bang bang bang bang bang. Finally, I screwed up. I said “that’s Coby Whitmore” and Bernie got this hurt look on his face."
"He said, “no, I did that.” I was so aghast that he laughed and decided to take mercy on me. He said, “when I first came to Westport I was a big admirer of Coby’s. I got an assignment for a woman’s magazine and I didn’t know any models in town or anything yet, so Coby-- who became a great friend-- loaned me the two models he always used. And I did the illustration in a Coby Whitmore style and sent it in to the magazine which loved it but mistakenly ran it with a credit line, “Coby Whitmore.” They didn’t really know me yet and assumed it must have come from him. But the punchline is that when the magazine came out with the misattribution, Coby’s son called him to say that he thought Coby’s illustration in that issue was one of the best things Coby had ever done! So I guess I can’t blame you for getting it wrong.”
It was my intention this week to (finally) showcase the work of Bernie Fuchs for the benefit of readers who were unaware, as I once was, of his work and how powerfully influential it has been on countless artists - and on the entire profession - over the last 50 years.
Many thanks to Charlie Allen for all his many scans, David Apatoff (who provided the photo of Bernie, as well as his childhood drawings), and all the enthusiastic commentors who contributed so much to our discussion this week. We will definitely be revisiting the work of Bernie Fuchs again in the months ahead.
* My Bernie Fuchs Flickr set.
Addendum: Bernie's Big Brushes
Several comments about the size of Bernie's brushes in the photo above compelled me to add the photo below, from David Apatoff's article in Illustration magazine #15.
I can't, however, explain why it appears Bernie has a full set of fingers on his right hand in that photo-- perhaps David will enlighten us.