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Celebrating Illustration, Design, Cartoon and Comic Art of the Mid-20th Century

Bernie Fuchs... “A Guiding Light” part 1

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

by Tom Watson

* Note: For some bizarre reason I'm unable to post both Tom's text and images together in one post. There must be some weird coding issue at work but I don't have the time or technical expertise to sort it out. I'm sorry I have to present the material this way today, but in the interest of making everything available to readers, here's Tom's text - and then scroll down to the next post for the related images by Bernie Fuchs. ~ L

When Leif asked me to write my thoughts and recollections of the illustrations of Bernie Fuchs, I thought... what can I say that hasn’t already been said so eloquently? I never met Bernie Fuchs, but like so many, I wished I had. However, I remember the first time I... or I should say, we students saw a magazine truck ad, illustrated with the look and feel of an Austin Briggs illustration... but, there was no signature. We thought, if Briggs did it, his signature would be there... so, “who is this guy?!” It was 1959, and I was an illustration major at the Academy of Art in S.F. Yes, it was 50 years ago, and that first Fuchs illustration I saw was more than likely sometime in September. When Leif informed me of his passing last Friday, the year and month profoundly came to mind.

I knew little about the world of illustration in 1959, but I was fast becoming familiar with the top guns of the 50’s, like Al Parker, Austin Briggs, Coby Whitmore, Joe Bowler, Joe De Mers, Robert Fawcett, Jack Potter and a host of others... but “who was this guy that seemed to have just fallen out of the sky”. We just stared at that impressively complicated illustration without a name.. full of overlapping, well painted and well staged figures. “Do you think he illustrated the truck too?”, we wondered. “This guy is really good, but who is he?!” Even our instructor Bob Foster (who became a successful paper back cover illustrator for the Sci Fi market in the 60’s and 70’s) was scratching his head and commented, “It isn’t Austin Briggs, but he comes awful close”. Just about that time, we were beginning to see these amazingly well done illustrations, mostly in gouache, by a guy with an odd name.. or at least for a 19 year old, well almost 19, “Bernie Fuchs” was an odd name. Bob Foster apparently did some research and found out a little about the new, soon to be top gun illustrator.. and we were able to attach a name to that remarkable illustration for the truck ad, that we were so impressed by, earlier.

Well, this rapidly elevated our search for the month’s top gun illustrators in the selected magazines, such as McCalls, Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Fortune, Esquire and a few others. We found a new bright light, and we were hungry to see much more of his work. From that time on, Bernie Fuchs did not let us down one bit.. in fact, he thrilled us with every new story illustration, and he became our central focus. They were masterfully drawn, skillfully painted and he he had his own brand of beautifully designed figures, overlapping one another in unique ways, creating a visual flow throughout the composition. And, his beautiful use of negative space, was stunning to us. He seemed to have the knowledge and skills of a seasoned veteran in his 40’s.. but he was still only in his 20’s! “How did this guy get so good, so fast”... as we literally watched it happen before our eyes, one incredible illustration after another. It gave us hope that there was opportunity for young upcoming illustrators in magazine story illustration... but it was clear, you had to be good.. really good!

By the time I was out of art school and working at my first illustration job in 1963, Bernie Fuchs had literally catapulted to the top, and he was THE man to watch! Sports Illustrated was now added to my list of magazines to watch for some really cool illustrations. He was loosening up and experimenting with a combination of charcoal pencil under-drawings, with loose transparent brushy Acrylic washes on top of a gesso textured illustration board... at least that is what it looked like to me. He was setting the standard for illustration all over the country. A.D.s wanted something that a photograph couldn’t do, and Bernie Fuchs had the solution every time he was given an assignment. Photography was forcing the issue, and he responded with top quality innovative illustrations, employing unique compositions and interesting abstract shapes and textural effects. The thing with Bernie Fuchs was that he never rested on his laurels. He just wasn’t satisfied pumping out more of the same that had won him awards and gave him the top assignments month after month. He just kept digging for something different, and IMO, he NEVER sacrificed quality to experiment and be different.

Since I didn’t know Bernie Fuchs, I can only tell you that looking at his work, I see a sensitivity that must have run deep in his soul.. a sensitivity and perhaps an instinctive understanding of wonderful design, delicate superb draftsmanship, subtle carefully developed color schemes, innovative compositions and skillful brush manipulation. But, all those surface qualities can’t work alone when doing an illustration.. the concept is the first step, and Bernie Fuchs was a master at developing an effective unique concept.

By the mid 60’s he began experimenting in mixed media, changing his color schemes and developing heavier textural effects. I watched his work become somewhat less literal, and more design oriented, but he always paid attention to accuracy and draftsmanship. He later began using thicker painterly effects, covering any underlying pencil marks, and working in more dark and light opaque patterns. His work was now in nearly every aspect of editorial and advertising illustration, as well as posters and book illustrations. And then, because of an assignment for Lithopinion, in which he was trying to find a method of creating the effect of a still life illustration of a glass of beer on a shiny bar top, he began experimenting again with different painting effects. His solution was to apply thin stains of mid and dark tone colors on canvas in oil paint, and then rubbing out the lights, and painting back into the light areas with subtle more opaque hues. He stayed with that procedure, perfecting it, and adjusting it for a variety of assignments. And, it worked well for him in his fine art endeavors as well.

Those are my impressions of Bernie Fuchs, for the last 50 years, who has provided me with inspiration and knowledge in every drawing and painting I see of his. His work was one of the major influences that revealed to me the possibilities, and helped make life exciting as a student, an illustrator and later in fine art. While teaching, I told my art students.. “look, analyze, admire and learn from the great illustrators and great painters.. they can teach you volumes”.

And Bernie Fuchs is certainly worthy of being called a great illustrator.

* Many thanks to Tom Watson for sharing his thoughts and recollections of Bernie Fuchs with us, as well as providing all of today's scans. I still have quite a few BF illustrations to share this week (thanks to our own Charlie Allen) but would very much like to have some interesting anecdotal text to accompany them. If you would like to do the share your thoughts on Bernie Fuchs as a guest author, drop me an email at leifpeng[at]gmail[dot]com.

*And be sure to drop by Charlie Allen's Blog to see the latest CAWS: Charlie's magnificent marine paintings.

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