Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Third Day of Hess-mas

Merry Christmas to all...

... and to all a good night!

(See you in 2010)

* My Lowell Hess Flickr set.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Second Day of Hess-mas

One thing that always amazes me when I look at Lowell Hess' work is how frequently he had to roll up his sleeves and get busy on a BIG SCENE.

The results were always nothing less than spectacular. Yesterday I showed you one Lowell's last Boys' Life covers... here's one of his first - from December 1950.

Lowell told me more than once that Jan Balet was a big influence on him during the early days of his career. But personally I think he was already coming into his own style with that Boys' Life cover. By the time he did the massive, magnificent scene below for the December 1957 issue of Today's Living, his work was pure Lowell Hess.

* I have placed extra large scans in this post so go ahead and click on the image to enjoy all the details.

And then of course there is the diametric opposite of the typical Lowell Hess "Big Scene". In fact some of my favourite pieces by Lowell are his many crossword puzzle magazine covers. Each one is a simple, beautiful statement in character design and composition...

... always managing to tell an amusing silent story with a minimal number of visual elements - and always cleverly incorporating the mandatory crossword puzzle grid as apart of the picture.

When I first told Lowell how much I loved these he could hardly imagine why - at the time when they were assigned they were, to him, just low paying "quickies" - but when we spoke again more recently he mentioned that I had convinced him to look again at these 'simple statements', and that he now thought they were "actually pretty good."

No kidding! I think you'll agree: they're wonderful!

* I should mention again that Lowell has a website where you can see many examples of his work. Why not drop by there, have a look, and perhaps leave Lowell a Christmas greeting through his 'Contact Us' page.

* My Lowell Hess Flickr set.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The First Day of Hess-mas

Its no secret that I'm very fond of Lowell Hess - both the man, and his art. Lowell spent the last decades of his career working on staff as a paper engineer, designer, and in-house illustrator at a greeting card company called Graphics3. There he designed countless cards and calendars - many with Christmas themes, like this one below - which Lowell created back in the early 1980s.

Many years before Lowell stopped freelancing he was already the go-to guy for delightful Santa Claus pictures. Here's a wonderful Christmas illustration he did for Collier's magazine back in 1953...

Lowell did 22 covers for Boys' Life. This one, from December 1961, was one of his last.

Here's another Santa; this time from 1968. You can see how Lowell was changing his style to try to keep up with the times. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, he found it increasingly difficult to land steady, well-paying assignments. His situation was typical of many illustrators during those times. That dearth of work was what ultimately lead to Lowell giving up on freelance illustration and taking the full-time job at Graphics3.

Normally, as the holiday season approaches, its become a tradition for me to do a "Countdown to Christmas" here on Today's Inspiration. With things being so tumultuous in my life this year I just didn't manage to pull the material together in time. Instead, with Christmas fast approaching, let's enjoy "The Three Days of Hess-mas"... and that'll be it for 2009!

* My Lowell Hess Flickr set.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Victor Kalin and the Merrill Company

Writing in Illustration Magazine #22 about her first visit to the long-shuttered Merrill Company warehouse, Jean Woodcock describes the fascinating scene: "We had no idea what awaited us inside. What we saw was overwhelming! Stacked in no order, almost to the ceiling, were thousands of books. There was hardly space to walk down the aisles."

"There were some large flat filing cabinets, and flat upon flat where the artwork was placed. Each piece was wrapped in butcher paper and labeled with the title, year, and artist - by first initial and last name. After I purchased the company, I discovered there were also brass printing plates for her catalogs; a large folder on every published book containing everything from its beginning to end; files of artists and illustrators; books containing the copyrights; company meeting books, and record books of everything produced; files and files of tearsheets with the artists' names indicated; and so on. As it turned out there were over 3,000 cartons alone, not counting everything else."

Above, two scans of original Merrill colouring book cover art by Victor Kalin. They were among the contents Jeanie found after her purchase of the company. The scan at top is courtesy of

According to Walt Reed's Illustrator in America, Victor Kalin was born in Belleville, Kansas in 1919. That would have made him around 26 or 27 years old when he did the two pieces below for Liberty magazine.

Reed writes, "[Kalin's] first illustrations were done for The American Weekly but for many years the majority of his pictures were painted for paperback book covers."

He continues, "Unlike many artists who develop a strong, easily identifiable technique, [Victor Kalin] was so interested in experimentation that his work looked continually new."

Certainly these three examples, found on Flickr, confirm that statement. I was amazed to see how much Kalin's work had evolved in a relatively short span of time. The work at the top of this post is from the late '40s to early '50s while these covers are from around 1957 to 1960. Walt Reed write that "in the competitive field of illustrating for paperback book covers, where the drive is always to look as new as possible, this was an ideal qualification."

While searching for additional info on the Internet I stumbled upon a blog where Kalin's daughter Rebecca left a message and a nice quote that makes a fitting conclusion to this post:

“Vic died 11/24/91... he was witty, talented, always cheerful, and an absolute angel.”

*Original art dealer Mitch Itkowitz has a new catalogue of original Merrill cover paintings available from his website, There are also about twenty images from the catalogue on the website.

* Many thanks to Jean Woodcock and to Mitch for the scans at the top of today's post.

* My Victor Kalin Flickr set.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tom Shoemaker and the Merrill Company

* If you already ready this post, take a second look - there's an important addendum further down!

Long time readers may remember this dramatic piece from our week on "illustrating water" back in 2006.

Its hard to believe that the charming image below could be by the same artist - but yes, they are both by an illustrator named Thomas Shoemaker.

The scan above of the original art for a 1956 Merrill colouring book is courtesy of

Here are a couple of pieces from the early '50s by Shoemaker, from The American magazine. Coincidentally they are from the same issues in which Walter Baumhofer had work.

I often wonder how an illustrator of Shoemaker's obvious talents could have had so little credited work in the major magazines. He must have focused his efforts on advertising art - lucrative work that was often done anonymously.

Here's the only other piece I've ever found by Shoemaker; the cover of Elks magazine, from 1960.

I wish I could tell you more... unfortunately Thomas Shoemaker is one of those many talented mid-century artists who has left behind almost no trace of his career.

Addendum: Much to my surprise, I actually have quite a bit more info on Tom Shoemaker, and its thanks to our friend, Harry Borgman, who wrote to me shortly after this post appeared:

"I read your post on Tom Shoemaker, I knew him fairly well, he came to Detroit sometime in the 1950's and worked for Friedrich, Frisbie & Cox and also Art Group."

"He was a great illustrator and a fantastic person, a really great guy. He went back to Westport, not sure when, and had a terrible accident which killed him. He pulled his car up to his garage and accidently left it in gear. when he was opening the garage door his car ran into him."

"One of my best friends, Tom Clarke, an art director, was a good buddy of Tom's and saw a lot of him, I could see if he happens to have any of Tom's work, or knows more about him. Attached is a piece that I found, it's an illo done in 1960 for GM's Hyatt Bearing Division, agency: D. P. Brother, Art Director: Nick Hornbacher, who later became an award winning Detroit photographer."

And then yesterday, Harry sent a second note with even more revelations about Shoemaker:

"Hi Leif, Tonight I spoke with Tom Clarke who was a good friend of Tom Shoemaker, they took the train into NY every day from Westport. Shoemaker was working at one of the studios there but Clarke was not sure which one, this was in the early 70's. Shoemaker also used to work with either Leonard Starr or Stan Drake on their comic strips. Tom Clarke does not have any reproductions of Shoemaker's work. As an interesting side note, Shoemaker was dating Betty Davis at the time and Tom Clarke was dating a famous French actress, Corinne Calvet."

"Shoemaker was a popular guy, I'm sure that other readers of TI will be able to add more info for you." Harry

Many thanks to Harry Borgman for doing all this excellent detective work to fill in some of the blanks on Tom Shoemaker's career!

Addendum 2: To follow up on Harry Borgman's info on Tom Shoemaker I contacted Thomas Sawyer, who knew Stan Drake very well and is friends with Leonard Starr. Tom sent back the following info from Leonard:

"All I know about Tom Shoemaker I got from Stan but I never met him. He went to Spain as Stan's assistant during Stan's year and a half stay there which suggests that his career wasn't thriving. I saw some of the backgrounds he did and they were good, illustrative rather than cartoonish. His end was a horror story. Getting out of his car at a mall he neglected to put the car in PARK. Seeing it was starting to roll, he tried to jump back into the driver's seat, one arm outside of the car somehow causing the arm to be sheared off by a utility pole. By the time medical help arrived he'd lost too much blood to be saved. His daughter Kim used to come around the studio from time to time, Stan had used her as a model. Sweet girl. If she could be located she might be able to provide some more - L."

Many thanks to both Tom and Leonard. Its a shame to discover Tom Shoemaker had such an untimely and tragic death, but at least now we have a more thorough documentation about the artist than I could have ever imagined.

*Original art dealer Mitch Itkowitz has a new catalogue of original Merrill cover paintings available from his website, There are also about twenty images from the catalogue on the website.

* Many thanks to Jean Woodcock and to Mitch for the scan near the top of today's post.

* My Tom Shoemaker Flickr set.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Walter Baumhofer and the Merrill Company

"From all accounts [Merrill Company] founder Marion Merrill was a stern and dedicated leader," writes Jean Woodcock in her article in Illustration Magazine #22. "She selected the artists, suggested cover concepts, and supervised every facet of their production."

Further on Jeanie writes, "Miss Merrill was a perfectionist and she surely frustrated many of her artists. She made profuse comments and criticisms, and often said, "You can do better than that."

Above, courtesy of, the original art for a 1955 Merrill colouring book by the legendary Walter Baumhofer.

Though he began his career in the low-paying pulp market (he painted the first series of Doc Savage pulp magazine covers, among countless other adventure, crime and western subjects) by the mid-1950s Walter Baumhofer had long been a mainstay of all 'the slicks'. No doubt he was used to high paying, high profile assignments - not to mention lucrative national advertising accounts.

Knowing as we do now (thanks to Barbara Bradley) that the Merrill Company paid in the neighbourhood of $300 for a cover painting, its interesting to imagine how an illustrator of Walter Baumhofer's stature might have reacted to Miss Merrill's criticisms.

Jeanie's speculation that Miss Merrill probably caused many of her artists some frustration is very likely correct. Still, $300 in the mid-'50's was a heck of a lot more than it is today... and just as Barbara described fitting her Merrill assignments in between her ad work at The Cooper Studio, Baumhofer probably did the same. Its a testament to his professionalism that he did not think he was "too good" for a relatively low paying colouring book assignment.

That's something Barbara mentioned to me in one of her notes. She wrote, "Marion Merrill hired some great illustrators to do work, illustrators I never guessed would do such work: Haddon Sundblom (Coca Cola), Jon Whitcomb, Joe Bowler...all Hall of Famers now."

Original art dealer Mitch Itkowitz has a new catalogue of original Merrill cover paintings available from his website, There are also about twenty images from the catalogue on the website.

* Many thanks to Jean Woodcock and to Mitch for the scan at the top of today's post.

* My Walter Baumhofer Flickr set.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pete Hawley and the Merrill Company

In her article in Illustration Magazine #22, Jean Woodcock describes the fascinating journey that ultimately lead to her owning the Merril Company archives: "In retrospect," writes Jeanie, "if it had not been for my curiousity, determination, tenacity and true grit, everything produced by Merrill would no longer exist."

Just imagine, if not for Jeanie's dedication, gorgeous original art, sketches and hand-written notes, like those you see in today's post, would certainly have ended up incinerated or in a landfill. For preventing that fate, and for her willingness to share these treasures with us, we are forever grateful.

As a working illustrator, nothing fascinates me more than seeing the process of other artists - especially the great mid-century illustrators like Pete Hawley, whom I so admire. Studying original art, examining comps and sketches and scrutinizing any notes jotted down in the borders only enhance to the experience. To be privy to this long note from Hawley to Miss Marion Merrill is an absolute thrill.

"Dear Miss Merrill," writes the artist, "I could go on with these all week... but knowing you're in a hurry I'll send them on - have used The Champ title and size for lack of anything better."

"Hope I haven't picked on any Verbotten subjects this time - especially the knight in shining armour... I'd like to do that one best."

"If any of these are usable and you don't like the color scheme, just have your man paint the desired colors on the cellophane. I've forgotten your preferences in background colors. Have other ideas on young mermaid watercolorists, artistic centipedes, etc - but another time. Am tossing in the battered old school bus tissue as I'm tired of seeing it around. Best, Pete"

These colour roughs must have been cover proposals for Merrill books - and clearly some of the artist's earlier suggestions had been rejected because of the subject matter he chose.

Pete Hawley went on to do quite a few pieces for various Merrill books. I think its especially interesting to see these early 1950s examples - already so sophisticated! - of compositions and subjects very similar to the sort of things he would specialize in a decade or more later for American Greetings.

Original art dealer Mitch Itkowitz shows three pieces by Pete Hawley in his new catalogue of original Merrill cover paintings, which is available today from

There are also about twenty images from the catalogue on the website.

* Many thanks to Jean Woodcock for providing the bulk of today's scans - and to Mitch for the scan at the top of today's post.

* My Pete Hawley Flickr set.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Buried Treasure: The Merrill Company

Sometimes I think about the fact that tucked away here and there all over the planet are long forgotten caches of hidden treasure! Back in October of 2008, for instance, David Roach wrote about his discovery of a warehouse full of original British comic book art that he unearthed. This week we'll touch on another such story.

In Illustration Magazine #22, Jean Woodcock wrote a fascinating, profusely illustrated article describing the history of the Merrill Publishing Company and how she came to acquire it.

Around that same time, Jeanie and I began corresponding. It was always our intention to feature her Merrill artwork for a week here on Today's Inspiration - and now a new development makes this the appropriate time to do so: original art dealer Mitch Itkowitz, acting as Jeanie's agent, is about to release a catalogue of the first group of Merrill originals being offered for sale - and just in time for Christmas (hint, hint).

* The catalogue and related images on Mitch's website, will 'go live' tomorrow (Tuesday) morning.

Because Jeanie's article is already available from Illustration Magazine, I decided to take a different approach with this week's topic and focus instead on five of the artists whose work is featured in Mitch's catalogue. Many thanks to Mitch for providing a nice large scan for each of the artists we'll look at this week. We'll begin with Barbara (Briggs) Bradley.

Below is a "reprint" of a post first presented in February 2008 wherein Barbara described what it was like to work for Miss Marion Merrill. By way of introduction I'll add this amusing short note I received from Barbara back when she and I were first planning a week on her career for the blog:

Barbara wrote, "I'm stunned by how fast I used to be able to work. I cranked them out. I'm also amused at the vast number of hysterically happy children, bows, flowers, and fluffy clothing. My son says they are all on caffeine overload. These are social studies as well as ancient art."


"Queen of the Perkies and Cutes"

"Some of my early freelance work was for the Merrill Publishing Company (coloring book covers, paper doll books, etc.)" wrote Barbara in a recent email message. A cache of Barbara's original art for the publisher recently came to light, so I asked her if she would elaborate on the specifics of working for this client. Since the Merrill work occurred around the time when Barbara was still at the Cooper studio in New York - and continued for a period after her move to the West Coast - consider today's post a sort of "sidebar" to Barbara's narrative of her career. I think you'll agree that its a fascinating opportunity to better understand the nuts and bolts of one illustrator's life at that time and place.

As I remember, these covers paid $300. I may have received more for the Heavenly Blue Wedding. It was the year's major project and had many more figures. I was either offered more or bargained for more.

I wouldn't have done those for $300.

Remember that $300 went a lot further in the early 50's. My starting salary at Cooper's was $50 a week. Cooper raised that to $100 within a month. Starting salary for an Art Director at Y & R in 1951 was $65 a week. You could get a lunch at Schraft's for 50 cents so $65 seemed like a fortune to someone just out of Art School. Oh yes, I did the clothes for a few of my paper doll They were pure fun. No models to book..just fantasy. They paid $150 a page. (Remind me to send you a page from the only one I have.)

As for time... I'm guessing that I was given several weeks but that that involved about three to four total days of work. However, Marion Merrill wanted to see pencils so the work was always staggered with Cooper work at the same time. When I was salaried, I did freelance projects before and after regular hours and weekends. When I changed to commissioned work, I could fit them in as needed. Each usually took part of a day for preliminary sketches for myself, part of another for a model shoot and another to work them together in a composition, get any needed reference, and do the pencil. The painting usually took no more than a day. I also remember that the first deadline I ever missed was for one of the Merrill jobs. Lauchlin, my first child, arrived ten days before expected. Marion Merrill was quite understanding.

I didn't usually receive a layout but I vaguely recall that Marion indicated how many figures she wanted. She also always wanted to see pencils before proceeding with the finish. (In the Merrill Pub Archives are decades worth of pencil drawings). She probably suggested the content scene such as cake cutting. I might have had some kind of layout for "Pals to paint and Color", with the close-up of the little boy. I'd completely forgotten that one but recognized it when I saw it again. I painted the brush under the palettes so that must have been in a layout. I came up with most of the ideas, and definitely the gestures,compositions, and little businesses. The titles and samples of the book contents were usually enough to set the scene. I remember being pleased with incorporating the title of "Read, Write, and Count" in little slates and having the doll hold one.

Your statement that these fascinate you is amazing to me. Perhaps it's because the world of ideal childhood they represent almost seems like something from the 19th century rather than the 20th. No pants on girls. Bows everywhere. Every dress starched. I was queen of the perkies and the cutes. And note that every child was Caucasian.

Illustrators took that for granted then. Incidentally, the first time I was asked by an Art Director to show ethnic diversity was in the 70's. That was for a poster for Shasta soft drinks.

Barbara Bradley received the 2007 Outstanding Educator in the Arts Award from the Society of Illustrators. She is the retired Director of Illustration at the Academy of Art University. The Academy has created a blog, in her honor. She is also the subject of an in-depth interview and related article by Neil Shapiro in the current issue of Illustration magazine.

Addendum: Barbara Bradley died on May 2nd 2008.

My Barbara Bradley Flickr set.