Friday, February 26, 2010

Leif Peng: An Illustrator You Should Know?

Well, I dunno. The jury's still out on that.
But Thomas James, the genius behind Escape from Illustration Island, one of the best illustration resources on the Net, seems to think so. Thomas interviewed me recently for his excellent, ongoing EFII podcast series. If you haven't had enough of my blather here on Today's Inspiration (or if you're just curious to hear what I sound like) then go on over to Escape from Illustration Island and click the play button.

Harry Beckhoff: An Illustrator You Should Know

I was going to show some work by David Grove today, but when Howard Chaykin leaves a comment and asks for Harry Beckhoff, what choice do I have? I've been following this guy since I first read Cody Starbuck at age 14 in an old 'ground-level' comic called Star*Reach. But back to Beckhoff. Howard is absolutely correct that he is an illustrator you should know.

Above, a Beckhoff illustration from a 1936 Collier's magazine, courtesy of Heritage Auctions. Just seven years earlier Beckhoff had his first magazine illustration published in The Country Gentleman. His style was so entirely appropriate for the times, wasn't it?

Not surprisingly, he soon began receiving commissions from all the major magazines, but was especially closely associated with Collier's.

In the early 1940's Harry Beckhoff illustrated what must have been an extremely lucrative series of ads for Birds Eye frozen foods that regularly appeared in the front pages of Life magazine. Beckhoff had a unique approach to executing his work: he would do small but very accurate thumbnails ( that even included clearly defined facial expressions ) which he would blow up to about five times their original size...

... and then ink in their outlines. He then added tone and colour with flat washes.

This may have been a time saving measure on Beckhoff's part, working from blown-up thumbnails instead of having to execute a complete full-sized pencil drawing, but I suspect it was more about capturing the energy and gestural qualities in that original thumbnail sketch...

... something that many artists feel is lost when a first rough is refined over and over.

I've loved Harry Beckhoff's work since the moment I first saw it, but what has always fascinated me is how his style never seemed to change or advance or evolve with the times. It looked like it came from (and belonged in) the 1930s and even as other illustrators adapted their styles to changing trends, Harry Beckhoff's style remained firmly entrenched in the '30s. Here's another piece from Heritage Auctions, from Collier's, 1950.

Then, much to my surprise, I discovered this 1956 story in Cosmopolitan magazine, illustrated by Harry Beckhoff. This was really exciting. Here was Harry Beckhoff art looking really contemporary for the times!

I've written before in praise of Cosmo AD, Robert C. Atherton. Was he the one who encouraged Beckhoff to push the envelope?

Or was Beckhoff finding it harder to land enough work because his style was, perhaps, simply not modern enough for most clients' wishes?

Whatever the case may be, this series from 1956 stands, for now, as the only one I've seen where Harry Beckhoff art didn't look like the typical Harry Beckhoff art.

And who knows? Maybe its just best to stick with what you're good at. By 1960 Harry Beckhoff was back doing his thing, this time for Reader's Digest Condensed Books. Although the reproduction quality on the cheap paper used by RDCB doesn't do Beckhoff's delicate line work and attractive colour schemes justice...

... this series from the then 60 year old illustrator is as lovely as anything he had ever done before.

Still, consider the work we've looked at so far... consider that the Cooper studio had come and gone... consider that Bernie Fuchs and Bob Peak where reinventing the look of mainstream illustration... and then look at what Beckhoff was still doing.

Of course the quality of the work is admirable...

Beckhoff's abilities unquestionable...

... but the word that comes to my mind is "quaint."

The latest piece by Harry Beckhoff I've ever found: from the 1963 book, Reader's Digest Treasury for Young Readers. By coincidence, Beckhoff was assigned to illustrate a story originally published in 1936 - the year he illustrated the Collier's piece at the top of this post. I don't doubt that the editors felt he would be perfect for this article because his style, like the story itself, was so dated.

Sometimes, if you stick to your guns long enough, you outgrow being considered "dated" and become a "specialist" - that rare commodity that is highly prized for having the expertise to do a certain thing better than almost anybody else. Let's hope that was the case for Harry Beckhoff, a wonderful illustrator you should definitely know.

* My Harry Beckhoff Flickr set.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bob Abbett: An Illustrator You Should Know

Here's a crazy concept for a story: What if a black man became president of the United States? Oh, how absurd! But that's exactly what Irving Wallace proposed back in 1964 with his book, "The Man."

When I discovered this story in a recently acquired volume of Reader's Digest Condensed Books I couldn't resist including it this week. Not only because it just seemed too, too perfect that this should fall into my hands during Black History Month...

... but also because the artist assigned to illustrate this story was one you should definitely know: Bob Abbett.

Born in Hammond, Indiana in 1926, Bob Abbett worked primarily as an illustrator of paperback covers during the mid-century period. In one quote I found he said, "I did cover art for many paperbacks including Ballantine, movie posters and some story illustration for True, Argosy, etc." The gorgeous illustration below is perhaps more typical of the kind of subject matter fans of genre fiction know him for. That piece seems a little out of place in the company of all the other paintings Abbett did for "The Man," but boy is it ever wonderful!

Not to say all of the other pieces in this series aren't magnificent. Bob Abbett really managed to infuse his work with a gloriously rich palette of colours.

As you scroll through this selection of images, notice how deliberately and effectively he assigned each illustration its own unique colour scheme.

Yet viewed as a group, they all relate to each other in a harmonious manner. It must have been deeply satisfying for the artist when he completed the series and could prop them up in his studio and admire them en masse.

To be honest, I have not seen a lot of Abbett's work and am getting to know him only now myself. But one thing I find really engaging about his technique is how textural his colour is. It almost has the appearance of crumpled paper that was flattened out again, then painted on. The effect is so lively, and Abbett's use of colour so creative, that even an otherwise forbidding scene like the one below seems somehow deliciously inviting. (Go on, click the picture and enjoy the larger view)

Returning for a moment to the story portrayed... I didn't do much more than skim through bit and pieces of it while scanning Bob Abbett's illustrations, so I'm not in a position to offer an authoritative synopsis. But it did feel very weird to discover this piece of fiction while living at this time in history. What seems so normal in today's world is proposed in "The Man" back in 1964 as a possibility under only the most unbelievable of circumstances...

From the Wikipedia page on "The Man": "the Vice-Presidency is vacant, because of the incumbent's death. Then, while overseas, the President and the Speaker of the House suffer a freak accident; the President is killed, the Speaker of the House dies in surgery. The Presidency then corresponds to Douglass Dilman, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, a black man earlier elected to that office in deference to racial tokenism."

"President Douglass Dilman's presidency is marked by white racists, black political activists, and an attempted assassination."

"Later, he is impeached on false charges for firing the United States Secretary of State."

"Moreover, racially, one of his children, "passing" for white, also is targeted and harassed."

*Whew!* The kicker was discovering that "The Man" was adapted into a film in 1972 with a screenplay written by Rod Serling -- as if to suggest that the story of an African American becoming President could only happen in the Twilight Zone!

Well, whatever artistic or historical merit "The Man" may (or may not) have, we are certainly fortunate that the editors at Reader's Digest saw in Bob Abbett a capable and inspired artist, one who could illustrate this story with dignity and acuity.

There is, of course, much more to the Bob Abbett story. You can discover it for yourself on his website.

* My Bob Abbett Flickr set.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ted CoConis: An Illustrator You Should Know

In one of our correspondences, David Blossom's son Peter wrote, "Back when we were growing up all the area artists knew each other and seemed, to us kids, to have a real social connection and (at least in our case) used each other as models. Ted CoConis (do you know his work? If you don't, you'd surely recognize it) was a close neighbor and my father used him in a number of illustrations and I used to model for Ted a lot as a child."

When I began compiling material for this week's series of posts I couldn't help but wonder if Peter Blossom had modeled for this gorgeous Reader's Digest Condensed Book series by Ted Coconis. Last night I wrote to Peter and asked him.

Peter very kindly got back to me right away: "That's not me in Ted CoConis's illustration," he wrote. "However, that's Ted on the upper right hand picture of the three "Dogs of War" in your post about my father."

I then went to the Internet hoping to locate some info on Ted CoConis and - wow! - Mr. CoConis has a website!

There's no need for me to provide a biography - you can read it at Ted CoConis' site (f you can tear yourself away from lingering over the many beautiful images in the gallery section, that is).

I will add this note, however, from Walt Reed's "Illustrator in America": Ted CoConis "has won numerous awards from the Society of Illustrators, The Art Directors Clubs of New York and Los Angeles, and other associations. His work is in the collections of The Society of Illustrators Museum of American Illustration, The Bishop Museum, and the Boca Raton Museum of Art, as well as several other corporate and private collections."

* My Ted CoConis Flickr set.

Monday, February 22, 2010

David Blossom: An Illustrator You Should Know

Last week's guest series by Tom Watson on his teacher and friend, Bob Foster, was certainly very well received. Many readers commented that there are so many great illustrators of the mid-century who are (too often) overlooked. As much as it has been the mission of Today's Inspiration to showcase the giants of the industry, its even more important to me that you discover all the other great illustrators who are, perhaps, less well known. One of those talented artists whose work we should definitely become more familiar with is David Blossom.

About a year ago, I received a note from Blossom's son, Peter:

"You don't have any of my dad's work, but you should! He was born in Chicago, Illinois but lived most of his life on the east coast, growing up in Rye, New York and Weston, Connecticut. He lived in Westport and Southport, Connecticut until 1963, when he moved with his family to Weston, where he lived until his death in 1995."

"He worked at Young & Rubicam as an art director (for the Ford Motor Company and Pan American Airways accounts) until moving to Weston, CT when he became a freelance illustrator. He created romance paperback book covers and Western themes (later in his career) and is also known for his movie posters (early Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly", "A Fistful of Dollars", and "A Few Dollars More" among others) and magazine covers. He was a regular cover (and interior) illustrator for Outdoor Life magazine and Reader's Digest, as well as many others."

* Note: today's series is from Reader's Digest Condensed Books - Leif

"David Blossom received the Society of Illustrator's Hamilton King Award for best illustration of the year by a member in 1973, and awards of excellence in the Society's annual shows."

"He was the son of Earl Blossom, an illustrator in the 1930's-'50's, the father of Christopher Blossom, a well-known marine artist, and also Peter Blossom, a graphic designer."

* This biography appears on

Peter adds, "I've been enjoying looking at your classic illustrations. They bring back a lot of memories of growing up, as my father was a contemporary and friend of a lot of the people you have in your classic illustrators archives."

With the help of Peter and his aunt (David Blossom's sister, Mary) I hope to bring you an entire week of posts on the magnificently talented artist some time soon!

* My David Blossom Flickr set.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bob Foster: "... a gentleman (with) personal high standards of integrity, as a teacher and a friend."

By Tom Watson Part 5

Bob explained to me an amusing account of how he was able to read the time consuming manuscripts of stories to be illustrated and still meet his deadlines. He explained that he didn’t read them, instead he hired prostitutes to come to his apartment / studio, who would read to him while he painted (I imagine at perhaps a lower rate than their normal fee).

He said they had time during the day, since their normal working hours were at night and into the early morning. He said they would also model for him occasionally, and they really enjoyed the change of pace. Yikes! The evidence is clear that illustration was linked to prostitution! What a terrible scandal -- I had no idea!

Of course, I'm joking. As much as Bob appreciated beautiful women (and he truly did) he was always a gentleman, and I never heard a crass or disrespectful word from him about anybody. I never observed anything that he said or did that breached personal high standards of integrity, as a teacher or a friend.

Bob found his niche in the pocket book cover market and remained quite busy through the 1960s and into the ‘70s. Unfortunately, he started his illustration career in N.Y. a decade too late to effectively compete in the ‘50s editorial market which had greatly inspired him. He certainly had all the tools and the skill level that was necessary, but it became an increasingly insecure and fickle market by the late 1950s, even for the the top names.

Incidentally, Sandy Kossin - a well known mid century illustrator - and Bob Foster became friends after moving to N.Y. They shared models and photo shooting sessions. They also would have lunch together at the Society of Illustrators, where they were both members. Foster and Kossin were admirers of one another's illustrations and shared the same high standards of professionalism. (Below, a 1970 Sandy Kossin paperback cover)

I lost contact with Bob after our visit in N.Y. and, in 1977, I heard through the illustration grapevine in San Francisco that he had passed away. It took me by complete surprise because, when I saw him last, he seemed in good health. It was confirmed recently from members of his family that he indeed passed away of a heart attack in 1977, at the age of 49, after having progressively poor health.

Posted are some of the few examples of Bob’s work, that I have been able to find. They represent just a glimpse of his output, versatility and extraordinary talent. If anyone has additional information of - or illustrations examples by - Robert (Bob) Foster, I would be grateful to hear from you. My email address is

* Tom Watson is a retired West Coast illustrator, art director and educator. He has been a frequent contributor to Today's Inspiration and his storyboard work for film was a subject of a post on my other blog, Storyboard Central. Many thanks, Tom, for a great week on Today's Inspiration!

* Many thanks also to Kyle Katz, gojira2012 and mystique123_2000 for allowing me to use the many Bob Foster paperback cover scans you saw this week from their Flickr collections.