Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Robert Fawcett: On Artistic Integrity... and Making a Living

A recent comment on an old Robert Fawcett post:

"What a great teacher was Robert Fawcett, even for those who never had the privilege of being personally instructed by him. His understanding of the nature of art as expressed in "On the Art of Drawing" has been an inspiration for many, for he wrote with the same degree of grace and passion with which he drew. Much of his work was for magazine stories and advertising beneath his talents but the grandeur of vision that he brought transforms these works. Take for instance his John Hancock advertisement “where he walked, freedom grew... “, the low perspective and the sombre tones make it a little masterpiece. I heartily endorse the call for a publication about him and his work."

While I can only agree with the commentor's praise for Fawcett and his work, that remark about him doing work for magazine stories and advertising that was "beneath his talents" makes me cranky.

I'm in agreement that Fawcett elevated the quality of his assignments with his exceptional, thoughtful, sincere devotion to doing only his best work (not for no reason was he known as "the illustrator's illustrator"). But why must we consider most story assignments or ad projects "beneath him" - or anyone, for that matter? This statement suggests that there is a better class of illustrators too good to do crass commercial art intended only to help sell base products and services to the unwashed masses.

Fawcett himself seems to have agreed at least to some extent with that notion. In a 1946 interview in American Artist magazine Fawcett said, "It should be the aim of every illustrator to withstand the tendency of publications to force his work into a mould, to make him conform to an accepted pattern. This is a difficult thing to do - the financial rewards are great. But I am convinced that this is the short view. We must be ready to refuse work unless it allows us to conform in some degree to standards we ourselves set, and the result should add life and character to the printed page that would surprise the most skeptical art editor."

"Refuse work"?! Huh! Spoken like someone who never had to live through a recession, eh?

Of course the key words in Fawcett's statement were "...unless it allows us to conform in some degree to standards we ourselves set..."

That to me is Fawcett's way of hedging his bets. I don't blame him one bit. "Some degree" is a very flexible unit of measurement - even for a Robert Fawcett.

There's an essay or introduction or something (I can't seem to lay my hands on it at the moment) that Robert Fawcett wrote wherein he blasted the ad agency culture that only calls in an illustrator after all the conceptualizing on a campaign has been done. If given the opportunity to contribute from the inception of the concept, argues Fawcett, the illustrator wouldn't end up doing nothing more than rendering his style over some art director's horridly designed layouts. He's not the first illustrator that felt that way. But I'd be surprised if he didn't try to find "some degree" of standards he could live with for the kind of money the agencies paid.

Part of being a professional is rising to the challenge of making silk purses out of sows' ears. No illustrator should ever think this task is beneath them, nor should any admirer of illustrators. Visual problem solving is the cornerstone of what we do... more often than not, its dirty work. As professionals we have a duty to roll up our sleeves and attack it with gusto. Ultimately, like Fawcett, we may elevate the ordinary into something extraordinary... and in the process reward ourselves, our clients and the public by demonstrating that illustration is the best way to "add life and character to the printed page."

* The commentor's wish comes true this spring when a new book on Robert Fawcett is expected from Auad Publishing!

* Thanks to Chuck Pyle for the scan at the top of this post.

* My Robert Fawcett Flickr set.


  1. Good God!, your last paragraph was exactly what I was going to reply. Why should good art be only for the elite. I just did diagrammatic illos for exercises, but I made them little gems as best I could. Anyone who looks at art deserves to see something done well. And it is an honor to be able to ad to the beauty in the world in ay small (or large) way.

  2. thank you very much for post Leif! amazing artist!

  3. Really interesting questions posed. Personally I do try to select projects with a degree of integrity: I refuse to sell out. I guess I try to choose things suited "in some degree" to my work and I've turned down some pretty lucrative stuff, not because I disapprove or consider it beneath me, but because I have considered myself ill-suited to the task.

    Personally I'd rather be poor than produce work I'm unhappy with - you're only as good as your last job in this industry and you should see everything you do as an advert for yourself.

    But then I work mainly in publishing. Perhaps that's less cut-throat than advertising. It's certainly less well paid, alas!

  4. James; I can only say, I respect your choices. That kind of integrity is admirable. As a hypothetical question, would you be prepared to let your children starve to preserve your artistic integrity? Or would it be acceptable to "sell out" to make sure they stay well clothed and fed?

    Full disclosure, I've turned down work on a few occasions - not often - but I have. and in every case it was when I had more than enough better work to do. But I've also suffered some very lean times ... and on those occasions I've thought back to the turned away work and wished they were there so i could earn that income, sell out or not.

    In my opinion, artistic integrity ends where responsibility for the health and welfare of another human being begins. I don't doubt for a second that you'd agree. :^)

  5. While people may have different views still good things should always be appreciated. Yours is a nice blog. Liked it!!!

  6. Nice post Leif!
    It definitely feels terrible and wrong to take on a project that's beyond your abilities (I'm alluding to what I think James meant) because you'll struggle with it and probably end up hating it (and worrying that the ADs hate it too). But I've got no problem taking on work I know I can do even if it's executing the lame vision of a bad editor or designer. Convincing them you know best is part of the fun!

  7. Anonymous3:04 PM

    "...Spoken like someone who never had to live through a recession, eh?"
    No, just a depression.

  8. I'll bet you Fawcett took every job that paid a dollar during the depression Anonymous - what's your point ... besides being flippant?

  9. I'm smiling to myself as I weigh in on this interesting and frequently pondered question. Actually, it started in my art school days. Then, later with my illustrator friends and acquaintances during a span of 40 years. It varied in their attitude and approach to this question of self guided professional standards, integrity, values, etc. It seemed to me that it depended on two main ingredients, degree of ego and availability. Those that displayed a considerable amount of ego and self confidence, usually were more opinionated and selective. Some illustrators I knew, were virtually "rendering machines". Their achievements were based on how much work they could crank out each week, month and year, without regard to restrictions or status.. and with others, how much total income they could bill each year was their goal. Some illustrators were satisfied with doing the best job possible in the time they had, and others complained that the A.D.'s or clients had too much input, control and put too many restrictions on their work. In other words, for some illustrators, they felt they knew best and it should be done their way. For other illustrators, their goal was to stay busy, and work hard and make a pile of money. My friendship with these illustrators was never based on their personal attitude of how an illustrator should function in the business.

    Right out of art school, as novices, most of us just wanted the experience, and were not that fussy about doing low level illos to gain the experience. As we matured and developed into a seasoned professionals, we became more selective and critical of client input. My solution was to become an A.D. and eventually a C.D. for an ad agency, design and layout illustrations for ads and brochures, sell our clients, and then do the finished illustrations myself to my own standards. Although, not always an easy road, it was satisfying as an illustrator, to art direct my own work. Later in my career when I freelanced as primarily an illustrator, I had the advantage of understanding the A.D.'s point of view and expectations. It gave me invaluable credentials and opened doors that were not always open for the exclusive illustrator. As it turned out, less experienced A.D.'s would ask me to recommend how the illustration should look. And, the seasoned A.D. wanted the same standards I did. With that approach, I didn't have to compromise my integrity or standards, and I was also able to make a good living.

    Tom Watson

  10. Charlie Allen4:14 PM

    Good blog, Leif, and right on. Take 'em as they come was my approach....or maybe, do your very best on every job....then, take the money and run. Advertising was never a rose garden in the first place. What bothers me is an ad illustration that is poorly done when it could have been a lot better. Regarding an illustrator being in on the concept from the start....AD's had to sit through countless meetings, do almost countless roughs or comps while clients made up their minds....or changed requirements and subjects during the process. No thanks. Better to try to improve the comp when it came in. Or, as Jim Hastings used to say, 'PLUS the job, Charlie!'

  11. "In my opinion, artistic integrity ends where responsibility for the health and welfare of another human being begins."

    I think most people have their lines. I suppose that if I was put in the position of having my child starve and doing an illustration job for, say, KKK Monthly (subscribe now! Barely literate articles on the whitest paper possible!), I would do the job. But, my very next crucial step would be to stop being an illustrator and find work where I wouldn't end up in that situation.

    I am, of course, just speaking for myself, as I'm almost 100% positive that I'm not up to the talent level where I could get enough non-soul crushing work to support a family.

  12. Anonymous5:59 PM

    Your article is written as if by Salieri.

    The key words in Fawcett's statement are not "...unless it allows us to conform in some degree to standards we ourselves set..." but rather, "It should be the aim of every illustrator to withstand the tendency of publications to force his work into a mould, to make him conform to an accepted pattern. This is a difficult thing to do."

    Fawcett is empathetically talking about retaining individuality and artistic freedom and to not accept work in which the illustrator will be either overly art directed, creatively stifled or morally broken. Not every story one illustrates will be written by Arthur Conan Doyle. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to accept a job written by Hitler or Solymon Brown.

    And that’s what he means when he talks about “conforming to standards we ourselves set”. If you don’t feel good doing it, if it will compromise your creative goals – don’t whore yourself out.

    And why the crankiness over the comment that, "much of his work was for magazine stories and advertising beneath his talents". “Making silk purses out of sows' ears” is the same thing – doing work that you deem beneath your own talents.

  13. I always liked this discussion as an artist.
    I made sure I didn't have anyone depending on me for what I did in my life as an artist. This allowed me to turn down work I thought was demeaning or too confined for me personally.
    As people said we all make choices; mine was I wanted to be an artist and I gave up having a family to be the kind of artist I wanted to be.

  14. Anonymous6:40 PM

    Hear, hear Armand.

  15. Chip;

    Let's not get carried away to extreme examples of Ayn Randian proportions. We're talking about whether or not Fawcett could bring himself to accept the equivalent of $7,000 in today's money to draw a picture for Cosmopolitan or Good Housekeeping - not the cover of some white supremacist magazine, ok?

    And as it turns out, more often than not, he was able to find some way to dig deep into his artistic soul and accept the money.

  16. I don't think being an illustrator is any better or worse than being a salesman, baker, fireman or a doctor. Regardless of our trade, if we have standards and integrity as a person, it will carry into our professional life. I believed that if I did the best illustrations I could in the time I had, I wasn't compromising my creativity or prostituting myself, even though the job may, on occasions, have been for a "Mickey Mouse" hole in the wall agency, with "rinky dink" little clients. In fact I considered it my responsibility to help upgrade their advertising by giving them my best efforts. I did illustrations for major ad agencies down to a three man ad agency working out of his house, and took pride in doing work for all of them. But, where I drew the line was when I was asked to work on a major brand cigarette promotion, for a very prestigious art studio. My dad had died a few years before of lung cancer, caused by nearly a life-time of smoking.. and I turned down the job without a second thought.

    Tom Watson

  17. A note from the blog author: From now on I will no longer directly address comments from anonymous commenters. Since anonymous commenters don't show me the courtesy of commenting with a name, they will be referred to in the third person.

    The commenter in question indicates that the excerpt of the Fawcett quote I chose is not the key segment. The commenter is wrong.

    The commenter then makes an irrelevant argument that misses the point of my post.

    The commenter then makes a disparaging remark regarding the nature of the profession of commercial artist. The commenter is behaving inappropriately and does not understand the nature of the profession of commercial artist.

    The commenter then draws an inaccurate comparison between the quote that provided the basic premise of this post and one of my remarks. Again, the commenter is wrong and misses the point.

    And finally, the commenter attempted to insult me by referencing Salieri, a composer of some admirable ability who had the bad luck to have been born during a time when he had to compete for the attention of his patrons with Mozart. As the purpose of this blog has always been as much to acknowledge the accomplishments of - not only the titans of mid-century illustration - but also those many other worthy (if perhaps slightly lesser) talents, I do not consider the comparison an insult.

  18. Ha ha! Hey now, I didn't start the hyperbole train, Mr. "Would you let your children starve!" I just got onboard. You can replace my KKK mag joke with a corporate report for an environmentally unsound oil company or a childhood diabetes-inducing candy company for something more real-world.

    In any case, my point is more addressing your kid-starving comment than the $7000 for a ho-hum illustration. Hell, I'm the first to say that I'd take $7,000 to draw almost anything with the phrase "ENDORSED BY CHIP ZDARSKY" stamped across it.

    In good times I pick and choose my jobs, in bad times I get less picky, but if I was presented with something that truly turned my stomach and crossed my line and I was in severely bad times with mouths to feed I would go back to Canadian Tire, which, in hindsight, was a pretty sweet job.

  19. Does anyone have $7,000? I will draw all of your deepest, darkest desires.

  20. Tom and Charlie; Thanks god for your reasonable, thoughtful comments, based in sound experience. Thank you to you both, and to those others who have shared their thoughts on the topic in a reasonable manner.

    Frankly I find the opinions of those who see this issue in black and white completely baffling, not to mention laughable and naive.

    Have any of you champions of 'artistic integrity' ever seen the photos I've posted here of Bob Fawcett's house? He was, by the time of this 1946 article, enjoying a quality of life most people could only ever dream about. I'm not saying he didn't work hard to get those rewards... I completely respect the man, his work ethic, his hard fought journey to success and his accomplishments as an illustrator. But it was easy for Fawcett to issue his decree of refusing work from where he was in 1946 (the year before he would become one of the 12 founding faculty of the Famous Artists Course, btw). Proclamations like that are always easier to make on a full stomach.

  21. p.p.s: I can't stop thinking of a Les Miz show featuring illustrators.

  22. Chip; to clarify, I actually didn't start the hyperbole train about starvation, it was engineered by an earlier commenter who stated he'd rather starve than sell out.

    I just hooked my little red caboose to that train. ( because I thought I could, I THOUGHT I could! )

  23. God, I miss your little red caboose.

  24. It's funny seeing this discussion on a day where rumours abound that DC Comics is planning possibly attempt a sequel to Watchmen.

    Who would take that writing/art job? It would certainly mean a lot of cash, but at what cost to integrity and professional reputation? Can a bad piece of art damage future earnings?

  25. Anonymous10:43 AM

    You're a snob.

  26. One must wonder if the commenter in question is referring to Chip being a snob, since his (or her) comment appears directly below Chip's last comment, or if he is directing his/her comment at me. Since the commenter in question continues to hide in a cloak of anonymity, the commenter's remarks continue to carry no real weight.

  27. I'm called a snob by more anonymous men/women before breakfast than most people get called all day. This is my life.

  28. Wow, some subjects really stir the pot! I happily chose illustration as a career back in the late seventies and have never regretted it. Unless you're illustrating your own stuff, the job is usually to interpret someone else's ideas to the best of your abilities, adding as much creatively as you can. Every job is different, and some I dreaded doing turned out to be great learning experiences. If you can afford to be choosy, more power to you! I hope to get there someday. Great work as always, Leif!

  29. Anonymous10:29 AM

    Leif is the snob.

    "The commenter in question indicates that the excerpt of the Fawcett quote I chose is not the key segment. The commenter is wrong."

    What kind of rebuttle is that? I'm wrong? Where's the debate? Explain why I'm wrong.
    Just replying, "the commenter is wrong ... From now on I will no longer directly address comments from anonymous commenters. " sounds pretty snobby to me.

    God forbid anyone disagrees with one of your posts.

  30. The commenter continues to insist on anonymity despite my clearly stating that I find it inconsiderate behaviour, especially when one's intent is to debate the topic being discussed in an insulting manner. So far the commenter in question has called me a "Salieri" ( his/her intent being to suggest that I'm a talentless apologist for "also rans" ) and, having read my position on artistic integrity, the commenter chose to equate such a position with being "a whore", an offensive and entirely undeserved derogation that casts a countless number of creative arts professionals in a disparaging light.

    The commenter in question then dogmatically continues to hide behind anonymity while returning time and again to hurl insults from the safety of said anonymity - but I'm the snob because I refuse to acknowledge the commenter in a respectful manner - a manner the commenter hasn't granted to me.

    Let's see, so far, "Salieri, whore, and snob." But I'm the one expected to provide a reasonable rebuttal. Right.

    The commenter then casts aspersions on my willingness to allow dissenting opinion on my blog.

    The commenter may wish to review all of the comments in this discussion and note that James Mayhew, Armand Cabrera, Chip (and continuing on to the next post) Chad Sterling all presented counter arguements to my position and all received respectful replies.

    The commenter may wish to consider that, in future, good etiquette will attract a better response than anonymous trollism.

    * And I'm sure there will be future comments from the commenter in question... because the commenter in question seems unable to let this topic go - or stop reading this blog. ;^)

  31. Anonymous12:10 PM

    I apologize for calling you Salieri. I didn't think it would bother you so much. I guess my ire began when you, sarcastically and in my opinion disrespectfully, said "Refuse work"?! Huh! Spoken like someone who never had to live through a recession, eh?". Sounds pretty sarcastic to me. Choosing to accpet or refuse work is a matter of choice for the artist. And I see no reason for you to malign Robert Fawcett.

    As for the word "whore";
    A definition for "whore" is: 3. To compromise one's principles for personal gain.

    Charles Shultz, whom to me is a God, chose to "whore" his art out and produce every product imaginable. Yet Bill Watterson refused to do so, regardless of the promised return. Who is right?

    In my opinion, both are. Who are we to judge other artists principles?

    And why is it so difficult for you to accept my using the word "whore" when you say the same thing, "he was able to find some way to dig deep into his artistic soul and accept the money"?

    What's good for you is not good for others and that makes you, in my opinion, a snob.

  32. Because you apologized for one of your three insulting remarks, I'll address you directly - just this once - "Anonymous". But I'm still annoyed as hell by your cowardice for hiding behind anonymity. Its my blog and I can decide what I like about who gets considerate replies. Having the guts to commit your identity to your statements carries FAR more weight with me.

    How dare you think I wouldn't be offended to be called a Salieri? Its not the comparison to the actual man - as I said, Salieri was a fine composer unlucky to be born at a time when he had to compete with Mozart for a limited audience of wealthy patrons. But its the implication that offends me - and to have it thrown at me (from the rather snobbish position, I might add) of correcting me on what part of Fawcett's quote was the important part. The part I chose was important (i.e. relevant) to the point I was making. That's why I said you were wrong.

    Listen, "Anonymous", you came here full of attitude and arrogance and tried to chop me down with a lot of insulting insinuations from the safety of anonymity. That kind of "contribution" to the conversation ought to piss anyone off, including you. Type "Robert Fawcett" in the search window of this blog and see how many posts come back - you could hardly find a spot on the Internet that showers the man with more praise than this blog has and does. That doesn't mean I can't ever take a single quote he said and disagree with it for the purpose of intellectual discourse.

    And that crack about him never having lived through a recession -- that's called "levity". Not every word I write needs to be entirely serious. If you didn't already have a chip on your shoulder you might have realized that. No one else, including those who disagreed with me, seem to have felt the need to get outraged about it.

    Its time for you to put this behind you, "Anonymous" - it saddens me that in your black and white world Sparky's a whore, and Bill Watterson's (I guess) a virgin, but maybe one day you'll grow up and realize the world's made of shades of grey and that calling artists whores because they want to make a good living from their creative endeavors doesn't exactly make you Mr. Popularity around here (or for that matter, Miss Popularity - how would we ever know?)

  33. Anonymous3:58 PM

    Well Leaf, I can go on pointing out your contradictions forever, but after you referred to Charles Schulz in the familiar, I give up.

  34. You've got to be kidding. You're still coming back here? The conversation has moved on "Anonymous" - let it go. I'm beginning to think my 15 year old son is right that you're, as he put it, "probably some 33 year old loser still living in his parents' basement with nothing better to do than troll around the Internet all day."

    Please "Anonymous", tell me you weren't serious about going on to point out my contradictions forever! Lord, give me strength!

  35. Btw, my name is pronounced "Life".

    ... and, er, how do I pronounce yours... ?

  36. Anonymous10:03 AM

    HA! "Btw, my name is pronounced "Life"."

    Lighten up Francis.

  37. Boo-yah, that was a good one!
    I agree with Chris. If you can afford to be choosy, well go for it sugar.
    The only difference between me and the garbage man, is that I kinda like what I do.
    But we both wouldn't do it for free.

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