Although Ben Stahl never really had a formal art education, he did manage to attend at least some art classes. In the seventh grade Stahl received a part-time scholarship to the Chicago Art Institute. For the next several years he spent his Saturday mornings attending art lectures and the afternoons doing animal drawings at the Lincoln Park Zoo. His studious determination and commitment to those Saturday sessions earned him a teaching position at the Institute (where he must surely have been the youngest instructor ever).
At age 17 Stahl was lucky enough to land an apprenticeship job at the Young, Timmins & Smith Studio in Chicago. There he spent the next five years running errands, cutting mats, pasting type on art boards and wrapping packages. In this 'school of hard knocks' Stahl also was allowed to execute the occasional small illustration under the watchful and indulgent guidance of the older experienced professionals who recognized his potential and eagerness to learn.
While working at YT&S, Stahl sought out more time in the classroom. Aron Gagliardo of the American Academy of Art in Chicago sent me a note saying, "Ben Stahl attended night classes at the Academy Jan-March(Life Drawing) & September-November(Illustration) 1929."
In 1932 Stahl felt ready to take the next step forward in his career. Armed with his first professional portfolio he headed out determined to land a position in one of Chicago's biggest and best art studios. Despite it being a depression year - and all the competition among job-hunting young illustrators that went hand-in-hand with those desperate times - Stahl succeeded in securing a spot at Stevens, Sundblom and Stults. Yes, young Ben Stahl was now working for (and learning from) one of the greatest illustrators of the 20th century - Haddon Sundblom.
Several years and several studios (and several cities) later, Ben Stahl was living in New York and appearing in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post.
Stahl understood that there is no better instructor than experience, so for those who would benefit from its voice, here are some words of wisdom for students from Ben Stahl:
"Go at your picture with consistent emotional fervor throughout. One cannot paint one part with spirit and another with cold academic exactitude and expect the result to be consistent."
"I have noticed one thing that nearly all students do when painting that is dishearteningly wrong. They are constantly trying to 'finish' a painting or part of it when they should be forever 'beginning.' They try to obtain a finished look by fussing with details, worrying about edges, high lights, etc. And they do this at the beginning and all the way through to completion. This is an approach that is not only wrong but very harmful."
"One should go through the entire process of painting a picture from start to finish employing the same method and maintaining the same attitude that was employed at the start. A small detail or section of the picture should not be haggled over at the expense of the whole picture. at the very end of the job we may refine and 'polish up' - but only at the very end."
In the article Henry Pitz wrote about Ben Stahl for the September 1950 issue of American Artist, he emphasizes that Stahl practiced what he preached. "[Stahl] doesn't allow a captivating passage of paint to remain if it refuses to move with the rest of the picture," wrote Pitz. "A 'frozen' passage is anathema to him. Form, color and rhythms are kept in a plastic state, ready to be altered at will, until a happy conclusion is reached. At the end, the "polishing up" is a minor matter."
I can't help but think that this is a lesson Stahl must have learned while watching his old boss, Haddon Sundblom, work at his easel back in the early Chicago days. Sundblom's masterful painting technique is without parallel and must surely have influenced the countless younger illustrators who passed through the infamous "Sundblom Circle."
While Ben Stahl was working as an illustrator at Sundblom's studio, Pitz tells us, "young Coby Whitmore was there also, running errands." I knew these two men had been friends, but not that there relationship went back that far.
Let's finish this series of posts with a wonderful treat. The following arrived in my Inbox about a year ago from Coby Whitmore's son, Buzz:
"I enjoyed your post on Ben Stahl in Todays Inspiration. He and my father were good friends and I am fortunate to have a couple of his paintings which you may wish to share with your followers. One is a portrait of my father inscribed "To my good friend Coby, Ben Stahl."
"The second is an oil done in 1970, one of my very favorite paintings. The photo quality doesn't do justice to the lovely coloring, but his great drawing shines thru. Regards, Buzz Whitmore"
Many thanks to Buzz for sharing these treasures with us!
Thanks also to Heritage Auctions for allowing me to use the scan at the top of today's post of a Ben Stahl original from their archives.
* My Ben Stahl Flickr set