Thursday, September 30, 2010

American (c)ART(oon)IST

Cartoons were popular in all kinds of advertising in the mid-century -- but perhaps nowhere more than in advertising directed at artists. The ad pages of old 1950s issues of American Artist magazine are a virtual goldmine of cartoon styles and subjects.

Well known art materials suppliers like Bainbridge...


... Speedball...



... and Royal Crest seem to have felt that the best way to win over customers was to take a lighthearted approach - often running long series of cartoon ads month after month...


... even year after year.



No American Artist advertiser was more committed to cartoon art than the Iddings Paint Company, which ran small space ads in the back pages of the magazine that featured a new, tiny, always beautifully crafted cartoon nearly every month throughout the '50s.






Its also interesting to see how competitors sometimes chose remarkably similar ad concepts. Both of these pencil ads appeared in the same issue of AA -- both featuring cartoon art.



Meanwhile, Marshall's had a different idea. Though still using cartoon art.


I don't know how many other people there are out there who will share my fascination with this stuff. It is admittedly pretty obscure; but I love it. In fact the smaller the ads, the greater my delight for the tiny images that decorate them.


I can't help but marvel at the quality of the work done by these (usually anonymous) advertising cartoonists. This was not the work of amateurs.


Who drew all this marvelous stuff? Some thoughts and some clues... tomorrow.

* My Ads with Cartoon Elements Flickr set.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Fabulous '50s Cartoon Ads!

Many readers already know that I'm a cartoonist who has specialized in advertising for much of my career. So it'll come as no surprise that I have a real affection for the cartoon art of 1950s advertisments.


The reason Today's Inspiration wasn't updated for most of last week is that I had to put every spare minute I wasn't teaching into the preparations for an event I had organized; a day of cartooning workshops/lectures with several of my fellow members of the National Cartoonists Society (Canadian chapter).


That event happened yesterday and was a huge success. During my one-hour presentation I spent quite a lot of time talking about and showing examples of the advertising cartoons I've done over the years. So in celebration of that particular cartooning niche, this week I've decided to feature more fabulous '50s cartoon ads from my collection of old magazines.


I know I'm not alone in my affection for the styles featured in these ads. The collection I've archived on Flickr in a set called "Ads with Cartoon Elements" has been viewed more than 56,000 times.

I think many of today's illustrators and cartoonists are hugely inspired by the unique, clever drawing styles artists like the one who did this 'Oral B' series of ads invented in the '50s.


So be sure to drop by each day this week for another batch of mid-century advertising cartoons!


And if you'd like to see a few photos from yesterday's event (expertly taken by my son, Simon Peng) and read a bit about what was discussed, drop by the new NCS Canada blog... and please feel free to leave a comment.

* My Ads with Cartoon Elements Flickr set.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Don Crowley: "I just feel blessed that this whole thing came along."

Don Crowley was a child of the Great Depression. Perhaps the lingering memory of living in a state of desperate impoverishment, like so many others of his generation, compelled him to work as hard as he did thoughout the first decades of his career. Year after year Crowley patiently drew and painted one assignment after another.  But in the early 1970s, as Crowley reached his mid-40s, he also reached a point many illustrators must grapple with.  A point when the work no longer holds any challenge... when one assignment blends into the next, and the passion to make pictures disappears and becomes instead a chore.  Crowley had survived the demise of the Cooper studio with his career intact He'd made it through the '60s - a realistic painter in an age of stylized illustration.  After twenty-plus years of what was beginning to feel like a relentless grind (in all those years, Don had rarely ever even taken a weekend off) Crowley began to wonder; could he keep this up for another twenty (or more) years?


Then two things happened almost in tandem that profoundly affected Don Crowley's life. The first was his attendance at the opening of a gallery show of western paintings by one of Don's old friends from the Cooper days, James Bama. Don was enthralled by Bama's new work - even buying a piece from the show. Don said, "Jim Bama's show in '72 was the thing that really, really inspired me. The show was unbelievable. I figured if I could do that kind of work I wouldn't ever ask for anything else."

Following soon after the Bama show (by coincidence or fate) Don received a visit from an old Art Center chum, Sam Wisnom. Remembering that time, Don said, "Sam visited me in Connecticut. He was opening a gallery in Tucson featuring western art... and that sounded kind of intriguing. So I sent out a couple of paintings and he sold one. And it really sounded like it might be a new direction for me, so I made a trip out and stayed a couple of weeks, did some sketches and research."

But more than that, what Don did... was fall in love with the place.


At first, Don continued to do some commercial work. He hung onto good clients like Reader's Digest while he navigated the bumps in the road to becoming a full-time gallery painter. And there were bumps; Sam Wisnom's gallery closed just a year after opening, and Don had to deal with the anxiety of letting go of his commercial art safety net. But the magic of the South West had captivated Don Crowley. In 1974 he and B.J. moved the family to Tucson and never looked back.


Not long after the move Don visited the San Carlos Indian Reservation. It was, for him, an epiphany. Don returned to San Carlos often, always respectful and grateful that his hosts were allowing an outsider to observe their daily routines. That place and those people so inspired Don that even the most mundane activities of the resident Indians were transformed into works of art when Don set brush to canvas.


In the book of his art, Desert Dreams, Don said, "When I was growing up the only thing I knew about Indians came from movies and magazines. It was all unrelentingly negative and simplistic. As an adult I came to realize that these were a people forced to the brink of extinction and that their story was a true tragedy. I have learned to care about their customs and traditions, and I am drawn to the substance of their everyday life and to the solemn beauty of their sacred ceremonies. The essence of Indian life is essential to my art."


As we were finishing up our conversation on the phone, I said to Don, "So you must feel very fortunate that you found something out there that has been both financially stable and artistically rewarding." He replied "Absolutely. I just feel blessed that this whole thing came along."


"We've been out here thirty years," Don said, "and I've made a good living at it ever since."

* All of today's images are from the Greenwich Workshop Press book, "Desert Dreams" by Don Hegpeth and Don Crowley © 2003

For more of Don's work visit

Friday, September 17, 2010

Don Crowley: "I was always a realist."

As many readers already know, the world of illustration changed dramatically after 1960. The magazine industry was unable to compete for ad dollars in the face of increased tv viewership. Lucrative assignments from print advertisers had been the lifeblood that had sustained large commercial art studios like Cooper's.


Don Crowley could see that times were changing. Like so many others who had enjoyed the privilege of membership in America's most prestigious art studio, he regretfully left to pursue freelance on his own.

Although his specialty (product illustration still lifes) continued to be in demand, he craved figurative work and found opportunities to pursue that type of illustration in the burgeoning paperback cover market.



He first tried a partnership in a small studio with one of the former salesmen from Cooper's, Jack Randall and another artist, Bob Smith. Don said, "Business was actually better with this new, smaller group... I did well with them for a couple of years."

Later he worked from home with an art rep, Joe Mendola, sending him assignments. "I did quite well with him for maybe seven or eight years," Don recalls.


I asked Don if the arrival of artists like Bernie Fuchs and Bob Peak on the scene had had any impact on his work, but he gave me a definitive "No."

"They were very individualistic and I was always a realist... never thought about trying any 'cute' techniques or anything like that." In spite how that might sound on the surface, Don mentioned in passing that Bob Peak was one of his best friends and that the two of them enjoyed socializing - often doing lunch at the Society of Illustrators. "I knew an awful lot of artists in those days," said Don, "[The SoI] was a great place to get together."


Don continued to do quite well throughout the '60s, doing more and more figure work. Book covers and Reader's Digest became the source of many assignments, along with Don's signature product 'still life' work, which he continued to produce steadily for advertising and packaging clients.


But as Don reached his middle '40s, and after more than two decades of working countless evenings and weekends (as is so often the case in freelance), Don began to wish for... "something else." At that point in an illustrator's career when the work becomes too familiar, no longer interesting or challenging, when the long hours begin to take their toll, two old friends and two important events came together to show Don the path to "something else."


Call it coincidence or call it fate, but just when he needed to find a reason to go on, a dramatic change of course found Don Crowley.

Concluded tomorrow...

* Most of today's images are from the Greenwich Workshop Press book, "Desert Dreams" by Don Hegpeth and Don Crowley © 2003

* Thanks to my Flickr contact, levar for the 1968 paperback cover scan which appears in this post, and to Brian McFann for the Reader's Digest images at the end of today's post.

* Also: Bruce Hettema has posted a look at the work of Peter Helck at his P&H Creative blog

* And: This week's NCS Spotlight is on ... Al Capp!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Don Crowley: "Cooper gave me what I needed: he gave me work."

When Don and B.J. arrived in New York in 1953, Don's first job was in a studio near the New York Public Library. When we spoke on the phone about those days Don said, "I don't even remember the name of the place... but I used to go sit on the library steps at noon and think about jumping out into traffic." He chuckled at the memory of his youthful despair.


"I think I was there for a month and he never gave me a job at all. It was just horrible." Don had been hired for $75 a week because the studio owner liked his portfolio and was willing to give him a desk to sit at. "Unfortunately," says Don, "the place just wasn't all that busy. I did a couple of samples not really knowing what he wanted or what I was to do." 

"Time Pieces" by Don Crowley, 1953

Meanwhile, one of Don's friends from Art Center, Ben Wholberg, had secured a spot at the much renowned Charles E. Cooper studio...


Don said, "About that time Mr. Cooper came up with the idea of doing some still life samples to try and get some ads for grocery stores and things like that because illustration was slowing down."


Don had shown Cooper his portfolio when he first arrived in New York ("Cooper's was my first stop," he said)... but Chuck had not been interested at that time. Now he had Ben Wholberg call Don to say he'd like to see his book again.


"That was really fortunate," Don said. "So I went back and he did hire me - for $50 dollars a week."

"So I went to work right away... and worked diligently, night and day, and did whatever they asked me to."  When I asked about his willingness to take such a drastic pay cut Don said, "It didn't make any difference.  Not a bit.  Because Cooper gave me what I needed:  he gave me work."


Within a month or two, with his work selling well, Don was able to move up from the weekly studio artist starter's salary to the more lucrative freelancer's arrangement of spitting project commissions 50/50 with the studio. "They had six or seven salesmen and they kept me pretty busy," said Don. "They had a much larger range of contacts and places to go." 


"I worked at Cooper's for about seven years and things went really quite well most of those years."


Continued tomorrow...

* Most of today's images are from the Greenwich Workshop Press book, "Desert Dreams" by Don Hegpeth and Don Crowley © 2003

* Thanks to Piper Hobbs for the 1953 Cooper Exhibit brochure that appears in today's post.  The photos of Don Crowley and Ben Wohlberg are taken from that brochure.  ("Time Pieces", shown near the top of today's post, was Don's entry in the Cooper Studio Exhibit)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Don Crowley: : "I wanted to stay home and finish that painting."

Some things may be destined. In Don Crowley's case, its seems he was destined to be an artist. Like most children, 4-year old Crowley loved to draw with crayons; coloured swirls and circles brightened his young life during the dark days of the depression.


When Crowley was just six years old he found a book in his house by Frederic Remington called "Done in the Open." He immediately became interested in art. "It was really inspirational," Don told me when I spoke with him on the phone. "I loved [Remington's] work and he became my favourite artist from then on."

"The Night Rider" by Remington, from the Apr. '67 cover of American Artist

When I asked if his parents were supportive of his early interest in art, Don shared the following anecdote:

"I remember one day I ditched school and I went out and hid in the chicken coop. I was working on a painting and I wanted to finish it. My mother saw me sneak out there and came out and asked what I was doing," Don chuckled. "I told her I wanted to stay home and finish that painting. And she said, well if you're that interested you can do that today, but don't do it again."


In junior high, Don met his second great inspiration: a young lad named Mervin Corning. Don said, "We met in about Grade 7, and from then on we were drawing together. He was a great inspiration because he was so damn talented."

(Corning went on to become an important California landscape painter)

“Station Eleven (Playa Del Rey)” by Merv Corning

These two ambitious young artists enjoyed a fast friendship that lasted throughout high school and beyond. Together they studied Rockwell Kent's World Famous Painting and made attempts at copying, in oils, the masterpieces therein. Don and Merv were enthralled by Disney's Pinocchio when it was first released. They hoped that some day they might be good enough to work at the studio.

After high school came four years in the service (two years in the Merchant Marine, two years in the Navy) then the G.I. Bill provided Crowley with the means to study at Art Center College in L.A., where he met his future bride, Betty Jane ("B.J.") Brown.

In the spring of 1953 Don and B.J. married. Don's father, an ordained minister, presided over the ceremony and Merv Corning was Don's best man. Two weeks later, with $500 and two portfolios the newlyweds flew east to New York City to find their fortune in the commercial art mecca of the 1950's. There, after a false start in a second-rate studio, Don Crowley hit the jackpot: an apprenticeship in the Charles E. Cooper studio.

Full page fax print
Continued tomorrow...

* Most of today's images are from the Greenwich Workshop Press book, "Desert Dreams" by Don Hegpeth and Don Crowley © 2003