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Celebrating Illustration, Design, Cartoon and Comic Art of the Mid-20th Century

"Tom, Jack and Harry" - or - Three Freds and a Len Beats a "Royal Flush"

Thursday, October 27, 2011

I wish I had a button I could hand out to every artist who feels helpless about the relentless erosion of our profession. It would say

"Adapt or Die"


Half a century ago, a lot of illustrators found themselves in the same situation. It must have felt a bit like watching a slow-motion train wreck.

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The problem being, you're on the train. The train is your career.

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This is the story of three artists who didn't need a button to remind them of the law of survival. I'll call them...

"Tom, Jack and Harry"

(because those are their names)


Tom Sawyer had come to New York in the '50s. Tom dreamed of becoming the next Milton Caniff (Below: Tom with his idol, Milton Caniff).

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Instead he quickly found himself ensconced in a room full of kindred spirits; eager young men (teenagers actually) like himself, churning out comic book pages assembly-line style for what would one day become the Marvel Comics empire.

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The page rates were at the bottom of the illustration industry barrel. But in a few short years Tom's talent and ambition carried him to the top of the pay scale. At the preeminent comic strip advertising studio of the day, Johnstone and Cushing, Tom made ten times the page rate his early comic art efforts had brought in.

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From there Tom moved into what was clearly emerging as a lucrative and growing market for illustrators in the 1960s: storyboarding for tv commercials.

Tom told me, "that was around 1968, just before I began shooting (directing/producing) commercials, and while I'm not certain about what the others were getting, I believe it was about $50 - $60 per frame. I'd started around there, but I just kept raising my prices (mostly at first because they were almost invariably all-nighters), and since my boards usually sold the concept to the clients, I met little resistance." In short order, Tom was the highest paid storyboard artist in New York at $100 a frame.

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(To put things in perspective, 20 years later, when I began storyboarding professionally in the late 1980s, I was getting $65 a frame.)

Other artists who had previous made it big in "finished art" illustration also migrated to storyboard and layout art. Jack Hearne, for instance...

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... whose son, John, told me, "I remember J. Walter Thompson being a main contributor to his portfolio... he did a whole bunch of storyboards for Chrysler in the 70's and 80's, with the introduction of the "K-Car." I actually remember those, and have a few under my bed in an old portfolio."

And Harry Borgman, one of the most adaptive illustrators I've ever met so embraced the new opportunities in creating concept art for television production that he actually wrote books on the subject and travelled to exotic locales to both draw and teach storyboarding.

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"Around the late 70's," Harry told me, "Illustration assignments were becoming scarce. I found myself doing more and more storyboard assignments.""

"Doing storyboards enabled me to start working almost the day I arrived in Paris. The French like the "American Style" of storyboards. We do them fast and loose, the French artists always had a tendency to overwork their stuff. Also the French artists did not want to work nights or weekends, so I had it made over there."

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"Many illustrators did not want to dirty their hands doing storyboards, but it sure was a great way to make a living. I've done thousands of frames... and I never really tired of doing them. Its a lot like painting watercolors."

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But wait -- the story of adaptation to changing market conditions has a "Part 2." Let's look at...


How Three Freds and a Len Beat a "Royal Flush"



Rather than allow their careers to get 'royally flushed' down the toilet because technological change was causing a lack of illustration assignments, these three Freds (and one Len) all embraced change, discovering lucrative and creatively rewarding outlets to sustain the quality of life they'd grown accustomed to.

Fred Ludekens was both a renowned mid-century illustrator and a founding faculty member of the Famous Artists School.

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But after the market for illustration became dramatically diminished, Ludekens became co-creative director of one of the most prestigious advertising agencies in the world, Foote, Cone and Belding (FCB).

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Asked during an interview what essential training must the illustrator bring to the job, Ludekens replied:

"Assuming he has talent, likes to draw and paint, the most important thing for him to have is a knowledge of the business he is in. Most illustrators know very little about business or writing. They just like to make pictures. This isn't enough. They should know what the picture is specifically required to do and why. They must be interested in the why and make an all-out effort to make the picture work. This is what they are being paid to do."

Ludekens was speaking about a different time and place, but I find it sage advice for any illustrator contemplating his role in today's changing graphic art landscape. Food for thought.

Fred ("Fritz") Siebel had a very successful career as an illustrator during the '40s and '50s... ... but he too fell victim to the decline in illustration assignments.

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Siebel's widow, Gretchen, wrote to me and described what happened next:

"As photography began to replace illustration in editorial and advertising art, Fritz expanded to other design mediums. In 1960, he founded a graphic and package design company, Frederick Siebel Associates. He applied his talents to package design for products ranging from Captain Morgan Rum to Canada Dry Ginger Ale. His company was later known as Siebel Marketing Company. The firm had a large studio and design staff, as well as copywriters and event marketers, and received many awards and distinctions in the product design field."

Siebel, incidentally, didn't give up illustrating. In addition to his new role as the head of a design and marketing company, Fritz Siebel illustrated quite a few children's books, including one of my childhood favourites, "A Fly went By" and the popular "Amelia Bedelia" series.

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J. Frederick Smith was a very prominent illustrator during the '50s but by 1956 he found his interest turning to the photography that preceded his execution of an illustration. Smith would set up elaborate shoots with models in costumes and surrounded by props. In an article in Illustration magazine #31, Smith is quoted as saying, "My work did not have a photographic look but I was approaching my work more like a photographer."

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Smith continues, "In 1956, changes were being made. TV was much in evidence, and within a short time people were watching soap operas and sit-coms, and the magazines were printing less and less fiction. The handwriting was on the wall, TV was here to stay. Also, I was changing. I realized that after taking my preliminary photos, doing the illustration was sometimes anti-climactic. I was enjoying the new medium of the camera."

Finally, Len Steckler; who was another of the prestigious Charles Cooper studio artists we talk about so often. Steckler's illustrations appeared in all the leading magazines of the day such as Collier’s, Good Housekeeping, The Ladies’ Home Journal, and The Saturday Evening Post. He was a member of the Society of Illustrators in New York.

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While painting, he often relied on his photograph of the model for further reference, and magazine editors started to buy these photographs. Over time Steckler phased out illustration, and in the 60’s and 70’s, he became famous for his fashion and beauty photography.

(Below, Len Steckler, who formerly illustrated stories for The Post, ensured his continued employment by switching to photography and shot this 1965 cover for the magazine)
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Today we illustrators once again find ourselves at a juncture where our profession is being marginalized by changing technology. Its impossible to predict how things will pan out in the years ahead... but its becoming increasingly clear that there's no going back. The stories presented here today of Tom, Jack and Harry and of the three Freds and one Len - illustrators who adapted to the technological change of their time - may not provide the answer you're looking for... but these are stories worth some serious consideration. Confronted by the inevitability of change, will you adapt or... ?

* Last night I spoke for two hours plus at The Nook. We had a full house - wow! - I was humbled that so many wonderful, attentive people would come out to hear stories of the artists of the "Last Golden Age of Illustration". To those people - many thanks and thanks to Julia and all the other great folks at The Nook for hosting my lecture! For those of you who missed it, we managed to record the whole thing ( even though we didn't realize we were doing so - haha! ) If you'd like to have a look at me talking and talking and talking ... here's the link our ustream video recording.





The Fine Art of after Illustration

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Here's a pretty typical weekly issue of the Saturday Evening Post from 1954. It's 170 pages long (not including covers) and 102 of those pages utilize illustration in some capacity. I have not included single panel gag cartoons (of which there are many) in this total; only story art pages, full page or double page ads, ads that use photography as their main art but include illustration for products or other insets or as supplementary design elements, and small space ads that use spot illustrations and cartoons.

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Ten years later, this typical 1964 issue of the Post has gone on a diet. Instead of 170 pages, it weighs in at only 92. The total count of all types of illustrations: 10.

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Extrapolate this change in illustration usage across all magazine publishing and it becomes easy (and alarming) to see that employment opportunities for magazine illustrators plummeted over the course of a decade. It might even be fair to describe the decline as "catastrophic."

In the '50s, advertising clients (who provided the best paying work for illustrators) sought out well known illustration mainstays like Edwin Georgi (below, right) featuring their work in major national print campaigns. Smaller market, anonymous 'journeyman' illustrators could make a decent living providing illustrations in a variety of styles for clients who purchased small-space ads, like the ones on the LH page, over many pages in the back of consumer magazines like the Post.

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Ten years later, very few major ad campaigns were using illustration ... and small space ads had all but disappeared from the Post's pages.

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Rubbing salt in the wound was the change in page design.

In 1954 (and during most of the '50s) multiple double page spreads featuring gorgeous artwork by the likes of Joe DeMers, Coby Whitmore, Joe Bowler and others were a common weekly feature in the Post, Ladies Home Journal, Collier's, Good Housekeeping, etc.

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By 1957 Collier's was gone - along with a raft of other magazines - and by the early 1960s the Post (and many other magazines) had redesigned their page layouts in a way that didn't often allow for lavish displays of illustration... of any kind.

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Illustration (when present at all) was more typically relegated to isolated islands of colour in a sea of white space and separated by multiple columns of type.

Interestingly, this particular 1964 issue of the Post features artwork by Jan Balet - a veteran Collier's illustrator who could never manage to get his work in The Saturday Evening Post during the '50s.

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Like many other prominent mid-century illustrators, Balet must have seen that times were changing. Even the occasional assignment like this one could not sustain a career built on the 1950s illustration economy model. Many illustrators found refuge from the shifting fortunes of the magazine industry by refocusing his energies on establishing a presence in the fine arts market.

Jan Balet moved to Europe and successfully produced paintings, limited edition prints and lithographs for the remainder of his career.

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Close friends and former Cooper Studio artist associates, Joe Bowler, Joe DeMers and Coby Whitmore all moved to Hilton Head Island, where they also pursued fine arts opportunities.

Joe Bowler, the youngest of the trio, became a renowned portrait painter. A series of illustrations of fashions for young girls (one example below), which Bowler did for McCall's in 1960, was pivotal in the transition. Its publication brought Bowler his first requests to paint the portraits of children of prominent families.

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Bowler continued painting and showing new work - even as recently as March of this year. His fine art paintings can be see on his website.

There was also an exodus of illustrators to the South West - where many became well established ( and well compensated ) painters of 'western art.'

Don Crowley, another Cooper Studio alumnus told me, "[An old friend] 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."

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There are too many more examples to list here - but suffice it to say, there are many. In his autobiography, "My Adventures as an Illustrator," Norman Rockwell wrote, "It is rare to find an artist who is successful at one and the same time in commercial and fine art."

At a time when many under-employed illustrators needed an exit strategy, transitioning to fine art after doing commercial art proved to be very successful.

* This evening from 7 to 9 pm I'll be in Toronto at The Nook giving a talk about mid-century illustrators whom I've written about over the last six years. I'll share stories and anecdotes - some from my research but also many from personal interviews I've conducted with many Canadian and American illustrators of the mid-20th century. I'll be looking at changing styles and technology and how both have impacted the business of illustration over the last half century. Perhaps we can learn something from the lessons of the past... or perhaps we are doomed to repeat it.

Also, there will be treats.

If you think you might like to attend, the details are at The Nook Collective website

Stories from the End of "The Last Golden Age of Illustration"

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Some time ago I presented the following minutes of a 1936 Society of Illustrators meeting. My friend Murray Tinkelman, Director of the MFA Illustration program at Hartford University, graciously sent this along - thanks again, Murray!

Minutes of a 1936 Society of Illustrators Meeting

"From $2,000,000 to $3,000,000 a year is being paid to illustrators by these ten mags:

SEP, Collier's, Liberty, Cosmo, American Mag, Good House, Ladies HJ, McCalls, Womans HC."

"From 20 to 25 men and women are making between $50,000 and $100,000 a year. From 50 to 75 men are making between $25,000 and $40,000. 100 are making $15,000 to $20,000"

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Harrison Fisher, $3,000 per cover Cosmo.

McMein, $2,500 per cover McCalls.

Rockwell, $2,500 per cover.

"10 men get $1,200 to $2,000 per single illus."*

That was the '30s... and from a recent post we now know that Al Dorne and the other top illustrators of the 1950s were getting $1,000 to $2,000 for a story illustration. If that last statistic from 1936 is correct, it would seem that the best price per story illustrations had remained fairly static for decades even before the mid-century.

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Here are some more anecdotes related to me by artists (or their family members) that speak to both pricing and some of the similar circumstances experienced by different illustrators as the '50s drew to a close - what could be called "the end of the last Golden Age of illustration."

Jenifer Gillen on her step-father, Denver Gillen:

"Pop was very concerned about the growing tendency by magazines, even in his day, to use photography as a way of illustrating stories."

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"He was aware that there was a growing trend that was narrowing the opportunities for the illustrator. I can't remember exactly when I first heard the conversations, but it was probably before I went to Boston University."

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"I do remember that Pop had been doing quite a bit of textbook illustration (for Ginn & Company, I think, and others). This was while I still lived in at home in Connecticut, so that would have been in the late 50s, early 60s. And, he did not enjoy this type of work; very boring."

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Bob Jones on his time at the Charles E. Cooper studio:

"Chuck said, "How much do you want to make?" And I said, "Gee, I dunno... um.. sixty bucks a week?" and he kinda snickered. He said, "I'll start you at a hundred a week." and I damn near fainted. That sounded like all the money in the world!" Bob chuckles, " A hundred bucks a week was a big deal then, in 1952."

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After a year or two, Chuck Cooper would change the arrangement with his artists. As they became established, the studio would split the commission on advertising jobs 50/50 with the illustrator... but all were encouraged to try to get editorial (story) assignments - and Cooper took none of that fee at all. Bob got his first big Saturday Evening Post job (below) in 1955. He explained to me that the Post paid $1,200 for a double page spread - quite a jump in pay from a $100-dollar-a-week salary.

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For the next couple of years, around 1960 - '61, the Post became a steady client for Bob's romance art. "The Post paid $600 for a single page illustration," he says, "but I tell ya, after you paid your modelling fees and all that, $600 didn't go very far."

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A few years later: "It was 1964," Bob begins, "and I was working at Cooper's. One of the salesmen came to me and said, "Exxon wants a tiger."

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After his design had been chosen: "Well, I was kind of with Chuck at the time (when I did the initial sketch)... and then we didn't hear anything... and then I had left Chuck, because work had really fallen off at the studio. And then all of a sudden the Exxon stuff started pouring in."

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"One day it occurred to me... I had started this when I was with Chuck, and it was advertising work. So I said, "I owe Chuck some money." So I went to him... and I can't remember what it was exactly but in a couple of months I made something like eight thousand bucks. And I went to give Chuck half of it... and he wouldn't take it."


Murray Tinkelman on his time at the Charles E. Cooper studio:

[Around 1958] "One of the salesmen came in with a job from the Grollier's Society. They were publishing an encyclopedia for high school kids. And I got $1,800 for that one job, which was as much as I had made the entire previous year. That was a break-through. I don't think I was ever in the red again after that job... there was always something on the board, there was always a cheque in the mail."

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"Fast forward for a minute here: there was a point in 1961, when I did my first Saturday Evening Post job. And it was a thousand dollars for one painting."

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"And I went into Chuck's office and I gave him a cheque for five hundred dollars. Now Chuck did not take any money from editorial jobs -- he only took money from advertising -- and this was an editorial job. He said, "What are you doing?" and I said, "Well, you staked me to that draw." And he said, "Well can you afford this?" And I remember saying ,"I can't afford not to do this." So he took the cheque - reluctantly."

Mitchell Hooks:

By blazing a trail in book cover illustration instead of following in the footsteps of others, Mitch was at last noticed by the magazine art directors. In the late 50's, his work began appearing in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post. It wasn't everything he'd hoped for.

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When I asked him about working for the The Post, surely the pinnacle of achievement for any illustrator in the 50's, his response was less than enthusiastic.

"They paid very poorly, considering their stature. About $300 for a full page illustration - the same as what I was getting for a paperback cover. And they acted like you should be honoured they'd chosen you."

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I asked him if it would be fair to say that ad art paid as much as ten times what the editorial did, and he said that sounded about right.

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Excerpt from the March 1978 issue of Creativity magazine on James Hill:

[In the 1950s] "The major magazine market was the proving ground and it also held the prospect of diversified markets for illustrators. If Al Parker could pull in $2,500 for a page or spread, James Hill was willing to take the risk and compete for those rates."

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[But] "the continuous financial upheavals in the magazine industry and other gradual changes in the New York scene eventually pushed Hill into the decision to return to his first base of operations [Toronto]. Hill reasoned that what with inflation, a reasonably healthy magazine profit picture and his own improved capability the rate for magazine illustration should be at least double of 15 years ago. He was wrong."

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"The price of everything else may be up but fees to magazine illustrators have not risen (in fact, when at the time Hill returned to Toronto, fees were actually going down)."

Anita Virgil on her late husband, Andy Virgil:

"The 1960s were another kind of turning point in illustration art. Fewer pieces of fiction appeared in the women’s magazines. Usually there were at least three per issue. Photography was in the ascendancy, competition among the illustrators was stiff for the two per issue stories, then one per, and then even this well pretty much dried up. And later, when there was an upswing in art, it had evolved into quite different kinds from that of the ‘50s. Even advertising art was heavily using photographers."

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Most New York illustrators saw the writing on the wall and gradually turned elsewhere to try to make a living in this new environment. I know few firsthand details of how others with Rahl studios managed except that Fred Siebel became an art director, Herb Saslow sold mutual funds and exhibited some of his surreal romantic paintings to a Pennsylvania museum. Spot man, Oscar Barshak always had depended primarily on his interior decorating. Dorothy Monet would undoubtedly come out on top . . . of whatever she chose to do. Just prior to that time, though, I think she had married a psychiatrist and had a baby. This downturn in illustration likely had little effect on her.

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I know there was some work coming in early in the ‘60s, but it was the barest minimum -- the jobs too few and far between. In 1964, Andy was approached by an agent dealing in second rights for the European market. They paid very little -- but they paid.

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During the remaining years of the 1960s, Andy was trying all sorts of things to get by as well as to keep himself occupied. He practiced his trumpet, took lessons in N.Y. with Roy Stevens. By 1968, almost nine years of unabated hard times under our belt, together we started teaching art classes in our basement – just to put bread on the table. Andy continued to paint samples [and] took them around New York to try for work. He even tried doing some storyboards. Colored inks on bond paper. Funny little commercials he dreamed up.

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For a while he was represented by Artists, Inc. and by Artists Associates but still, not very many jobs came of these affiliations. Those that came from Trans World Feature Syndicates paid ever so little for 2nd rights. Once we received a request from a magazine in South Africa. Hard-up as we were, we refused to allow them to use Andy’s work because of their long policy of apartheid.

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By 1974 and for the next four years, I had to work full time while Andy served as house-husband. And he kept painting samples. Enter Joe Mendola. Andy’s last rep. It was somewhere around 1978 and suddenly the clouds lifted. The siege was over, somehow, and there was work coming in just as it had so many years before.

Tomorrow: After the Siege - How Mid-Century Illustrators Adapted to Changing Markets

* On October 26, from 7 to 9 pm, I'll be in Toronto at The Nook giving a talk about mid-century illustrators whom I've written about over the last six years. I'll share stories and anecdotes - some from my research but also many from personal interviews I've conducted with many Canadian and American illustrators of the mid-20th century. I'll be looking at changing styles and technology and how both have impacted the business of illustration over the last half century. Perhaps we can learn something from the lessons of the past... or perhaps we are doomed to repeat it.

Also, there will be treats.

If you think you might like to attend, the details are at The Nook Collective website


* If you'd like to try converting any of these numbers into current dollar values, here's a link to a handy online inflation calculator

Marvin Friedman: "You had to do what you had to do to get the work."

Monday, October 17, 2011

Last week we looked at a few examples of some pretty incredible financial scenarios for illustrators in the first half of the 20th century. In broad terms, it seems fairly evident that the profession of illustration was - at least potentially - an extremely lucrative field for many artists who worked at the upper levels of the business during those years.

Circumstances seem to have changed dramatically as the 1950s drew to a close.

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Below, a piece done around 1960 by Marvin Friedman. It was his first assignment from Cosmopolitan magazine. During most of the 1950s Cosmo typically ran five or six illustrations per issue, always assigning them to the best artists of that era. When Marvin began illustrating for Cosmo, things had changed. "Cosmopolitan was literally going down the tubes," he told me. "They were hanging on by their fingernails."


Marvin loved working for Cosmopolitan's AD, Anthony La Sala. "He was like a father to me," Marvin told me. "He used to take me out to dinner, he bought me clothes... Tony always found the money to pay me $2,500 for an illustration." With his art budget severely constrained, La Sala would approach museums and galleries and buy one-time limited reproduction right to famous paintings for $100 a piece - a sort of early-day version of what would now be considered a "stock art" purchase. La Sal would use these gallery images to illustrate most of his fiction stories, saving the bulk of his budget so he could commission one good illustration for one remaining story each month.

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The 1960's would prove to be a challenging decade for Marvin and virtually every other illustrator trying to pursue a career in magazine illustration. As television stole away advertising revenue, page counts went down and magazine editors increasingly turned to photography in place of illustration. Only the truly determined artist could hope to snap up some of the fewer and fewer assignments. "I had to brown-nose," says Marvin, "I had to send liquor out at Christmastime - it was like any other business - you had to do what you had to do to get the work."

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As a young boy Marvin Friedman dreamed of being like Norman Rockwell. Ironically, he has the dubious distinction of appearing in the last three issues of The Saturday Evening Post. "Frank Kilker was the art director then and he didn't say a word to me. He just gave me three or four stories to illustrate. He never told me they were about to fold."

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"I mean I used to send out cake [to the art directors] with a note that said, 'Children starving, being evicted - please send work.'

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Marvin had a lucky break with Boys' Life magazine - "My longest and biggest client," he says.

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The assistant art director lived in the same town as Marvin, they had a chance meeting and took a liking to each other. "He gave me little spots at the back and the work just grew and grew and grew. They would send me all over the goddamn world, pay me $1,500, $2,000 a spread... it was like a 'wish thing' - a dream job."

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For the purpose of our look at the economics of the illustration industry during the mid-20th century, the numbers Marvin quotes may be anecdotal and based on his personal circumstances, but are nonetheless telling.

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They suggest that rates stopped rising during the 1950s and remained essentially flat from that point onward. When inflation is taken into account, rates were actually beginning to decline during this period, although the cost of living and the average annual income of a middle class family was relatively so low that it might not have been that readily apparent.

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More obvious to the majority of illustrators would be a sudden decline in work from two of what had been consistent, lucrative markets: magazines and advertising.

Tomorrow: more anecdotal evidence of changing times.

* On October 26, from 7 to 9 pm, I'll be in Toronto at The Nook giving a talk about Marvin Friedman and many other mid-century illustrators whom I've written about over the last six years. I'll share stories and anecdotes - some from my research but also many from personal interviews I've conducted with many Canadian and American illustrators of the mid-20th century. I'll be looking at changing styles and technology and how both have impacted the business of illustration over the last half century. Perhaps we can learn something from the lessons of the past... or perhaps we are doomed to repeat it.

Also, there will be treats.

If you think you might like to attend, the details are at The Nook Collective website

This week, a preview of some of my discussion subjects.
 

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