Friday, December 21, 2012

Robert Baxter Revisited: "I try to get good by working hard."

I thought my post a few weeks ago on Robert Baxter would be a one-off, but it seems we're not done with him yet. Shortly after I posted some examples by Baxter from Reader's Digest Condensed Books...


... I received the following note from my friend Murray Tinkelman:

"Unless I am sorely mistaken Robert Baxter was, for a time, a Cooper Studio member in the early 60's or late 50's. I later bumped into him at the Famous Artist School. It was returning from a coffee break with Bob that I met the school director in the hallway. He asked me how things were going and I resigned on the spot."

"Anyway, Bob is a terrific painter and as I recall a very nice guy."

By complete coincidence, as I was tidying up my studio that same day, I uncovered a copy of the Autumn 1964 issue of Famous Artists magazine, the quarterly publication of the Famous Artists School. What should I discover inside but an article called "Meet one of our instructors... Robert Baxter"


In that article was confirmation of Murray's recollections: Baxter was in fact at the Cooper studio but "after two years on board with Cooper's, he felt he was at a standstill. The changing illustration field demanded a specialized and, more important, a specific personal contribution in viewpoint and style from the artist."

"It wasn't a pleasant time for me," he says. "I had been too heavily influenced by what other illustrators were doing rather than creating my own style and now there was little room for the imitator. It took me several years of painstaking self-criticism and hard work before I began to find my way."


The article tells us that Baxter began working at the Famous Artists School in 1961, but continued to do freelance work on the side. He maintained a relationship with an art rep in New York and was getting assignments from Good Housekeeping, Harvard Business Review, Ford, IBM, and quite a few other advertising and editorial clients.


Baxter described his approach to illustration: "If I'm working for an advertising client, he usually indicates quite specifically what he wants. On an editorial illustration there is much more leeway. Often I'm given the manuscript of the article, and the precise illustration and treatment are left to my discretion."


"After I read the copy, an idea may crop up. Or I doodle till one comes along. Or I may write down words that relate to the subject - frequently these words evoke images that I can develop."


"Eventually, the illustration begins to grow on my board. Somewhere in this process of developing the picture comes the moment when I know it is complete."


"With experience one learns to recognize this moment."

In the article from nearly 50 years ago, Baxter offers advice to illustrators that is every bit as relevant today (perhaps even more so):

"I'm trying to orient myself to markets... you must find the ones most sympathetic to your own developed point of view. First, you must find out who you are and why you think your opinions are special. The answers are sometimes hard to find."


Baxter continued, "Styles in commercial illustration are changing constantly... the illustrator is a great deal more free, more experimental than ever. It's a different way of working, much looser, less realistic. This kind of illustration is much more fun for me than the photographic type. It's more creative, too."


"However," Baxter qualifies, "it's hard to do well. You have to keep up. I try to keep up with the field simply by being involved with it. I try to get good by working hard, by painting constantly. I go into New York often. I talk to art directors. I have a lot of friends who are illustrators and painters; I talk to them. Artists talk a lot. You learn a great deal just by listening."


"Although each illustrator should be aware of what others are doing, originality has never been at such a premium. In fact, it is required of the artist who expects to operate at the highest level. He must be original in viewpoint, in concept, in technique. This doesn't mean that 'originality' should be conceived as merely surface mannerisms and trickiness. Ideally an original technique should add to the meaning of the picture, should arise out of the artist's personal involvement with his subject matter."

By way of example, Baxter explains the painting below...

"I feel close to this picture," he says. "One reason, of course, is the subject - my own child, Erika. When Erika becomes tired, she seems to withdraw within herself - to enter into a world of her own. Empty space is symbolic of her aloneness and the corner is a kind of axis in all this emptiness."


"The whole painting is based on this one feeling: that my child, who for ten hours a day is an extrovert, retreats into her magic, quiet world when she is tired. Because this world is 'unreal' it is without structure, so it was not important to delineate the objects in the room. If there is any originality in me, this picture expresses it."

In the years after the publication of this article, Robert Baxter went on to win numerous awards: the Paul Cezanne Medal, Aix-en-Provence, France; the Ogden and Mary Pleissner Award, American Watercolor Society; and other awards from Allied Artists of America, the National Academy of Design and the Society of Illustrators. He continued teaching in the following decades; at the Silvermine School of Art. In the early 1970s he was one of six painters who started Studio II, a studio/school in Westport.

(You can see Baxter's work in the top LH corner of the book cover below)

During the 1980's Baxter split much of his time between Connecticut and Provence, France, where he conducted painting workshops under the name, "Tour de Provence."


A final thought from Baxter worth printing out and taping over your drawing table:

"[To develop originality] you have to think. If you are merely going to look at the world and reproduce it, you are only doing what anyone else can do - and what a camera can probably do better. If you have ideas - then you're in good shape."

(Above: Robert Baxter with one of his recent paintings, Norwalk Citizen, April 2012)

* To see a large selection of Baxter's current work, click here.


  1. Leif,

    Another fantastic article on an illustrator I knew nothing about. And his words definitely hit home with me.



  2. Anonymous6:56 PM

    I bought the painting 2nd from bottom and it hangs in the Isle of Man along with 2 other works by Baxter. Thank you - we love your art.

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