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

Fred Steffen in the 1970s Childcraft Books

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


* Things are a bit hectic for me at this time so, as you may have noticed, new posts will be intermittent (depending on my schedule). Sorry for that... I should be able to get back to a stable schedule in a week or two. ~ Leif


About a year ago I posted some examples of 1950s album cover art by a Chicago illustrator named Fred Steffen...

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Recently I happened upon some 'new' artwork by Steffen - this time from the 1970s. Fred Steffen provided title page artwork for each chapter in Volume 10 of the 1972 edition of Childcraft, The How and Why Library.

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Seen at actual printed size, these illustrations are bit indecipherable.

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But have a look: when we zoom in on the individual elements... they're wonderful!

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Here you can see Steffen's distinctive linear ink line style and complex but well organized use of detail.

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As a group, these illustrations have a trippy look so reminiscent of the era in which they were created.

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I don't really have any new information of Steffen, so I'll just leave you to scroll through this series and enjoy their groovy quirkiness.

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Steffen10

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Steffen15

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* This week, as time allows, I'll be featuring more artwork by a variety of illustrators from the 1970s editions of Childcraft, The How and Why Library.

Robert J. Lee: "The career has gone just great."

Thursday, April 11, 2013


Recently, Robert J. Lee's daughter, Robin Lee, wrote to me: "Before my dad died in 1994, he dictated a bunch of stories from childhood. I put together a small booklet transcribed from tapes he made of his life. There is at least a snippet that could be interesting."

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Most of the text consists of personal anecdotes from throughout his life, but on the last page Lee sums up his thoughts on his career:

"At age 70 I can look back and say at age 30 I was in "Who's Who in American Art." And the biography is very solid. My first painting I ever sold was out of the El Burracho bar in San Francisco. I think I got $35 for it."

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"I can recall the lady calling me on the phone and asking if I'd come down in price. I gather that would have been after the war so I would have been 24 or 25. Recently I sold a painting for $15,000 so in 50 years I've come up a little bit in the world."

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"The career has been great. Ups and downs. Depression and happiness."

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"I guess my favorite stuff about the career is going on assignments, traveling. The most fun travel was for Allstate Insurance and Sears, going to the Southwest with two little girls and Lucy in a big station wagon in 1964."

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"And we had all kinds of wondrous adventures."

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"The other travels on assignments that I've taken have been mainly for the Air Force. They would send me to different bases and later I would do a painting, take lots of photos and later go to an opening of the exhibition of people who had taken these trips to the Society of Illustrators and the Air Force. The exhibit would be at the Society of Illustrators and later moved down to D.C."

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"And then we would go down there for a black-tie dinner. It was great fun seeing, as I get older, people I've known for 35 or 40 years that had been on trips; a lot of guys 70 years old that I know are still working artists."

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"I know I still am."

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"The length of time that I put in the studio has diminished a lot but I think I am painting fairly well."



* Thanks to Robin Lee for sharing these remarks from her dad, Robert J. Lee, with us. Robin is a freelance nonfiction writer who enjoys telling people's life stories. If you are interested in reaching her, email me and I'll forward your message to Robin. The text of today's post is © 2013 Robin Lee

Robert J. Lee: "There must be a constant probing of one's mind to paint something meaningful"

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In 1968 the editors of American Artist magazine presented the work of illustrator Robert J. Lee. Accompanying his art they compiled interviews, correspondences and "several pages of informal notes" into a single 'digest' of Lee's thoughts on a broad range of topics related to his life as an artist.

Here is the 4th and final excerpt:

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"Most of my children's books are done in mixed media."

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"Tales of the Arabian Nights, published by Whitman, is a good example of this. It was created in a mixture of charcoal, designer's colors, casein, watercolor, pecil, and pastel, bleeding through and over and around each other."

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"In both oil and mixed media I paint with sable brushes, but from different paint pots, naturally."

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"I am not fond of hard edged painting usually, but I hadn't given it much thought till, in talking to an editor, he pointed out to me how all of my edges were quite feathery in paintings done a few years ago."

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"David with a Sling" and the newer paintings, Holy Men and Puerto Rican Landscape, were not as "smokey" or "feathery."

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"I feel the newer paintings to be a bit more solid as they rely less on technique, style, or mannerisms which can often be short lived."

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"Possibly one of the reasons for painting in a rather looser manner is that I have done so much really tight rendering over the years..."

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"... that when I get a chance to paint in any manner I wish, I like painting wet with slow drying linseed oil that can be pushed around, feathered and smeared with the hand."

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"Much of my painting is actually done with the fingers."

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"I am becoming more and more involved in a love for good drawing. One of the things concerning drawing I have observed in students over the years: they separate drawing and painting into two different sections of their mental attitude towards an art problem. They often think in terms of "doing a drawing" and then filling it in with color, which they think of as painting."

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"Drawing with the paint while painting, I feel, makes for greater solidity in picture making. A mountain has anatomy just as much as a mammal, as does a tree or a building, but to feel that inner structure, one must paint with draughtsmanship rather than simply covering over a fine drawing with color."

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"There is a dangerous tendency, when one becomes technically proficient, to work sort of automatically with 'the mind in neutral.' Strangely enough, while I do not know any real intellectuals who are top-flight artists, most of the artists I know are involved in intellectual endeavors. There must be a constant probing of one's mind to paint something meaningful, aided by research which goes on year after year involving so many possible subjects."

Tomorrow: an addendum

Robert J. Lee: "The life of a real working artist is tough work, mentally and physically."

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

In 1968 the editors of American Artist magazine presented the work of illustrator Robert J. Lee. Accompanying his art they compiled interviews, correspondences and "several pages of informal notes" into a single 'digest' of Lee's thoughts on a broad range of topics related to his life as an artist.

Lee29

Here is the 3rd excerpt:

"I have little patience with exhibitions of "black on black" or a green circle on a white ground and all the psuedo-intellectual gibberish that usually accompanies such shows. It's all been done a thousand times and the individuality of the painter is lost completely."

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"I fully understand the protests, the rebellion, the need for change; the sloshing of paint with rude brushes, the solid red canvas. This was inevitable. The things I object to are the "taste makers" throwing everything else out, and the misguided young artist who has been duped into thinking the art field is all a crazy, a wild, mishmash of self indulgence, completely without discipline. Make no mistake, the life of a real working artist is tough work, mentally and physically."

Lee28

"The most troublesome problem I have is time. Working six or seven days a week seems less than the time I need to illustrate, experiment, paint and teach. I'm not sure about the line, "an artist should reflect his times." I estimate I paint about seventy illustrations and paintings a year. Each of these involves a new situation, a fresh idea, and usually research of some kind (one does not paint a very realistic illustration for a nature book on North American mammals, from memory.)"

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"I work in just about any media depending upon the assignment or inspiration. If someone is paying $1,500 for an illustration I can afford to stretch a four-foot canvas and spend some time doing an oil."

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"For a textbook page paying $150 I work in wash or casein, and usually in small scale (one-and-one-half times larger than the printed illustration is my normal procedure.)"

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"Preliminary sketches bore me, especially if the sketch is made or required to be so complete as to take the creative surge out of the final painting. I normally do a "comp" for clients buying an illustration from me, and I find that sometimes it is much better than the finished art because of the spontaneity factor which the rough had and the painting lacked."

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"I draw my pictures in charcoal rather roughly, then go over these lines in brush and ink, because my next step is a series of neutral washes, and without the ink lines my drawing would be lost. Painting on a flat white surface would be most distracting to me."

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"I once did a mural on a yellow wall, and within less than an hour my normal good color sense had left me. Reds looked brown and greens went dead, and yet, upon arrival each morning to begin work, the mural looked fine - all the colors made sense, but as soon as the work of mixing colors and resuming the job had gone on for a time, the same reaction took place."

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"I find the best tone for me on canvas is gray-green."

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"I work standing at a beat-up easel. My palette is about three feet square and hasn't been cleaned in ten years, so it looks like a relief map of the Andes Mountains! My palette is rather limited, probably harking back to my student days of limited means for buying paint. However, I see no reason for six blues or eight reds on the same palette!"


* Continued tomorrow
 

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