Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Today's Inspiration Returns! - With The Art of Will Davies

It's been a year since I put the Today's Inspiration blog on hiatus, but today I'm very please to turn the lights back on so I can share some exciting news with you: I'm in the midst of producing my first book, "The Art of Will Davies."

The Art of Will Davies

For those who don't know, my friend Will Davies was Canada's premier advertising illustrator for much of the mid-20th century.


He was also my studio mate for several years in the late 1990s and, I'm happy to report, at age 91 Will is still going strong.

How to impress upon you the stature of this ever modest but tremendously talented, prolific artist. Let's put it this way: one day back in the late '80s, in the early years of my professional illustration career, I was having lunch in Toronto's tony Yorkville neighbourhood with my pal Dan Milligan. Dan and I both worked in-house at Ogilvy & Mather, cranking out storyboards and comps for the agency and our own freelance clients. After lunch Dan proposed we drop in on his old Ontario College of Art instructor, Will Davies.


Drop in on Will Davies? I gulped (and probably sweated a little). I didn't think such a thing could be possible. It was like Dan had tossed his thumb over his shoulder and casually proposed, "Hey, God lives right here - whattaya say we drop in on him?" Will Davies was just that big. He was the biggest! The thought of just walking into his studio unannounced was incomprehensible to me.

So of course I said, "Sure."

The thing that hit you right away as you opened the door to 63A Yorkville Ave was the smell; a delicious aroma of pipe tobacco mingled with oil paints that seemed very out-of-time with the modern world swirling by beyond that door. It was cool in the front hallway, and not brightly lit, though there were tall windows facing an alleyway to the right. A wide, formidable staircase covered in worn gray carpet had to be climbed to get to the second floor landing. There, beyond an old ever-unattended reception desk, a narrow corridor branched off in several directions, doors at the sides and ends of each passageway.


It was a quiet space. All doors were shut, and what was happening behind them was a mystery. There was no art in the hallway, no signs directing you to this studio or that one. You had to know where you wanted to go, and in Will's case, you had to go down that narrow hallway all the way to the back.

That's where silence turned to chaos, as a knock on Will's studio door returned a tremendous, fierce barking from Will's German Shepherd, Maggie. If that didn't unnerve you (and believe me, in the following years, after I joined the group at 63A, I saw more than a few couriers come flying back up that hallway once Maggie made her presence known!) then after a bit you'd hear Will's calming voice: "It's ok, Maggie, alright, it's ok..." and then the door would open a crack, Maggie would let out one last yelp, and you'd see Will holding her by the collar.

"C'mon in," he'd say, always graciously making time for visitors, no matter how busy he might be.


Once the introductions were made, the dog settled, Will would return to his seat and you could at last step into this most awe-striking studio.

Will's studio seemed both immense and tiny. The room was large and the ceilings were high, but just getting in the door in any way other than single file was a challenge. There was a lot of stuff! Paintings were everywhere; leaning ten deep against walls, tables, easels, and stacked flat one on top of each other - so many layered together they formed pillars!


There were boxes of clipped reference and unclipped magazines waiting to be clipped. There were props and costumes from past jobs, a bookcase filled with illustration and art director annuals and a cot bed in one corner - though stacked so high with paintings, drawings, portfolio cases and various unidentifiable items that it must have been quite some time since anyone could have used it for napping.


Central to the room was Will's drawing table, his low, round materials table, and his chair - a funny, oddly out-of-place orange vinyl office chair of 1960s vintage that you could lean way back in. On the broad surface of the table beside his desk there were paint tubes, jars and bottles of all shapes and sizes, brushes, pencils, pastels and a large ashtray heaped high with the spent tappings of Will's pipe. That delicious aroma of sweet pipe tobacco (Will's personal blend) originated in this room, there was no doubt about that.


Facing his desk, covering the entire wide expanse of the longer wall of his studio, was an impressive collection on three shelves of vintage military helmets. It was clear he'd positioned himself in the room so that any time he liked, he could glance up over his drawing table and enjoy the view of that wide expanse of rare headgear.


That day I stood by quietly, letting Dan and Will catch up while I soaked in my surroundings. I don't remember what was on Will's board that day, but of course, whatever it was, it was brilliant. And I'll be honest with you, I can say today, older and wiser than I was twenty-five years ago, that even though I knew who Will Davies was back then and had an appreciation for his status as a professional illustrator (art directors at Ogilvy revered his work on the Hathaway Shirts account) I really didn't appreciate how exceptional the quality of the work was. I was still too young and inexperienced - and too impressed with myself - to really understand how much I had to learn so that hopefully one day I might be half the artist Will Davies already was.


And although I came away from that first encounter thinking Will Davies sure was a nice guy, and a humble, surprisingly modest person for someone of such obvious ability and proven stature, I really didn't grasp how important he was; to me, to the business, to his countless students - and to Canada.


That realization would come later - and that will be the topic of my next post.

* If you're interested in acquiring a copy of The Art of Will Davies, please visit our Kickstarter page.


  1. Anonymous7:32 PM

    Ahh! A year of fruitless clicking on the link to your blog is finally rewarded. Welcome back. I'm leaving now to check out your kickstarter page . . .
    Bob Cosgrove

  2. Hurrah! I'm glad to see this blog active again. And congratulations on raising the funds for your Will Davies book.


  3. Anonymous6:18 AM

    Oh my, finally one year of waiting... Glad to see you back!

  4. Great post, Leif! Welcome back!

  5. Nice to see you back, and congratulations on your new book!

  6. Always The best!!! Fantastic!!! Thank you very much!

  7. Glad to see you back!

  8. I too have been checking in every now and then only to be disappointed. Good to see you're back!

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