Monday, May 21, 2007

In A Class of His Own: Al Parker

Over the last two weeks we've looked at what I call "The Old School" of illustration and "The New School" of illustration. There were a lot of reasons for the birth of the New School. Artists working in the relatively new medium of designer's colour/gouache found the chalky, fast drying paint required a different approach than oils (or even watercolour) so, by extension, flat, graphic treatments and a looser, rougher painting style with less blending were a natural result. We saw how styles changed and evolved and how some members of the Old School were among the pioneers of the of the New School. As America entered the modern, urban, atomic age of the 50's, a multitude of factors; social, cultural, economic, all played a part in the contemporary look of the New School style.

And always experimenting on the leading edge of that evolving approach to commercial art was one man whose work was being watched by the public, the clients and his peers: Al Parker.

Al Parker's biography is available in a number of locations on the net including at The Illustration House and at The University of St. Louis, so we will skip over those details here and get straight to the point:

I have wanted to better understand Parker's status as an illustrator without equal since reading this Noel Sickles interview in The Comics Journal #242. In speaking about the state of illustration in America, interviewer Gil Kane says to Sickles,

"When you started going into illustration, magazine illustration - at that point, or up to that point - had almost totally been dominated by what I call masculine illustrators - even Norman Rockwell. Then [Al] Parker came in, in the 30's, and set up a situation where - I don't know whether it was Parker who was reflecting a change in magazines or whether Parker's appearance triggered a change in certain magazines - but by degrees, women's stories started to come in.

And people like Jon Whitcomb and that whole Parker school of artists came in and, little by little, adventure illustration - which was represented overwhelmingly in the magazines during those periods - for a while was rather even [with a Parkeresque illustration] in a magazine like The Saturday Evening Post. They kept a pretty good balance, nearly always favoring the masculine illustrator. But it seemed that in advertising and in so many other magazines they were developing the people... I hate to classify Parker with them because he was so much better... still, he created a school that ultimately dominated magazine illustration for a while."

Well, clearly Gil Kane didn't think much of the New School - but why the qualifier, "I hate to classify Parker with them because he was so much better", for Al Parker?

And why did Parker deserve praise from his clients like this highlight in the September 1952 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine...

And why did my friend, Will Davies, and virtually every other illustrator who knew of Parker's work speak with such awe and reverence at the mention of Parker's name? This week, with the help of my friend, Barbara Bradley, we will try to better understand Al Parker's remarkable influence on mid-20th century illustration.

Barbara is an illustrator who began her career in the early 1950's at the famous Cooper studio in New York. She later moved to San Francisco and eventually went on to become the Director of Illustration at the Academy of Art University. Barbara knew Al Parker personally and professionally and I am most grateful for the keen insight she has so generously offered to add to this week's posts. Barbara was recently fêted at The Society of Illustrators in New York. She received the Distinguished Educator of the Arts Award for 2007.

Barbara's fascinating career will be the topic of an upcoming week here at Today's Inspiration but in the meantime, take a moment to visit this blog which was set up in her honor.

* By coincidence, the Norman Rockwell Museum is about to showcase Al Parker's work in a major retrospective. Go to the Rockwell Museum's site for more information.


  1. Yay! A week of Al Parker is a week to look forward to. With his chameleon style, you never know what you're going to get, but you know it will be good. Thanks, Leif.

    If you haven't read it yet, Parker's own essay on The Decade from 1940-1950 in Walt Reed's Illustrator in America is brimming with insights straight from the horse's mouth. He talks about how illustrators could not paint high contrast illustrations during the war because rationed paper was so thin, the illustration would show through on the reverse side.

    Perhaps most interesting, he also puts his spin on the great shift in subject matter and styles; he says that after the war, people began living the good life-- the depression and the war were over, suburban homes were sprouting like mushrooms, and sports cars, fashionable clothes and the new abundance were everywhere. "The need to escape was already waning and with it, escapist art." Magazines didn't need stories about the wild west or the exotic orient to attract the housewife readership. Neighborhood flirtations suddenly became pretty darn interesting.

  2. Your comment's a great addition to this week's topic, David -- and I thank you for it. I have not read the article you mention - how could I have missed something like that? But I will now.

    It sounds like a confirmation of what I believed to be happening as I wrote in today's post -- so I'm glad to hear my assumptions confirmed.

    Thanks again - L ;-)

  3. As you know, Leif, I was lucky enough to be with Barbara Bradley earlier this month, when she received her award from the Society of Illustrators in NY. I'm eager to hear what she has to say about Parker -- I'm sure it will make for interesting reading.

    That first painting of his that leads off the post, with the model -- simply brilliant.

  4. New School or not...he's the guy to learn from. His work always challenges my own perceptions about layout and composition.

    Yay! One whole week! :)


  5. "As you know, Leif, I was lucky enough to be with Barbara Bradley earlier this month, when she received her award from the Society of Illustrators in NY."

    Oh my word, Neil! Barbara Bradley was my Advanced Illustration instructor back when she was the head of the illustration department at the San Francisco Academy of Art! Around the late 80s! She was a hard-nails woman alright. I can remember when one young girl had to give her presentation for the week's art assignment and she was so nervous to do so in front of Barbara she broke out in tremendous hives!

    Where the other teachers had this "It's all sunshine and roses" attitude about the illustration field, Mrs. Bradley didn't mince words when she said "You'll be dirt poor unless you work your tail off in this line of work".

    Were you a pupil of the esteemed Mrs. Bradley, Neil? Great to know she's not only still around but as active as always in the illustration world. Al Parker was definitely one of the great ones she introduced me to in her "History of Illustration" class.

  6. Thanks for your comments, all! Neil, I wish I could have been there - I'm green with envy, buddy.

    Shane; you are so right - and by extension, Barbara is teaching me a lot about Parker through her writing contribution this week.

    Les; that's a great anecdote... its always the task masters who we remember and appreciate long after the fact - the teachers who gave us the reality check and pushed us to do our best. You were privileged to have such a knowledgable and no-nonsense instructor!

  7. Anonymous9:49 AM

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  8. Anonymous10:41 AM

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  9. Les, 10 years ago I enrolled in Murray Tinkelman's graduate illustration program at Syracuse. For my Master's Thesis topic, I chose the Charles Cooper Studio, where Barbara & so many other great illustrators worked. I interviewed her then for my thesis -- parts of which have been subsequently excerpted in Illustration Magazine -- & I'm working on an article about her now for an upcoming issue.

    But enough about me -- that's a WONDERFUL anecdote about her! The day in NY that I spent with her as she was being honored was one of the best in my professional life. At 80, she is sharp as a tack, & very formidable.

  10. Anonymous4:20 PM

    HI Leif,

    Thanks for this- while we are preparing for the exhibition on Parker's work at the Rockwell Museum, this is great material which I can use to get up to speed on the artist's career and methods.

    Sorry for the earlier unwieldy post of our press release- my colleagues discovered your great blog and thought it might be helpful to share with your readers. Thanks again for your kind mention of the exhibition, and for such passionately written blogs about the field of illustration!


    Jeremy "Elvis" Clowe

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