Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ken Riley: In the Beginning

The piece below, from October 1948, is from Ken Riley's first year as a regular contributor to the Saturday Evening Post.

In this early work, done when Riley was not quite 30 years old and quite different from his later, more personalized technique, we can perhaps see the influence of the young artist's three most revered mentors: Thomas Hart Benton, whom Riley studied under at the Kansas City Art Institute, Frank Vincent Dumond, with whom Riley later studied by day at New York's Art Students' League and Harvey Dunn, Riley's instructor at the Grand Central Art School, where he concurrently took evening classes.

Next came W.W. II, in which Riley served in the Coast Guard according to author Frederic Whitaker in his article in the June 1958 issue of American Artist magazine. "Riley was assigned to the project of making permanent art records for the archives.... During this period, he designed the special commemorative postage stamp issued in tribute to the Coast Guard's contribution to the war effort. Near the war's end, Riley was transferred to the Washington area to augment the Coast Guard's treasury of painted historical records. One work of this period was a mural for the New London Coast Guard Academy."

Whitaker writes, "Its interesting that one of Riley's first commercial connections [after the war] found him drawing for a comics magazine."

Interesting indeed! Because just the other night I was reading the current issue of Alter Ego magazine, and what should I find in Jim Amash's excellent interview with Joe Simon, but the following:

Simon and his creative/business partner, the legendary Jack "King" Kirby were 'packaging' comics for Harvey Publications, that is, employing all the creative talent required to produce an entire comic book for the publisher. When Jim Amash asks Simon to tell him "about some of the people who worked for you", Simon responds, "Kenneth Riley was a great oil painter. He was a star up in Washington, DC, painting murals. What we had there was the combat art group. The guys would go out on trips and make sketches, and they'd cut to headquarters in Washington, DC, and paint them... Ken was the best of them all."

Isn't that cool? Could it be possible that Ken Riley and Jack Kirby worked in the same studio on the same comic books back in the mid 1940's? I contacted Jim who has passed my message along to Mr. Simon - and with any luck we may yet find out.

Not long after his brief stint in comics, Riley began his long association with The Saturday Evening Post. Below is the first piece he did, from the January 17, 1948 issue, taken here from the book, "Illustrating for the Saturday Evening Post".

Already we can see what Whitaker means when he writes, "Riley is a master of depicting character. He creates his folk with the volume and variety and with the facility, conviction, and accuracy of a Dickens."

Speaking on his own behalf, Riley said, "I think with a pencil - in terms of line, and my paintings are essentially drawings. I cannot lay too much emphasis on the importance of draughtsmanship."

"I do not refer simply to a knowledge of anatomy and the ability to register it on paper, for after all anatomical rendering is a static business, but I think rather of the faculty of reproducing on paper or canvas the life within the figure, its swing, movement, direction, and spirit."

"This calls for draughtsmanship."

My Ken Riley Flickr set.


  1. Great post about Ken Riley. My interest in him is mainly from the comic book side. As you mentioned Ken did some work for Simon and Kirby. He did not work in the studio but he knew both Joe Simon and Jack Kirby well. Joe still has some photographs Ken took for illustration proposals. Joe recently used one as a humorous ad but the picture was not altered. You can see a copy of the advertisement in my post http://kirbymuseum.org/blogs/simonandkirby/archives/451

  2. Harry; Thanks so much for commenting. It was fascinating to see the examples of Ken Riley's comic art on your site. For those who stumble upon this post and care to see the comic art of Ken Riley, this link: http://ow.ly/olSm ... goes to Harry's post on Riley.

  3. My Dad knew Ken Riley when they worked together in the Coast Guard Art Department in Washington D.C. in 1944-'45. I have a portrait sketch that Mr. Riley made of my Dad posted here:

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