Friday, February 06, 2009

Marvin Friedman: Famine and Feast

The 1960's was a challenging time for Marvin and every other illustrator trying to pursue a career in magazine illustration. Page counts were down as television stole away advertising revenue and magazine editors were increasingly turning to photography in favour of illustration. Only the truly determined artist could hope to snap up the fewer and fewer assignments. "I had to brown-nose," says Marvin, "I had to send liqour out at Christmastime - it was like any other business - you had to do what you had to do to get the work."

For the young boy who all those years ago dreamed of being Norman Rockwell, Marvin has the dubious distinction of appearing in the last three issues of The Saturday Evening Post. "Frank Kilker was the art director then and he didn't say a word to me. He just gave me three or four stories to illustrate. He never told me they were about to fold."

"I mean I used to send out cake [to the art directors] with a note that said, 'Children starving, being evicted - please send work.'

Marvin had a lucky break with Boys' Life magazine - "My longest and biggest client," he says. The assistant art director lived in the same town as Marvin, they had a chance meeting and took a liking to each other. "He gave me little spots at the back and the work just grew and grew and grew. They would send me all over the goddamn world, pay me $1,500, $2,000 a spread... it was like a 'wish thing' - a dream job."

Marvin continues, "I saw Tom Jones, the movie, and there was this English fox hunt... so I went to the editor and said, "I want to go to England and do a fox hunt" and he said, "OK, go ahead" (laughter). So I went to England, I did a fox hunt, I did a cricket match, I did two stories in Amsterdam... and they paid for it!"

"But," he says with emphasis, "nobody saw it. Unless you were a boy scout or a scoutmaster or whatever, nobody saw it. Unlike Bernie Fuchs or whoever was still big in the magazines, nobody saw what I was doing."

Boys' Life provided steady work for Marvin from the 60's right through the 80's.

Then came another lucky break. Marvin had sent some samples to the art director at Gourmet magazine, hoping to get some assignments. "I was always told, "maybe next month, maybe next month," but no assignments ever came his way. Then, after that AD left, a call came out of the blue. The new art director had seen Marvin's samples and told him, "We have this idea to illustrate the restaurants of Manhattan and we want you to do it."

"OK, fine, great," says Marvin. "So they would go in and interview the chefs and so on, and I would go in for an hour or two and take some photographs and talk to them. They would think I knew all about food and all that kinda stuff... and I didn't know shit!" He chortles, "So they would bring us out all this food I never heard of and never saw before... and my wife an I would sit there and eat all this free food! It was marvelous!

"So that was for nine years, I think. Three restaurants a month... so you figure that out. It was a lotta restaurants! It was a job made in heaven, it could never happen again. It had the right art director, the right editor... and the right illustrator and it could never, never happen again."

"The art director and I became good friends. People would write me from Europe and say, "I got engaged in that restaurant" or "My son had his Bar Mitzfah in that restaurant - can I buy the original". Wherever I would go and show those sketches people would say, "Oh my god is that you? Is that the original? How much is it? A hundred and fifty dollars? OK, here you go." It was marvelous, marvelous."

"When I think back now that I'm older: I was working in The New York Times, I was working in Playboy, in The Saturday Evening Post... it occurs to me now I just treated them as jobs. I wasn't thrilled... I mean today people would say, "Oh my God, The New York Times!"

"But after all the effort I put into getting there, it didn't even occur to me that this was special. I was getting work, doing my thing... it was just my business."

* My Marvin Friedman Flickr set.

* Many thanks to Brian Postman and Harold Henriksen for providing so many of this week's scans, and to my friend René Milot for scanning Marvin's slides!


  1. Haha
    That fox hunt story is great. Marvin's got real moxy!

  2. I wasn't a boy scout or a scoutmaster but I subscribed for a time to boys life for the illustrations, and there were good ones,

  3. No kidding, - on both counts! Thanks for your comments, guys. :^)

  4. Anonymous4:49 PM

    HAFTA comment again. Just as I can't play music, we've all heard someone say 'I can't draw a straight line'. Well, neither could Marvin Friedman....but you've never seen so many crooked lines that are so right! Again, just brilliant stuff! The stories and commentary are great, too. Makes me glad I paddled in my pond out here. Thanks for a great week, Leif.

  5. Thank a million, Charlie; Its awesome to hear that you've enjoyed seeing Marvin's work!

    I present a wide variety of styles on this blog and I know everything I show isn't always everyone's cup of tea... but seeing that Marvin's stuff gets your stamp of approval might give some people pause to reconsider and take a closer look.

    "So many crooked lines drawn so perfectly" is a great description! :^)

  6. When Marvin Friedman says he never thought hat what he was doing was special at the time, I can understand that. The business was so competitive that the focus was on problem solving and meeting the deadlines or finding the next job... and, no government bailouts! No time to sit back and think: "Gee I sure am lucky to be doing this".

    My wife said to me recently, that I should be proud that I competed in one of the most competitive fields, in one of the most competitive cities (San Francisco), for 40 years, and won some awards, traveled, met interesting celebrities and made a good living at. LIke Marvin, I hadn't taken the time to really think about it, but my wife put all those years in perspective. After asking me about working on Star Wars and other special effects movies, illustration students have told me they would practically give their soul to be able to do that. I didn't have to give up my soul, but I did give up a lot of sleep.

    I concur with Charlie Allen's comment... great to hear these stories from Marvin, an illustrator that drew great looking crooked lines.

    And another great week.. thanks Leif,
    Tom Watson

  7. You're welcome, Tom, and thanks for your always thoughtful comments. :^)

  8. Anonymous11:45 AM

    Countless people depicted here - but not a single one endowed with negligence.

    Particularily like the crowd in that hall with those frescoes above the horizontal line - the crowd clearly outlined, the frescoes more loose.

    One of my favourites in Today's Inspiration.

  9. Did he work from photos at the restaurants? Or did he sometimes draw on that spot?

    I wish magazines did that kind of work today!

  10. Marvin tells me he never did much on the spot sketching. He says he always took reference photos and worked from those back in the studio.
    He mentioned some client wanting to send him to do courtroom sketching and he wasn't interested.

  11. Anonymous2:41 PM


    Thanks so much for covering Marvin's work so beautifully again. I've long been an admirer of his work, and it's a pleasure to see it so appreciated.

    As far as working on the spot goes, Marvin has a slide projector set up in his studio, projecting on a small area on the studio wall. That's one of the ways that he works from his reference images; moving the paper around until he gets the composition that he wants. Just how he maintains those beautifully expressive lines are a mystery to me.

    Marvin did tell me that the internet was a real eye-opener for him. He was able to do one assignment without leaving home, by finding all of the images he needed online.

    Thanks again Leif. This is wonderful.