Friday, August 28, 2009

Bernie Fuchs: "more admired - and more imitated - than... any other current illustrator"

Like most children, when Bernie Fuchs was a boy he enjoyed drawing and doodling in his school notebooks. But he had no ambitions to become an illustrator (at that young age he didn't even know what an illustrator was) and he never painted a single picture in high school. The summer after graduation Fuchs lost three fingers on his right hand in a terrible workplace accident, making it almost impossible to hold a pencil. The following year he found a job on an assembly line in a puppet factory, painting the cartoon heads on puppets. He was fired because he was so bad at it.

Ten years later Bernie Fuchs was one of the top illustrators in America.

How a little boy from the coal mining town of O'Fallon, Illinois who's father abandoned the family when Bernie was only four...

... became the Artists Guild of New York's "Artist of the Year" by age 30 and the youngest person ever elected to the Illustrators Hall of Fame is a remarkable story of triumph over adversity and a celebration of what can be accomplished through hard work and determination -even during one of the most trying times in the history of illustration.

Walt Reed, author of "The Illustrator in America" said that "his pictures are probably more admired - and more imitated - than those of any other current illustrator."

David Apatoff wrote an issue-long (now out of print) article on Bernie Fuchs in Illustration magazine #15. He shared this anecdote with me recently and, with David's permission, I'm sharing it here with you:

"The first time I met Bernie ... was when I wrote that article. He and I were getting acquainted in his huge studio and the walls were plastered with drawings and paintings, some by Bernie but mostly from his peers who he admired (Al Parker, Bowler, Briggs, etc.). Bernie didn’t know what the heck to make of me; he assumed I must be just another dopey newspaper reporter who didn’t know anything about illustration. I saw an Austin Briggs drawing on the wall and I said, “hey-- nice Briggs.” Bernie immediately perked up, because Briggs was Bernie’s mentor and one of his closest friends. He said, “You know Austin’s work?” Somehow we got into this game where he started testing me by going around the room, saying “Who is that?” I was getting them all correct, one after the other. I felt like Annie Oakley sharpshooting targets at a carnival: bang bang bang bang bang. Finally, I screwed up. I said “that’s Coby Whitmore” and Bernie got this hurt look on his face."

"He said, “no, I did that.” I was so aghast that he laughed and decided to take mercy on me. He said, “when I first came to Westport I was a big admirer of Coby’s. I got an assignment for a woman’s magazine and I didn’t know any models in town or anything yet, so Coby-- who became a great friend-- loaned me the two models he always used. And I did the illustration in a Coby Whitmore style and sent it in to the magazine which loved it but mistakenly ran it with a credit line, “Coby Whitmore.” They didn’t really know me yet and assumed it must have come from him. But the punchline is that when the magazine came out with the misattribution, Coby’s son called him to say that he thought Coby’s illustration in that issue was one of the best things Coby had ever done! So I guess I can’t blame you for getting it wrong.”

It was my intention this week to (finally) showcase the work of Bernie Fuchs for the benefit of readers who were unaware, as I once was, of his work and how powerfully influential it has been on countless artists - and on the entire profession - over the last 50 years.

Many thanks to Charlie Allen for all his many scans, David Apatoff (who provided the photo of Bernie, as well as his childhood drawings), and all the enthusiastic commentors who contributed so much to our discussion this week. We will definitely be revisiting the work of Bernie Fuchs again in the months ahead.

* My Bernie Fuchs Flickr set.

Addendum: Bernie's Big Brushes

Several comments about the size of Bernie's brushes in the photo above compelled me to add the photo below, from David Apatoff's article in Illustration magazine #15.

I can't, however, explain why it appears Bernie has a full set of fingers on his right hand in that photo-- perhaps David will enlighten us.


  1. Those look like pretty big brushes he's using. Maybe they're for backgrounds but I wonder how large he generally worked? It would explain how he got the wonderful textual effects if they were fairly big.

    Thanks for the great posts.

  2. Aside from everything else he excels at, I think the compositions, the angles, are what make these attractive to me. I don't think I could ever get enough Bernie Fuchs.

  3. Fuchs has been an inspiration to me all my career-- he is the last real giant in the field of illustration. Who else in the last 50 years has a reputation like his? Nobody can touch him.

  4. Thanks, Leif-- if I realized you were going to run my little anecdote about Bernie today I would have spruced it up a little!

    Two comments about today's post: that double page spread, Oliver and the Rich Girl was an important statement in its day, something that Bernie, the art director and the magazine were particularly proud of because it really opened up the page, integrating the illustration, typography and text in a way that had not really been done before. The text became part of the design, the illustration was no longer confined to a rectangular box, and white space ran riot over the whole spread (in a huge, oversized magazine). Back then, it heralded a fundamental reordering of priorities for women's magazine illustration.

    The other point I want to add to your anecdote is that the day I met Bernie Fuchs was a great day for me personally because, quite apart from his professional accomplishments which you have described so well here, he turned out to be one of the kindest, gentlest, most generous people I've met. I interviewed him for days and he never had an unkind or competitive word about another illustrator. He was always lavish with his praise for people who helped him along the way, but completely humble about his own accomplishments. Your readers should know that he is a class act through and through.

  5. is there published collection of Bernie's work?

  6. No "Art of..." book as far as I know, Christopher.

  7. Incidentally (and I don't get anything for this plug, in case anyone's wondering) there's a great selection of Bernie Fuchs originals for sale at Mitch Itkowitz's site, Graphic Collectibles:

    Even if you haven't got a spare grand or two laying around, its well worth taking a look at these gorgeous pieces! I'm especially in love w/ the two 'magazine story sketches'!

  8. "The summer after graduation Fuchs lost three fingers on his right hand in a terrible workplace accident, making it almost impossible to hold a pencil."

    It looks like he has all his fingers in the photo.

  9. Charlie Allen6:08 PM

    Wondered about that. But look again. The right forefinger, and possibly others, don't look normal from the first knuckle on. I've also wondered....right or left handed? On the big brushes....saw a couple of Fuchs large a Carmel gallery, I think early 90's. Loose, and he would have used big brushes.

  10. Leif, I may be able to shed a little light here.

    I think Bernie might be pleased by your readers who think that it looks like he has all his fingers. We never talked about it, but I suspect he became an expert at holding his hand in photographs to conceal his childhood injury. There are a number of photographs similar to this one, where you see the ending knuckle and the illusion that there is something more beyond it. Bernie could not have turned out more successful, and he could not be a more stable and level headed person, but I'm not sure we ever really get over the traumas of our tender, formative years. I spoke with his wife's childhood friend Judy from O'Fallon who said that in the months following the accident Bernie was very self-conscious and spent a lot of time alone talking with his girlfriend (now wife) Babe, perhaps the only one in the world he could confide in. Nobody will ever know what he resolved in those conversation, or what they shared together.

    As for the size of Bernie's paintings, the photo you have added is a mural that Bernie painted, not one of his typical paintings. His paintings tended to be smaller when he worked tightly in gouache and casein for magazine illustrations. When he turned to oil paints, he seemed to work a little larger (as well as looser). For example, Bernie's original painting reproduced on this post is about 24" x 30". (It was used for the double page spread in Sports Illustrated that is also reproduced on the same post.) That size is fairly typical for his oil paintings.

    As for a book about Bernie's art, there is a definite need for one and there will definitely be one. I am currently finishing work on a book of Robert Fawcett's art, but I would love to help with a book about Bernie as soon as a suitable publisher can be lined up.

  11. Anonymous11:54 PM

    your blog is incredible, I could spend hour looking through the beautiful artwork - and I will...

  12. Anonymous8:29 AM

    What an inspirational story- I will use this whenever my students say they can't draw no matter how much they practice. I teach middle school art, and I love this site (the scans are such a great resource)!

  13. I've admire Bernie Fuchs work, but never knew the inspirational story behind it! Gary Bergoff (Radar from MASH) was able to hide his misssing fingers for a TV show, so I'm sure Bernie got very good at hiding his for photos. It's a shame that he felt he had to do that though.

  14. what an interesting story.
    but those two pictures, the one with the girl on the blue background and the one with the couple on the Vespa-like bike, they hit like a punch, they are just marvellous.