Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On Bernie Fuchs and the Nature of Immortality

Last week Bernie Fuchs passed away.

For some illustrators (for most) that would be the end of their road. Not so for Bernie Fuchs. The man may be gone but his influence on illustration will last a very long time...

... maybe forever.

I'll always remember one particular class in my first year at art college. We had just pinned up our weekly assignment in John Woods' Structural Drawing class for him to critique. John was a tall, gaunt, chainsmoking expatriate Brit with an acerbic wit and and absolutely no tolerance for foolishness. I both liked and respected him - but he also scared the shit out of me.

On that day John made his way briskly around the room offering faint praise here, a scathing criticism there... but he stopped abruptly and stared for a good long minute at the work of one of my fellow students I'll call "Dave". The room was pin-drop silent as we waited on tenterhooks for John's remarks. To my untrained eyes the piece in question looked like a pretty impressive rendering of Dizzy Gillespie. Finally, taking a deep drag on the latest of his ever-present Rothman's King-sized cigarettes, John turned and pinned Dave with his merciless gaze. "You know Dave," he said through an exhalation of blue grey smoke, "perhaps next time you could try doing your own work for my class instead of a failed attempt at channeling Bernie Fuchs."

I thought, "who?"

At that point in my life I had never even heard of Bernie Fuchs. It was the 80's and I was a clueless 20-year-old kid who had only ever looked at comic books. Sure, I knew who Norman Rockwell was (everybody knows Norman Rockwell)... but beyond that, all other illustrators were a mystery to me. I had no idea that for nearly a quarter of a century countless artists - students and professionals - had been channeling Bernie Fuchs.

For every thousand who stole Fuchs' fire, there was a tiny handful who managed to incorporate that magnificent influence and evolve it into something unique and beautiful of their own. Others would come along, imitate the imitators, and repeat the process again and again. Today - another twenty five years later - what Bernie Fuchs originated has been so thoroughly absorbed that it has become part of the language of illustration.

Sometimes I'll look at what the current crop of young artists is doing and see elements of Fuchs' style in a paintings the way I see elements of Sundblom's or Lyendecker's or Rockwell's. You see it and you think, "that person probably doesn't even realize he's painting with light the way Bernie Fuchs taught us to."

How many artists can claim to have had such a profound influence on the industry?

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there aren't many in the history of illustration who can lay claim to that sort of reverence.

Murray Tinkelman relates a great anecdote about how the first time Joe Bowler saw a piece by Bernie in 1958 he said, "I don't know who the hell did this, but the business is never going to be the same."

I'd go one step further and say that after Bernie Fuchs graced us with his genius, illustration has been changed forever.

That's probably small consolation to those who knew and loved Bernie Fuchs, the man... but whatever your belief system, in a way, Bernie Fuchs has attained immortality.

Through his profound influence on illustration, he will be with us forever.

* My thanks to Charlie Allen, who provided all of today's scans.

* My Bernie Fuchs Flickr set.


  1. Godspeed Mr Fuchs.
    Your mark is deep.

  2. Always sad to see a legend pass. Glad that blogs like this keep the flame lit.

    Do you know if there's any comprehensive monographs of his work? I've got the issue of 'Illustration' that spotlighted his work , but don't know of any others.

    Cheers, Dom

  3. I don't know of any "Art of Bernie Fuchs" books, Dom, but if there ever is one, I hope its written by David Apatoff.

  4. Charlie Allen1:34 PM

    THANKS, LEIF.....You did that tribute better than anyone else could have. Very interesting regarding you first exposure to Fuchs name. You had a great art instructor....there aren't that many in the schools.

  5. Thanks for posting these, i've not seen most of them. As already said, the man is gone, but boy has he left a mark! or many beautiful marks. R.I.P

  6. Chad Sterling2:33 PM

    Well said,Leif.I think we've seen the passing of a very important moment in the history of illustration in the last few days.And perhaps even a turning point of sorts.
    To be completely honest I always associated Mr Fuchs with that 'rainy day' style of illustration and was never that keen.I think I'd seen too many bad copies.But when I studied Fuch's work I started to see the mastery of drawing,colour,daring composition in his work that made it so much more than an empty 'style'.Then I saw his early work,before the rainy stuff,and more clearly I saw how he'd always been in command of a mighty talent.RIP,BF.

  7. I am sorry to hear of Bernie Fuchs passing, I have enjoyed and admired his work for many years. He was just a wonderful artist.

  8. The New York Times has an interesting obituary (nytimes.com).

  9. Thank you , Leif for this post.
    Mr. Fuchs was my Master for many years, although it's been only some time ago (praise go to you, again, and your flickr collections), when I discovered His name.
    I still remember a copy of Sports Illustrated with His pictures I got my hands on in early 80's. I have spent long hours trying to figure how He did those...
    But being quite young lad then, I forgot the name. Not the art itself.

    RIP Mr. Fuchs. [']['][']

  10. Kazumi1:54 PM

    Thanks for the information. I was living in Japan when Mr. Fuchs was popular but I recognize his style.

    Is it possible for you to guess what were the materials he was using to create his illustrations? I want to copy his work to learn his technique.

  11. ...I collected pictures I liked from Redbook and other "american" magazines when I was I kid. It wasn't until a workshop class at OCA that I realized I was collecting Bernie Fuchs. I still remember his demonstration of painting in the dark and then wiping it all off. And I think I still have those tear sheets even though he turned me down some 25 years later to create cover art for a series of books. Forever a hero.