Monday, January 04, 2010

Al Dorne on "The Satisfaction of Compromise"

Hello - and welcome back! Happy New Year! I spent a lot of time over the last couple of weeks thinking about how I'd like to start this year of Today's Inspiration. In the end I decided to share with you this thought provoking article by Albert Dorne from the December 1950 issue of American Artist magazine.

I love the graphic innovation of Al Parker... and have the greatest respect the impeccable draftsmanship of Robert Fawcett... but the 20th century illustrator I most admire is Al Dorne. If you are unfamiliar with the remarkable story of Dorne's triumph over adversity to become one of the titans of the commercial art business, I have written about it previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. But this week we'll focus on Al Dorne's personal philosophy of what it means to be an illustrator - a philosophy I whole heartedly agree with. As with everything we learn about on Today's Inspiration, the wisdom Dorne shared with readers of American Artist more than half a century ago is just a relevant today...

"That knucklehead art director, he doesn't know enough to come in out of the rain when it comes to art - and he's telling me how to make a picture. He completely ties me hand and foot and then expects me to do my good stuff..."

Ever heard that gripe? Well I have news for you, friend. That art director probably knows as much about art as you do, and what is more, he certainly knows more than you about his client's problems - about the total advertising effort for which you are making that picture and for which, incidentally, you are being paid a fairly good fee. Actually, he hasn't been telling you how to make a picture at all. He has simply told you what elements the picture requires, and he hopes you will fuse these elements into a good picture and satisfy the purpose for which the ad was originally conceived.

As a professional artist, your function is to accept the editorial restrictions in a picture problem, whether for an ad or an illustration, and to make a good picture within those editorial limits. Instead of fighting and resenting this humiliation to your fancied artistic integrity, how about doing a good picture within those specified limits? There is considerable to be said for the integrity of delivering - full value received.

If "artistic integrity" means that the artist expresses only what he feels without regard to the world around him or to the effect of his feelings on his audience, then, in fact, "artistic integrity" in advertising is a contradiction in terms. Advertising which includes copy as well as art has a function. That function is to sell the goods and services of the advertiser and not those of the artist or copywriter.

So subordination of "artistic integrity", if one insists on calling it that, is something I prefer to call...

... the "satisfaction of compromise."

* My Al Dorne Flickr set.


  1. Nisachar3:20 PM

    No wonder he was the "most successful"

  2. Happy new year, Leif! I'm looking forward to a wonderful year full of Today's Inspiration.

    I note that "compromise" is different from "surrender." It suggests that the artist should not simply pander to the taste of the art director or (shudder)the client, but instead bring an important perspective to the end product. I'm guessing Dorne is not recommending that an artist submit whenever he or she hears a truly dumb suggestion. Dorne pulled himself up from the gutter by pleasing clients so I can understand why he advises young artists, "your function is to accept the editorial restrictions," but in his use of the term "compromise" and also in the way he lived his life, I think he is really talking about the give-and-take of a robust dialogue between partners.

  3. Why, whatever do you mean, Nisachar? You find Dorne's philosophy... unpalatable?

  4. David; Happy New Year to you, too! Of course you're absolutely right - as we'll see as this week unfolds. I had hoped to 'stir the pot' a bit with this first excerpt but I knew you'd see right through my ruse. You know Dorne too well to take his remarks at face value.

  5. Chad Sterling4:08 PM

    When Al Dorne was on his game he was nearly unbeatable.He was definitely a 'businessman artist' ie selling an art product,so very attuned to the commercial needs of the client. Unlike more purist illustrators like Cornwell or Fawcett who might not have welcomed too much intrusion into their practice by the likes of Marion Merrill, for instance!.So impressive how he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, living the dream as they say.

  6. Sorry to tip your hand, Leif-- I guess I was just rattled by your comment that you liked some other illustrator more than Robert Fawcett.

    Fawcett, by the way,had a hilarious ongoing dispute with Jon Whitcomb on this very subject. Whitcomb told young artists that it was important to anticipate whatever the client wanted and serve it up to him. Fawcett, on the other hand, responded that Whitcomb was a moron. But he never, ever said such a thing about Dorne who he respected greatly, and when Dorne died Fawcett went home and drew a portrait of his friend for the cover of the program for his memorial service.

  7. But David, I do like Al Dorne more than Fawcett! Just remember that I have adopted the philosophy of my old conceptual art instructor, Frank Neufeld: "Everything I tell you is the truth... and everything I tell you is a lie."

    Thanks for sharing that great little anecdote... poor Jon Whitcomb! The man just gets no respect...

    I suspect that Fawcett forgave Dorne his mercenary ways because he respected his abilities as an artist more than Whitcomb's (which, I'm sorry to say, were pretty formulaic... one dimensional, so to speak). Whitcomb seems to have been able to do one thing very, very well... while Dorne seems to have been as versatile as all get out!

    That speaks to what Chad was saying, I think, about Dorne being "on his game". I believe Dorne was such a consummate professional that he was pretty much always on his game -- but when he delivered exactly what the client wanted it wasn't always what we would like to see from him. In today's post, for instance, I intentionally chose the more literally realistic Pullman ad as a contrast to the John Hancock ad, which is closer to Dorne's natural style.

    What Dorne calls a "satisfying compromise" Fawcett would have seen as an infuriating submission to the will of the AD. Fawcett would have refused to make it -- and Whitcomb would have been incapable of making it!

    Dorne, I suspect, was proud of his ability to achieve exactly the look a client asked for. This is why I admire him so much. A "businessman artist" - yes! - exactly what is so lacking in the business of illustration. If we illustrators behaved more like business people we'd probably be much better off financially as a whole - and more respected.

    By now I've probably alienated half my audience ( the "purist" half) ... don't give up on me - or Al Dorne - just yet, folks... hopefully we'll win a few of you over by the end of the week!

  8. I'm with you, Lief. I revere Fawcett but Dorne edges him out just a snidge through sheer expressiveness. Especially Dorne's pencil drawings. It's a crime there isn't a big, fat Dorne artbook out there already.

  9. ... it's just me, or the guy on the last image looks like Ronald Reagan, or, actually, like one of those Ronald Reagan masks? Weird.

  10. Charlie Allen12:36 AM

    LEIF.....Welcome back, mon....and Happy New Year! I'll borrow from J. MacEnroe....'You CANNOT be serious!!!' Dorne was a character, a business man, the founder, and only one who made money on the Famous Artist's Course. Come on! Better than Fawcett or any of the other giants of that time? And yes....including Whitcomb? Give us a break. Dorne may have pleased the client or the AD, but he was a mediocre illustrator at best. He knew it, and that's why he went into business. Cheers.

  11. I like Dorne's work a lot,but I also enjoy Whitcomb's work as well.It would make more sense if you compared work on similar assignments,like Dorne and Whitcomb's romance assignments.

    Whitcomb's work reminds me of movie poster art,so perhaps you could compare it to Reynold Brown's or even Drew Struzan's art.

    I'm pretty sure that John Romita was influenced by Whitcomb.Mary Jane Watson didn't look all that different from Gwen Stacy.I've read that John Buscema was influenced by Dorne.When I look at their best work they're both great.

  12. Charlie;

    Its great to hear from you - Happy New Year!

    To you I say, but I am serious! There is no denying Fawcett was a magnificent draftsman and that Whitcomb was the "King of the Clinch", but what Dorne lacked in technical excellence in drawing he made up for ten-fold in versatility and, more importantly, attitude.

    "Purists" like you are, naturally, missing the point of this week's series (as I expected would happen). Illustration is about much more than drawing well and "artistic integrity". Illustration is commercial art - and Al Dorne understood this better than any other illustrator of his time.

    I'm not the sort of person who insists on declaring favourites, be it foods, colours, or illustrators - the diversity of styles I've presented here over the years should confirm that - that's not what this week is about.

    But I do think we must consider the broader, more realistic scope of the profession we have chosen. We are business people and - as in any business - flexibility, versatility, innovative thinking are distinct advantages in the marketplace and admirable qualities many businesses lack. Dorne understood this better than anyone and enjoyed tremendous success as a result. That's why I admire him the most.

    * Incidentally, I think you are shortchanging Dorne by calling him "a mediocre illustrator at best". Dorne was principally a cartoonist. He had the technical skills to stretch his style terrifically close to literal realism - it's when we see him doing work that is closer to his natural style that the full scope of his tremendous drawing abilities are most evident. There will be many examples this week that will reinforce what I'm talking about.

  13. As always: great post Leif! Dorne is an all time favorite of mine as well.

  14. This post reminds me of the conflict between writers and editors, in my neck of the woods. Substitute "editor" for "art director" and you have a very close match, conceptually.

    Many writers feel that their works are like their babies and that editors are scalpel-wielding mad scientists who turn their babies into monsters.

    But from my personal experience with editors (and as an editor, in fact)and from what I have seen around, the opposite is true. Writing is all about communication, and frequently, the editor turns something so esoterically personal (to the writer) and often disorganized, into a piece that actually communicates something to the potential reader. The editor is the one who enforces the limitations set by the publishing house and the "real world" out there of the readership.

    Of course there will be disagreement, and some relationships between writers and editors have been conflicts bordering on physical violence. And, the writer does have a comeback: "stet" (Latin for "it stays there") is the writer's line in the sand on an editorial decision with which he or she can't live.

    I am frequently struck by how similar the artistic dynamics are between visual artists and writers, and what they both must pout up with in order to create with integrity. Thanks for this, Leif!

  15. Leif, I am sure the "purist half" of your audience really enjoyed your comment. It's only the dilettantes and tourists who might become "alienated" by your thoughts, and who cares about them?

    In response to the comments about Dorne being a "businessman artist": We all love to read about artists who misbehave because they led tortured lives; if they are alcoholics, if they are anti-social, if they dress like slobs and live like hermits, we say, "oooh, he is so sensitive-- he must be haunted by some lost love, or by his angst over the existential void." Well, as you have described so well in your previous posts, Dorne led a life that was hell on wheels. If anyone had a right to special tolerance because of scars from his youth, it was Dorne. Unfortunately for his artistic reputation, rather than become a heroin addict Dorne's reaction was to put as much distance between himself and the gutter as he possibly could. This is the one form of bad behavior that the public simply cannot accept from artists.

    Anyone who has a problem with "businessman artists" should have a problem with Rembrandt and Rubens too. There is nothing incompatible between being a businessman and doing a good job.

  16. Charlie Allen-- I almost thought I had found a kindred spirit when you scolded Leif for preferring Dorne to Fawcett. Then you blew it with that nonsense about Whitcomb being superior to Dorne. Yikes!

    I agree with Leif that Dorne was brilliant. It might help to think of Dorne the way some think of Jack Davis today: you can find a lot of mediocre work out there just because he was fast, prolific, and couldn't say "no" to a job. But if you study his drawing, or really analyze the pictures he cared about, he was a staggering talent.

  17. Steve Fastner; I don't want to give the impression I dislike Jon Whitcomb's work - he was featured in a week long series of posts on TI exactly because I think he was terrific at what he did - however a comparison of Whitcomb's and Dorne's romance illustrations is exactly what would not make more sense. Normally, it might... you are sensibly suggesting we compare apples to apples... but to continue the analogy, Whitcomb was a farmer who had cultivated a very specific variety of apple that was extremely popular for a time... Dorne was a fruit farmer who happened to also grow apples. If we are to compare them at all we would have to ask, what kind of cherry pie could I make with fruit from Jon Whitcomb's farm? ;^)

    Regarding John Romita being influenced by Whitcomb - I can see what you mean. Off the top of my head I can only recall reading that Romita said Milton Caniff was his biggest influence, but for sure, his gorgeous, perfect women have that Whitcombish idealization.

  18. Chad Sterling1:01 PM

    I believe one of John Romita's self-acknowledged faults was the highly-polished but somewhat bland depiction of his characters including Peter Parker,Gwen etc.Stan Lee tried to get him to show the Ditko-esque awkwardness of PP, but try as he might he could never break the confines of a style shaped by his romance comic background and the Whitcomb influence that informed it.Marie Severin was always tryimg to get him to 'dirty up' his style.With no success.Good penciller,great inker and storyteller though.

  19. Personally, its exactly for the hyper-idealized romance style Romita did that I love his work so much. That and the fact that there's such a rock-solid foundation of drawing and compositional skills behind the idealization.

  20. Black Pete; I really appreciate you leaving that comment - reading about the relationship of editor and writer as compared to art director and illustrator sheds a lot of light on the dynamics of the creative process as it applies to creating commercial work. Excellent food for thought!

  21. David;

    Your comparison of Dorne to Jack Davis couldn't be more perfect - thank you.

    As always, you have a knack for striking at the heart of the matter - as with your succinct explanation of why we Dorne's business acumen makes him such an admirable illustrator. Remind me never to find myself on the wrong side of any courtroom you happen to be attending!

  22. Nisachar2:13 PM

    "Why, whatever do you mean, Nisachar? You find Dorne's philosophy... unpalatable? "

    Hi Leif. First and foremost let me say that you run one if the best blogs on the art(and business)of Illustration.

    I was referring to the "successful" part. Clients love artists who don't throw tantrums, get job done on time, don't throw their weight around etc. They are the ones who get the most jobs because along with their talents they are also dependable and that is an important trait for a commercial illustrator to have. It may lead him to better rewards financially and/or whatever else. Which may be part of the reason why Dorne is "successful" along with his fantastic talent.

    But to suggest that needs to be a philosophy for every illustrator is a tad too much I think.

    It need not be an either/or situation. I just finished reading the second part of this post and it is less Black and White which in my opinion is good.

  23. Charlie Allen2:42 PM

    I may have contributed to a 'food fight' here....and no doubt, egg is on my face. Forgot about Dorne's Hiram Walker ads....always enjoyed those. And, no criticism of a good business head and art abilities combined. Wow...there have been artists out there making tons of dollars whose work almost makes me ill. The large eyed waifs with tears by the Keanes back in the 50's....the kitsch (sp?) lighted cottages by Kincaid. Very successful artist/business people. But let's get a cartoonist and humorist, there are far better and more original than Dorne. Leif, you can name a bundle. As a 'people' illustrator....who had wide appeal....Dorne was no Norman Rockwell. And there are others. As a dramatic illustrator, dozens better than Dorne. And yes, David A., Jon Whitcomb was 'king of the romance' illustrators, and had a huge public following....with good reason. I totally agree....comparisons are odious. That's why they make umpteen kinds of cars, styles of clothing....even pizzas. So let's hear it for artists and illustrators of every stripe who can make it in a tough old world. Great comments from all!

  24. Chad Sterling7:32 PM

    Mostly agree with you on that.JR was great on the human interest stuff BUT visually he did turn Petey into a bit of a romance comic stereotype slightly at odds with his persona as written.That's why Stan liked Ditko's take on PP.
    I have to say that Romita's inks over Kane's super-kinetic pencils was comics genius.
    In the nicest way,I think Dorne's work/survival ethic plus his art self-education left him unencumbered by intellectual baggage when it came to earning a dollar.For him the customer was king and juicy pay rates bought his very best efforts.And there is a lot of integrity in that approach, even if it wasn't an attitude shared by the likes of Fawcett, Rockwell etc.
    I don't think he was super-versatile, but Dorne was one hell of a draftsman, surely that is beyond doubt.And a book on the man's art would be mind blowing.