Monday, February 15, 2010

Recollections of Robert “Bob” Foster, Illustrator / Teacher / Friend

By Tom Watson Part 1

Robert Foster was one of many well trained, experienced and very accomplished illustrators working in Manhattan during the 1960s and into the '70’s. He wasn’t remembered for winning ribbons and awards and his work didn’t grace the pages of the leading magazines. He didn't work for a leading art studio with top name illustrators and he was never a candidate for the Society of Illustrator’s Hall of Fame. They say, ‘timing is everything,’ and I think that was partly the reason Robert Foster’s name isn’t recognized as one of the big names in illustration history.

However, I don’t mean to imply that he was unheard of, or didn’t leave a noticeable notch in the realm of published illustrations. I am referring to a market that was indeed significant during the 1960’s, when illustration styles and directions were beginning to change at a more rapid pace than ever before or since. However, I’m getting ahead of my story, so I digress.

In 1958, I enrolled at the Academy of Art in San Francisco to start my education as an illustrator. I was almost 19, and my very limited knowledge of illustration was rapidly becoming dated. Fortunately the Academy of Art, then a small private art school, allowed us to immediately take all the classes that they offered which related to our major.

One class that caught my attention was listed as ‘Editorial Illustration, Instructor: Robert Foster,’ which was one of several illustration related classes he was teaching. When our teacher arrived the first morning of class, a student had a question, ‘Mr. Foster,’ he began... our teacher then interrupted the student, commenting, ‘Just call me Bob.’ That set the tone for a casual, open and engaging approach Bob had in all his classes.

That isn’t to say we could screw around and ignore structure and class discipline. He always had our respect and our attention when he spoke, and we learned quickly that discipline was the key to learning a very difficult craft. Bob would usually start each session with a ‘how to' demonstration. He would tell us again and again, ‘if we learned to draw and paint the human head and the human body accurately, we could draw and paint anything.' Then he would break down each part of the head and the body, drawing in white chalk on a dark green chalk board, large enough to be seen from the back of the room.

He would explain the anatomical structure and its function for all the features. He would do these demos, usually without a model, just from his vast knowledge of anatomy. They were beautifully simple and easy to translate and understand. Bob would draw with an effortless fluid motion of his entire arm. It was like watching a conductor’s rhythmic movements to music. As I quickly learned, drawing for Bob, was like orchestrating classical music for a magnificent concert. I never met anyone that reflected his love for drawing, painting and the process of developing an illustration, as much as he did. It was nothing short of contagious! I was absolutely captivated from the beginning, becoming seduced on the magic of creating an illustration.

For many of us students, Bob’s enthusiasm soon inspired us in wanting to become top notch professional illustrators.

Continued tomorrow.

* Tom Watson is a retired West Coast illustrator, art director and educator. He has been a frequent contributor to Today's Inspiration and his storyboard work for film was a subject of a post on my other blog, Storyboard Central.

* Many thanks to Heritage Auctions for allowing me to use the original Bob Foster art scan seen above and to Kyle Katz for allowing me to use the Bob Foster paperback cover scans above.


  1. David Roach has given me permission to post his emailed comment as follows:

    What can I say about today's entry except – it’s about time! I’ve not seen more than about 10 images of Foster's art in my life – but what I’ve seen so far has been stunning. Illustration is like comics – we only ever get to hear of a tiny percentage of the truly great artists and often the biggest names are inferior to the minnows. Cases in point – Bob Foster himself, Andy Virgil, Lynn Buckham even the likes of Mitchell Hooks, Sandy Kossin and Joe Bowler are all far less known than supposedly bigger names like Ben Shahn, Seymour Chwast, Bob Heindel or Bob Peak - but to my mind to my mind they’re far better – and I’d add people such as Milton Glaser, Robert Weaver, Ben Stahl, Brad Holland and supposedly bigger Pulp names such as George Petty to the over-praised list. Still, times change – for years in the Pin Up world the 2 biggest names were Petty and Vargas but now Gil Elvgren is universally regarded as the genre's true star, so there's still hope. I can’t wait to see the rest of this week's entries.

    - David

    P.S – talking of obscure and neglected entries here are some more names I’m dying to see more from – Howard Terpning, Vic Livotti, Isa Barnett, George Porter, David Grove, Frank McCarthy, Barye Phillips and Jeffrey Cornell. There, that’s a task to fill all those spare hours you have with nothing else to do!

  2. Awesome. I can't get enough of these inspirational stories. I only wish I had a steady enough stream to fuel an artist's career, I get really bad mpg apparently. Thirty four isn't too old right? Even if I have been artistically blocked for 99% of the past 15 years. Oh well, I geuss being a fan is good enough for now. Robert Foster is a god, one of hundreds. Thank you so much for this post. Andy Virgil, Mitchell Hooks, Yeah I worship these guys. it's so nice to find a support group, to support my habit that is. I googled all the names in your post script with hit and miss success, but you guys put together great posts, so I'll look forward to all the rest, thanks.

  3. Frank Ordaz10:55 AM

    Wonderful post....ditto on seeing some David Grove.

  4. Thanks for the comments. I agree with David about the lesser known illustrators. There was a lot of great talent, whose illustrations have been lost, destroyed, warehoused, or hanging in an advertising or publishing VIP's home. I read that a janitor, each night, would fish out preliminary drawings and color sketches from waste baskets in a large ad agency. He accumulated quite a large collection of famous and not so famous drawings, etc. Several were by Norman Rockwell that were appraised at several thousand each, but he had no interest in selling any of his collection.

    Howard Terpning has made such a big name for himself in the Western Art field, that a lot of people today are unaware of his great illustration career. Other lesser known illustrators went into fine arts or teaching, when illustration assignments began thinning out. John Clymer and Ken Riley come to mind.

    Tom Watson

  5. Quite simply...where is part two. I have been collecting Foster's paperbacks for a very long time. But it's always a I stumbled upon it game. It's not like he just stuck to one genre and mined that forever. I don't know how many I have in my collection, but it sure isn't the number of McGinnis or FRAZETTA. But not for want of looking. This article was fantastic. The way Foster spoke about drawing is pretty much exactly what I tell people. And my experience has verified it for me. Most definitely we need to see more of his work. I know I look forward to ever new to me piece.

  6. I tripped over this post purely by accident-- what a pleasure to see my uncle Bob's face again (in the Poseidon Adventure cover art, that second face in the portal is my aunt; she wore a pixie cut then). So nice to read and remember Uncle Bob, thank you!

    1. Hi, Moonbird, He was my uncle too! I'm his younger brothers oldest girl. I have been in contact with Tom Watson the author for years now. Love his articles on uncle Bob.

    2. Im Robert j. Foster,the artists oldest child.His full name was Robert Owens foster. His mother preformed in the Zigsville follies when she met his father Joseph who wished her off to Springfield Ohio where he was born on 10/29/27.A sickle child, he made his own health by lifting weights boxing and playing football. When a junior at Catholic Centeral High[1944] he drew three pencil portraits of previous pastors of his parish ,in exchange for a diploma he joked, which betray a mature talent and now hang in the Saint Raphael Church community center. In the late forties he attended an excellent illustration school and as one of its best students was tasked with designing its brochure. From about 1953 to1959 he taught at an illustration school in San Francisco; then moved wife Joanne and four young kids to the vicinity of Manhattan ,and the flourishing of his career .But it put us in a dire situation, and in 1962 soon to be ex wife and children left for Springfield For years afterwards ,living in the big apple ,he worked out of small apartments; but by 1968, was able to afford a tenth floor flat in the Kipps Bay tower across from Bellview hospital. Around 1970 his second wife Florence, a teacher at Bedford Stiverson did on her own initiative the leg work to get him a cultural grant that would allow him to paint what he liked ;but it was not to be. In1975 the health he'd labored to attain as a boy began to fail him.there were small strokes , heart trouble, and he died alone on 2/26/78,still relatively young.

    3. Adendum to the above: In the late forties dad attended illustration school in Los Angeles working as a parking attendant and a bread truck driver; and was away from my mother so long at one point that she mailed him back their engagement ring in a dear John letter. that precipitated his desperate rumpled unshaved presence at her family door some days latter as she thought "Oh,I don't need this!" He asked"How could you even think of seeing another guy!"Her mother then interrupted saying "Oh come on bob;You can't say you haven't seen other girls all this time!" to which he said "No; I haven't." He had character.He also had charm ,and a broad interest in the world.I loved listening to him hold forth about all sorts of things as I watched him paint for hours.

  7. Robert Foster on

  8. I worked with Bob from1966-1975 at Kips Bay I assisted Bob in all formats. Bob was my Best Friend he was a Super Talented Illustrator and he was my Best Man at my first wedding.I always think of Bob every time I see his two paintings that I still have. God Bless my friend.