Monday, December 06, 2010

Sunny's Santa

Yes Virginia, there is a man who created Santa Claus (the "modern" Santa Claus we all know and love, that is)*. His name was Haddon Sundblom and you're looking at him, circa the mid- 1950s.


"Sunny", as he was known by friends, family, clients and his many, many apprentices, was a prolific, iconic Chicago illustrator with a "mercurial temperament and occasional immovability" but also "a heart of gold."

Around 1925, Sundblom painted his first Santa Claus illustration for Coca-Cola's Christmas advertising campaign. He claimed to have been partially inspired by J.C. Leyendecker's work, but over the next 40 years the image of Santa that became imprinted in the minds of one and all as the quintessential version of Saint Nicholas was one hundred percent Sundblom's version.




Recently, while surfing around on Flickr, I found a Sundblom Santa ad I'd never seen before - one designed specifically for the times - December 1943 - and WWII. (Thanks to Paul Malon for allowing me to use his scan here today.)


Also on Flickr, I found this interesting online advertising campaign from 2007/08 called "The Coca-Cola Art Gallery" which contains over 150 Coke ads - "a collection of images that has been designed by leading artists and designers. They have all depicted their own interpretation of ‘The Coke Side of Life’ philosophy."

Coke Side of Life: Coca-Cola Art Remix

"‘Coca-Cola’ has always had a strong artistic heritage having been famously interpreted by artists such as Haddon Sundblom, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol who have all reflected the social and cultural attitudes of the time," says the preamble on the campaign's profile page.

It's interesting to see how Sundblom's Santa, originally created in oil paints nearly a hundred years ago, lives on in the digital age - "remixed" by 21st century graphic artists - to great effect.

You can read the story of Haddon Sundblom's Coca-Cola Santa in greater detail at Coca-Cola

The "Countdown to Christmas" begins once again on Today's Inspiration. There'll be more from Haddon "Sunny" Sundblom... tomorrow.

* Charley Parker has an interesting post on his excellent blog, Lines and Colors, that traces the development of the 'modern' image of Santa Claus. I maintain my opinion, however, that its Sundblom's Coca-Cola Santa that became the definitive image of Santa Claus that continues to be the template for virtually all Santa imagery in popular culture today.

* My Haddon Sundblom Flickr set.


  1. Interesting post, thanks!

  2. My Favrite Illustrator.who lead and trained Loomis,mead scheaffer and others.....

    great stuff


  3. One of the things that you will notice about the Santas that Sundblom painted, other then they are amazing, is that none of them have teeth! Sundblom never painted teeth in his Santas!

  4. Nice post Leif.
    Classic Sundblom.Great example of how illustration can convey a message or story without getting bogged down in superfluous details.There's just the right amount of detail to convey a realistic scene while keeping the image fast and easy to read within a few seconds.

  5. Many years ago on my lunch break, I discovered an art gallery of interest in San Francisco's renowned Maiden Lane section (depicted in Alfred Hitchcock's opening scenes of the movie, "The Birds"). It featured an Impressionistic Wisconsin landscape painter named Richard Earl Thompson. After admiring the beautifully rendered paintings he did, I ask the guy working at the desk about the painter's background. He told me it was his father Richard Thompson, who had been a successful illustrator in Chicago for many years, and apprenticed under Haddon Sundblom. Haddon Sundblom was one of my illustration heros, so that really got my attention. Later in the conversation, he told me that his father learned to paint identical to Sundblom, and often completed Sundblom's paintings, including some of the Santa Claus illustrations. He said that after Sundblom became famous, his workload was always full, and his apprentices were trained to convincingly complete paintings that he would conceive and start, but due to extensive partying and drinking, often Sundblom would sleep late while Richard Thompson would finish the painting and meet the important deadlines. Thompson's son related the story, not in a critical or judgmental way, but just a matter of fact, and showing pride that his dad was so talented and skilled at painting in oils, he would do a Haddon Sundblom painting and the A.D.s wouldn't know the difference.

    Thompson was alive at that time, however no longer doing illustrations, but I only met his son who ran the gallery.

    Tom Watson

  6. While I love his Santa's I would really love to see more coverage on his non-Santa illustration work. It's a crime that there isn't a fat coffee table book on Sundblom ;(
    I've also always been curious about how artists were taught to work in his style. I've never heard any first hand accounts of the procedure, which is odd since there were so many illustrators trained to work in that brushy fashion.

  7. Michael; If Sundblom had done more pin-ups he might have had a book about his career by now, like Gil Elvgren has ( several actually, I think ). Sundblom taught a LOT of apprentices how to paint in his style but as far as I know, you're right - nobody ever laid out a step-by-step of the process. I think you could go a step backwards, however, and look at how Andrew Loomis painted, because Sundblom apprenticed with him. And Loomis' books are available in PDF format at various websites, so...

  8. Charlie Allen11:42 PM

    Interesting how many of the early illustrators in the 1900's worked in oils. Even pre-Wyeth. I recall many illustrated books growing up in the 20's....mostly B&W halftone illustrations because color was almost unheard of. Engraving and reproduction difficult....and due to the expense, not worth it. Sunblom was a perfect example of talented oil illustrators....and he worked into the 50's when I was getting started. Many of the Sat. Eve. Post illustrators worked in oils....wish I could think of a bunch.... Rockwell, Leyendecker, Loomis....many, many more. Gouache, and later acrylics, turned out to be a better medium for advertising....and for so many 50's magazine super-talents.

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