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Celebrating Illustration, Design, Cartoon and Comic Art of the Mid-20th Century

The Wow Factor: James R. Bingham

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Where to begin with this absolute masterpiece by the great James R. Bingham? Wow, what a powerfully designed composition. Practically the whole thing is constructed from basic geometric shapes!


But even more delightful is how Bingham lavishes us with classic 50's Polynesian decorative motifs: black lacquered furniture, Bonsai tree table ornament, cane and wicker contempo chair, Tiki mask on a driftwood-patterned wall, Aztec-inspired decorative wall tiles, all set against a stark, white background...Lordy, I'm practically swooning! And don't get me started on Bingham's bolder-than-bold colour scheme: blood-red drop shadows, for gosh sakes!

I know I keep saying this was supposed to be a week of just one image per day, but I couldn't resist showing the signature "Bingham Babe" from an accompanying spot. Just look at that white gold hair, those luscious red lips, those Hollywood starlet eyes... all framed in a setting of classic 50's textures and colours. Heaven, I tell you.


I've said this before, but I often wonder if two of my favourite comic artists, Steve Ditko and Jim Steranko, didn't both look at Bingham's work and borrow liberally from his style. Whenever I see one of Bingham's detective pieces, I am reminded of aspects of both those other two artists' work.

You really need to see this artwork at full size so you can drink the whole thing in. Take a look in my James R. Bingham Flickr set and prepare to be transported.

The Wow Factor: Denver Gillen

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

*Whew*! Um... do I really need to explain this one? No, I didn't think so.


Knowing just what would grab the reader, Denver Gillen chose this minor and almost inconsequential line from the story as the inspiration for his illustration:


Cosmo AD, Robert C. Atherton must have been pleased with Gillen's choice. Just look at the wonderful headline type Atherton had done up to compliment the artwork...


The page design comes together beautifully. If you're looking for 'Wow!', I say this spread has it, big-time.


I planned to only show one piece per day this week -- but I couldn't resist including Denver Gillen's fabulously noir-ish back-up illo from this story.


Consider that another artist might have chosen this pivotal scene for the main art. Did Gillen (and Atherton) choose better?

My Denver Gillen Flickr set.

The Wow Factor: Austin Briggs

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Any artwork by Austin Briggs is going to be impressive, but this illustration Briggs did for the January 14th, 1961 issue of the Saturday Evening Post really made me stop and say, "Wow!"



No wonder Walt Reed used it as one of his examples for Briggs' listing in The Illustrator in America.

Briggs uses the intensley swirling patterning in the carpet to great effect. Notice how he chose to have no cast shadows under any of the elements sitting on that carpet?
By contrast, the murdered girl, the focal point of the picture, is rendered in light and shade with great attention to detail.

The flattening effect, as well as the unusual camera angle, creates tremendous visual excitement for the eye and the brain to analyze.

My Austin Briggs Flickr set.

The "Wow" Factor: Paul Nonnast

Monday, July 28, 2008

As I flip through old magazines and come across illustrations from the mid-century that I think will provide the inspiration in this blog's title, I see a lot of good work by a lot of talented artists.

But every once in a while I come across a piece that stops me in my tracks.

What is that quality in a piece of art that really grabs the viewer's attention? How does an already accomplished illustrator push the picture a little higher and make the viewer go, "Wow!"


There are many ways to make a powerful visual impression on the brain. Contrast is one of them. In this piece, Paul Nonnast certainly exploits the use of contrast very effectively. Contrast both in terms of light and shade and in terms of subject matter...

Interesting or unexpected juxtaposition of subject matter is an effective way of making the brain tingle. A panoramic view of a starry sky or a low angle shot of a mailman might or might not be interesting on their own -- but juxtaposed as they are here, they make us wonder what the heck's going on. Our brains aren't used to seeing mailmen standing over us as we stare up into the night sky.

There are plenty of other devices an artist can use to up the "Wow" factor of a piece. This week we'll look at some. Five artists, five days, five pieces... emphasis on the "Wow" factor!

My Paul Nonnast Flickr set.

Marie Nonnast: Paul's 'Better Half'

Friday, July 25, 2008

"Paul and Marie Nonnast are two accomplished illustrators who have in common a great pride of craft," writes Henry C. Pitz in the May 1957 issue of American Artist magazine.


What a nice surprise to discover another illustration couple. Initially I had thought that Naiad and Walter Einsel and the Provensens were the only illustrators married to illustrators. Apparently not so.


Unlike those other two couples though, the Nonnasts did not collaborate on their artwork. Pitz writes, "They have separate studios in their high-ceilinged, brick Victorian house on one of the older, shaded streets of Doylestown, Pennsylvania."


"Marie has a love of animals and the ability to draw them as living creatures. Her technique is firm but fluent. Many of her best animal drawings have appeared in Holiday magazine, and on the color jackets of various animal books."


"Besides the the books and the drawings for Holiday, there have been pictures for Farm Journal, Country Gentleman, and Sports Afield."


"At the Seventeenth Annual Exhibition of the Philadelphia Art Directors Society both Paul and Marie received awards. This was well-deserved recognition for two fine talents that have maintained a high standard of excellence in their work. Neither is easily satisfied nor do they shirk hard work and the chores of preparation. They have the deep satisfactions that come to all who are able to excercise their natural gifts and the pleasure of working together with mutual respect for the other's individual abilities."

My Paul and Marie Nonnast Flickr set.

Paul Nonnast: The Diligent Illustrator

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In complete contrast to the sort of style we looked at yesterday is Paul Nonnast's slick, technical work. Chevrolet was a big account for Nonnast. He had been doing a long series of both fully painted magazine illustrations like the one below and line art drawings for newspaper ads for some two years when this piece appeared in mid-1957.


Though we don't have a b&w auto ad by Nonnast to look at, his description of the process he used sounds similar in some ways to the one described not long ago by Charlie Allen.

Says Nonnast, "[I] make a black-and-white line drawing, then take it to the engraver and have made what is called a line-film-positive - a heavy film of the drawing. Then very carefully trace such parts of the line drawing as will embrace half-tone areas. Transfer onto board this tracing - needle sharp. Paint in all half-tone areas in grays and flap-mount the above line-film-positive over this half-tone areas painting. The final picture can then be seen as it will appear, and the two parts of the picture can be combined by the engraver with a minimum of fitting and separating. By making this sort of separation they can use the line drawing and make color drawings instead of the half-tone gray, for use in Sunday colored supplement magazines."


Perhaps Nonnast used a similar process for all his more 'technical' looking art, like the space scene above.

Magazine editors favoured certain illustrators for certain types of work, and its not unusual to find Paul Nonnast illustrations that incorporate heavy machinery, mechanical devices, and other man-made technical elements. A short article in the back of an April 1961 issue of The Saturday Evening Post confirms the artist's interest in technical things.


The editors at the Post had asked Nonnast to paint the scene from the angle shown... but photo reference of a Sikorsky H-19 helicopter was impossible to find. And no H-19's could be located "within a hundred miles of Nonnast's Doylestown, Pennsylvania, home."

Luckily Nonnast had an interest in model- airplane building and after "extensive rummaging through the cavernous storage spaces of his Victorian house," the artist found he had a Sikorsky H-19 kit ready to be built.


The anecdote reminds us once again to what extent illustrators of those times would go to ensure their work was accurate in every detail...


Reader's were always scrutinizing their work for flaws and technical errors, and such errors were regularly the subject of letters to the editor.

My Paul Nonnast Flickr set.

Paul Nonnast: A Sensitive Line

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

While I'd seen and enjoyed Paul Nonnast's work in various 1950's magazines over the last few years, it wasn't until I came across his contributions to the October 1953 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine that I really came to appreciate his work.


What a beautiful, sensitive line Nonnast was capable of delineating.


I'm sure he spent far more time on the double page spread for this story (one article describes him spending five 14-hour work days on a typical full colour illustration) - and it is a beautifully composed and evocative piece...


... but its his unpretentious, spot-on-accurate line drawings that really blow me away.


Once again I must sing the praises of Robert C. Atherton, Cosmo's art editor, for choosing the right illustrator for this assignment and allowing him to play to his strengths. The story of a 4-year old boy and his injured father struggling to survive alone on an isolated beach and Nonnast's spare linear ink drawings are a perfect match.


There is a kind of organic, reportage-like quality to his drawings, like they were done on that beach to accompany notes jotted in a diary. They transport us to that time and place. You can almost hear the waves crashing and the gulls crying...


Nonnast gives us this tiny, simple drawing of the father and son's hands as his closing image. The old adage 'less is more' comes immediately to mind. After the tense life and death circumstances of the story draw to a happy conclusion, this iconic image, which probably took the artist no time at all to draw, speaks volumes and symbolizes so much.


By not presenting a complex, highly-rendered scene that would have distanced the viewer from the experience of the characters, Nonnast allows each of us to imagine ourselves in their place (who hasn't experienced the beauty and vulnerability of a young child's hand placed in yours?), creating a much more emotional, personal bond.

My Paul Nonnast Flickr set.

Paul Nonnast: The Quiet Professional

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Paul Nonnast chose to become an illustrator because at just age 14 it was discovered that he had a heart condition. Nonnast thought he would find a 'quiet profession' in commercial art - only to discover that it could be "most hectic".


His career began immediately upon graduating from the Philadelphia Museum School of Art in 1940. Just seven years later he began receiving assignments from the Saturday Evening Post. At first, the Post made good use of the young artist's versatility with line art styles. Nonnast did many small spots like the ones shown here for short articles and 'specialty items' in the magazine's back pages.


By the early 50's, Nonnast was regularly painting a wide variety of genre fiction illustrations for the more high profile story section at the front of the magazine. He was also contributing to Cosmopolitan, Field & Stream, Argosy, Reader's Digest and others.


In another variation of style, the quiet professional enjoyed great success doing slick advertising art for the likes of Chevrolet, Bell Telephone, Armco, Dole, and United Airlines.


The talented Paul Nonnast, perhaps not as dynamic or high-profile as some others, is one of those too-often overlooked illustrators of the 50's. This week, let's try to correct that.

My Paul Nonnast Flickr set.

* Also - be sure to check out the latest CAWS on Charlie Allen's Blog

Cartoonist vs Illustrator: Big-Foot vs ... "Small-Foot"?

Monday, July 21, 2008

When I was a boy I dreamed of growing up to be a comic book artist.


Life doesn't always work out exactly as we had planned. I went to art college, graduated from the illustration program, and began my career doing storyboards for television commercials. Now, some twenty years later, I call my company Leif Peng Cartoon Art... but I still consider what I do to be illustration.


So what really is the difference between cartoonists and illustrators? Many artists have firmly entrenched views that there is a distinction. In the 13th issue of Hogan's Alley magazine, cartoonist Bud Blake, creator of the newspaper comic strip 'Tiger', recounts this anecdote that demonstrates just how thoroughly many artists have categorized themselves and each other:

"I remember having a discussion with Frank Springer, and at one point he says, "You big-foot people," like I have some sort of disease [laughter]. I know what he means when he calls me a big-foot fella. Of course, my argument is, "What are you talking about? You're talking about cartoonists when you're an illustrator." I really feel that way. Guys like Springer are illustrators, and there is a difference."

Blake continues, "I'd say [Hal] Foster was an illustrator, like Noel Sickles. There were a bunch of them that did the same style."


"Same style"? But isn't that interesting. I've always had the impression that the literal illustrators as a group looked down their noses just a bit at the 'big-foot' cartoonists... but here's an admitted big-footer lumping Noel Sickles, Hal Foster and Frank Springer together as a bunch of guys who "did the same style" - suggesting the contempt goes both ways.


Well, maybe contempt is too stong a word...

Someone who's in a unique postion to express an experienced opinion on this subject is Marcus Hamilton. You may recall a recent post in which I described the phoenix-like resurrection of Marcus' commercial art career. He had been a successful illustrator for many years when technology threw a monkey wrench in his gears. But through a combination of good luck, determination and talent, Marcus Hamilton re-invented himself as a cartoonist - he took over the Dennis the Menace daily panel from Hank Ketcham when the mischievious tyke's creator decided it was time to retire. Marcus continues to create new Dennis panels that appear daily in newspapers all over the world.


I asked Marcus if he believed, as I do, that the cartoonist is in fact an illustrator. Here is his reply:

"Yes, I DO agree that cartoonists HAVE to be illustrators. My background in illustrating is what helped convince Hank Ketcham that I could handle Dennis. The life-drawing classes I had in college, and the photography that helped me during those illustration assignments were invaluable when it came to learning the physical characteristics of each of the DTM cast members."
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3037/2689785610_21e47d2806.jpg

"Hank told me, early in my training, that I was the “director” and the “cameraman,” and the characters were my “actors.” I had to be able to put them into any situation, and have them acting/reacting in natural ways."

"My knowledge of composition both through previous illustration assignments, as well as the experience of photographing models from every angle, are what help me to meet the challenges of drawing the daily Dennis panels."


"Although in cartooning I use a different medium, the skills are the same, albeit in a more simplified form."

"However, some of the truly classic cartoonists, i.e., Hal Foster, Leonard Starr (a couple of my favorites, but there are many others), did not use a simplified style…as did Hank, Charles Schulz, etc. Those guys (Foster, Starr) made each panel of their strips a very involved situation that could stand on its own as a single illustration. The comic book artists of today are even more blending illustration and cartooning."

And that pretty much sums up what I've always believed... that there really is no distinction between cartoonists and illustrators.

Some elements of style or specific tools of visual language may differ from one artist to another - or one type of commercial art vehicle to another - but ultimately, all artists doing work for commercial purposes are illustrating something.


To my way of thinking, that makes them (us) all illustrators.

I'll close off this series of posts with a few more remarks from Tom Sawyer who was, during his years as a commercial artist, a member of both the National Cartoonists Society and the Society of Illustrators. Tom offers his always candid, entertaining observations about the two groups. In reference to the story of Roy Doty's 16-year debacle to gain admittance the NCS, Tom writes, "16 years for Doty to be "accepted" into NCS? I find that boggling. I never imagined nor experienced such pretentiousness nor "attitude."

"Less so about the Illustrators, who tend, perhaps, to take themselves somewhat more (and a bit too) seriously."


"I remember an incident of this last -- I think from before I was actually a member. I was at the bar with Leonard Starr, and the club was having a show of Jon Whitcomb's work. A couple of older members were beside us, making smartass remarks about Whitcomb, putting his illustrations down. As they wandered off, Teddy, the club's wonderful bartender, confided, as he cleared away their glasses: "I hear a lotta members make fun of Mr. Whitcomb and his work, but y'know, in the last ten years, Mr. Whitcomb ain't made less than $100,000 (in those days, a lot of money), and I don't think there's another member of this club can say that."


"While I do not think that money is what it was all about, I sensed, as did others, that there was a certain amount of (judgmental and financial) envy."

"I never encountered any of that with the NCS people, who most assuredly did not take themselves seriously. In fact, my take on the cartoonists was that, since most or all of them had been drawing pictures since infancy, and regarded it as essentially child's-play, they felt on some not-all-that-hidden level, guilty about being paid for it at all. Which for me tended to explain why they consistently undersold themselves and their work -- to my increasing consternation."


"In any case, since I never took myself very seriously, I never for a moment regarded any of my output, nor frankly anyone else's, as "art." Now, in far, far retrospect, I guess some of it was..."

"Go figure."

* My thanks to Tom, Marcus, Charlie, Roy and all the other good folks who took the time to answer my questions on this topic and give us all the benefit of their knowledge and experience!

* My Art Instruction Flickr set.

Tom Sawyer: 'real' illustrator or "just drawing comics"?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A couple of excellent comments about the previous two posts. One person asks, "Do we really need to distinguish one [style of artwork] from the other? Why not allow a flow into all areas... I believe that classifications are too rigid. Why do we even need them? Artists should have the ability to experiment with styles freely, without worry of being too much out of their "classification"..."

I heartily agree. Unfortunately, 'life ain't like that'. Many people - many artists, art directors, clients - even the general public - place a value on artwork based on how they have personally chosen to categorized it. Which brings us to our second commentor who, in response to yesterday's post put it rather astutely: "The old joke used to be (still relevant I guess) is that the difference between an illustrator & a cartoonist was about $500..."


Since we are talking about commercial art (and the commercial artists who hope to make a living from their efforts) the perception of others regarding the merit of what exactly they are producing profoundly affects not only their fiscal bottom line, but their psychological one as well.


We can all learn a lot from the experience of others -- and that brings me to an enlightening anecdote from an artist we looked at not long ago: Tom Sawyer. I believe Tom has the sort of healthy attitude all artists - hell, all creative professionals - should strive for. This excerpt from Tom's memoirs perfectly (if you'll pardon the pun) illustrates the point:

"Largely out of curiosity I learned more and more about how the business side of advertising worked. Which resulted, I suppose inevitably, in my becoming something of a pain-in-the-ass at Johnstone & Cushing,"


"... and eventually alienated me from the larger arena of cartoonists and illustrators in general. My first steps in that direction – more like a leap, actually – came via a dispute with J&C over an assignment to illustrate a comic-book style advertisement for Tide laundry detergent."


"Working in this form was not unusual – I had drawn dozens of similar jobs. But the difference here was that instead of this one being printed in the Sunday color-comics section of newspapers all over the country, it was intended as a full-page, four-color advertisement which would appear simultaneously in several slick women’s magazines, among them McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping."


"A fresh venue for the comics format, it immediately struck me that in those publications it would be an attention-grabber – which of course is what advertising is all about. I asked Al Stenzel what the job would pay. Accustomed as he was to the docility, the seeming near-gratitude shown by most artists for being paid at all, he was put-off that I’d even inquired. Al shrugged, replying that it would of course be the then-going rate for the Sunday comics ads – $300 to $400."


"I told him that wasn’t acceptable, that it should be substantially higher. Which of course further annoyed him. Cranky, Al said he’d take it up with management, and I returned to my drawing table. And a few minutes later I was summoned to Jack Cushing’s office. Jack wasn’t happy, and wanted to know what my problem was. I explained that my friends who were ‘real’ illustrators were paid $2,500 or more for advertisements in such magazines, some not even full-page ads, and that was what I expected to receive. Astonished – and offended – by such presumption, he reminded me that this was just ‘comics.’ "

"I was astonished that he didn’t understand, much less that we were even discussing it. And a moment later I was further surprised to find myself explaining, to this man who was old enough to be my father, and a veteran of the trade, that we were talking a different, more upscale market, that the ad agency that had given him the job would, on behalf of its client, have to pay substantially more per pair of eyeballs for the space in those magazines than it would for newspaper insertion – the premium for reaching a far more targeted market – which, I reiterated, was why the illustrators were able to charge more."


"I likened it in one way to the rationale by which advertisers had to pay higher rates for commercial time on a hit network TV show or movie aimed at women than they would, say, for a local broadcast with a not-so-specialized audience."


"It was my first encounter with the phenomenon of the entrepreneur who, having invented a business – the box, if you will – around which things had changed, had become reluctant to revisit any of it, to ruminate outside of those parameters. And clearly, as a mere [schmuck] artist, I was about the last person Cushing expected to hear articulating any of it. His look gave me the impression that in his view, since I was a guy who spends his life at a drawing-table, I wasn’t supposed to know this stuff. And it pissed him off. Jack rather grumpily offered that he’d think about it."


"Next day, I had the assignment – at the then-unheard-of-for- Johnstone & Cushing price I’d demanded. Eventually I illustrated several such advertisements..."



*Once again, a reminder that Jim Amash conducted an excellent and very thorough interview with Tom Sawyer in Alter Ego #77, which is still available from the publisher.

All of this post's content from Tom's memoirs is Copyright © 2008 by Tom Sawyer Productions, Inc.

My Tom Sawyer Flickr set.
 

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