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

Ed Vebell: A Commitment to Life as a Professional Artist

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Thanks to his involvement with the "Three Investigators" young reader book series (see yesterday's post) there is actually more biographical information available online about Ed Vebell than many other worthy mid-20th century illustrators. This week's posts, however, will draw mainly on material first published in American Artist magazine in February 1962. ~ Leif


Ed Vebell was born in Chicago in 1921 in a Lithuanian-Polish neighbourhood.

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Drawing was a popular activity among his group of childhood friends - he remembers that he and many friends began drawing at age 5 or 6 and could draw well - though Vebell was the only one committed to a career in art.

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How's this for commitment: as a freshman in high school Ed Vebell arranged to attend his regular classes from 7 a.m. 'til noon. Then, each day from noon 'til midnight, Vebell took additional art courses at the Professional Art School and the Harrison Art School in Chicago. He maintained this daily 17-hour regimen throughout his high school years.

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E.W. Ball, Vebell's task master of an instructor, set the tone for the aspiring young artist's education: he insisted that students have a solid foundation in drawing fundamentals and complete understanding of the figure, including anatomy learned while sketching at cadaver dissections. Life models in Ball's class posed only briefly - the students then drew from memory - the models returning after the drawing so accuracy could be checked.

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No erasers were allowed - bad drawings had to be redrawn from scratch. Constant practice was insisted upon.

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As a result, Vebell said, he developed the ability "to analyze a subject and grasp its essentials at a glance and draw it later from memory." Later, when Vebell was working as a courtroom illustrator for Stars & Stripes at the Nuremberg war trials, E.W. Ball's training served him well. Looking through field glasses from the spectator's gallery, Vebell could draw the defendants directly in fountain pen and used only "a moistened thumb for the middle tones."

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Being able to draw from memory "has inestimable value," said Vebell.

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After high school, Vebell applied for several scholarship. He was accepted for two at the American Academy of Art and a third at the Commercial Art Institute. He studied at one in the morning, a second in the afternoon and the third at night. For the aspiring young illustrator, his relentless commitment to learning was about to bear fruit. At age 19 Vebell was offered a staff position at the Nugent-Graham Art Studios in Chicago.

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Ed Vebell was on his way.

* Continued tomorrow

* Here's something cool: a group from the Society of Illustrators recently visited Ed Vebell at his home! Click here to take a look.

The Art of Summer Reading: Ed Vebell

Monday, August 26, 2013

I can still vividly recall one particular day from my childhood: I was nine years old at the time. Summer vacation had started and my parents were both working, so that day I got to tag along on a road trip with my babysitter and her family to what was, in 1972, an exciting new shopping experience: "the mall."

There at Eastgate Square, at the brand new Coles book store, I saw the most enticing book cover. I'd never seen anything like it... colour artwork printed on shiny silver foil. I had to have it.

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I had no idea at the time that the cover art was painted by an illustrator named Ed Vebell, or that one day I would come to greatly admire his work. Back in 1972, I was much more interested in what was the first in a long series of books about three young fellows who had their own detective agency, "The Three Investigators," and their famous and mysterious benefactor, Alfred Hitchcock.

In recent years, thanks to the tremendous efforts of other Three Investigator devotees who have compiled a wealth of information on various websites, I've learned that Ed Vebell had painted the cover of that first volume once before; nearly a decade earlier in 1964...

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... as well as the second volume in the series, "The Stuttering Parrot."

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On previous occasions, I've written about another Three Investigators illustrator, Jack Hearne ...

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... and mentioned a third in passing: - Harry Kane, who seems to have handled the art chores for quite a while after Ed Vebell's covers on the first two volumes. According to the information at threeinvestigatorsbooks.com, Kane was "cover artist for Random House hardbound trade edition titles #3 - #16. He also provided the internal illustrations for #'s 1 - 16 and created the famous blue graveyard endpapers."

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Ed Vebell returned to the series once more when Kane wasn't available to continue (and Hearne had not yet taken over). Vebell did the cover art on volume 17, "The Mystery of the Singing Serpent".

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This is also the only time Vebell provided interior illustrations for any of the books.

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Ed Vebell recreated his Stuttering Parrot cover for another early '70s foil cover re-issue of volume 2.

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He also provided covers for volumes 18 and 19 before handing the reigns to Jack Hearne.

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This week, as summer vacation (and summer reading) draws to a close, I'm returning to a more regular schedule of posting on the TI blog with a look at the art of Ed Vebell.

See you tomorrow!

* Visit threeinvestigatorsbooks.com for more about Ed Vebell and the other artists of the Three Investigators series.


The Art of Summer Reading: Mercer Mayer

Friday, August 16, 2013

Among all the beloved, memorable books of my childhood, I probably hold no other series in higher esteem than I do John D. Fitzgerald's The Great Brain books, narrated by John D., the younger brother of Tom D., AKA "the Great Brain."

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Author John D. Fitgerald set his stories, loosely based on personal experiences from his youth, in Adenville, Utah in the late 1800s. For a 1970s kid like me - a child of the space age - these chapter-long anecdotes of life during simpler time where fascinating (and a bit of a revelation).

Fitzgerald starts the first book in the series with a hilarious anecdote about his family becoming the first in Adenville to own a "water closet." When the boys' father orders the technological marvel of a toilet you use inside the house from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue, the ever scheming Great Brain immediately sees financial opportunity. He devises a plan to charge every kid in town a penny per viewing. Little brother John D. is enlisted as "a barker" for "ten percent of the gross receipts."

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Many of the stories revolved around amusing scenarios like this. But unlike other childhood fair, the Great Brain books often explored very sobering topics and themes. Not the least among them was a frequent reminder of the rough justice of childhood. This was a time when fist fights weren't discouraged by adults - and losers not only took a beating, they were forced to eat dirt to punctuate their guilt and humiliation.

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Fitzgerald reinforced important concepts like the destructive nature of greed and envy,

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... the inevitable consequences of lying to parents, teachers or anyone else in authority,

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... or the tragic result of not showing compassion for one's fellow man.

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As I was a kid of maybe nine or ten at the time of reading, John D.'s first-person narration had exactly the right tone of voice to reach me and introduce what would become some extremely valuable, thought-provoking life lessons. In a manner that never came across as preachy, Fitzgerald taught young readers the importance of kindness and community and to appreciate the simple pleasures of life. His stories stayed with me into adulthood. Years later, I made a point of reading the Great Brain series to my own sons knowing they would no doubt affect them in a similar manner.

The Great Brain books were illustrated by Mercer Mayer.

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Over the course of the series, you can begin to see his style maturing nicely.

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As a kid, I was conscious of the intricacy of Mayer's pen and ink technique. It's part of what attracted me to these books in the first place.

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I enjoyed looking at his illustrations immensely (and still do).

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They were so unlike anything else I had seen at that point in my life...

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... so complex in their rendering and "old fashioned" looking.

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I read a bit about Mercer Mayer's career in preparing this post (I had no idea he has over 300 books published!) and noted that some critics accuse him of borrowing too heavily from Maurice Sendak's oeuvre. I can see the similarity of style... but I don't know, I can appreciate both artists' work on it's own merits and would not consider them too close for comfort.

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For me, Mayer's interpretation of John D. Fitzgerald's stories will always be the one I imagine when I think of the Great Brain and the world he lived in.

* If you're interested in seeing more of Mercer Mayer's Great Brain illustrations, I found scans of the entire series at this blog.

The Art of Summer Reading: Robert McCloskey

Thursday, August 08, 2013

I wonder if anyone else remembers the terrific "Henry Reed" series of chapter books, illustrated by Robert McCloskey.

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I've mentioned to friends on several occasions how much I enjoyed these books as a kid but have yet to meet anyone else who read them. Yet they were tremendously popular at one time (maybe a bit before my time - I'm not sure).

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Via Google Image Search, I managed to find scans of several of the original covers. There have been later reprints of these books with new cover art, but these are the editions I remember so fondly, having borrowed them from the library when I was in middle school.

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Some years ago, when my two sons were still young kids, I found one book from the series (below) at a public library discards sale. It was a pleasure to hold it again after so many years - and even more so when I read from it to my boys at bedtime.

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I must confess, I have always been drawn to any artwork by Robert McCloskey. I probably read Make Way for Ducklings when I was in Grade 1...

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... and I remember reading Homer Price (and absolutely laugh-out-loud loving it) when I was in Grade 3 or 4.

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At that early age, I doubt I made the connection - or a few years later, for that matter, when I read the Henry Reed series - that all these books where illustrated by the same artist. But the artwork looked comfortably familiar and that enhanced my enjoyment of author Keith Robertson's funny, engaging stories.

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There are plenty of other illustrators who do more visually dynamic work. Robert McCloskey did not draw "eye candy." You could almost go so far as to say McCloskey's work is plain and simple. Meat n' potatoes art.

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Be that as it may, nothing beats a good home-cooked meal... and that's how I see McCloskey's work: nothing fancy; but delicious, honest, authentic art you can sink your teeth into. And every bite leaves you feeling cosy and satisfied.

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I won't go on too much further with my description, except to say that there's more than meets the eye in a typical McCloskey illustration...

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You just have to stop every now and then and take a closer look. This guy did substantial, quality artwork.

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Here are a few more examples from Henry Reed's Journey. Enjoy - and should you every come across these books in a used book shop, do yourself a favour and pick them up.

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Henry Reed's adventures are still great summer reading...

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... even after all these years.

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