PART 1 – My Dad’s Illustrations from the 1950s
In this post I want to point out how my father’s illustrations are so different from his later works because sometimes I think people don’t recognize that he went from being a commercial illustrator to being a fine artist… both forms are representational you may say, so what’s the difference? – well I’d like you to look more closely at the work and I’ll try to show you if I may…
In this post I’m going to concentrate on the commercial work that he did after graduating from Pratt Institute during the years 1947 to 1957. During this time he did a broad range of works from illustrating a children’s bible to making a giant billboard for beer.
I’ve already written about his disillusionment with the industry and his desire to do more fulfilling work – leading him to take 6 months off in 1956 to study the Old Masters and refine his eye and technique.
One of the things he found so difficult to accept was the fact that he had to work within a very limited range of artistic interpretation – meeting the publishers demands for content, colors and often the layouts. So the desired final work had to satisfy the publisher not the artist.
The illustrations had to be current and meet the style of the day – 1950s all the way. Even the brushstrokes had to fit into the current trends with a certain coarseness – the whole piece had to be marketable to the 1950s audience… representing a certain idealized plastic quality to life.
Further limitations were placed on him, especially when he was doing Pulp Fiction covers (see my earlier post) – he had to be careful of the moral codes restricting certain sexy depictions but at the same time make the paintings as trashy as possible – so tree branches had to be covering just the right areas of a naked woman; shirts could only be open on certain parts of the torso; no nipples could be showing, and so on. The Pulp publishers pushed him to work to the limit of the prohibitions and in many cases made him re do layouts and compositions repeatedly to meet their demands.
With many of the publishing jobs, he was given limited color palettes with which to work – depending on the budget for printing – sometimes only using black and white, or a minimal three colors for example.
And there were obvious creative restrictions on layouts too – he had to work around the type, titles, and with novels – the spine of books when creating art for covers.
The business was all about the sale: illustrations had to be compelling to the consumer so they’d buy the publication – he had to make it eye catching, and make it communicate the story or product in a quick glance.
There was little or no consideration of the artist’s vision or his personal point of view. With many jobs the artist was treated primarily as a technician who could create the publisher’s vision.
This isn’t the illustration of NC Wyeth or Arthur Rackham – this is the stuff that 1950s publishers were looking for and the only work my father could get during that time. Photography was already dominating and replacing the illustration business in most fields.
Its very difficult to make a living with art as your primary source of income – and my father was at least able to say that he did support his wife and his first child with that income solely. Each job was a little bit of money – he had to do multiple jobs at the same time, and quickly, in order to get enough to live on.
There are many other examples of artists who did commercial work before they went on in their careers to be recognized as fine artists – Winslow Homer is perhaps the most well known.
I’m not meaning to be apologetic about my Dad’s illustration work – I only want people to see how its different from his later work… which I’ll be writing about next for your comparison…