For many years car manufacturers hired illustrators to paint photo-realistic pictures of cars in brilliant, eye-catching colors.

by the famous team of Van Kaufman and Art Fitzpatrick

These pictures were designed to radiate power.  Their perspective was deliberately distorted and the cars were stretched to make the cars appear more muscular.  The colors were enhanced to shine like the sun.  The chrome was intensified.  These ads, which typically employed little text or white space, were masterpieces of propagandistic art.

But when cars were first invented, illustrators didn’t have such tools.  They had no access to sharp, accurate color printing, photo projection or some of the other devices crucial to later car illustrations.  They painted small, black and white pictures for text-heavy ads reproduced on inferior, uncoated paper.  These limits called for a different aesthetic but the illustrators made it work.  Here is an ad campaign for Packard from the early 20s:

Rather than show a photographic full view of the car, these artists selected an important detail– a front grill or a tire or a silhouette– to imply power and class.  Without a full color palette they used the advantage of black and white art: strong compositions.  Here are other illustrations from the same series.

There was one painting for each new ad.  They were done by different talented illustrators (such as the great Andrew Loomis) but in a similar style. 

What interests me is how, even without the tools that later illustrators employed to convey horsepower, these illustrations still conveyed their own strength.  There is a strength that radiates from selectivity, from strong compositions, from opinionated designs.




Kerr Eby (1889-1946) was a combat artist on the front lines of two major wars.

He witnessed a lot of death, and his literal drawing style strained– often unsuccessfully– to convey the enormity of the tragedy.

Eby’s greatest and most profound picture was one where he gave up on his literal approach.  In September 1918 an immense dark cloud hung over the blood soaked battlefields of St. Mihiel in France.  As the French, German and Americans nervously prepared for battle the cloud seemed eerie and foreboding.  The skittish Germans called it “the cloud of blood.”

Eby chose not to focus on the heroic expressions or the  straining muscles or the corpses. In fact, he made the human element tiny and inconsequential at the bottom of his picture.  He abandoned  his trademark details which gave his previous pictures such authenticity.  Instead, the immense and mysterious and symbolic cloud, in a flat, simplified shape, dominated the picture.


L. J. Jordaan (1985-1980) was a powerful graphic artist and political cartoonist in Amsterdam for the magazine, Green.  He drew a biting series of anti-Nazi cartoons during the 1930s.  After the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, they promptly shut down his magazine but Jordaan continued working underground and for alternative publications.




Dictating to the newspapers (wearing handcuffs) about what they can print.
Ridiculing the Nazi effort to claim Amsterdam painter Rembrandt as part of the Aryan tradition
Stealing into the Netherlands by the back door…

 As the tide turned against the Nazis later in the war,  Jordaan gleefully record their misfortunes:

In the end, Germany lay in ruins and Green published the following illustration of “the hangover of Brunhilde,” the German valkyrie who had become drunk on Nazi lies.  The collar on the cat in the window says “retribution. “



The great illustrator Frank Frazetta proudly wrote his personal credo: “I work purely from my imagination, no swipes or photographs.”

But this Frazetta drawing…

…was taken directly from a Life Magazine article on a day at the beach:

The great illustrator Robert Fawcett warned his fellow artists against becoming dependent on photography: “photography has been abused, to the point where many illustrators are afraid to put pencil to paper without first photographing their subject exhaustively.”  Yet when he needed to draw a south sea island native…


…he relied on this photo from Life Magazine:

Norman Rockwell was one the most successful illustrators in America when he secretly began using photographs.  When his peers asked if he used photographs, he lied:

At a dinner at the Society of Illustrators, William Oberhardt, a fellow illustrator, grabbed my arm and said bitterly, “I hear you’ve gone over to the enemy.” “Hunh?” I said, faking ignorance because I realized right way what he was referring to and was ashamed of it. “You’re using photographs,” he said accusingly. “Oh…well… you know…not actually,” I mumbled. “You are ,” he said. “Yes” I admitted, feeling trapped, “I am.” “Judas!” he said, “Damned photographer!” and he walked away

I am interested in why some of the most confident, successful illustrators felt ashamed to use photos.  And why, despite their shame, they thought the benefits were worth it.

Since those early days, attitudes about using photos have changed but the role of photos has changed even faster. 

What started as drawing from photo reference evolved into projecting photos on a surface, which then turned into light boxing, which changed to scanning photos, later transformed by increasingly subtle filters that transform scanned images into a pastel drawing or a watercolor painting or a mezzotint.  To make a caricature today, we have only to apply the Photoshop “liquefy” tool to a photo of a face.  To improve a composition, we have only to employ the “divine proportion” tool.  Technology has played an increasingly vital role in picture making, encroaching more and more on what was once the human core.  It remains to be seen whether artists are following in the footsteps of John Henry.

Far from being resolved, the question “how much dependence on a machine is acceptable?” becomes a new question with each passing decade.

In this context, I think it becomes incumbent on each of us to make our own peace with the point along the spectrum where the role of the machine becomes too great.

I think the talented Matt Mahurin is a prime example of an artist working interchangeably in traditional media, photography, and film:


Here is a drawing with attitude:

This working drawing by Adolph Menzel (1815 – 1905) is an astonishing ballet of hand and eye. Look at the speed and clarity with which he captures the most telling details of a military coat:

Sharp realism combined with abstract design

These long, sweeping lines show Menzel’s confidence:

But mostly I like Menzel’s attitude toward this drawing. Rather than place it on a shelf to be admired, he marks it up with notes as if he were a master carpenter plying his trade. The notes are part of the artistry of the sketch:

Contrast Menzel’s empty coat with this far more famous empty robe series by pop artist Jim Dine:

Dine’s “fine art” pictures of empty robes are treated with reverence and sell at auction for over $100,000. But I have no doubt that Menzel’s working sketch is the superior work of art.




“To live is to war with trolls” –Henrik Ibsen

In my view, there was no better draftsman in 20th century illustration than the great Robert Fawcett.

Some might look at this drawing for Good Housekeeping and dismiss it as “typical boring 1950’s photo referenced illustration.” (Oh, don’t deny it– you know who you are).

But let’s take a closer look:

Up close, the drawing reveals an extraordinary array of marks on paper, from drybrush swirls to bold, virile stripes. Who could squeeze more character into brushwork than Fawcett?

And did you notice Fawcett’s trees, like exploding constellations?

Always, design was paramount for Fawcett. Compare his trees above with the following “fine art” painting by the famous Adolph Gottlieb:


Illustrator John Hendrix draws in church. Over the years, he has has compiled an impressive collection of church sketchbooks, many of which he has posted on his web site. Writes Hendrix:

I attend church every Sunday, and I draw during the sermon. All of these pages were done in a pew…. Simultaneous drawing and listening transforms familiar language into something new- a feedback loop of symbols, theology and wonder.

Paul Klee said, “Drawing is taking a line for a walk.” In a sketchbook, sometimes the line takes you for a walk.

When it does, it can take you to lands where client specifications rarely go. Hendrix notes:

Drawing in my sketchbook is the very best part of my work. I love it because it is linear improvisation. Much like jazz, it is unpredictable, exciting and unfiltered.

But there’s another reason I especially like Hendrix’s sketchbooks. Perhaps because of the soundtrack, his drawings often muse over great big subjects:

In the words of William Blake,

Great things are done when men and mountains meet;
This is not done by jostling in the street.

I have a special fondness in my heart for pictures that attempt big, unfashionable subjects– life and death, injustice, war and peace.

Artists illustrating “the place where men and mountains meet” frequently lapse into pretentiousness and melodrama, but Hendrix’s sketchbooks avoid that pitfall. His sketchbooks are not dense, linear philosophical treatises. As a result of his stream-of-consciousness approach, cosmic words and symbols weave in and out of his designs in a light and elegant dance. Definitely worth a look.



This post is one in a series on the artists featured in the exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum, State of the Art: Illustration 100 Years After Howard Pyle.

Sterling Hundley built a strong following at a young age, winning multiple gold and silver medals from the Society of Illustrators for his work in magazines such as Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Entertainment Weekly.

Hundley likes to employ a creative friction between contrasting elements. For example, he combines traditional, representational narrative illustration with conceptual design. In this illustration he uses the rules of anatomy and perspective to create the illusion of three dimensional space…


LEE CONREY (1883-1976)

Few people today remember Lee Conrey, but he drew thousands of lurid illustrations for The American Weekly in the 1920s and 1930s.

The American Weekly was a cheesy supplement for Sunday newspapers, printed by William Randolph Hearst on pulp paper.
Week after week, Conrey drew ambitious, complex drawings with a lot of heart.

Most copies of The American Weekly have crumbled with age, but it would be a shame if Conrey’s illustrations crumbled with them.

You can tell that after thousands of drawings, Conrey still got the same child like pleasure from creating these overdone, dramatic pictures. A fortunate artist indeed!



“The shudder of awe,” wrote Goethe, “is humanity’s highest faculty.” This helps explain the lure of the arts. But people who aren’t comfortable with shuddering have found other, more orderly ways to relate to art.

Art historians research the lives of artists to help understand their work. (The new biography of Saul Steinberg, a splendid piece of scholarship, devotes 732 pages to how Steinberg’s childhood, his sex life, and his paternal grandfather shaped the pictures we enjoy today.) Chemists analyze the composition of pigments for whatever insights chemistry can contribute. Scientists x-ray paintings, searching for discarded drafts. Psychologists rummage through an artist’s underwear drawer for psychological explanations for creative decisions.

But that’s not the worst of it. Prominent economist David Galenson explains that with the benefit of new “quantitative methods,” we can now conclusively list the top 25 “most important works of art of the 20th century.” (Number one is Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon, in case you wanted to know.)

Physicist Charles Falco, an expert in molecular beam epitaxy, won headlines with his “scientific proofs” and “mathematical calculations” explaining how great artists painted pictures.