Monday, June 29, 2015

The End... and a New Beginning

"Hey buddy; a studio space just opened up here. But it'll be gone by this afternoon... if you want it, you're going to have to grab it right now."

It was a call from my good friend and fellow storyboard artist, Jeff Norwell. Jeff and I had met on the first day of art college. Ten years later, our careers running very much along a similar path, we remained in close contact - even working occasionally on the same projects. Jeff had moved from an in-house job at McCann to "freelance-in-residence" at FCB, and more recently to 63A Yorkville Ave., the studio space shared by Will Davies...


... Tom McNeely...


... and Roger Hill...


... three of the biggest names in Canadian illustration at that time, as well as Vince McIndoe another very successful illustrator closer to our age.

I'd had my own freelance arrangement at Ogilvy for just over a decade at that point. Anybody who's ever worked in a high-pressure, fast-paced team environment like a commercial art studio can tell you; you spend so much time with the people there - sometimes more than than you do with your actual family - the studio becomes a second home. My friends and co-workers at Ogilvy were like a second family. The thought of leaving them and that place - making such a momentous decision on the turn of a dime - was heart-wrenching.


On the other hand, how often in an artist's lifetime does an opportunity to be in close proximity to the greatest living illustrators of a generation come along? For most of us, perhaps never. So when it does, how can you say no?

And just like that, I jumped off the cliff: "I'll take it." I said.


When I arrived at 63A, aside from Jeff and myself, everyone's doors were shut. That quiet I spoke of in my last post really pervaded the atmosphere. Coming from a noisy, bustling environment like the studio at Ogilvy where no doors ever seemed to be shut, it was a big change. Dropping in and hanging out for a chat and a coffee while working on an assignment was part of the culture. At 63A those closed doors and the general quiet atmosphere of the place seemed to stress that people wanted their privacy. It reinforced something I'd sensed time and again among the older generation of illustrators: that each artist had secrets - a certain technique, a connection with certain clients - and that those things should be cautiously guarded. I don't mean to suggest the other artists at 63A were unfriendly (although Roger was kind of intimidating at first) but socializing happened when people went out for lunch - not in the studio.


But over time Jeff and I managed to bring the other guys out of their shells. Dropping in and sharing stories, observing each other at work and learning from each other became common practice, much to everyone's benefit and enjoyment, I think.

(An ad for Photo Engravers, by an unknown illustrator from the 1949 Toronto AD Annual. PE is where Will found his first job after art college c. 1946)

And it was as a result of that greater camaraderie that I really came to know and appreciate Will Davies as a person as well as an iconic figure. At lunch or on a visit in my or Jeff's studio, Will would share wonderful stories of the good ol' days. When I would pull out folders of old magazine clippings by the likes of Al Parker or Coby Whitmore, Will would recall for us his trips to New York in the early '50s, his visit to Al Parker's house and to the Charles E. Cooper studio, where he had hoped to land a job. Over time Will became a friend.


When I'd come back from a used book store with a stack of old Maclean's or Chatelaine magazines, we'd all flip through them together... Will and Tom stopping at pages displaying work by Oscar Cahen ("He was a genius") or Jack Bush ("Oh, I remember Jack!") and launch into a story about working for the magazines and ad agencies of the day, and what the business had been like in the era of the big art studios like ADS, TDF, or Sherman, Laws.


Most wonderful of all were the occasions when Will would drop in while I was working on a job, inking a pencil sketch of some cartoon character or another. He's watch quietly as my brush swept along a curve and remark, "Boy, I just don't know how you do it. I could never do that." Can you imagine? The Will Davies graciously paying me a compliment, humbly suggesting he couldn't do what I did! Of course he could do what I did... Will Davies could do anything! But it was a kindness he regularly offered me when he didn't have to, and it always made my day to hear him say it.


At a certain point, when I had some down time, I decided to try my hand at painting gouache pin-up girls in the style of the great '50s Esquire artist, Mike Ludlow. Will was very helpful, checking in on me and offering tips on how to handle the paint. He was always encouraging - never critical. I learned a lot from Will Davies... and I was not alone.

Next time I'll share a bit about Will Davies' teaching career.

* If you're interested in acquiring a copy of The Art of Will Davies, please visit our Kickstarter page.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Today's Inspiration Returns! - With The Art of Will Davies

It's been a year since I put the Today's Inspiration blog on hiatus, but today I'm very please to turn the lights back on so I can share some exciting news with you: I'm in the midst of producing my first book, "The Art of Will Davies."

The Art of Will Davies

For those who don't know, my friend Will Davies was Canada's premier advertising illustrator for much of the mid-20th century.


He was also my studio mate for several years in the late 1990s and, I'm happy to report, at age 91 Will is still going strong.

How to impress upon you the stature of this ever modest but tremendously talented, prolific artist. Let's put it this way: one day back in the late '80s, in the early years of my professional illustration career, I was having lunch in Toronto's tony Yorkville neighbourhood with my pal Dan Milligan. Dan and I both worked in-house at Ogilvy & Mather, cranking out storyboards and comps for the agency and our own freelance clients. After lunch Dan proposed we drop in on his old Ontario College of Art instructor, Will Davies.


Drop in on Will Davies? I gulped (and probably sweated a little). I didn't think such a thing could be possible. It was like Dan had tossed his thumb over his shoulder and casually proposed, "Hey, God lives right here - whattaya say we drop in on him?" Will Davies was just that big. He was the biggest! The thought of just walking into his studio unannounced was incomprehensible to me.

So of course I said, "Sure."

The thing that hit you right away as you opened the door to 63A Yorkville Ave was the smell; a delicious aroma of pipe tobacco mingled with oil paints that seemed very out-of-time with the modern world swirling by beyond that door. It was cool in the front hallway, and not brightly lit, though there were tall windows facing an alleyway to the right. A wide, formidable staircase covered in worn gray carpet had to be climbed to get to the second floor landing. There, beyond an old ever-unattended reception desk, a narrow corridor branched off in several directions, doors at the sides and ends of each passageway.


It was a quiet space. All doors were shut, and what was happening behind them was a mystery. There was no art in the hallway, no signs directing you to this studio or that one. You had to know where you wanted to go, and in Will's case, you had to go down that narrow hallway all the way to the back.

That's where silence turned to chaos, as a knock on Will's studio door returned a tremendous, fierce barking from Will's German Shepherd, Maggie. If that didn't unnerve you (and believe me, in the following years, after I joined the group at 63A, I saw more than a few couriers come flying back up that hallway once Maggie made her presence known!) then after a bit you'd hear Will's calming voice: "It's ok, Maggie, alright, it's ok..." and then the door would open a crack, Maggie would let out one last yelp, and you'd see Will holding her by the collar.

"C'mon in," he'd say, always graciously making time for visitors, no matter how busy he might be.


Once the introductions were made, the dog settled, Will would return to his seat and you could at last step into this most awe-striking studio.

Will's studio seemed both immense and tiny. The room was large and the ceilings were high, but just getting in the door in any way other than single file was a challenge. There was a lot of stuff! Paintings were everywhere; leaning ten deep against walls, tables, easels, and stacked flat one on top of each other - so many layered together they formed pillars!


There were boxes of clipped reference and unclipped magazines waiting to be clipped. There were props and costumes from past jobs, a bookcase filled with illustration and art director annuals and a cot bed in one corner - though stacked so high with paintings, drawings, portfolio cases and various unidentifiable items that it must have been quite some time since anyone could have used it for napping.


Central to the room was Will's drawing table, his low, round materials table, and his chair - a funny, oddly out-of-place orange vinyl office chair of 1960s vintage that you could lean way back in. On the broad surface of the table beside his desk there were paint tubes, jars and bottles of all shapes and sizes, brushes, pencils, pastels and a large ashtray heaped high with the spent tappings of Will's pipe. That delicious aroma of sweet pipe tobacco (Will's personal blend) originated in this room, there was no doubt about that.


Facing his desk, covering the entire wide expanse of the longer wall of his studio, was an impressive collection on three shelves of vintage military helmets. It was clear he'd positioned himself in the room so that any time he liked, he could glance up over his drawing table and enjoy the view of that wide expanse of rare headgear.


That day I stood by quietly, letting Dan and Will catch up while I soaked in my surroundings. I don't remember what was on Will's board that day, but of course, whatever it was, it was brilliant. And I'll be honest with you, I can say today, older and wiser than I was twenty-five years ago, that even though I knew who Will Davies was back then and had an appreciation for his status as a professional illustrator (art directors at Ogilvy revered his work on the Hathaway Shirts account) I really didn't appreciate how exceptional the quality of the work was. I was still too young and inexperienced - and too impressed with myself - to really understand how much I had to learn so that hopefully one day I might be half the artist Will Davies already was.


And although I came away from that first encounter thinking Will Davies sure was a nice guy, and a humble, surprisingly modest person for someone of such obvious ability and proven stature, I really didn't grasp how important he was; to me, to the business, to his countless students - and to Canada.


That realization would come later - and that will be the topic of my next post.

* If you're interested in acquiring a copy of The Art of Will Davies, please visit our Kickstarter page.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Marilyn Conover: "... the most dynamic person I have ever encountered."

One of the great delights of producing this blog is hearing from friends, neighbours, family members and coworkers of the artists I've showcased. These folks often bring a fresh perspective to the subject and provide a more comprehensive view of the person, for which I am always grateful. One of the more intriguing personalities I've presented on Today's Inspiration was Marilyn Conover (her interview: Part1, 2, 3, 4). Today, you'll get to know Marilyn a little better through the recollections of Peggy Plumb Knapp. I'm betting you'll enjoy Peggy's narrative as much as I did when she sent it to me just over a year ago. ~ Leif

"I just came across your article about Marilyn Conover. In case you are interested, I apprenticed with her in 1961-1962. She is/was the most dynamic person I have ever encountered."


"Having just graduated from college, which is where she found me after my professors chose me for her apprenticeship, I lived with her, Hendrick (husband at the time), Ricky, her son (about 8 or 9?)..."


"... and Suzy, daughter (about 7?)."


"I had my own small studio with a drawing board and everything needed for doing illustration. This was in Westport, Conn. They had just moved there from Marblehead, Mass. I was only at the Marblehead house once for my first interview with her. Her homes were jammed with tchotchkes, mainly American antiquities. She was proud of the fact that she included these things in her backgrounds because most illustrators of those times did not."


"We lived at 377 Main Street in Westport, surrounded by all the famous and mighty illustrators. I toiled there for 8 hours every day M-F. Marilyn drove Hendrick to the station every morning (he was a rep at Cooper Studios in New York) and then painted away all day. Hendrick had also been an illustrator in Chicago, but I never saw any of his work. He was a rather mild mannered man, quite nice and with a sense of humor. So many illustrators lived in Westport when I was there. I visited Bernie Fuchs and others whose names I cannot remember, and did photographic modelling for many of them. Hendrick introduced me to Jon Whitcomb, who did what I thought were just the best drawings of women. It was certainly another age. One could actually make a living drawing pictures!"


"Most of Marilyn's work was with a newspaper in Boston, doing fairly routine B&W art. I'm sure you realize that all the illustration was done via what they called a Bell Optican, a projector that enabled tracings of photos etc. I was never allowed to use it and, of course, it was NEVER mentioned. Some used it better than others. I can still tell today when one has been used, even though there are many other ways in this digital age. There was a lovely portrait of her daughter Suzy - resembling Alice in Wonderland, long blonde hair and all - hanging in the house. I know she did color work but I just can't remember in what capacity it was."


"She would give me projects that I would work on and then she would critique them. This went very well. I learned so much. One would be a B&W ink drawing, another a fashion illustration, another would be full color etc. Each piece demonstrating my great commercial artistic ability... went into my professional portfolio. I still have most of the portfolio she helped me with and I got every job I ever went for; those who hired me were quite impressed since she showed me how to put together a REAL portfolio… not the kind that one came out of art school with."


"Other duties included helping her with her children; I wasn't much help. I had never babysat or been around children. It was a year in hell for a young girl just out of college. The demands were great and I was so intimidated by her that I found it very difficult to cope."

"Her studio was on the second floor and mine was on the first floor in a nice sunporch area. Show tunes played all day long and only once did I have the courage to ask her to play my Ray Charles albums. I never knew them to go out to dinner, movies, or to friends' houses or to have others to their home. They watched television and listened to show tunes constantly. My take on her situation was that she was REALLY good at what she did, but the guys got all the credit. There was a whole group of them that had studied in Chicago and came East to make their fortune."


"Years later Marilyn was with Portraits Inc. in NYC, probably in the '70s/'80s. I have no idea how successful she was or if she liked it. I would think she would have mentioned that to you. I do know that her style never evolved much; what I saw was kind of stuck in that '50s/'60s style. She was frustrated that she could not loosen up. She asked me how I could do it and I can totally remember telling her it was fun. I don't think she ever had that chance of having fun with her drawing. She had to make a living and was always worried about the next gig."


"She visited me once, after I had married and had a family and was living in Onondaga Hill NY. She was lecturing at Syracuse University and laughed at their so called commercial art program. She admitted to me that I was a disappointment, where the children were concerned. (I had fallen asleep at the beach while they were playing in the ocean!!!!!) I did manage to connect with Marilyn in a phone call when I lived in CA. It was a strange conversation... I remember that she was very surprised to hear that I had good feelings about my time with her. I don't think she wanted more contact with me. She had moved back to Marblehead at that time. I think that was a good place for her and she felt comfortable there."


"It's difficult to make judgment calls at this late date and considering I was so young and quite shy (who wouldn't be around her?) and felt quite put upon much of the time. However, my experience there changed my life for the good, in many ways. I am curious if you ever followed up on your conversation with Marilyn. I hope she is still with us. I know her mother lived to a very ripe old age, so perhaps… "

~ Peggy Plumb Knapp

Peggy Plumb Knapp lives in Albuquerque, NM and, at the time of her correspondences with me, had recently closed her gallery so she could devote more time to her commission work. "I now work in my own formula of decorative concrete," wrote Peggy, "and a lifetime is not long enough to explore it all. Life is good and I look forward to the next decade when I'll still be making stuff if my body holds up. Marilyn is still a presence in my life. I will never forget that year!"

Addendum: It was just brought to my attention that Marilyn Conover passed away on June 15.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bob Heindel: "... we might as well try to be extraordinary."

Recently a friend surprised me with a terrific gift: the Society of Illustrators Annuals from 1975 and '77. I've been pouring through them, discovering many treasures in both word and picture. The piece I've transcribed below called "Point of View," written by Bob Heindel for Illustrators 18 (the 1977 edition), was particularly thought provoking, so I'd like to share it with you today. Upon reflection, it begs the question: in the last (nearly) 40 years since Heindel wrote these words, has anything about the illustration business really changed at all? ~ Leif


It would seem this business of making pictures has remained fairly constant over the years. Styles manage only to repeat themselves. Because, no matter how hard we try to avoid it, and regardless of the word we attach to ism - whether it be surreal or impression - for the illustrator it always comes down to real.


Whatever changes have occurred are merely reflections of society in general. A little more sex and violence; a lot less mom and apple pie. As documented in this Annual, we are in the business of showing the world what it's about. We all like to believe we are marching to a different drum, when, in point of fact, we just stumble differently.


The real bright spot in our business appears to be in viewpoint. Whether we like it or not, we are more and more called upon to have one. This would seem to represent a kind of freedom that was much less visible before the photographic onslaught of a decade ago.


As exciting as this freedom might be, it is hotly pursued by a creature called responsibility - in part to one's client, but mostly to one's self.


This condition has had a rather interesting side effect. We appear much less to be the stepchild of "fine art," while, at the same time, the "fine artist" has become the consummate "commercial artist." The merits and shortcomings of this I'll leave to more learned souls than myself to debate.


If one had listened to, and believed, all the dialogue about this business 10 or 15 years ago, we would not exist today. I'm sure that the concerns were real then, and they continue to be. We certainly have an ample supply of problems, and not so many easy solutions.


However, I would guess that so long as the world needs a mirror, we'll have a market.


No matter, the business of making pictures is generally a pleasure - always frustrating to a degree, and sometimes wonderfully rewarding. When viewed against the background of problems that face mankind, what we do is so relatively meaningless that we might as well try to be extraordinary.


~ Bob Heindel

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Preview: illustrators #7 featuring Alan Lee, Bernie Fuchs, John Vernon Lord... and me!

By guest author Peter Richardson.

Working on a publication like illustrators is a dream job. Yes, there is a hell of a lot of work that goes into each issue, the bulk of which is never seen by our readers, but the subject matter and the enthusiasm it generates is the primary dynamic which keeps us going.

(Above: the mad geniuses who bring you every issue of illustrators magazine, sketched with uncanny accuracy by editor Peter Richardson)

The recently published seventh issue of illustrators is no exception.


We were very lucky to secure the agreement and co-operation of Oscar winning illustrator, Alan Lee to run as our lead feature, and we have what I believe is the biggest retrospective of his fabulous artwork yet assembled.


To a lot of the public, he is best known for his work on Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of J.R. Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Hobbit’ books, but it was the publication of ‘Faeries’ in 1977 which he collaborated on with fellow fantasy artist Brian Froud in 1977 which first brought his work to a wider audience.


We had long considered the possibility of running a feature on Alan’s work, I had been a fan of his illustration since first seeing some of the fabulous paperback covers he created for ghost story anthologies in the late 1970s.


His work, in an era when photo referenced artwork dominated the paperback market, was refreshingly direct, with echoes of Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and William Russell Flint. When he collaborated with Brian Froud, another of my favourite fantasy illustrators, to create the ‘Faeries’ bestiary, I was totally in his thrall and followed his career with avid interest, through his exquisite illustrations for books such as ‘Castles’ and ‘Black Ships Before Troy’, to his most recent work for Peter Jackson.


It was this work that was dominating Alan’s schedule when we first made contact, and even his return trip to Devon from New Zealand was delayed by several weeks; such was the pressure he was working under.


It was therefore really generous of Alan that when he did return to Devon, shortly before Christmas, he took time away from his holiday to scan a pile of artwork for our feature. As a result of Alan’s assistance, we have been able to delve much deeper into the past career of this amazing artist and the feature includes scans of original paintings for ‘The Fontana Ghost Stories’ collections and other paperback covers...


... as well as many scans of incredible original artwork for ‘The Mabinogion’, one of the finest collections of fantasy art ever published and the precursor to much of the work that he was to create for Peter Jackson.


We also look at the maritime paintings by the late, great Bernie Fuchs. Penned by Bryn Havord, the artwork featured has remained largely unseen, save by those lucky enough to see them on the cruise liners, which many of them adorn.


Bryn had unparalleled access to some incredible images of Bernie’s work and we are very privileged to be able to share them with you.


Adding to the mix, is the fascinating and mesmerically obsessive illustration of John Vernon Lord.


John has balanced the career of one of this country’s most gifted teachers (I should know—I was privileged enough to be one of his tutees) with a long and still thriving career as a unique and wonderfully idiosyncratic illustrator.


His work includes a string of successful and award winning picture books, along with illustrations to Lewis Carroll’s, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There’ as well as recent projects such as ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ and his self-penned and hugely informative book, ‘Drawn to Drawing’.


We also (and sparing his blushes) take a look at the work of Leif Peng, another artist who has managed to successfully combine a career as a highly talented and versatile illustrator, with that of an educator in the subject.


He currently holds a professorship at Mohawk College where he shares his passion and knowledge of illustration with those students lucky enough to attend his classes and to a wider audience via this blog and it’s Facebook iteration.


Rounding off the galaxy of assembled artists we look at the fabulous books devoted to the incredible artistry of Mark English, whose work continues to develop and evolve as an on-going testimony to the rugged individuality of it’s creator.


illustrators Quarterly magazine can be ordered from The Book Palace and from Bud Plant's Art Books in the United States.