Thursday, January 14, 2016

Harvey Dunn and His Students at the Rockwell

Last week we visited the Norman Rockwell Museum to see the exhibition "Masters of the Golden Age: Harvey Dunn and His Students." 

Dunn was a vital link between Howard Pyle's teaching and a generation of story illustrators in the Golden Age of Illustration. The exhibit includes a room showcasing Dunn's students, including Dean Cornwell, Harold Von Schmidt, Mead Schaeffer, Saul Tepper, and Dan Content. They produced big canvases brimming with color, character, and drama.

For example, here's a painting of "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Mead Schaeffer (from the Kelly Collection of American Art). The head is lit from above by a greenish light, shadowing the brows, and the bright yellow / white slash of light behind is applied boldly with a painting knife.

Dunn's precepts were forthright and positive, leaving no room for weak or tentative handling. He emphasized the same kind of mental projection that Pyle advocated. For example:
Everything must be positive. Never in doubt.
Put yourself in the picture and the situation.
To eliminate takes a great deal of study.
A man cannot lie unless he knows the truth.
Two of the rooms show the work of Harvey Dunn himself, and the work is beautifully presented by the museum staff. His students made a life cast of his face and hand, and those are displayed in a vitrine in the show.

You can watch archival footage of Dunn painting on YouTube at this link.

Unfortunately, even though I came to the show wanting to love his paintings, I found them less inspiring than the work of his students. Although many of Dunn's initial ideas had epic potential, the execution often suffers from awkward drawing and heavy-handed paint application. 

We found a letter in the museum archives where Tom Lovell summed up the problem: "Harvey Dunn could draw when it suited his purpose—all the "old ones" were well drawn. Later he became more crude in drawing and value."

This crudeness, I believe, comes from skipping over preparatory steps and proceeding directly from idea to the finished canvas. Many of the Golden Age illustrators produced such a volume of work on such short schedules that they often dispensed with preliminary steps. Illustrators who neglect those stages are more hit-or-miss, producing work that is often sub-par.

I think the consistently high quality of the work of Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker, and Tom Lovell results from the thoroughness and professionalism of their intermediate stages: sketch, color sketch, figure study, charcoal comp, etc.

We finished the day visiting the Museum archives and the classrooms with Patrick O'Donnell, a game designer and teacher. He's doing a program called "Art in Motion" where he demonstrates drawing for families who visit the museum. He'll be doing it again on February 13.
"Masters of the Golden Age: Harvey Dunn and His Students" will be at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts through March 6, 2016
More on Mead Schaeffer on Illustration Art
PDF of Dunn's teaching "An Evening in the Clasroom"


Ralph said...

As a "Wanna Be Artist" I am curious as to the meaning of your comment regarding Dunn's work. How does the ability to draw affect a painting.

James Gurney said...

Ralph, good question. Drawing is the foundation of a painting -- the perspective, proportion, anatomy, and design. It is often done with dry media "drawing" tools in early stages to plan the picture. For some like Rockwell, these prelim drawing stages involve many separate studies completed before the final painting is begun.

Sometimes this dry media drawing is done on the canvas itself before painting. Dunn would typically use charcoal to do a quick line drawing on the canvas.

I also use the word "drawing" to refer to accurate construction with the paintbrush in paint, too. Some artists (especially observational painters) can dive right in with a brush and get total accuracy using their brush as a drawing tool and correcting as they go, but it's the rare imaginative painter who can do that with happy results.

Leo Mancini-Hresko said...

Great show. I loved it. I also write a bit about the show on my blog, and linked to your video on Dunn. This exhibit caught me totally off guard.

Patricia Wafer said...

Very interesting. This is apropos of nothing but I REALLY miss the photo of you with the monkey on your head. Could we have that back for awhile. It always cheers me up. Thanks!!

James Gurney said...

You got it, Patricia! That's a wild macaque in Gibraltar who hopped on my shoulder while I was sketching her friends.

Leo, thanks for mentioning the YouTube video of Dunn painting. I added a link to it also, and it's playing in the exhibition.