Thursday, August 16, 2012

Jon Whitcomb and illustration styles

The cover feature of the new summer edition of Illustration Magazine is entitled "The Glamorous World of John Whitcomb.

Whitcomb (1906-1988) dominated the world of illustration with his portrayal of stylish women and movie stars. In addition to a very prolific output of editorial and advertising work, he played the electric organ, wrote a gossip column, and developed his own photographs. 

He compared the making of an illustration to the production of a film: "I have to be wardrobe mistress, arrange the composition, pose the models, run for the sandwiches, call for the models at the railroad station, and renew their options."

Whitcomb was a recognizable celebrity himself, enough so to plug cigarettes. He left a lasting legacy with the formation of two influential organizations: Cooper Studios and the Famous Artist's School, where he was a devoted instructor. He was a consummate craftsman. Painting an attractive face in gouache and watercolor is a very challenging feat, and he was one of the best at it. 

Whitcomb was always concerned with changing fashions. It took six months from the delivery of a magazine illustration until its publication. In that time, styles could change. From the time he was a boy, he said he "developed an aversion for antiques. This particular prejudice extends to anything older than five or six minutes. I admire new hats, new actresses, new architecture, new plays, and new gadgets."

He emphasized the importance of an illustrator having a current style. "No one seriously concerned with modern illustration can ignore styles, whether in clothes, furniture, architecture, landscape gardening, or picture framing. Every year one of these gets a thorough overhaul and illustrators have to start fresh. You have to keep up to date if your work is to have a contemporary look."

Fashion is a fact of life. But the word "trend" has "end" built into it. Ironically, Whitcomb's concerns for chasing styles make his work appear more dated to us now compared to the work of his contemporaries such as Tom Lovell, Haddon Sundblom, or Norman Rockwell. Although those artists were also conscious of changing trends, they more deliberately referenced painters of previous centuries, which makes their work more timeless and harder to pin to a given decade.
The issue of Illustration magazine also has features on Sheilah Beckett and Wesley Snyder. You can view thumbnails of all the pages here.
Illustration magazine
Second picture courtesy Illustration House
More about the Sheilah Beckett article on the Underpaintings blog
Previously on GurneyJourney: Whitcomb Demo


Celeste Bergin said...

Those paintings are sublime..thanks for the column. I am always struck by how well you express your thoughts. Not to overstate it, but you're a great communicator!

Tom Hart said...

Celeste beat me to the punch. Your point about timelessness vs. "datedness" is astute and very well put. I'd only add the counterpoint that, as wonderful as timelessness is, it's also great (and valuable) to have these snapshots of styles and trends as a record of the times. I know you weren't making a value judgment, but I just wanted to add that.

Tristan Elwell said...

From the Wikipedia entry on Fatima cigarettes: "The brand's old-fashioned image caused it to lose market share from the mid-1950s onward, and L&M eventually phased it out by around 1980."

jeff jordan said...

I recently started painting in gouache, (really loving it) and I was wondering if anybody knows of how-to books from the mid-20th century on gouache.

Do you know of any from that era, Jim?

James Gurney said...

Jeff, I'd start with the Famous Artist's Course itself, since Whitcomb and other gouachers taught there. I did a post showing a Whitcomb demo here:

You can find the rest of the FAC books downloadable online if you look around.

Rudy de Reyna's book isn't bad:

...but there aren't too many devoted to the gouache that I can think of offhand. Most are about oil or transparent watercolor.

Daroo said...

I like gouache but I always feel rushed when working with it. It dries so fast!

This is one of my favorite "gouachers" (I like that term): -- He's able to achieve soft edges in gouache which I find really difficult. Nathan Fowkes blog Land sketch is also great and Eric Tiemens Virtual gouache land blog has some demos.

Rod said...

I'll have to pick up this issue, I did a color study of that pink illustration in one of my classes.

Andrew said...

Not a gouache artist, but Mary Whyte works in watercolor, much in the same way as Paul Bonner it seems:

Oddly enough, I found her work through an instruction book that was wedged between two "How to draw Manga" books at B&N. The instruction book was pretty 'meh', but the work itself was gorgeous, especially for watercolors.

Unknown said...

Anyone interested in gouache might try Acryla gouache by Holbein. It incorporates the qualities and opacity of regular gouache with acrylic paint by adding the pigment to an acrylic binder. It lays down nice and flat but does not lift as easily as traditional gouache, which was always the biggest frustration for me. You can wash over it pretty transparently without lifting previous layers.