Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Pruett Carter's Preliminaries

Pruett Carter (1891-1955) was an American illustrator who lived in Los Angeles and freelanced for the women's magazines in New York. In the days before email, faxes and FedEx, he often had to ship sketches back and forth to the art directors by special air couriers. 

Here's a finished illustration, a double page magazine illustration for a story called "Summer Land."

In Carter's day, sometimes the art director would suggest a rough layout. Back then, most art directors could draw well. Carter himself was an art director for a while.

But Carter himself planned this composition. After reading the manuscript he did several thumbnail roughs. This one includes a box for the copy and the title block, and a strong triangular shape awareness for the girl. 

In his early days, Carter drew and painted from live models, but he later shot photo reference. This is the pencil underlay for the color sketch, made with the benefit of models. The original is 17 x 22 inches.

He had an unusual method for color comps (above). He would transfer the drawing to transparent acetate sheets (like animation cels) and then paint the color in oil on the acetate, trying out different color combinations on overlaid layers. "The spots which look like dirt on the girl's legs and jacket and the boy's trousers are actually shadows created by air bubbles between the layers of acetate."

Ernest Watson writes that the acetate comp method "allows the greatest possible flexibility. If dissatisfied with any part, the painting can be wiped off and a new trial made. Usually, however, another sheet of acetate is laid down right on top of the first painting. This adheres to the wet painting and affords a fresh surface upon which the new trial for that particular area is to be made. The new transparent sheet may cover the entire picture or, as is usual, it may be a small piece designed only to cover the area to be corrected. There might be as many as fifteen or sixteen such overlays on a completed painting, a patch here, a fragment there....The advantage of this method of painting on overlays is obvious. The original drawing is not lost in the painting process; it is always under the acetate to be used as a guide."

Illustration by Pruett Carter
Note for researchers: There's a chapter about Pruett Carter in Fred Taraba's excellent book Masters of American Illustration: 41 Illustrators and How They Worked
However, there is no Wikipedia page for Pruett Carter. Would someone like to create one?  He had an interesting career, but he had a sad end. The material in this post is adapted from American Artist, March, 1950. These old American Artist magazines aren't online or digitized anywhere to my knowledge, so if you like I'll keep bringing you nuggets like this.


Tom Hart said...

Years ago, I first ran across mention of a version of the acetate overlay method in a book by Rudy De Reyna, Magic Realist Painting Techniques (1973). If I recall correctly, acetate isn't cheap, but the few times I used it for something like this, I really liked the way it worked. There's nothing quite like the transparency of the acetate to give you the feeling that you're really trying out a color or composition.

Allen Garns said...

Thanks for this post. My vote is to keep the old articles coming, along with all your other wonderful topics. As with so many illustrators, Carter's design (especially in that second piece) superb.

P said...

Yes, please. I would like to hear more. I hope you will post more about illustrators of that era. So often the a profession reaches its pinnacle just before evolutionary forces makes it obsolete. The builders of Sailboats is another example.

Jim Douglas said...

James, what pigments would you guess Pruett used to make the last painting?

His limited palette is remarkably effective. Maybe Titanium white, ivory black, burnt sienna, & vermillion? I don't even see any hints of the yellow ochre that Zorn might include.

Rant said...

Awesome. I sometimes think we have it so easy with digital processes and it must of been so time consuming to do colour variations and iterations of drawings, but it just goes to show where there is a will there is an awesome creative way to get what you want with the tools at hand!!!

Would one have to be carful with paint thinner getting on the acetate? Wouldn't it fog up? I want to try this for myself on a large scale!

Thanks Mr. Gurney I learn something new from you on a daily basis. Please keep the old articles coming.

Laszlo said...

Yes, please keep posting these! I was lucky enough to pick up the Masters of Illustration book. I want to recommend it to everyone who loves classic illustration, but the ridiculous aftermarket pricing will make it inaccessible for most people...

It's available as an ebook now, but it's not the same as looking at a lushly-printed coffee table book (IMHO.)

Perhaps a second pressing is in order? Or a Kickstarter, like the one for Baumhofer?

Retta said...

I appreciate these articles of times and techniques past, also.

It was jolting to read of his sad end. And too easy to react harshly. However, I knew an older couple who did something similar, without a child involved. He was dying of cancer, she an invalid. They were very nice people.

After they were found, it was speculated that he did it in agreement with her, and out of concern for her, not wishing to leave her alone, without family to care for her. So sad...

I can only have compassion on them all, including any surviving Carter family.

d-vallejo said...

Yes please, I put in my vote for more nuggets like these.

Capt Elaine Magliacane said...

Cast another vote for more and more I love reading about these historic (but not that ancient) artists.

Donald Pittenger said...

You get my vote too.

I'm wondering where you located those images; hadn't seen any of the roughs before.

Tyler J said...

Solid post, as always.

One comment that caught my attention that I'm curious about:
"Back then, most art directors could draw well."

Is this not the case today? I work in a game studio and all the art directors I have encountered have had real chops, with most of them coming from the concept art discipline. Is it different for other industries (such as print magazines)? If so, what skills do they have if not drawing?

Stuart said...

Pruitt Carter was an instructor at Chouinard and a major influence on Mary Blair. He has a painting on display in the Mary Blair exhibition currently up at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Rodrica Tilley said...

Please keep bringing the old American Artist posts. I find them very interesting.

David Webb said...

James, your comment at the start of this piece reminded me of when I used to deliver my illustrations to my agent in London, around 1980. As it was 20 odd stops on the tube, I used to wait until about 11pm and then run it up there on my motorbike.
They had a large gap underneath the front door to allow artists to make deliveries during the night.
The trick was to slide it almost all the way under, and then give it a sharp wack to send it scooting across the carpet, where it would be picked up in the morning (along with several others).
Bearing in mind their offices were directly opposite the Home Office, I doubt you could do that now without being arrested.
Ah, innocent days.

Dash Courageous said...

Yes, please continue these golden age illustrators.