Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Dennis Nolan, 1945-2022

Professor of illustration and children's book illustrator Dennis Nolan died yesterday in the company of his family after a long illness.

He posed for a watercolor portrait demo during one of my visits to Hartford Art School in Connecticut. Dennis taught illustration for many years at Hartford.

“You can forget everything else I taught you,” he would tell his students. “But I want you to remember just two things: how to place the horizon line, and how to draw an ear.” 

It’s rare to find a well-drawn ear these days, he said, even among professional artists. “Most people forget to show the leg of the helix descending into the conchal fossa,” he said. “And not many artists know about Darwin’s tuber.” 

Dennis Nolan taught his own mental model of art history, which questioned the standard view that the mainstream evolved from academic art through impressionism to modern and contemporary art.

That model leaves out comics, illustration, and animation It’s as if narrative art vanished from the face of the earth. But it didn’t disappear in the 20th Century. Like jazz and rock and roll, it flourished.

Dennis’s diagram puts the storytelling forms squarely in the center of the mainstream history of art, where they directly inherit the legacy of the ages. The modern movement still plays a significant, if culturally marginal, role as agent provocateur.

Dennis offered his students a solid grounding in fundamentals: animal and human anatomy, composition, color, and perspective, very much in keeping with the way art has been taught for centuries. 

He curated an important exhibition called "Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth, Rockwell and the Narrative Tradition" at the Norman Rockwell Museum which traced teacher/student lineages going all the way back to the Renaissance.

If Dennis Nolan touched your life in some way, please share a story in the comments.

1 comment:

Robert Cosgrove said...

Some years ago, I took a week-long Summer Workshop in watercolor with Dennis Nolan at the Norman Rockwell Museum. He put us through an interesting series of assignments using a palette that eschewed toxic colors, such as cadmiums. He was a good demonstrator, and well-stocked with slides of interesting paintings and illustrations, which put in the context of the historic roots of illustration, as discussed in your post. He was able to identify various illustrators, their teachers, and trace their teachers; teachers back in time historically to figures such as Gerome and others. Later, he put a good bit of this in print with the catalog accompanying the Keepers of the Flame exhibition (long out of print and now somewhat pricey, but worth it, on Amazon)--I wish someone would reprint it, or bring out a new edition. I was familiar with some of Nolan's illustration work prior to taking his class, and brought along my copy of The Sword and the Stone hardcover that he had illustrated. On the final day, I asked him to inscribe it for me, which he kindly did, adding a quick little sketch of Merlin's owl. As I recall, Nolan posed himself as reference for Merlin, and mentioned that he had some skills in sewing which he employed to stitch together costumes for his models. I left the workshopwishing it were longer and thinking that those art students who had Nolan as an instructor were fortunate indeed. To my regret, I never saw Nolan again, but I am grieved to learn of his passing.