Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Art and Life of BERNIE FUCHS

When I was at a meeting of our CAPS (California Artists Professional Society) a few years back I had the good fortune one night to attend a lecture by Bernie Fuchs on his career as an illustrator. I was very familiar with the work of Bernie Fuchs and he was one of my idols. Getting a chance to see his originals first hand and to listen to him speak about his life made for a splendid evening for me. Later in the evening after the talk, I brought several books illustrated by Bernie up for him to sign, and afterwards shook it hand. It was only then I realized that he had  three fingers missing missing on his drawing hand. I was a bit shocked, but also had a new found respect for the man; his hand had been injured in an industrial accident late in his teenage years, but he hadn’t let it stop him from excelling as an artist.

And excel he did. When he exploded on the scene in the late 1950s his work was extremely competent, but stylistically looked little different from most of the illustration being used. That changed quickly as like Parker, Briggs and Peak before him, once his foot was in the door, he immediately began to develop a unique and dynamic style which has influenced so many other artists. Coming into a field that was facing a life and death battle with photographic competition, he not only survived, but flourished where so many others were fell by the wayside.

Ironically, growing up in Detroit, one of my complaints when I was trying to break into comics, was that there weren’t the plethora of great illustrators to learn from in the area, as there were in New York. It wasn’t until much later in life I discovered that even at that time the great Bernie Fuchs worked in advertising for the car industry in Detroit; and he was not alone as Bob Peak, Austin Briggs, Harry Borgman and a number of others were continually in the area because of the automobile clients. I just hadn’t taken the time to find out about them.

My fellow Fawcett collector and noted illustration historian, David Apatoff has just written a remarkable book, The Life and Art of Bernie Fuchs and it’s a must for any serious fan of illustration. Besides being filled with amazing pictures, the biography is a fun and interesting read. One anecdote he relates is that when Fuchs moves to Westport, Connecticut one of the first persons he meets is Robert Fawcett, who insists that they run over to meet his neighbor, Austin Briggs. Fuchs had just replaced Briggs as the artist on a major account and Fawcett, who was feuding with Briggs at the time, thought it would be amusing to twist the knife. Ironically, while the meeting was awkward, Fuchs and Briggs immediately liked each other, bonded,  and became close friends. It might be poetic justice that Fuchs also replaced Fawcett on a major account not soon after.

Here is a link to where you can pick up this wonderful book: Amazon.com

(Bio from Wikipedia)

Fuchs was born in O’Fallon, Illinois on October 29, 1932. He grew up in humble circumstances with no father. His ambition was to be a trumpet player, but that ended after he lost three fingers on his right hand in an industrial accident the summer after he graduated from high school. Fuchs turned to art as a career, despite having had no formal art training. He enrolled in Washington University in St. louis, Missouri, where he graduated in 1954.

His first job was illustrating car advertisements for New Center Studios, located first in the Fisher Building, then in the Penobscot Building in Detroit. Art Greenwald was the owner of the studio. it was the largest and most successful studio in Detroit in the 50’s and 60’s. A couple of the other illustrators were Chic Albertson and Donald Silverstein. Bernie was recognized immediately for his incredible talent and pulled in major accounts for Greenwald. Within a few years of moving to Detroit, Fuchs’ opened the studio The Art Group, which specialized in work for the city’s auto companies. In the late 1950s, Fuchs moved to Westport, Connecticut where he began doing illustrations for McCalls, Redbook, The Ladies Home Journal, Sports Illustrated and other magazines.

Fuchs was commissioned for the illustration of four US postage stamps, released in 1998. The stamps featured folk musicians Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, and Josh White. Fuchs also illustrated several children’s picture books, including Ragtime Tumpie and Carolina Shout!, both written by Alan Schroeder.

He painted portraits of several U.S. Presidents, including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as well as of such athletes and celebrities such as Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nichlaus, Ted Koppel and Katharine Hepburn.

At age 76, he died September 17, 2009

Monday, July 10, 2017


When I was a kid and starting to get serious about this drawing stuff, the first step after doodling with a pencil was to start learning how to finish your drawings in ink. And in those days, it was not an easy step. First off you had to use a bottle of black india ink which was always either dripping on the paper (or your clothes of your parents furniture.) The tools were even more frustrating: there was the cantankerous crow quill pens that you constantly had to dip in the bottle, and then try and get some kind of some of kind of line that wasn’t squiggly or scratchy or filled with little blotches where the pen caught on the paper. Sometimes when you pressed  the nib on the paper the ink would simply refuse to flow….the next time, as you applied more pressure there would suddenly be a blot on the paper. And after you worked so hard on that pencil drawing. 

There were also the lettering pens which were slightly more dependable. Unfortunately, being a leftie , trying to letter with a tool and a process that was designed for the opposite hand, was an added challenge.( It wasn’t until much later in life that I discovered there were actually left-handed nibs for the lettering pens. And you weren’t supposed to dip then into the ink; you filled a reservoir in the nib itself.)

Truthfully, I didn’t spend a lot of time practicing with those pens because it was so frustrating, and setting up a workplace and cleaning it up afterwards was always a chore. I was more apt to use what was convenient at the moment, and in the 50’s if was that Schaeffer fountain pens that we all used for our written assignments. There were drawbacks (no pun intended). The ink was usually peacock blue or a very washed out black. The nib had very little flexibility to change line weights. And the pens leaked constantly.

It’s no wonder that by the end of the 50’s, fountain pens were becoming relics, and the ball point became the standard. And you could get them in a bunch of different colors.  While my first homemade comics were in color, when I did try inking the drawings, I was using either my Schaeffer or a Bic. The ballpoints were also perfect for tracing your drawings onto the spirit duplicator stencils that I used when I started doing my Masquerader fanzines. The comic book pages that I drew on bristol board and finished in ink, I often used the new nylon tipped markers (Flair was the most popular) and the just introduced “roller ball” drawing pens. Since I’d been writing with them most of my life, they were the natural tool for me and felt comfortable in my hand. Cleanup was easy. You simply put the pen back in your pocket (hopefully remembering to put the cap back on….).

In the sixties all the younger artists were becoming proficient with these new marker pens. For lettering the wide tip of the “Magic” Marker was perfect…or for filling in large areas of a color. And every few months there were constantly new and improved products that you could try out, and they  usually cost much less than the traditional tools. My favorite, which was introduced in l964 and is still the most popular one used today is the Sharpie. The company was founded in l857 by Mr. Sharp, who was the first to mass produce a crude version of the marker….so it took them 100 years to perfect it. 

When I first starting using them, I thought they were a bit clumsy. The ink line often bled on even very good papers. (And after a few weeks, the dye would stain through the paper and bleed  onto whatever was underneath. That ink formula is long gone.) and while they were called Sharpies, after about thirty minutes of use, that precise point was reduced to a blunt stub. So you went through them very quickly. 

But I discovered two things. You could take an Exacto knife and trim and reshape the nib to create some interesting lines and patterns. And more importantly, while I’d been tossing the pens that started to dry out (and they quickly did), I discovered that if I started draw using the side of the nib as you would a pencil, you could get a remarkable variety of tones and patterns. Consequently, over the years they have become my favorite tool to draw with. I’m not sure I would ever use them to try and ink comic book pages, but as a drawing and sketching tool they are amazing.

The first time I went to a life drawing class I was probably thirty years old and had been working professionally (standards were low) for a number of years. But it quickly become a weekly routine for me and a discipline I still practice forty years later.  These days in class I use Prismacolor pencils to draw the model, and time permitting, I’ll add a bit of background, using my “dead” Sharpie collection. This is an ever-changing  supply of Sharpies that have lost a bit (or a lot) of there “life” and are great for tone and usually delicate lines. 

Never one to waste paper (ok, I’m cheap), at some later point, using the Prismacolor figure drawings as a foreground, I’ll head out to a garden area and an interesting subject for a background. While I lay in the drawing quickly with Prismacolor, I then start using the array of Sharpies to produce a line and tonal background for the figures. It’s primarily a composition and design exercise to create an interesting illustration on the page. 

When I have the under drawing done, I literally have handful of seven or eights “dead” sharpies, and I’ll quickly test them out to see what they can produce, and pick two or three to give me a range of line and tone, and start finishing the work. I didn’t invent this process. The illustrator Robert Fawcett was a master of this technique, back when he was using a Flo-Master marker (basically a tube filled with ink with a 1/4” square piece of felt sticking out as a nib.) By squeezing the tube, you could increase/decrease the flow of ink, and Fawcett was using his Exacto knife to customize his felt nibs. 

So hang onto those old markers you thought were useless, and see what new life they have in them if you try using them in a different way. Oh, and next week I’m buying the new IPad Pro and starting to practice with that; they have finally produced a nib that you can hold and draw with on it’s side like a pencil!