Category Archives: Rubylith

Discovering John Alcorn: Evolution by Design

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As a birthday gift to myself, I bought a coffee table book titled John Alcorn: Evolution by Design. This is one time when it’s appropriate to call it a gift, since this tribute to possibly the most prolific ’50s-to-’80s-era illustrator shares Alcorn’s gifts with the world – corny, yet true!

Co-authored by Alcorn’s son, Stephen, and design historian Marta Sironi, Evolution by Design succeeds as both a comprehensive career overview and a personal remembrance (Alcorn died in 1992). Packed full of beautifully reproduced original art, this volume was an eye-opener. For someone like me who knew Alcorn from his groovy late ’60s commercial peak (e.g., The Fireside Book of Children’s Songs), the breadth and sheer talent displayed within these pages is nothing short of revelatory. This man was a true artist, always searching for the next horizon to explore. Alcorn started out with New York’s legendary Pushpin Studios, branched out on his own to incredible success in the ’60s, then helped shape America’s visual zeitgeist with a vocabulary of sinuous shapes, natural forms, and wild colors. He wasn’t one to rest on his laurels, however. In the early ’70s, Alcorn and his family uprooted to Italy, where he studied the country’s master painters and craftsmen. He remained astonishingly prolific during this time – becoming a favorite of the iconic film director Federico Fellini, among others – although most of this period’s output never made it to the U.S. Returning to these shores in the late ’70s, Alcorn continued to thrive with a gorgeous, mature style highlighted by a thoughtful attention to detail that never appeared fussy. The book closes out with a chapter devoted to one of the artist’s recurring visual motifs, the blooming flower.

John Alcorn: Evolution by Design was published by Moleskine, the notebook company, in 2013. It can be purchased at the Moleskine website or at Amazon.com.

Illustration projects for Mead papers (left) and The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (right), 1969.

Illustration projects for Mead papers (left) and The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (right), 1969.

Ad campaign for WCAU radio shown alongside their letterpress plates, 1959.

Ad campaign for WCAU radio shown alongside their letterpress plates, 1959.

Cut-paper student work and advertisement, mid-'50s.

Cut-paper student work and advertisement, mid-’50s.

Fruits and vegetables illustrated for Morgan Press and others, 1981-91.

Fruits and vegetables illustrated for Morgan Press and others, 1981-91.

Logo designs for Italian publisher Rizzoli, 1970s.

Logo designs for Italian publisher Rizzoli, 1970s.

Children's book illustrations, 1969.

Children’s book illustrations, 1969.

Various book jacket designs from the late '60s and early '70s.

Various book jacket designs from the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Frank Redlinger’s Jazz-Age West

Frank Redlinger - Grand Canyon color block print, 1933.

Frank Redlinger – Grand Canyon color block print, 1933.

I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, which bills itself as “The West’s Most Western Town.” Although most of my childhood was epitomized by breezy walks to school (half a block from the house!) and being glued to the TV with a box of Cheerios, the town’s quirky fake-Western character also played a part in my development. Scottsdale was still a fairly small town back in the ’70s, with a main drag characterized by wooden-slatted souvenir shops done up like the set of Gunsmoke and a cutout figure of a lasso-toting cowboy. Back then it was just there, but that filtered, sanitized version of history still influences my work – especially the 4 Color Cowboy tumblr.

While outright kitsch definitely has a place at 4 Color Cowboy, I wanted to use it to find artists, movies, music and other projects that use that iconic Western stuff in a different, thought-provoking way. One such discovery was an artist named Frank Redlinger. After coming across his stuff while browsing through the Heritage Auctions site (fantastic place, by the way), I fell in love with his crude, beautiful landscapes, cowboys and other subjects rendered in wood-block prints. The artist maintained studios in two different places (Abilene, Texas and Los Angeles). The only pieces of his I’ve found date from about 1930-35, when he was in his forties. Simple and bold, they look to be inspired by the California Impressionists and Western movie posters from the silent era. He died in Los Angeles, a few days shy of his 66th birthday, in 1951.

Enjoy this little gallery of Frank Redlinger’s work. More can be seen at Heritage Auctions.

Frank Redlinger - Rainbow Arch block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger – Rainbow Arch block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger - On the Prod block print, 1934.

Frank Redlinger – On the Prod block print, 1934.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Desert Caravan block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Desert Caravan block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger - personal Christmas card, 1932.

Frank Redlinger – personal Christmas card, 1932.

Frank Redlinger - Camelback Mtn. block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger – Camelback Mtn. block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger - Action In The Abstract block print, 1933.

Frank Redlinger – Action In The Abstract block print, 1933.

Frank Redlinger - Canyon De Chelly block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger – Canyon De Chelly block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Cowboy Being Bucked Off print, 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Cowboy Being Bucked Off print, 1930s.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Grand Canyon block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Grand Canyon block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Yucca Silhouettes block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Yucca Silhouettes block print, early 1930s.

Look What I Found: Two from Helen Borten

Little Don Pedro (1965) and What Makes Day and Night (1961), illustrated by Helen Borten.

Little Don Pedro (1965) and What Makes Day and Night (1961), illustrated by Helen Borten.

In the annals of vintage kiddie books, the name of Helen Borten is a lesser-known yet beloved one. The Philadelphia-based artist remains well-regarded for the beautifully composed, deceptively simple visuals she made for a series of science-instructional books in the 1960s. Franklyn M. Branley’s What Makes Day and Night is a typically lovely example. While Branley’s text teaches children about the earth’s rotation around the sun in a fun, accessible way, Borten’s illustrations visualize the concepts perfectly. Working with a limited color palette of black, red, and yellow, Borten does fantastic things with composition and texture – parts of it are rendered in a primitive-modern lines, while others have a tactile, woodblock feel. It’s wonderful.

In addition to science books, Ms. Borten illustrated across a wide swath of subjects. I wasn’t aware of this, however, which made it a special delight when coming across the story of Little Don Pedro by Helen Holland Graham. This 1965 effort revolves around a timid Mexican boy who bravely faces off against an escaped bull in his tiny village. Four years on from What Makes Day and Night, we find Borten continuing the clever use of limited colors (here, green joins the solid red-yellow-black family), while the subject matter brings out a looser style. I love this stuff! In 1968, she authored and illustrated a lovely looking book on animals, The Jungle, which is on my to-get list.

As far as I can tell, Ms. Borten is still active. Although she apparently left illustration behind for a successful career change into producing radio documentaries, hopefully she has some awareness of how well-regarded her art continues to be.

Source: Fishink – Helen Borten A Creative And Illustrative Genius. (July 5, 2012)

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Look What I Found: The Fairest One of All

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With 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney took a gamble that audiences would sit still for a feature-length animated film – he won, magnificently. What showed up on screen as a sweet, pleasant fairy tale involved massive amounts of labor, second-guessing, fine-tuning, and pruning away of excess story. All of this is detailed by Disney historian J. B. Kaufman in his 2012 book The Fairest One of All, which satisfies as both a thorough production history and a lovely, large-format tribute to this still-influential animated icon.

Snow White certainly had a huge impact on my young mind when I saw a reissue screening in the ’70s (maybe the earliest movie I remember seeing?). In that darkened theater, I swooned to Snow White’s untouched beauty, cowered in terror at the Wicked Witch, and laughed along with Dopey and the other dwarfs. Being a little kid, when it was over I wanted more. Later on, my mother indulged me with the Disney storybook record album (the one with the purple cover), which got heavy play on the family turntable. To this day, the sound of Adriana Caselotti’s trilling makes me smile. The movie pretty much turned me into an artist, an old movie buff, and a full-on Disney freak – three in one!

Since Snow is so personally dear to me, I had extremely high expectations for The Fairest One of All. Surprisingly, the book ended up outdoing those high expectations – Kaufman truly knows his Snow White history, and it’s efficiently laid out in this beautifully designed volume. After a few chapters detailing the history of the Grimm Brothers’ source tale and the various pre-Disney stage and film renditions, Kaufman comprehensively goes through the film, scene-by-scene, explaining how they came to be. As a straightforward chronological history, having it arranged in the order the story is told reveals a ton of fascinating episodes which might have been lost the other way. It may even be too detailed for all but die-hard Snow White buffs. Kaufman’s research is so incredible, however, and it’s written in an accessible style. I devoured sections discussing scenes that were significantly tweaked (such as the prince’s introduction), painstakingly re-animated (the dwarfs coming home from the mine), or eliminated entirely (scenes with the dwarfs eating soup and building a bed for Snow White; a dream sequence meant to accompany “Someday My Prince Will Come”). Every single frame in this film got analyzed to a degree that’s never been attempted before or since. If anything, this book is a tribute to Walt Disney’s high standards and attention to detail.

J. B. Kaufman recently published another, similar comprehensive history on Disney’s follow-up film, Pinocchio. You can bet it’s on my wish list. The Fairest One of All was published by the Walt Disney Family Foundation Press in 2012. It can be purchased here at Amazon.com.

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Look What I Found: Sing for America (1944)

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Early this year, I resolved to buy myself a fascinating older book full of nice illustrations, a la James Beard’s Fireside Cook Book or The Fireside Book of Children’s Songs, in an effort to expand my library within an affordable price range. Five months in, I’ve broken the $15-a-pop ceiling a few times and even bought some newer (yet beautifully illustrated) books. I thought vaguely of combining every monthly book into one long, huge post at the end of the year, but my sensible spouse encouraged me to write about them one at a time. Good thinking. So, I’m now presenting the acquisition for May — Sing for America, a patriotic 1944 songs-and-history volume with artwork by the great Swedish artist Gustaf Tenggren.

Sing for America came out during a transitional period for Tenggren, when he was moving from traditional, fairy tale-inspired styles to a modern, color-saturated sensibility. This was a book meant for young people to appreciate America’s developing musical heritage, with Wheeler’s silly, fictionalized text alongside sheet music for songs like “My Old Kentucky Home.” A few of the illustrations delve into Politically Incorrect territory, but being Tenggren they are all fantastically done – with a stylized zest that conveys this Swedish immigrant’s fascination with Americana (the artist lived in the U.S. for twenty-plus years at this point, and would remain here until his death in 1970). Coming immediately after his stint as a concept artist for the Disney studios, one can see the Disney influence rubbing off on these pieces (along with the vintage Little Golden Books feel used on projects like Tenggren’s The Poky Little Puppy). In 127 pages, Tenggren contributes everything from lavish, beautifully composed full-pages in living color, to stylish, Deco-ish spot illustrations, to the whimsical endpapers with American children of various races and historical periods.

Sing for America was published by E. P. Dutton & Co. in 1944, apparently in a single edition. It’s out of print, but copies can be obtained pretty affordably at sites like AbeBooks.com.

"The Old Oaken Bucket"

“The Old Oaken Bucket”


"America the Beautiful"

“America the Beautiful”


"Jingle Bells"

“Jingle Bells”


"Sing for America" title page spread.

“Sing for America” title page spread.


"Home on the Range"

“Home on the Range”


"Sing for America" endpaper detail.

“Sing for America” endpaper detail.

Introducing Whimsy, Inc.

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Last Christmas, my spouse gave me a nice new Wacom drawing tablet. Regrettably, I hadn’t been using it very much. Just like physical exercise, however, artists need to draw and create on a regular basis to keep their skills strong. Besides, here I was hitting my late ’40s with not much to show for my decade-plus efforts at becoming a bona fide illustrator. In order to do that, I need to illustrate – even if it’s solely for my own enjoyment. With all that in mind, I started a Tumblr blog called Whimsy, Inc.. The premise is simple: setting aside an hour or so each week, I draw something – an animal, a cartoon, or perhaps a portrait of an actor I saw in a movie.

It’s funny – I’m getting to the point where I routinely become very jealous and bitter every time I see or hear about a successful illustrator. Wallowing in regret does more harm than good, however. There’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of failed experiments, a lot of promotion, and a lot of dedication behind every individual who manages to carve out a name for themselves in this highly competitive field. Anyone who can actually make a living off that earns my highest admiration. Real illustrators don’t sit around and whine… real illustrators do stuff.

Eight weeks into Whimsy, Inc., I find that I’m using a variety of materials but generally I’m sticking with improving my digital drawing skills, composition and color. In addition to the Wacom tablet (which I still haven’t gotten the hang of), I downloaded a set of Photoshop gouache brushes which have been a lot of fun to use.

"Wiggle" digital drawing for Illustration Friday.

“Wiggle” digital drawing for Illustration Friday.


Portrait of Merle Oberon in Lydia (1941).

Portrait of Merle Oberon in Lydia (1941).


Backyard scene of our dog, using colors from an Eyvind Earle study.

Backyard scene of our dog, using colors from an Eyvind Earle study.


Portrait of Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).

Portrait of Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).