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Category Archives: Illustration

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: 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).

The Drew Struzan Effect

Boris Karloff as the Mummy, 2012.

Being a person who avidly looks forward to any and all documentaries on artists and illustrators, the DVD release Drew: The Man Behind the Poster came as a welcome sight. Erik Sharkey’s flawed but very interesting 2012 doc acquaints us with the iconic ’80s movie artist Drew Struzan. If you see that name and think “Drew who?,” perhaps a list of his most memorable posters will ring a bell – Star Wars. Back to the Future. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The Muppet Movie. The Goonies. The Thing. Blade Runner. Police Academy!

While Drew: The Man Behind the Poster tends to get too superficial at times, it’s a worthwhile and admiring portrait. Director Erik P. Sharkey got an impressive array of Hollywood types to sing Struzan’s praises, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Michael J. Fox, Guillermo Del Toro, Thomas Jane, and Frank Darabont. The film opens with a documentary cliché that I particularly loathe – the endless montage of people fawning over the subject – a sequence which would undoubtedly make the laid-back Struzan cringe. The following 90 minutes, however, establish Struzan as an unassuming regular-guy with an extraordinary gift for rendering movie stars with the right balance of painterly expression and fairy dust.

Drew: The Man Behind the Poster was made from the point of view of a movie fan wanting to dig deeper into the guy behind moviedom’s most iconic posters – from an artist’s perspective, it’s something of a letdown. The best sequences have Struzan discussing his start in the funky ’70s L.A. art scene, including his early album covers for Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper and others. Another good sequence has Struzan and Charles White III gabbing about their collaboration on the famous Star Wars retro-look poster (I also loved the part with Struzan and an obviously grateful Lucas together, perusing the Star Wars art). One amazing thing that comes across is how prolific he was, often re-doing completed artwork from scratch without breaking a sweat (the adding of Mary Steenburgen to the Back to the Future Part III poster is the standout in that regard). As is befitting a film that climaxes at San Diego Comic Con, however, you have to wade through a lot of puffery to get to the meat. This blog post by illustrator Jed Alexander explains that frustration pretty well, along with providing some primo examples of work from Struzan and his contemporaries.

While The Man Behind the Poster never strays far from being a simple celebration of Drew and his art, there is a little bitterness around the edges. The subtext of this movie is basically “Why did they stop making posters like Drew’s?” Sadly, even in the case of an über-talented artist like Struzan, Hollywood has moved on from using illustrators (by and large) for marketing their stuff. After all, it’s easier for a studio to exert control over a Photoshopped montage of movie star heads floating in the sky. If that turn of events affected the mellow Struzan, it doesn’t show as he’s seen in the film having a comfortable semi-retirement – painting his own subjects and enjoying quality time with his family.

For this write-up, a review copy of Drew: The Man Behind the Poster was supplied by the folks at Kino Lorber. You can buy a copy of this DVD at Kino’s site, or at Amazon.com.

Blade Runner re-release poster art, 2003.

Adventures in Babysitting poster detail, 1987.

Ladyhawke limited-release poster art, 1985.

Sahara poster art detail, 1983.

Sketch for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade poster concept, 1989.

Hellboy special edition art, 2004.

The Goonies poster art detail, 1985.

James Beard’s Fireside Cook Book


Love at first sight? This Brain Pickings blog post celebrates 1948’s James Beard’s Fireside Cook Book, the collaboration between chef and simple foods advocate James Beard and legendary children’s book illustrators Alice and Martin Provensen. The fanciful artwork in that post prompted another episode where I had to get my own copy (and, since I hadn’t owned anything else done by the beloved Provensens, it was a no-brainer).

The book certainly wasn’t a disappointment. With just about every one of its 300 pages containing artwork of some kind, this must have been a major undertaking for the Provensens. I’m talking huge – several full-color artworks on full pages and spreads, along with a few hundred smaller drawings that cleverly use black with a single color (over 400 illustrations in all, according to the title page). Similar in spirit to Charley Harper’s work on the Betty Crocker Dinner for Two Cook Book, the Provensen’s delightful whimsy makes every page sing. I photographed just a few of the highlights for this post and dropped them in my Flickr Cool Vintage Illustration set (click on the photos for a better look).

Aside from the terrific art, Fireside benefits from the timeless recipes and advice of James Beard (1903-1985), a proponent of fresh cooking and non-processed ingredients in American cuisine. This book must have filled a huge need for people in the post-World War II era eager to return to simple, elegant dining.

Simon and Shuster has frequently kept James Beard’s Fireside Cook Book in print over the years, renaming it The Fireside Cookbook in 1982. The current edition adds a new introduction, but it appears to have the wonderful art reproduced in black and white (why??). Vintage copies are still obtainable at a decent price, however (my copy is an eighth hardback printing). Click here to purchase at Amazon.com.

Circus Poles

Cyrk poster, Bohdan Bocianowsk, 1971.

This circus poster, created by Polish artist Bohdan Bocianowski in 1971, will soon be a new addition at 4 Color Cowboy. That image perfectly encapsulates the 4 Color Cowboy aesthetic – a glitzy, once-removed version of the classic American Western themes.

I actually found a ton of great Polish circus poster designs on the web – pieces striking in their bold colors, simplified imagery, and lack of text. While the Polish artwork on ’60s-’80s era film posters is justifiably celebrated, these circus design were totally new – and inspiring – to me. I love how the various artists incorporated the single work “Cyrk” and found unusual ways of depicting typical circus animals. Funky! I chose some of the bolder, critter-oriented designs to share here.

Wiktor Gorka, 1969.

Wiktor Gorka, c. 1968.

Wiktor Gorka, 1970s.