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)
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”
“America the Beautiful”
“Sing for America” title page spread.
“Home on the Range”
“Sing for America” endpaper detail.
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.
Portrait of Merle Oberon in Lydia (1941).
Backyard scene of our dog, using colors from an Eyvind Earle study.
Portrait of Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).
Last weekend, while cleaning out excess stuff in our garage, I came across this forgotten little acrylic-on-board study I once did back in the ’90s. Although the piece is somewhat derivative of Anthony Russo‘s art, it still appeals to what I’m continuing to strive for in art, and in life: simplicity. When doing art, the temptation is to keep adding on and adding on, when the most effective art (to me) continue to be the pieces that communicate an idea in just a few brush strokes or pen marks. Unfortunately, that concept is easier to think about than to actually do… but I keep trying.
That whole idea of whittling down a drawing to its essence also came to mind when I was perusing the illustrations for a piece of vintage paper ephemera that C. recently acquired. The imagery below comes from a booklet published by the Melamine Council to promote the proper use of plastic dinnerware. It might have been a lost cause in the ’50s and ’60s, trying to make these common household items look elegant and sophisticated, but in the context of this brochure it actually works – beautifully. The uncredited artist (or artists) did a masterful job of paring down the ideas of stylish living, feminine beauty, and cleanliness into simple – yet never simplistic – illustration.
John Alcorn “Birds & Beasts” illustration, 1966.
Browsing my contacts’ uploads at Pinterest, I was taken by some sweet, eye-catching art from illustrator John Alcorn. The imagery came from a 1966 book, The Fireside Book of Children’s Songs (which I tracked down – thank you, eBay). As someone who loves art inspired by that funky, stylish Push Pin Studios aesthetic, this volume was a winner. The 192-page book is a simple concept, presenting sheet music for classic kiddie singalongs such as “There Was An Old Lady” and “Did You Ever See A Lassie?” The retro display fonts and Alcorn’s inventive artwork complement the songs in a cute, very ’60s-patchwork kinda way.
Alcorn’s folksy, whimsical art made him a very active man in the ’60s and ’70s – his art graces the fabulous packaging for Eve cigarettes, for one. The Fireside project must have been a huge endeavor for him; just about every page is packed with drawings printed in hot pink, mustard gold and burnt orange. The sampling of pages pictured here nicely represent the book’s art, and yet I might break out the scanner and put some more on my flickr account. There’s a veritable bushel-full of wild, fun, inspirational imagery in here, which makes me happy I bought it.
The Fireside Book of Children’s Songs.
“The Animal Song”
“Good Morning and Good Night”
“All Through The Night”
“The World Turned Upside Down”
Endpapers, A Mary Blair Treasury of Golden Books (2012).
Shortly after being gifted with a nice, hefty Amazon gift card last month (thank you, Mom and Dad), the beautiful hardback collection A Mary Blair Treasury of Golden Books was the first thing I ended up choosing. While the immensely talented Mary Blair (1911-1978) is perhaps best known for her involvement with Walt Disney’s films and theme park attractions, she actually had a successful non-Disney career as an illustrator in the ’50s and ’60s. Treasury draws from this aspect of Blair’s art, reprinting the colorful, charming work she did for the Little Golden Book company. Along with a brief intro from animation historian John Canemaker, the book includes the full contents of four of her beloved Golden books – Baby’s House (1950), I Can Fly (1950), The Golden Book of Little Verses (1953), and The Up and Down Book (1964). Well-chosen selections from a fifth book, The New Golden Song Book (1955), are also included.
The first thing about A Mary Blair Treasury of Golden Books that struck me was how physically big it is – pages that were originally published in the classic, kid-sized Little Golden Books format are enlarged here by roughly a third. Another pleasant surprise is that much of the artwork is sourced from Blair’s original paintings, rendered in brilliant gouache. It really allows artsy nerds to get in there and study her technique. A few of the I Can Fly pages are lesser-quality scans from book pages, but at least they look as nice as they can (no noticeable moiré patterns or off-set colors). The artwork is pretty nifty, overall. I particularly enjoyed the pages from The Up and Down Book, since it shows her experimenting with a more graphic, simplified (yet still quintessentially Mary Blair-ish) style. Her work from the Golden Song Book is also notable for its wonderful intricacies and the skillful way some of it employs just two colors.
Paging through A Mary Blair Treasury of Golden Books makes it obvious why she continues to inspire artists and craftspeople. The book is available here (at a good price, I must add) at Amazon.com.