Sunday, May 10, 2009

Family tree

This crazy thing is a project mapping my influences in the area of illustration. It ended up feeling like a kind of family tree. I couldn't narrow my immediate influences down to fewer than four major artists: the brilliant illustrator and color designer Mary Blair, the Modernist graphic designer and illustrator Paul Rand, the children's book author and illustrator Richard Scarry, and the comic strip cartoonist Lynn Johnston.

Mary Blair, the illustrator whose work I admire most, was a Disney artist whose brilliant color design changed the entire look of Disney animation, and whose clever designs and coloring has influenced generations of illustrators. She did children's books, animation, and commercial work. Beginning one branch of my "tree," Blair was a student of Pruett Carter, a prominent Los Angeles magazine illustrator and teacher whose work is also full of color. Following that branch of the tree -- Carter studied under Walter Biggs, a magazine illustrator whose Impressionistic style of commercial and editorial illustration won him rare full-color assignments from many major magazines, like Harper's, Redbook, and Good Housekeeping. Biggs studied under the renowned poster artist Edward Penfield, and Penfield studied under the painter George de Forest Brush, who was known for his scenes of Native American life. Brush was a student of Jean-Léon Gérôme, a French painter mainly of historical subjects, portraits, and scenes from Greek mythology. And this branch of the tree ends with Paul Delaroche, an immensely popular 19th-C. French painter who liked to render dramatic scenes, religious subjects, and the people and events of his time

A second branch begins with Richard Scarry, whose whimsical drawings of anthropomorphic animals are loved by kids all over the world. You probably remember poring over his enormous, detailed board books when you were a kid -- they usually didn't have plots, but instead consisted of visual lists of the people, places, and things that Scarry liked to draw. Scarry was a great admirer of another children's book author and illustrator who drew animals: Beatrix Potter. Potter in turn had been a great fan of A. B. Frost's illustrations for Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories. Frost had been a student of the great Golden Age illustrator and teacher Howard Pyle, and Pyle, although he was largely self-taught, is believed to have been influenced by the work of Felix Darley, whose books were always present in the Pyle household when Howard Pyle was a child.

The graphic designer and illustrator Paul Rand begins a third branch of my influences. His innovative manner of combining color, image, and text in simple but beautiful designs (often using cut paper instead of paint or ink) has had a great impact on western design, especially illustration and commercial design. Following this branch -- Rand was influenced by the poster artist Adolphe Cassandre, whose work shows the influence of Cubism and Expressionism, and who is well known for his commercial illustration work and for the typefaces he developed. Cassandre was influenced by Picasso, the co-founder of the Cubist movement, and there is a strong connection between Picasso and the painter el Greco, who was a forefather of both Cubism and Expressionism. El Greco was likely a student of Titian while in Venice; at the very least, he knew Titian and was an admirer of his work. And Titian, of course, was a student of the High Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini, whose rich, deep colors -- achieved by using slow-drying paints -- transformed western painting.

The fourth and final branch includes a contemporary cartoonist, Lynn Johnston. Johnston writes and draws the syndicated comic strip "For Better or For Worse," which has been appearing in daily newspapers nationwide since 1979. Stylistically, my own work might be more similar to Johnston's than it is to any other artist's (and I wish my work were as good!). Her pen and ink drawings fascinated me when I was growing up, and I admire them even more today. With equal aptitude for character design, storytelling, and comedy, Johnston seems to inspire artists and non-artists alike. One of her major influences is the cartoonist Carl Barks, who worked for Disney for many years and created the Scrooge McDuck character (as well as many other characters from the town of Duckburg, Calisota!). Barks' pen and ink drawing style influenced many cartoonists, and continues to do so. Barks' main influence was the animation pioneer and cartoonist Winsor McCay, creator of the immeasurably influential "Little Nemo in Slumberland" comic strip. McCay's influence was his teacher John Goodison, a glass stainer and college art instructor. Little is known about Goodison, but his instruction is thought to have aided the development of Winsor McCay's understanding of value and his striking use of color.

Surey this has been brutally boring for those who aren't art history buffs or illustrators, but I learned a lot while doing it, and I really recommend this exercise to visual artists. For me it really provided some insight into the history of illustration in the west, and into the work of the many artists to whom I owe a debt. If you do it, post it and send me a link!


  1. Huh, I've never thought about mapping out the artists/illustrators who have influenced me. Cool idea. Nice to find another illustrator!

  2. MME, I had a hard time choosing four immediate influences, but had to do it to keep the project from getting really out of control!