Robert Fawcett: On Artistic Integrity... and Making a Living

A recent comment on an old Robert Fawcett post:

"What a great teacher was Robert Fawcett, even for those who never had the privilege of being personally instructed by him. His understanding of the nature of art as expressed in "On the Art of Drawing" has been an inspiration for many, for he wrote with the same degree of grace and passion with which he drew. Much of his work was for magazine stories and advertising beneath his talents but the grandeur of vision that he brought transforms these works. Take for instance his John Hancock advertisement “where he walked, freedom grew... “, the low perspective and the sombre tones make it a little masterpiece. I heartily endorse the call for a publication about him and his work."

While I can only agree with the commentor's praise for Fawcett and his work, that remark about him doing work for magazine stories and advertising that was "beneath his talents" makes me cranky.

I'm in agreement that Fawcett elevated the quality of his assignments with his exceptional, thoughtful, sincere devotion to doing only his best work (not for no reason was he known as "the illustrator's illustrator"). But why must we consider most story assignments or ad projects "beneath him" - or anyone, for that matter? This statement suggests that there is a better class of illustrators too good to do crass commercial art intended only to help sell base products and services to the unwashed masses.

Fawcett himself seems to have agreed at least to some extent with that notion. In a 1946 interview in American Artist magazine Fawcett said, "It should be the aim of every illustrator to withstand the tendency of publications to force his work into a mould, to make him conform to an accepted pattern. This is a difficult thing to do - the financial rewards are great. But I am convinced that this is the short view. We must be ready to refuse work unless it allows us to conform in some degree to standards we ourselves set, and the result should add life and character to the printed page that would surprise the most skeptical art editor."

"Refuse work"?! Huh! Spoken like someone who never had to live through a recession, eh?

Of course the key words in Fawcett's statement were "...unless it allows us to conform in some degree to standards we ourselves set..."

That to me is Fawcett's way of hedging his bets. I don't blame him one bit. "Some degree" is a very flexible unit of measurement - even for a Robert Fawcett.

There's an essay or introduction or something (I can't seem to lay my hands on it at the moment) that Robert Fawcett wrote wherein he blasted the ad agency culture that only calls in an illustrator after all the conceptualizing on a campaign has been done. If given the opportunity to contribute from the inception of the concept, argues Fawcett, the illustrator wouldn't end up doing nothing more than rendering his style over some art director's horridly designed layouts. He's not the first illustrator that felt that way. But I'd be surprised if he didn't try to find "some degree" of standards he could live with for the kind of money the agencies paid.

Part of being a professional is rising to the challenge of making silk purses out of sows' ears. No illustrator should ever think this task is beneath them, nor should any admirer of illustrators. Visual problem solving is the cornerstone of what we do... more often than not, its dirty work. As professionals we have a duty to roll up our sleeves and attack it with gusto. Ultimately, like Fawcett, we may elevate the ordinary into something extraordinary... and in the process reward ourselves, our clients and the public by demonstrating that illustration is the best way to "add life and character to the printed page."

* The commentor's wish comes true this spring when a new book on Robert Fawcett is expected from Auad Publishing!

* Thanks to Chuck Pyle for the scan at the top of this post.

* My Robert Fawcett Flickr set.

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