08 September 2016

[cartoonists] Andrew Loomis: The Greatest American Artist You Never Heard Of

We've all heard of practitioners of art called "The (Professional)'s (Professional)". You all know. Everyone has their idea of The Actor's Actor, the Author's Author, the Painter's Painter.

What seems to go with that remit is a degree of elite practice and not more than a little obscurity, sadly. Everyone loves Tom Cruise, for example, but who does he think's better than him? That's a bit more unclear.

Loomis by Loomis
(from the last page
Fun With A Pencil)
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, one of the most inspirational artists in America was a commercial artist named Andrew Loomis. Chances are, very few people reading this have ever heard of him. But he was major in that 'artist's Artist' way, and inspired a lot of people. The online biographical information on him, given the reputation I've begun to see him have, is almost unforgivably impoverished. And that, to me is a shame.

His thumbnail bio could look something like this: He was born in 1892 and spent his early years as an artist at the Art Students League in NYC and the Art Institute of Chicago under the tutelage and influence of some of the greatest artists of the day. After spending time in the US Army during WWI, he emerged to work in commercial art for a couple of major ad agencies in Chicago contributing to just about every well-known brand name at the time including Kellogg's and Coca-Cola, eventually opening his own studio in Chicago. By 1938, he had found his way to southern California, opening a studio there. It is as an art teacher, though, that he's found his lasting niche in American art history and enduring influence in American artistic culture.

Today he is remembered for authoring a line of beloved how-to illustration self-instruction manuals. Books with names like Fun With a Pencil, Figure Drawing for All It's Worth, and Creative Illustration are cherished memories and sought-after collectors items, since they were largely out of print by the last quarter of the 20th Century. But his influence, though nearly invisible to the modern day artist, informs that school of artistic practice that became comic book illustration; the most famous exponent of that style, Alex Ross, an Eisner and NCS award-winning artist whose work has been described as Norman-Rockwell-meets-George-Perez, even went on to edit I'd Love To Draw, Loomis' 'lost' work. You, the aspiring artist, may have seen his work in old illustrations of those slender, folio-sized Walter Foster how-to books that are also increasingly becoming collectors items (I found a vintage copy of the WF version of Figure Drawing for All It's Worth at Powell's Books recently, originally priced at about $1.00, selling for $45!), or as illustrations in Foster's recompiled lines of recent years, without even knowing it.

Those who've missed his work or remember the books fondly or need to be introduced to his work in such terms have had to go without for a very long time, due to the unavailability of those very works. That drought, happily, has come to an end; between 2010 and 2014, Titan Books have reissued his most famous works, including the aforementioned Fun With a A Pencil, Figure Drawing For All It's Worth, Creative Illustration and even I'd Love To Draw. Over the next two days I plan on publishing reviews of Fun With a Pencil and I'd Love To Draw; as an introduction, they are his texts for those aspriational artists hoping to learn the basics.

I've spent more time than I expected getting to know these works; they are not thick and ponderous but incredibly rich and thorough; imagine stumbling into an orchard where the fruits of all the trees are all so good and easy to reach you can't get started for the embarrassment of choice you have. Both the books are imbued with a warmth and wit and a sense of humor which, though it may approach cornball to the modern wit, is no less memorable for the earnestness and charm it carries.

Andrew Loomis's work is foundational in modern American art. You have the high modern quality of American comic book art, and the inspiration it's provided further artists, as proof of this; his is the giant's shoulders that quite a few modern artists stand upon.

Next up: Loomis' beginner's text, Fun With a Pencil. 

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