26 November 2016

[art] Jon Gnagy: He Made The World of TV Safe For Bob Ross

The tradition of the TV art instructor, as it turns out, goes back about as far as TV itself does.

A name I haven't heard up until recently was Jon Gnagy (which I believe would be prounced NAH-djee, and I say this because I knew a kid in Jr. High named Zoltan Nagy, which is Gnagy without the G, and is pretty much the most kick-ass name I've ever heard), but back in the dawn of the electronic hearth, he was the television art instructor.

I can find out very little about him. He was, as the legend I've heard tell, an art store owner and teacher from New Jersey and a TV drawing lesson taught by him was the first TV program broadcast from the then-new transmission tower on top of the Empire State Building, in 1946 or thereabouts. He had two series, You Are An Artist and Learn to Draw, each telecasting an easy-to-follow, 15-minute art lesson that resulted in a fairly realistic picture. Watching him is kind of like watching a proto-Bob Ross: even-tempered voice, clear articulation, friendly mien while constantly working on and explaining the drawing he was doing and hoped you'd follow along. His lessons are on YouTube. Here's one:

Nice, friendly approach, encouraging, easygoing, beckoning. It's said that Gnagy influenced quite a few people to try, amongst them, Andy Warhol; he grew quite popular during the 50s and 60s, just as Bob Ross does now, selling art supply kits and books with his smiling visage.

It might surprise one to find that Gnagy's book, Learn to Draw, is still available. I found a vintage copy at Powell's City'o'Books last week and got a good look at the bones of his method. Very basic, eminently followable, very accessable. Here's the book itself:

It's a slender book with a lot to give. Gnagy lets us in on the secret of realistic drawing … it's shading. Which makes sense: shading turns flat forms into masses. And the demonstration is succinct as well as informative:

He points out the difference between 'primitive' and 'realistic' drawing here:

And, just inside the front cover, words of wisdom and encouragement. Gnagy, too, was of the opinion that art was for everyone to try, that everyone had a bit of an artist in them, and a satisfying life could be had if you encouraged that artist to come out and play.

The recommended material list was very modest. A dark gray carbon pencil (not graphite), a light gray carbon pencil, black chalk, and paper stumps or tissues for blending. Anyone could take a whack at this.

So, when you load up a video of your favorite TV art instructor, be he Bob Ross or Bill Alexander or whomever you prefer, have a  moment of respect for Jon Gnagy. He created the form at the dawn of television; just add personality and your own media. Instant artistic magic.

Here's something else to see: Jon Gnagy's official website, http://www.jongnagyart.com. Contains links to 10 of his video lessons, other online lessons, and access to information on how to get Jon Gnagy producs (which are still produced by the Martin/F. Weber company, stalwart supplier to public TV art instructors for decades, apparently).

And something else, too: A page by a fan that has a lot of interesting Gnagyana including a video at the bottom with another Gnagy drawing lesson (including an intro to his drawing program where we learn he prnounces his name NAY-gee) and an ad that proves he was at one time broadcast by KPTV: http://www.jeffs60s.com/jon-gnagy.php.

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