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« Clip for the Day | Main | Immigration Elsewhere »

January 02, 2007

Nine Heads Tall

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Some commercial art careers are like meteors -- a brief streak of brilliance followed by ... nothing.

Most commercial artists toil in the obscurity of the big side of the 20-80 rule, at best finding local notoriety. That prospect and a distinct lack of talent led me, after college, to totally different fields.

For those on the 20 side of the split (actually more like the 2 side of a 2-98 "rule"), the best and likely worst thing that can happen is to become fashionable. The artist will earn buckets of money. He'll exhibit the distinctive style that viewers expect from him. Eventually his audience will tire of his schtick, commissions will dry up and he'll be fortunate if he didn't spend all those bucks he used to earn.

John Held, Jr. was a "meteor." Famed for his "flapper" cartoons of the 1920s Jazz Age, his career slumped dramatically in the 30s and beyond.

RPatterson -JHeldJr.gif

Not so the career of another flapper-monger, Russell Patterson (1893-1977). "Short skirts went out, long skirts came in. John couldn't draw long skirts so Russell Patterson took his work away from him." So said Al Hirschfeld.

I had largely forgotten about Patterson in recent years (though I was familiar with his work) and was pleasantly surprised when I spied the following book at the downtown Seattle Barnes & Noble.

RPatterson - book.jpg

(An oddity: I found links to an Amazon listing via Google, but could not locate it using Amazon's search tool.)

Patterson was born in Iowa, raised in Canada, studied art for a while in Chicago and Paris, and at age 30 found himself doing commercial art drudge work while flopping as a Fine Artist. Seeing the success of Held and other cartoonists and recalling a certain Parisian model, he used her as the prototype for a different take on flapperdom. Success was rapid and long-term -- continuing at a high level for 20 years before tapering off in the 50s and early 60s.

Long-term success in commercial art usually requires adjusting to stylistic modes. In Patterson's case, he switched from using pens for line-work to the brushwork that seemed nearly universal in the late 30s and into the 40s.

One thing that didn't change was his subject-matter -- leggy women. His approach was to stretch the female form to 8 1/2 or 9 heads tall from the normal 7 1/2 or so -- proportions typically used by fashion illustrators.

Another Patterson trait was using blocks of black to aid composition, tying the bits tighter. This was aided by the fact that, in the 20s, men often dressed in formal wear -- their dark clothing serving as the binder. I couldn't find a really good example on the Web that was shaggable, so here is a link to a picture associated with many dire warnings dealing with copyrights.

True, Russell Patterson's work isn't in the same class as etchings by Duerer or Rembrandt. But I like his stuff. It's fun!!


RPatterson - 1.jpg

RPatterson - 6.jpg

RPatterson - 7.jpg
Patterson was also good with crowd scenes and did them fairly often. This takes some thought, because each person should be doing something natural -- looking or talking to someone else, dealing with an incidental task or, in the case of the girl towards the bottom, staring at the viewer. Also note his compositional use of black areras.

RPatterson - Mamie.jpg
This is from his 40s "Mamie" strip. By this time he had switched from pen to brush for linework.



posted by Donald at January 2, 2007


Fun indeed! I knew nothing of Patterson -- thanks for the intro to him. I like his poodle in the gals-reading-newspaper pic too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 2, 2007 4:11 PM

All the men are at least 50 something and by the look of them about to keel over from high blood pressure induced strokes.
All the women are supremely healthy nubile 20 somethings.
I wonder how representative this was of the times? Or was it just an artistic convention when portraying metropolitan night life?

Posted by: ricpic on January 2, 2007 5:44 PM

Love that little gal looking at the viewer! Eloquent!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 2, 2007 11:49 PM

"I couldn't find a really good example on the Web that was shaggable".

They all look shaggable to me, mate!

Posted by: Graham Asher on January 3, 2007 3:41 PM

John Held, Jr. - he's the one who did the woodcut-style illustrations for the barroom songbook "My Pious Friends and Drunken Companions", isn't he? I have my father's old (reprint) copy of that book, and it's just now hit me how old the original must be.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on January 3, 2007 5:02 PM

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