The Abbett Illustration Technique
Source: Robert Abbett Illustrator
By Frederic Whitaker ~ American Artist Magazine ~ June 1965
better part of illustrator Robert K. Abbett's commissions are covers for
paperback publications. The remaining fourth includes magazine and book
illustration, as for Readers Digest, sports illustrations, and advertising
art as exemplified by posters for cinema theatres. At least ninety-five
per cent of his illustrations are in color.
In beginning a new job, Abbett first gives a good deal
of thought to a suitable method of presentation. Then he begins the preparation
of layout sketches, in pencil , on white paper, developing his composition
on successive sheets of tracing paper until he is satisfied with the arrangement.
The tracing paper routine saves time in moving already-drawn figures from
place to place. The layout work represents a relatively slow stage, for
many sketches may be required -- sometimes a day's work for a single illustration.
Penciled figures average six inches in height. They are drawn in straight
or simply-curved lines without detail of any kind. A man's trousers and
sleeves, for example, might show nothing more than smooth tubes, while
his dead would be represented by an oval. These are actually action sketches,
made for the artist's benefit only. Abbett is modest about them, almost
apologetic, saying: "These sketches are horrible. I throw them away on
the completion of each job so others will not see them." Actually, they
are excellent and very important.
With the layout settled, he then begins the "comp." This
is drawn on illustration board, about the size of the finished reproduction,
in black ink line, with a brush. Even the handle is used to register heavy
accents in the line and any other desired dark passages. Then, deciding
on the overall hue for the work, he flows a tinted ink wash of color over
the whole sheet, with a brush about two inches wide, in a value about half-way
between white and black. This is painted freely to avoid an appearance
of tightness or slickness in the finished work. Working up and down from
this middle value, after the wash is dry, he paints in the general composition
in hits natural colors with casein, but loosely, so that the base color
will show through in spots. In the one example I followed closely, the
ground shade was a strong violet, which normally would seem unpromising,
though the finished "comp" was convincing, pleasing and vibrant. Abbett
reserves the right to change from his original plan up until the last minute.
In this particular case, the bare violet background areas were found to
be too assertive for the rest of the picture, so he toned them down with
a muted red. In painting the subject, he first registers what is to be
the lightest light; the black ink already shows through as the darkest
red, so all other values are set down in their proper relation to these
Occasionally, oil color is used rather than casein, but
in either case the painting method is essentially the same. With oil, the
background color is really a loose wash of pigment, thinned down with turpentine.
These comprehensives are painted in exactly the same manner
as the finishes that follow. Thus, the art director can see virtually the
exact effect to be finally achieved. Though executed methodically, according
to a carefully conceived plan, the finished appearance of the "comp" suggests
a painting brought about without effort. Abbett feels that such apparent
on the part of the artist inspires confidence in the mind
of the art director. After all, as he points out, "The client shouldn't
be expected to worry about the artist's travail." The "comp" may grow out
to a size larger than needed, but this is deliberately encouraged, for
it gives Abbett, using an exact size mat, an opportunity to move it about
upon the painting and thus finally select the most nearly perfect arrangement.
Finishes are painted about twice the size of the "comp" and the printed
Abbett has been working on twenty-three covers for a
Tarzan series. Specifications demanded that the the pictures should
differ from each other as much as possible in over-all color appearance.
His heavy foundation-color technique helped in this respect, and the desired
effects were further emphasized by contrasting colors used in the title
If described by an exhibition jury; his paintings would
generally be called strong, or even powerful -- qualities necessary for
attention-getting in small-scale format. He cannot tolerate the banal,
and strives for individual quality in each work. He has a great feeling
for mood, atmospheric as well as conceptual, or that brought about by unusual
color combinations. What he considers to be another dimension in illustration
is action which naturally, in a painting, can only be suggested. His facility
in this department proves to be a most valuable asset.
Like most illustrators, Abbett works largely from photographs
-- about the only means by which one can record suspended action and afford
the use of professional models and all -- and he takes most of his own
photos. But there is noting of the photographic in the appearance of his
paintings. His portraits are outstanding, and this refers, not to standard
portraiture for individual clients, but portraits for commercial illustration.
In a most artistic and vigorous way, and without reaching over into caricature,
he imbues his subjects with memorable character.
His illustrations for advertising are often done in black
ink line, though never with a pen, since Abbett seems to have an instinctive
aversion to its stiff point. HIs drawing is always done with a brush, using
both ends, as already stated, and even his pure line drawings are achieved
with the brush alone.
Abbett must be classified as an illustrator to the very
core, for he sees little satisfaction in painting unless he has a definite
theme before him -- a theme which needs bringing light for the benefit
of picture viewers. He puts it this way: "How can one reach a mark without
knowing definitely what that mark is? Contrary to the widely accepted persuasion,
I feel that art must have a real purpose -- a purpose beyond that of simply
allowing one to express himself. If I had to sit at my easel with a blank
canvas and ask myself what I should paint, I should be bored. There is
great satisfaction in knowing that one's paintings serve a real purpose
and will bring pleasure or edification to many thousands of individuals.
Without some such assurance, I see little point in painting."
But let us not harbor the impression that Abbett things
of fine art and illustration as two separate endeavors. He
does not. He maintains it is the artist's duty to put art into his
illustrations, and he feels that it is feasible to introduce as much painting
quality, originality, mood or dream stuff into a commercial painting as
in one created only to release an ecstatic urge. In his own words, he is
satisfied only if they go beyond the mere illustration of the author's
point and convey something of the artistic fervor that inspired them. Pointing
to one or two of his less pretentious works, he remarked : "These I do
not like. They are too
Continuing, he says: "Each job I undertake is a new project
by itself, which prompts me to ask what I can say about it. And it really
is a challenge to keep oneself geared up to the right pitch, to retain
the sensitivity required, for it is easy to grow stale. I am asked, don't
you ever paint pictures for the fun of the thing? The answer is that I
haven't the time to paint easel pictures even if I were so inclined, and
in any case, my work is my fun and my fine art, as I have already explained.
Into it I put all the art of which I am capable and. to my way of
thinking, fully as much as the typical easel painter puts into his."
I mentioned the often discussed restrictions on an artist's
freedom of expression resulting from supervision by the art director, but
he is well satisfied with the system, saying that today's co-operative
procedure produces better over-all results than could possibly accrue from
individual effort alone. As a result of up-to-date methods, he contends,
the general standard of commercial art has improved immeasurably since,
say, the period of thirty years ago. "The illustrators of those days could
not stand up with ours of 1965 . . . the product of today destroys the
myth of the 'good old days' . . . each new generation of illustrators is
more on its toes than its predecessor . . . and as for art directors not
wanting true art, as sometimes charged, I have never myself experienced
The improvement is explained in part by the population
growth, which provides a bigger market and allows greater expenditure for
art work, on the basis that a painting reproduced two million times should
be worth twice that of a comparable one printed only one million times.
The resulting greater number of artists sharpens the competition, and this
competition applies as well to art directors, who have keener insight,
better understanding, and more widely-based knowledge than ever before.
Abbett believes that detraction of the cooperative system is principally
from a lack of knowledge of its workings.
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