The Abbett Illustration Technique
Source: Robert Abbett Illustrator
By Frederic Whitaker ~ American Artist Magazine ~ June 1965
The 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 self-assurance
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 reproduction.
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 areas.
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 an instance."
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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