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Volume 3336a
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Robert Abbett Illustrator
By Frederic Whitaker
American Artist Magazine ~ June 1965

Previously, in this magazine, I have prophesied that years hence, when an evaluation is made of today's American contribution to the progress of the visual arts, the laurels will be divided between independent watercolor painting and commercial illustration. ONe could speak endlessly about the difference between fine and commercial art, but the bone of contention would inevitably be the subject of a painting. The generally accepted view today is that surface organization is all-important: that subject matter has nothing to do with art. This is an axiom that justifies no subject, no matter how unacceptable it was considered formerly, and which brands as commercial any pleasing subject pleasingly painted.

The sin of the illustrator is that he conveys to the so-called common man understandable messages in a pleasing way, making his efforts suspect as works of art even though he observes the new concept of treatment and integrated forms. Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, all painters ere illustrators in some sense; and if illustration is to be respected once more as art, it must return to the techniques and attitudes of painting. The question then will be not whether the easel painters will accept the illustrators, but whether the illustrators will accept them!

It is interesting to note that one prominent museum -- the first I have heard of in this regard -- is now organizing a department for the collecting of illustration. Perhaps this represents a break in the dike; undoubtedly others will follow. The surprising point is that recognition of our debt to illustrators has ben so long in coming.

I have just spent some time in the studio of Robert K. Abbett, illustrator, who has definite opinions on this questions. The better part of his 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 firs 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 two extremes.

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 commercial!"

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.

Robert Abbett was born in Hammond Indiana, in 1926. On graduating from the high school at the early age of seventeen, he enlisted in the Navy, and under its program was sent to Purdue Universitiy in Lafayette, Indiana, as a pre-medical student. Most of us have forgotten that at the beginning of the war, the Government, foreseeing a possibly very long conflict, instituted the program that called for the training, from scratch, of doctors, scientists, engineers, and professionals in other fields. Abbett had decided at an early age that medicine was to be his vocation.

The war ended; he continued at Purdue as a civilian and was graduated with a B.S. degree. At this time, the waning of the golden dream of a medical career prompted him to plan a course in the arts. Against the earlier urgings of his parents to matriculate at Notre Dame, he had decided that he 'didn't want to attend a un iversity without girl students." He enrolled in the University of Missouri, intending to follow two courses only -- those of art and advertising.

Here we learn anew that trifling details may change one's whole life. Preparing to register, he found the enrollment queue so long in contrast to the short one for art , he mused: "To heck with advertising; I'll concentrate on art." Having since seen a good deal of both, he considers his hunch was a lucky one, for, as he says: "The two don't mix -- advertising is business and art is art. I didn't realize that fact at the time. One does better to specialize."

At Missouri, he by-passed all other subjects, studying only painting, composition, art history, and related subjects. Thanks to the Purdue credits he was able to complete his course within a year and a half, gaining thereby another Bachelor's degree, this time in Arts.

In Chicago, Abbett worked with several art and advertising agencies, learning the commercial art business from eh ground up, and also with the U.S. Quartermasters' Corps as an illustrator, under Civil Service. Meanwhile, he studied in evening classes at the Chicago Academy. Thus, he has scrutinized the art business from both sides -- from that represented by the easel painter who paints according to his own whim, to the commercial painter who must paint to please his client.

Leaving Chicago in 1954, he moved East to work for a limited period with a New York studio, but since that time he has functioned strictly as a free-lance illustrator. His present home and studio are in fashionable Wilton, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, a former concert and television singer, and their two children. He is a member of the Society of Illustrators, and is Past President of Westport Artists.


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