Friday, March 18, 2011

A Draftsman's Draftsman (i.e. Hero Worship)

DEAN CORNWELL (illustration jedi 1892-1960) was a master draftsman & painter. If I had only one word to describe him it would be "Volume" -- volume in the amount of work he produced in his prolific career, volume in the amount of paint he applied, but mostly volume in the way he rendered his subject; he gave everything mass and solidity. You know there's integrity underneath his paintings, built not just upon the understanding of space and three dimensional structure, but the implementation of it....

Having an awesome facility for drawing and then studying under Harvey Dunn (another gusto illustrator of the "Golden Age") he knew how to build character into his figures from the ground up. Take a look at these Captain Blood scenes above; Where there's a hand clinched into a fist, he doesn't always delineate all five digits -- doesn't have to, he just lays in the planes of the fist and leaves it at that. It reads as a manly fist with a sculptural quality (which certainly serves as a better use of brush strokes, portraying a rough and gnarly pirate!)

He was also hugely adept at composition (sampled here by his association with British illustrator, painter & muralist, Frank Brangwyn) who adapted an organic oriental-influenced approach to all facets of design, including textiles and furniture. Cornwell obviously picked up the torch and ran with it, but to more of a precise end...

He often would take a mundane area of information (such as the captain's shirt sleeves pictured above) and apply much more design to it than the average artist ever would. Where most would either simplify or literally "follow the camera", Cornwell would boil down the folds into their base geometric patterns, then create more depth, volume and interest by rendering the planes of each individual fold (but without excessive detailing). He capitalized on these areas based upon a simple 3-value scale; dark accents, high-light & half-tone shadows with a very effective use of reflective light to increase the depth -- I just don't know how he ever found the time to do it all...

Examining his creases and folds, you can often find the resemblance of letters of the alphabet (as stated in Jack Hamm's book on Drawing the Head & Figure) Y, X, S, U, V, and even P & R where one fold passes underneath another, are woven into an orderly context. I know I may be getting a little anal here for some of you, but the attention to each of the individual components of his pictures are what makes his works so superior.

When considering his output over a 40+ year career, it's clear Dean Cornwell was an indefatigable craftsman. Biographies describe him working 7 days a week, even sketching to relax in his spare time, often at the end of a busy day at the easel. This of course was not without price to his family life, but whatever the price he paid, many an artist are indebted to him for the influence of his high standard of quality.

Anyway, I usually blog about my own work here as a supplement to my web site, but today I just had to share a little about one of my biggest heroes, the "Dean of illustrators" Dean Cornwell.


  1. Vos illustrations sont sublimes...

  2. Fantastic post Eric ! I always love an article written on The Dean of Illustrators. He is definitely one of my favorites of all time !

  3. Great post! I learned something! I wasn't that familiar with him.

  4. Great article, Eric. I really enjoyed learning about those letters in the folds. This entire post reminds me of a quote attributed to Ned Mueller:
    It is not surprising that some of the more successful painters have commercial art in their background.

  5. Good post, thanks. I have admired Cornwell for years. Love his drawing.