Celebrating great art in humble places: the glorious talents of the artists who illustrated stories, advertisements and comics in the 20th century.

Monday, January 12, 2009


The illustrations of William A. Smith capture the mood of his era. I especially like the gritty, urban paintings he did in the 1940s and 1950s which have a tough, noir feeling. Here, one of his preliminary studies transports you back to a 1940s barbershop at Christmas time:

His artist's eye picked up those little details which are so evocative of his time and place. Note the the hue of the street light on shoppers rushing by outside:

The bored little boy waiting his turn in the barber's chair:

The cluttered array of tables lined up against the wall:

Smith's daughter Kim watched her father work and was inspired to follow in his footsteps. She learned traditional art skills from him. "He gave me LOTS of advice," she recalled. "He talked about composition quite a bit. Also, that the whites of eyes aren't white at all. He taught me to make a good green from yellow and black." Kim learned to draw beautifully at a young age and went on to learn painting, printmaking and sculpting.

But when Kim began to work professionally she discovered that the art world had changed. The work that had sustained her father's generation of artists had disappeared. She moved to the west coast, where she eventually found work in movies building models.

Near the end of his life, Smith visited his daughter in California at the model/creature shop and was amazed by the new applications for her artistic talent. Shortly after he died, Kim returned to painting in a way that her father could never have imagined:

My supervisor in the Modelshop at ILM asked me whether I could paint (I'd been sculpting and making molds up until that point). Lacking anyone else to do it, he put me on repainting submarine models we had inherited from another production company. I had never painted a vehicle before, but found myself enjoying making these 12-foot and 22-foot models look panelized and aged. I started using Art Masking Fluid, something I knew about from Dad, to paint on the models. I then rolled the membrane up in areas to get a web-like frisket for making marks on the surface, which was extremely realistic. I started "hearing" Dad behind my shoulder, instructing me how to proceed color-wise and aesthetically to get the right look. This ghost of my father was obviously very interested and excited about this project. In fact, he got so noisy I eventually had to give a swat over my shoulder to shut him down a bit. However, it was all very successful on camera. As a result, I was often chosen to paint vehicles and dirty, rusty machinery, as well as the "clean" stuff, and eventually started leading small crews and passing on what I had learned.

Kim was off and running. She learned to paint digitally and apply her talents in all kinds of new ways. Compare her father's paintings at the beginning of this post with the following video of Kim's painting and model work today, and consider how remarkably the role of an artist has changed in our lifetime:


Kim says that her traditional art training from her father gave her the broad foundation she needed for the challenges of the new media: "All my experience helped me in what I've done in the movies, including printmaking, working in clay, metal, paint and wood. It all gave me qualifications that make me useful."

Old artistic truths have been surrendering to new artistic truths since the world began. No one can stop it. But in stories like Kim's, you see that no matter how much things change, there is a core set of strengths that remain at the center, undiminished.

Ghosts of previous generations of artists will continue to whisper in our ear. We just have to know when to tell them to hush.