Acrylic: Fine Art or Illustration?

10 Oct 2008

0810fuchs1_389x600Whether creating fine art or illustration, for Connecticut artist Bernie Fuchs—who boasts a long and successful career as an illustrator—it’s all the same. Either way, “I’m making a picture,” he explains.

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A Perfect Afternoon
2006, oil on linen, 30 x 20. Private collection.

by Linda S. Price

I’m basically an illustrator,” Bernie Fuchs says up front. “That’s what I wanted to be, and I’m very happy with it.” An exhibition of his half-century of success as an illustrator and fine artist was recently on display at the Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, in Colorado, in the form of a career retrospective. The subjects featured in the show are impressively varied, from a portrait of former President Kennedy in the Oval Office to action scenes of horse racing at Santa Anita to historical vignettes of the Old West. The work on view was created for a variety of clients Fuchs had over the years, ranging from Sports Illustrated and ESPN to TV Guide and American Heritage magazine.

Fuchs was born in Illinois and attended Washington University School of Fine Arts, in St. Louis. After studying art for four years and gaining practical experience by working in the studio of illustrator Bob Cassell, he graduated and moved to Detroit with a fellow artist who wanted to be a car illustrator. Eventually Fuchs and several other artists founded their own art studio called The Art Group. “Things just sort of happened,” he says, explaining how they received important commissions from New York ad agencies. Soon Fuchs got so much work that he moved to Connecticut to pursue further illustration assignments. “I started doing fine art much later,” he explains. “I was an illustrator for three-quarters of my career. Now I’m sort of retired.” To an outside observer though, the emphasis would be on “sort of.” The day of his interview for this article, the artist had an appointment to discuss a commissioned portrait of 40 tennis champions, had recently sent off a golf painting to be used as a poster for a tournament at Pebble Beach, and spent the remainder of the day working on a sketch for the cover of the Eddie Bauer Christmas catalogue.

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Splendido
2000, oil on linen, 25 1/2 x 17 3/4. Courtesy Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, Telluride, Colorado.

Whether he’s creating fine art or an illustration, Fuchs’ philosophy and process is much the same. “I’m making pictures,” he says. “I don’t differentiate.” What he does prefer about illustration commissions, however, is the problem-solving aspect. Regardless of the category, the process always begins with photos, sometimes file photos provided by the commissioning publication, but more often his own. When he was working for women’s magazines he sketched out his ideas—often four or five variations—then brought models into the studio to shoot the scene. Although he continues to shoot slide film with an automatic camera, doing much of his composing through the lens, he laments that it’s becoming harder to get parts and repairs on slide projectors, so he may be forced to go digital.

Fuchs generally projects the slides on his canvas (untoned Fredrix canvas No. 190), and when he wants the drawing to show through in the finished work he traces the image in graphite. Otherwise, using the same projected image, he blocks in the subject on canvas. He begins painting in the upper left-hand corner and works down and across so his hand doesn’t touch the wet paint, completing one section at a time. Generally he paints thinly, although lately he’s been experimenting with impasto. He paints traditionally from dark to light, creating lights by wiping out paint with a brush or cloth dipped in turpentine. Once an area has been wiped down to achieve the correct value, he glazes over it. For instance, in A Perfect Afternoon he used a brush dipped in turpentine to remove patches of dark in the tree then yellow paint thinned with turpentine to create the look of sunlight peeking through the branches. In Splendido he removed the darks of the tablecloth, then glazed over it with a rose color. Sometimes he removes color to create what he calls “a batik look,” as in the sky in Detroit Tigers’ Stadium.

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Detroit Tigers’ Stadium
1980, oil on linen, 39 x 26. For Sports Illustrated, courtesy Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, Telluride, Colorado.

About brushes Fuchs says, “I have no favorites. Flats, rounds, brights—I use anything that does the job. But I do start with a big brush to lay in flat, dark colors.” He is more particular about his paints and uses Winsor & Newton oils exclusively. Among his favorite colors are raw umber, cadmium green pale, Winsor green, sap green (for a “green-green”), cadmium orange, scarlet lake, and geranium lake, which is no longer available, so he’s been using the same tube of the cool red sparingly for the last 20 years. He avoids black but mixes darks with a combination of purple, olive green, raw umber, and, if he wants to cool it down, a little blue. His preferred white is titanium. Only rarely does he use color out of the tube. His colors tend to be subtle rather than bright, and he leans toward warm colors. Many of his paintings have a characteristic amber glow usually created with a glaze of raw umber to which he adds a touch of orange, red, or green, depending on the temperature he wants.

But, Fuchs emphasizes, “Painting is not about color but about value. This is one of the best lessons I ever learned.” And the lesson remains vivid. In his second year of art school, one of his teachers asked him, “Do you want to learn to paint?” When Fuchs said, “I have to learn to paint” the teacher picked up his easel and set it up facing into the hallway. “Then paint the hall,” he instructed. Although Fuchs found it “the dullest thing in the world,” he spent three days a week for the next month working on the painting. Once a week the teacher would come in, study his painting, study the hallway, form a circle with his fingers and say, “Look at the value of that patch on the wall, and look at it in your painting.”

Fuch’s compositions are unique and quite recognizable because often the center of interest is toward the bottom of the canvas. This is the result of working in illustration, where the upper half of the image would have to be used for titles and other copy. The artist is a big fan of Degas’ horizontal compositions and adapted them for his double spreads in women’s magazines, reserving the generous negative space for type. He also often borrowed compositions from the master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, as in Chairs at High Camp. Fuchs’ sports paintings are full of life and a sense of movement, which he achieves in part through careful cropping and the frequent use of diagonals in his compositions, as in The Fight.

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The Fight
1980, oil on linen, 42 x 27. For ESPN, courtesy Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, Telluride, Colorado.

Not all of Fuchs’ illustrations are done in oil. On display in his retrospective are some wonderful book illustrations and scenes of the Old West, such as Among Friends, created with graphite on mat board and sparingly colored with oil washes or oil pastels.

In recent years, Fuchs has been making yearly trips to Italy to visit his daughter and grandchildren, which have provided him with many new subjects for his fine-art paintings. “The Italians are great at doing still lifes,” he says, noting that some of his paintings are based on still life setups in Italian restaurants. He also likes to paint the quaint Italian streets. Back home, the bustling resort town of Telluride, Colorado, has also become an inspiration to the artist, and a number of his paintings have been used as posters for local events. In addition, after illustrating a number of children’s books over the years, Fuchs has now written one of his own. It seems that Fuchs is, in fact, far from retired.

Linda S. Price is an artist, writer, and editor living on Long Island, New York.

About the Artist
During his long career Bernie Fuchs created illustrations for a wide variety of magazines ranging from The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated to TV Guide and Cosmopolitan. A sports lover, he has painted many athletic scenes, including golf, baseball, yachting, horse racing, and boxing. He has also illustrated books and created a wide range of celebrity portraits including Jack Benny, Clark Gable, Martin Luther King Jr., Judy Garland, and Ronald Reagan. He has been widely exhibited and his paintings are in numerous corporate and private collections. In 1957 he became the youngest artist ever inducted into the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame. He also has the distinction of being juried into nearly every annual show held by that prestigious organization since 1959. Fuchs lives with his wife in Connecticut.

Linda S. Price is an artist, writer, and editor living on Long Island, New York.

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Chairs at High Camp
2006, oil on linen, 34 x 23. Private collection.
Among Friends
1996, pencil and crayon on board, 26 x 40. From Home on the Range: Cowboy Poetry, (Dial Books, New York, New York). Private collection.
John F. Kennedy
1962, acrylic on board, 24 x 15. Collection John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Massachusetts.

To view an online exclusive gallery of additional work by Bernie Fuchs, click here to visit the Gallery Blog on the new American Artist online community site.


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Comments

Bob Bunt Burke wrote
on 14 Oct 2008 7:10 AM
Illustration? HOw about "The Last Supper"? Norman Rockwell commented that he did not consider he was an artist. My position is basic. Art is a visual form of communication. What the artwork says to me makes it great or poor work. Is photogrpahy art? Bernie Fuchs can be both at the same time. Look, any one may call themselves an artist. When someone else looks at your painting and says YOU are an artist, you have been crowned.Or she's you mother. BBB
Denise Ivey Telep wrote
on 14 Oct 2008 9:26 AM
In this day and age, it is difficult to believe that some still consider the "commercial artist" and "fine artist" mutually exclusive. It is well past time to bury that archaic idea and let the work speak for itself. Visual artists who work and get a regular "pay check" from their art are just as much "fine artists" as those who create and wait.
haha wrote
on 3 Nov 2008 7:04 PM
bernie is the man
ASK NOT WHAT U CAN DO 4 Me BUT WHAT I CAN DO 4 U wrote
on 5 Nov 2008 12:04 PM
BERNIE IS THE MAN
aglpq wrote
on 23 Dec 2008 10:17 AM
Hi, you have a nice site. Really good job! Respect :)
Salina Ramsay wrote
on 3 Mar 2009 3:36 PM
I would have to say that this artwork goes beyond illustration. There is a haunting feeling about the works that doesn't rely on basic illustrative techniques for communicating their emotional and visual impact. Even viewing reproductions of the works this force is apparent. Very few artists possess this. Andrew Wyeth had it and so does Mr. Fuchs.