Art Beginnings: The Famous Artists School

In the beginning, we all come to discover art in different ways. Perhaps a teacher in school handed you a small set of paints and said, "Try this," or a friend of the family was an art director and encouraged you to learn how to draw, or perhaps a favorite aunt took you to a museum at a young age and that lit the fires of creative passion. Just a little encouragement, at the right time, can start a person on a life-long journey of the spirit.

The Famous Artists School's correspondence envelope.
The Famous Artists School's correspondence envelope.

In my case, two events sealed my very fortunate fate. In 1957, my father decided to give my mother a really big gift. My mother liked to draw and paint, but never had formal training, so my father decided to enroll her in the Famous Artists School. The School was founded in Westport, Connecticut in 1948 and run by the most well-known and loved illustrators of the day–and this was the Golden Age of Illustration. Norman Rockwell, Albert Dorne, Robert Fawcett, John Atherton, Austin Briggs, Stevan Dohanos, Ben Stahl, Harold Von Schmidt and Jon Whitcomb were the founding faculty.

It was my mother's interest in art that paved the way for my own.
It was my mother's interest in art that paved
the way for my own.

To give you an idea of how in demand the work of this elite group of artists was, they were all making more than $50,000 a year in 1950–that's equivalent to $486,500 a year today!* For the price of $350 ($2,911.61 today), my mother could choose to study Painting, Illustration/Design, or Cartooning, delivered in 24 lessons over three years' time. Each assignment that the student completed and mailed in was critiqued by a professional artist (not necessarily the famous ones), who made their suggestions or corrections on tissue overlays on the student's work.

The entire course was contained in four heavily illustrated binders. The binders were a complete art course from beginning to advanced. I don't know how long my mother was able to plug away at her studies, but by 1957 I was four and getting around on my own. I found those binders and decided they were my personal property. I even felt perfectly comfortable working right in them in crayon, trying to copy the illustrations with hands that would not obey my desires. As I got older, the lessons in those binders gradually taught me how an artist goes about rendering the world around him and why. I learned craft and design from the silent teachers bound in those pages. Thankfully, my parents encouraged this. Perhaps it was enough that it kept their high-energy son busy for a while. I still love those books, and one can still take the courses today.

The second crucial event for me happened in high school, when an art teacher gave me some left over oil paints, canvas, a worn brush or two, and a closet with a window to work privately in. He was art institute trained, but offered no tips on how to mix or apply paint. I set myself to making compositions torn from newspapers and magazines, recombining or heightening the imagery and trying to paint as realistically as I could manage. That experience helped to convince me that I was going to be an artist for the rest of my life, and I've never looked back. But I did make a point of tracking down and thanking that teacher.

What started you on your artistic journey? We would enjoy hearing from you. Please join us on The Artist's Road for more interesting and informative articles, step-by-step demonstrations and unique store items.


*(Wikipedia ASIFA,



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John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

5 thoughts on “Art Beginnings: The Famous Artists School

  1. Since I can remember, I LOVED coloring. My mother would boast about how her 5 year old daughter overlapped colors and stayed in the lines. Then at around 6, I started copying the comics and characters from the television. I did a perfect rendition of Fred Flintstone at that young age. For the next 5 or 6 years, I copied everything I could. I had tracing paper and traced so many things that I could replicate them without even thinking. At age 11, mom was so impressed with my abilities, she bought me the John Gnagy Art Kit., complete with paper, instruction book, charcoal, pencils, a kneaded eraser, and sandpaper block…WOW!! I did each lesson. progressing with each one, and even mailed the little mexican boy to my aunt in San Rafael, California. They had it framed and now, after over 40 years, she just returned it to me for my own “archives”. At 12 years old, mom signed me up for private art lessons with a local artist, Edith Costa. She tested me with a series of three pencil drawings..then moved me on to charcoal. I stayed with her for 4 years, working in black and white, then pastel, then oils. After that, it was all trial and error. Painting is a big part of who I am. I thank my mother for recognizing my abilities and scraping up the money every week for me to study privately with a professional.

  2. Thanks for writing, Mikki. We have an important role to play in encouraging younger generations as we were encouraged in the arts. Sounds like your mom provided great support and encouragement!

  3. I had two “moments” in my life that led me down the path towards art. The first was Christmas morning when I was about 8 years old and I unwrapped a John Gnagy art set. I still remember first opening that black vinyl case. I spent hours and hours faithfully completing every exercise in the instruction books and trying all of the different art supplies. My mother still has those drawings. My parents had recognized my great grandmother’s talent in me and decided to encourage it. I was really good, but our schools did nothing to encourage the arts, nor did they offer much of an art class, so I gradually spent less and less time on art. Then when I was 20 I moved to Florida to live with my aunt and uncle and see if I would like it there. Art and artists were everywhere…..on public TV, in the malls and flea markets and at art festivals nearly every weekend somewhere nearby. And there was a huge Pearl Art Supply store just down the road; talk about a kid in a candy store! I got serious about art….though I ended up moving back home….began winning awards at local shows, moved again and co-founded our local arts council and have done my best to make time for creating and learning art around my job schedule. If it wasn’t for those events in my life, would I have found another road toward art? Maybe. I certainly have a passion for it now.

  4. Your article on the Famous Artists School brought back memories of the time when I was around 10 years old and submitted my little drawing to apply to the school. I received a nice letter informing me to try again when I was older, but that my drawing was very good. They must have gotten a chuckle out of a 10 year old’s application! Later, I married young and while raising 3 children I still knew I wanted to go to art school and enrolled in the University of Maine’s art department. It took me 13 years to complete my degree in art education and then another 2 and a half years to get a Masters Degree at Rhode Island School of Design. Now, retired after 24 years of teaching art, I am finally free to paint to my heart’s content! It took me a while, but I finally got there with a little determination and the Famous Artists School was my inspiration.

  5. I think I was born with a pencil in my hand. My mother encouraged me a lot. I drew on everything. She bought me paper from print shops in our town. Even though I studied a different path then art in high school I still loved art. I took a little test when I was a senior in high school that I had found in a magazine. Draw this little dog it said and I sent it in. It just happened to be The Famous Artist School. That was in 1964. Then there was only 3 books to the course. But alas marriage got in the way of my art and then children came fast which took up all my time and money was short and none left for art supplies. I only took a few lessons and never finished the course. I still have the books and I drag them out once in a while. They are huge binder books about 16×20. There is much information in those books. But seem out of date for todays work as I am a painter now and illustration is not my thing. But they are there for me when I need information.