Monday, May 11, 2009

Frank Godwin, Illustrator--1926

Frankly Godwin...Frankly Great
(At right, Frank Godwin's cover for Collier's, 18 September 1926)
I missed two days due to, of all things, writing a movie treatment (a long story). This post begins something I've wanted to do for twenty years: to take advantage of the Pasadena Public Library's magazine collection and scan work by the great illustrators and cartoonists hidden therein. It's about time I did. A while ago their roomful of patent office gazettes disappeared. Then the microfilm room shrank to half its size and the space was filled with internet terminals. Will the magazines go next? I packed up my laptop and my trusty scanner and went in search of Frank Godwin in Collier's Magazine.

And screwed up. Even with my small, light (and invertible) scanner it proved difficult to get the pages flat. I've had to omit several of my scans because of focus problems. I didn't catch them at the library because to speed things up I waited to check the scans at full size until I got home. Live and learn. All the same I got some nice stuff from the library's second-earliest Collier's volume: the second half of 1926 (their earliest volume is from 1920, but I haven't found any Godwin work that far back).

Collier's was a general-interest magazine (known in the biz as "mass" magazines in contrast to upscale "class" magazines like Vogue). It ran in direct competition with The Saturday Evening Post, which it resembled in both design and content. Though it lasted through the 1950s, Collier's always ran a distant second to the Post. The SEP artists have become so famous, even many enthusiasts don't realize how many excellent illustrators worked for Collier's. Just a sampling: Frank Godwin, Mead Schaeffer, Saul Tepper, Walt Louderback, John LaGatta, Bradshaw Crandell, Frederic Stanley, J. C. Coll, and John R. Flanagan. The printing in the 1920s wasn't very good (heck, even the Post's printing was mediocre back then), and color was usually limited to black plus red. Despite this the magazine is an untapped gold mine.

The first Godwin I encountered was a pair of spots for a humorous page narrated by "Uncle Henry." Each issue Henry, one of those wise country folk common in humor of the day, held forth on some contemporary topic. Frank Godwin provided two black-and-white spots for each article. The one above is from "How are the Fallen Mighty (sic)" in the 31 July 1926 issue.

This drawing is a bit more realistic than the other spots. Godwin drew most of the Uncle Henry illustrations in an exaggerated style reminiscent of James Montgomery Flagg's cartoons. In fact, after seeing Godwin's illos from this period I speculate that Flagg was a stronger influence on him than Gibson. Note that this drawing, though rendered in pen style, was done in charcoal. Charcoal was the preferred medium of many Collier's (and Post) illustrators due to the popularity of F. R. Gruger.

The next drawing, an Uncle Henry piece from 28 August ("Old Home Weakness"), really shows the Flagg influence, especially in the man at the left and the woman on the right with the bee-sting lips . On the other hand, the boxer's profile looks like a Frazetta hero!

I was beginning to wonder if cartoons were all I'd find when I came upon "Easy Money" by Lawrence Perry in the 11 September issue. Frank did two beautiful charcoal-and-wash illustrations for this baseball soap opera. Sorry about the lost focus at the left edge (binding interference).
Here it looks like Godwin was adding Grugeresque wash to his charcoal-as-pen technique. The results are smashing. I love the delicate rendering of the woman's face, especially the shadow of the hat. It contrasts nicely with the bold strokes on her stylish 20s dress (could this be Connie Kurridge?). And check out the figure emerging from the mist on the extreme right!

On the following page two beautifully-drawn ball players face off across the spread.Wash is even more important in this illustration than in the first one. It also appears that Godwin used a pen here...the older player's feet and the shadow beneath him seem to be pen or brush work.

(Sidebar: I'm reluctant to over-analyze these old wash drawings. Over the years I've seen what appears to be wash in a printed illustration, then discovered by seeing the original that the "wash" was created in the halftone process. White paper often photographed as light gray. Unfortunately in 1926 they didn't have Photoshop to adjust levels (it was still in beta). Photoshop 1926 consisted of a mechanical router grinding down unwanted gray areas on the printing plate so they wouldn't print. Because this inevitably left a shaped edge platemakers frequently chose not to rout out areas within the main drawing--a person's skin, for example.)

In the 9 October issue is another lovely two-illustration job ("The Wedding Guests" by William Alton Wolff ). The first features a breathtaking bit of drapery on the second man's coat.

The gesture of the woman in the next drawing is as impressive as the still-life of the sofa upon which she lies. I can't get over how guys like Godwin make this stuff look so easy. He's one of those artists whose work at first glance seems full of detail. Looking closer you realize it's all suggestion...Godwin puts in just enough to tell you what you need to know. Your mind does the rest.

In that priceless book, F. R. Gruger and his Circle, a tale is told of the time a reader wrote praising Gruger for the incredible detail he'd put into a group of dishes in the background. Curious, Gruger checked the original and found that the dishes were broadly laid in with a few quick strokes suggesting their design. The detail the reader praised was all in his head.


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