Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Jack Leynnwood--Illustrator

My Favorite Jack Leynnwood Stories

Those of you who know who Jack Leynnwood was...or more fortunate yet, those who had Jack as a teacher--know that he was not only a major force in 20th-century illustration, but also a great teacher and a genuine "character." For the uninitiated, let me just say Jack was responsible for hundreds of illustrations, mostly "hardware" based, for everything from plastic model kits to movie posters. If you ever drooled over those fantastic Revell plane and ship boxtop paintings--that was Jack.
Though Jack left a permanent imprint on my life, I didn't know him well. I only had one unforgettable class with him. I leave it to another, his student and long time friend, Michael Boss, to give Jack and his career the full treatment they deserve. Don't miss it.
I was fortunate to take Jack Leynwood's marker-comp class at Art Center College of Design. Jack had been teaching at Art Center for a long time. The school began as a commercial art college in downtown Los Angeles. By the time I blew into town--the late 1970s--it had moved into spacious new quarters in the Pasadena hills. The new school had plenty of seats to fill. From a small, fiercely competitive illustration school, Art Center expanded to include photography, industrial design, and fine art. During the years I roomed with full-time Art Center students I heard many tales of practical old-timers butting heads with the new "artsy" teachers.
Jack was one of the old-timers. He wore the badge with pride. Short, feisty, and bursting with energy, Jack reacted to critics of his "old-time" methods by giving them more of the same and then some. He knew he was too good and too tough to be "eased out" like other oldsters had been. So he made a point of tweaking artistic noses at every opportunity.

Jack protested loudly that he was only in the field for the money. Some facts bear this out. He never saved originals ("Aaaah, I didn't need 'em."). He filled his spare time with his "true" loves (horses, flying, music, collecting Jaguar cars). But Jack's zeal to do the best possible work and his dedication to teaching his students to do the same... these suggest that his tough-guy routine was at least partly an act. And Jack had acting in him. One of the delights of having a class with Jack is that he always gave great theater.
Jack was short and wiry. He looked like an ex-bantamweight boxer, which someone told me he had been. Whether lecturing or conversing, he spoke with a rat-a-tat cadence that reminded one of classic James Cagney. He liked to tell stories. Friends who know me have heard these stories a thousand times, but I offer them to the rest of you give you a tiny hint of Jack's style.

Hardly a class went by without Jack reminding us he wasn't teaching Art. "This is illustration," he'd say, "this isn't Art." One memorable evening a student's comment set him off. He rattled off his reply in a single breath, talking so fast it sounded like a single word.

"We're not talking Art here! I do Illustration, I don't do Art! You wanna do Art, you wanna go to Otis [a rival art school] and sit in the lotus position and throw bananas at the canvas and call it Art, go on! Go right ahead! I'll be laughin' all the way ta the bank! Laughin' all the way ta the bank!"

Jack had been in World War II. After the war he had used the GI Bill to pay for art school. That was the beginning of his illustration career. Once he reminisced about one of his first jobs. "It was for a nudist magazine, you know? I was an airbrush artist. A photo retoucher. Now back in those days there were things you couldn't show in a magazine, you know. If you sent 'em through the mail you could get thrown in jail. That's what they hired me for. They'd give me a stack of photos of naked people and I'd airbrush 'em out. That's how I spent every day, day in and day out--airbrushin' 'em out, airbrushin' em out.

"Then one day the boss comes in and he says, 'Hey, Jack! The postal regulations have changed! We can show that stuff now!'

"'Oh, God,' I says, 'That means I'm out of a job.'

"'No, you're not!" the boss says. 'Make 'em bigger, Jack! Make 'em bigger!'"
Jack's attitudes of decorum were old-fashioned as well. If a class were all men, he was one of the boys, boisterous and raunchy (though always in an old-school way. Jack was neither a heavy-duty cusser nor a dirty talker). Let a woman join the class and Jack became a perfect gentleman, soft-spoken and deferential. He wouldn't dream of speaking to a girl as openly as he would to a guy.

One of my classmates was a quiet, attractive Korean girl. Stereotypically demure, she didn't talk much and giggled self-consciously when she did. One night Jack had brought in a nude male model so we could practice idealizing the figure. Jack wandered around the room critiquing us. He stopped by the Korean girl and nodded.

"That's pretty good, that's pretty good," he said, "but you've got the legs too short. The illustration figure is usually divided in half at the--" he made a vague gesture in the direction of the model--"at the, uh, the package."

The girl looked blankly up at Jack.


"Yeah, uh, you know, the upper body and the lower body are about the same length in an llustration figure, and the dividing line is, uh, the package." None of us had ever seen Jack sweat. We were loving this.

"But what do you mean, the package?" the girl asked, still confused.

This time Jack made some very vague motions about his own midsection. "The, the package, you know...the middle of the--"

"Oh!" The girl's eyes lit up and she exclaimed at the top of her lungs,. "I get it! You mean his COCK!"

Jack turned ten shades of red and for once was speechless. "Uh, yeah, yeah," he mumbled, "yeah, that's it."
Jack was famous not only for the quality of his paintings, but the speed with which he painted them. Once I did a storyboard for a movie-poster agency. A gorgeous little gouache on the wall caught my eye. It depicted an aircraft carrier at sea. I immediately recognized it as Jack's work. The art director told me Jack had done the painting for a presentation (I think it was for The Philadelphia Experiment, but I no longer remember). The art director liked it so much he asked Jack if he could keep it and Jack of course said yes. The a.d. told me a great story.

Jack had painted the finished poster art for Airport '77. In the movie a jetliner crashes and sinks to the bottom of the sea. The poster showed the airplane balanced at the lip of an underwater crevasse. The client loved the painting, but suggested that Jack add more rocks and rubble around the nose to emphasize the force with which the plane had hit the ground. Jack agreed and took the painting home to retouch.

First thing next morning Jack was back with the corrected painting. The client went off delighted. But the art director was puzzled, for he'd noticed several other small details had changed too. He took Jack aside. "Jack," he said, "that isn't the same painting you brought in yesterday, is it?"

"Naah," Jack shrugged. "Puttin' that stuff in was too much trouble. I just painted the thing over."

That's Jack Leynnwood in a nutshell.