Dean Cornwell Notes Part1

(all images Dean Cornwell)

By Armand Cabrera

A student of Harvey Dunn, Dean Cornwell was one of the top illustrators in the Untied States in the 1920’s and 1930’s. At the height of his career he gave up illustration to become a mural painter, studying in England with Frank Brangwyn. Dean Cornwell espoused many of the philosophies of his two teachers Dunn and Brangwyn and these notes reflect that philosophy.

Don’t imitate the artists you admire. Be inspired by the ideals they put into their work- use their sincerity as an ideal but develop your own individuality.
In good sound painting the important qualities are color, design and surface quality, while in illustration; form particularly, character and spirit are the prime requirements. An illustration must be a picture and not a diagram of the text.

There are no rules for good composition. The subject matter and the spirit or idea should dictate and govern the composition of any particular picture.

Anguish and worry mixed with paint is never good towards a happy end.

A picture had much better be interesting than accurate. It is what you have to say and how you say it that interests anyone.

It is difficult to convince the average student that pictures are not produced with paint. Neither are they made from the wrist.

When you travel, sketch the things that characterize a place, not the things it has in common with other places.

Get the smell of a place and try to paint smells rather than visuals

Don’t paint a picture of a man, paint a man.

A good composition must be a good abstraction

Discipline yourself; the things we do without discipline generally get us into trouble.

Develop a style so far removed from the photographic standpoint the camera can’t supplant you.

In all my references to painting I bar the ultra-modern

I do not believe the government should support any artist because he found picture making more pleasant than pants-pressing!

15 thoughts on “Dean Cornwell Notes Part1

  1. Now that is what I call advice. I have a question for you however…
    If you could go back in time a whisper something in your own ear that you think would be helpful to advance your own artistic endeavors what would you tell yourself?
    I can benefit from your answer.

  2. Gregory,

    That is a great question. I allowed friends and family and relationships to nudge me away from trying to be an artist right after high school. It took a long time for me to finally do it and not care what everyone thought.

    I would say to pursue your dream of becoming an artist sooner and work harder at it. Don’t try to be well rounded, burn the candle from both ends, and use all of your ability in pursuit of your goal and be the best you can be as soon as you can.

  3. These are classic Cornwell quotes,thanks so much! (And I had never seen that chaotic dock picture, looks like from the 1918-1920 era. Great stuff!)

    It may be that the distinction Cornwell draws between painting and illustration hints at what he learned from Fechin.

    I've been in discussions recently with some painter friends about this idea of getting "smells" into a picture. It is an idea I find fascinating, but at the moment, too ephemeral a concept to grasp. I still wonder, what are the graphic analogs for aroma? I have a sense it is a combination of a few things, including broken color and the drawing the "character" of lived-in buildings, as "smell" seems to disappear from Cornwell's work as he becomes more mural-oriented, flat and clean.

    Thanks much for these great bits of wisdom.


  4. Kev,

    I think the idea behind smells is the reality of a thing. These guys went to a place to paint it more often than not and when they didn’t go they tried to envision the life of their characters beyond the story.
    They understood the model was a reference for the stories character and that they had to use the model as a starting point only.
    When I was in production art less and less time was given to this sort of stuff. Backstory cost money, the bean counters would complain and we did less and less of it. Same with illustrations for books; I see too many steroid, gym rat bodies on men who are supposed to be Cowboys and Indians or women that look like pool toys from all the work done to them.

  5. Gregory,

    It is more than hard work, it is also not allowing people to take your time away from you. I can not stress this enough, that more than anything you must surround yourself with people who allow you to pursue your dreams. When you find these people, do the same for them.

  6. Armand,

    These are wonderful quotes…and all resounding with truth. The smells is a concept , though at first strange, makes sense when you paint an object and catch its spirit…take for instance a Monterey Cypress tree…..and it resounds with such truth than you can almost have a memory trigger and smell the environment.

  7. Frank,

    Good insight. It's getting more than just an observation of the thing. More Cornwell on Sunday.
    Check out Franks great blog 'On Being Frank' I have a link in my sidebar

  8. Great quotes!

    Richard Schmid was discussing composition recently, and he basically said the same as the quote beginning, "There are no rules for good composition…" What Richard said was, "Compositions are rules of convention; it is the strength of your idea which creates a beautiful design."

    Of course my favorite quote ABOUT Cornwell was the famous line by James Montgomery Flagg: of Cornwell, Flagg said, "He was Dunn before he ever began!" referring to Cornwell's ability to absolutely mimic his teacher's illustration technique.

    Hope you are well.


  9. Matt,

    Besides being a great artist Richard is well read. Some other people have quoted Richard to me on facebook not knowing the quotes are paraphrases of Dunn, Pyle, and Birge Harrison who were probably paraphrasing their teachers at the time.
    Flaggs quote is a classic.

  10. Hey Armand,

    Great post, Dean Cornwell is one of my favorite artist. Thank you for sharing all this information on him.

    Best Jason

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