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!

Dean Cornwell Notes Part 2

(all images Dean Cornwell)
By Armand Cabrera

My second set of Dean Cornwell quotes from Art Student League lectures given in the thirties.

For background material, go to the source, not clippings of another illustrators work. Build you own files with your own sketches

Do what the camera can’t do- the camera can’t add the spiritual; it can’t go beyond the mentality of its models. Test your work ask yourself “Can the camera do what I have done?” If you can make a real picture you won’t have to worry about the camera.

One thing is definite-ART IS IMPORTANT! Man drew pictures before he could read or write and he still looks at pictures. Let us then agree they should be good.

In speaking of art, Frank Brangwyn says the best art is that which serves the best purpose.

From all we can read of the old masters they did not set out to produce art but to do well a given job

No one can ever hope to attain success as an illustrator when this aim is not their sole purpose in life.

Any picture made by a rule is most likely to result in looking like rules and hence will always lack distinction and personality.

The first thing a student seems to think important is that of acquiring a style. It is truth we are striving for and style is a bit of the man himself that stands between the observer and the idea and is always a distraction.

Every thought in the artists mind is always manifest in the result. If you are thinking of how the paint is put on your canvas the result will be this is your message.

To understand art apart from facts one must go to the work of acknowledged masters, while fact may be gained from nature. We must realize that art is interpretation not imitation.

It is the quality of selection in everything at all times that makes for the artist. Whatever you do, do it as well as you can, whenever in doubt, don’t do it.

Art is a language complete and distinct from literature. Anything that can be said in words is not a subject for a painting.

A picture so limited to any one line in the story is not worthy of space.

I have known illustrators to lack imagination to the extent that they allow or depend on the model to give them an interpretation. Very rarely have I ever found a model that can get into a pose in spirit or drawing the way I would like it on canvas. You should know enough about drawing so that your action or posture is definitely established on your canvas before ever calling the model.

I have always started without drawing in the charcoal first but with lots of medium and very large brushes working entirely in tone and mass. In laying in your picture this way after a few hours at a distance of twenty or thirty feet your canvas should look complete and finished. Until this is so it is not a lay-in and until you have a good lay-in no thought should be given to the use of models.

Drawing is an indispensable aid to the illustrator. By this I do not mean academic drawing, this is of practically no value.

A successful picture is a thing conceived as a whole and cannot be attained by the sum of its parts. The sum of the parts is never as great as the whole.

It is impossible for any man to paint and not leave traces of his personality. In the work of big men, despite this, the idea is never obscured by technique or manner of presentation.

Dean Cornwell Notes Part 3

Armand Cabrera

These are the last notes on Dean Cornwell I am posting. I’m sure I’ll find an excuse to bring him up on the blog again, but until then enjoy.

One thing I do not believe that any museum curator or board of directors has the right with taxpayer’s money to take it upon him or themselves to select what they think the Public must accept as the best contemporary art.

I do not believe in art criticism or art critics- I do not wish to throw anybody out of a job but they should confine their columns to factual reviews, pointing out what comprises “so and so’s exhibition, the medium used, and where they’re hung, if someone reading the paper decides they would like to see some western pictures, they can see them by attending the show, form their own opinions and buy if they like.

The Romans and Greeks felt it incumbent on themselves to preserve historical events in representation; not only their military victories but the simple facts of their everyday life. From their sculpture, mosaics and frescoes we have today a complete lucid picture of their life 2000 odd years ago. Art should be so truly of this character that if New York were to be buried in cinders tomorrow, those digging their way in 2000 years hence would know all about us.

The Parthenon Frieze is over 300 feet long, depicts a day of the Panathenaca Festival, and represents the men women and children, old and young- in procession to the Acropolis; it is also a very definite decorative part of the architecture of the building.

Withdraw WPA support and most, if left to living on their sale of work, would go back to the trade they followed when someone made the cry of “come on boys, here’s a chance to get a living at the government’s expense”.

Someone painted a President Garfield House with much scroll saw work and a mansard roof-500 followed Someone also painted the 6th avenue El Station at 14th Street, and 500 of these followed, to say nothing of the scenes inside adjacent pants factories.

A group living in the clean air of the Wild West started painting farm life with carefully drawn furrows and geometrically laid out rows of corn shocks and very, very round trees bordering these fields, in the meticulous manner of the 14th century Dutch and Italians. Along with the Midwest Farm School, the 14th Street School specialized in subway elevated stations, pants factories, in a not too meticulous technical manner, due partly perhaps to the fact that crowds of people are harder to paint then round trees and shocks of corn. This excited everyone so the sand and lime industry did a rushing business, every cellar wall serving as a laboratory for fresco experiments. Classes were formed coast to coast.
The Mexican influence was like onions or garlic- it permeated everything. Pictures of pants factories and subway stations began to be filled with people that looked like Mexicans. The art formula now was for and of the people- everyone portrayed must be tired, down trodden, always bending under the burden-taking whip lashes on the back. Someone commented everyone is bending over to pick up a bundle. In other words one of Rivera’s best known frescoes showed sad tired undraped peons all bending down to gather huge bundles of sugar cane while mounted guards rested high powered rifles across their laps. The New York School did 500 pictures of tired underfed workers bending over huge bundles of pants in a sweat shop

Someone thankfully decreed a few years back that we Americans stop going to Brittany to paint the red sails in the Sunlight of the sardine boats. Stop painting devitalized allegorical nudes flying through clouds, scattering roses as the typical subject for all mural painting. In other words, to paint THE AMERICAN SCENE… take our subjects from about us-Grand! Fine! Glorious!

Working for free

By Armand Cabrera

Working for free is always a touchy subject for artists. For the sake of this discussion let’s ignore requests from family and close friends. That is a different situation and depending on your family dynamic or relationship it can be a nightmare that has no easy answer. My opinion is to avoid it whenever possible.  If you must succumb make it clear it is on your schedule and paying gigs always take precedent.

Strangers are easier to handle. After all you aren’t being paid so your time is better spent working on your own projects or trying to improve your weaknesses than giving away services. Working for free includes giving away your expertise to for-profit corporations as a teacher, speaker or demonstrator.

Charities and causes are the exception. I believe non-profits need our support; a for-profit corporation needs to compensate me though when they want a speaker or presenter.  Compensation doesn’t always have to be in the form of monetary remuneration. It can be a trade for services or advertising or merchandise. The key here is to get something to show for your work and not buy into the idea of ‘exposure’ which nine times out of ten is useless to you as an artist. Most people are well aware of the free and low paying end of the market so the exposure you get is usually more of the same kind of clients coming out of the woodwork. Not exactly a career builder.

 When you are starting out this attitude is more important than you think. New people want so badly to get established as artists they are willing to do almost anything for a chance at proving themselves. This is where most people get taken advantage of by unscrupulous businesses. This type of work will actually impede you on your road to paying work by taking up all your time if you let it.  The experience you get from it won’t apply to high paying jobs or better venues because the professionalism at the free level is non-existent or very limited. Respect the profession and it will respect you, limit your donations to charity.

More Dean Cornwell Quotes


Armand Cabrera

More quotes from the Dean of Illustration.These are from a 1926 lecture and were originally written by Horace Gilmore. I am leaving the misspelling and grammatical errors intact. I want to thank Kev Ferrara for hunting these down and sharing them.
 All images are Dean Cornwell.

Suggestion for designing canvas/composition – it is well not to have commonplace placement that is equal parts of foreground, middle distance, and distance. Better to have ample spacing of one or other.

When you use light and shade use it for all there is in it. If making a line drawing, then make it entirely a line drawing.

Have variety of space and shapes. When a canvas is designed it’s impossible to sign it without spoiling it.

Said picture looked as if a camera had just clicked without any thought, (happened to get it that way).

Suggested gasoline to clean canvas.

Picture looked as if it were made from other pictures instead of nature. Go to nature for everything. Natural edge of vignette, tree, edge of leaves.

Illustration perspective is free-hand perspective.

Study still life in different lights, outdoors, in doors, sunlight, etc. Have simple still lifes. Just one or two objects. Observe nature, relative values, and different lights, as moon and sunlight, night etc.

Regarding model in studio, always have picture practically finished before seeking models. Sometimes has model low for working on head, higher for working on body, and still higher for feet to get it as picture is laid in.

Light – (unreadable word – might be “Cornwell”) does part with artificial light, some with sky, related greys, etc.

Ideas that can be told in words are story ideas and not pictorial ideas. Pictorial ideas require consideration of nice design, sweet lovely tones, and color values and light, etc.

Don’t “do” everything. Sort of accent (bring out spots), nice large quick areas, and spots of detail carrying through.

Get the spirit of the picture. Different people have different kind of homes, do/live differently, etc.

Use light sweet high keyed tones for lovely girls, and low tones for men.

Dean Cornwell Notes part 1

Dean Cornwell Notes Part 2