Plein Air Painting Easels

Back to



  home easel reviews contact


The Golden Age of Illustration - Harvey Dunn and Dean Cornwell                   

Some Insights Into Their Working Methods

As a follow up to last months newsletter on the Golden Age of American Illustration, I thought I would select two of my favorite illustrators, and present some information of their thought processes and working methods. Frankly, there doesn’t seem to be much written along these lines, but what I did find was pretty interesting.

We’ll start with Harvey Dunn. He was born in 1884 in South Dakota. At the age of eighteen he enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute. Two years later, he convinced Howard Pyle of his talent and was admitted to Pyle’s master classes at Wilmington and Chadd’s Ford. By 1906, he was making a living in the burgeoning and competitive world of commercial illustration. He would go on to illustrate dozens of books and periodicals such as Scribner’s and the Saturday Evening Post.

 In 1915, inspired by Pyle’s example, he, and artist Charles S. Chapman, opened the Leonia School of Illustration. Dean Cornwell, who attended the few years that the school was opened (it was disrupted by World War 1) pronounced, “I gratefully look back on the time when I was privileged to sit at Harvey Dunn’s feet … (he) taught art and illustration as one. He taught it as a religion – or awfully close to such.”

In 1934, Dunn began teaching classes in his studio, The Art Students League and Grand Central School of Art in New York. They were for advanced students, and included notables such as Dean Cornwell, Harold Von Schmidt and John Clymer. On one evening, a Miss Taylor took notes and recorded some of Dunn’s comments on his cogent teaching method. I found a copy in the basement of the Mitchell Museum, here in Trinidad. The whole thing is much too long to reproduce here, so I took the liberty of culling out a few of the highlights. You may find them instructive, or, at least, provocative.




From “An Evening in the Classroom (with Harvey Dunn)”:

  •  There is no such thing as a creative artist. An artist merely expresses that which has always been.
  • Avoid middle tones. They are negative. Especially on the head where the tone should be more than ever positive.
  • Try to find a motive for your picture that is universal in the hearts of men.
  •  But to fill it (the picture) with detail often makes the picture static (leave more mystery).
  • Be sure to have dark darks on the head as there are anywhere in the picture or the head will lack solidity.
  • Paint the details with your biggest brushes.
  •  Pictures are mediums of expression and if we are interested they become interesting.
  •   Contribute something of art and romance to the casual fact.
  • The spirit is the only thing that’s true about anything.
  • Once in a while we are blessed with an unconsciousness of the mechanical end of picture making.
  •  Think, but think artistically, not intellectually. When intellect comes in “art” goes out.
  • Use a big brush for the face and hands, and little ones for the sky.
  • Don’t try to draw too well. Only well enough to do the business.
  • When you’re painting a picture you’re not “defining a form”, but “symbolizing an idea.”
  • It’s got to mean ten times as much to you as it will finally mean to the man who buys it, in order for you to get across to him even one tenth as strongly as you felt it.
  •  When in doubt, leave it out!
  • Trust your feelings. When a man says, “I feel”, he’s pretty close to truth about it. If you kiss your sweetheart because you think you should, you’re not going to do it (for) long.

Dean Cornwell was a master artist and illustrator, and one of my personal favorites. He worked as an illustrator for forty-two years, and his list of accomplishments are far too numerous to delineate here. So I’ll just give a brief overview of his career.

Cornwell was born in 1892. In 1915 he attended the Art Students League in New York, where he met Harvey Dunn. Dunn proved to be a great influence on Cornwell, in respect to color theory and composition. He also studied under Frank Brangwyn, the internationally known muralist, which, later in life, served him well when he was commissioned to paint more than twenty murals for public places.

He illustrated books for some of the most outstanding authors of the period, including Pearl S. Buck, Edna Ferber, Ernest Hemmingway, W. Somerset Maugham and Owen Wister. His periodical illustrations graced the pages and covers of magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Redbook, to name a few. He also created advertising posters for such blue chip companies as Seagrams, Coca-Cola, Palmolive Soap, Scripps-Howard newspapers and General Motors.

The following description comes courtesy of Walt Reed (Illustration House), and was borrowed from the book Dean Cornwell – Dean of Illustrators, by Patricia Janis Broder (Collectors Press, Inc.). It’s a fabulous book, with excellent reproductions, and I highly recommend adding it to your library.

cornwell cornwell

“Dean Cornwell was a maestro with a brush. He was left-handed and to watch him in action on a painting was an inspiring sight.

For several years he did a series of eight lecture/demonstrations at the Art Students League. While these were ostensibly for the students, they were almost crowded out by Cornwell’s fellow professionals who also came to learn from the master. As a young aspiring illustrator in the early 1950’s, I felt privileged to be enrolled. Each weekly session had a single subject: “Composition,” “Anatomy,” “Costume and Folds,” “Color,” etc. The lectures were accompanied by Cornwell’s demonstrations in rapid-fire drawings or entire paintings.

 I can well remember one evening when he did a complete 30x40 oil painting in one three-hour session, starting with a blank canvas.

For the first stage he laid in the whole picture with a thin application of umbers and siennas diluted with turpentine to get his overall tonality quickly established. He then took a ten-minute break from the painting to let the turpentine half-dry while he prepared for the next stage, the application of full color.

As he laid out his color on the palette, Cornwell stressed restraint – reserving the strongest color and contrasts for the area which was to become the center of interest. The color in the rest of the picture would be subordinated to it. Cornwell mixed many varieties of browns and grays which he likened to a master chef’s repertoire of sauces and gravies.

His color was first pre-mixed on his palette in a series of piles of paint to match the range of values on the canvas. Then, with his design already blocked in, he rapidly laid on the paint with a wide brush, stroke by stroke, without a pause. Each brushful was applied exactly in its place, matching the tonal value of the sienna beneath. He kept the whole painting going at the same time – stage by stage – until all at once, it came together as a spontaneous tour-de-force, and we all stood up and applauded.

What most of the audience did not know then – and I did not learn until years later – was that the spontaneity was a performance preceded by a very careful rehearsal. In fact, every Cornwell painting or illustration was preceded by extensive studies, as evinced by the many such examples in this book. Nothing was left to chance. Variations of poses of the figures, the background elements, their positions and color relationships to each other were all explored and re-arranged until he was satisfied that every square inch of the picture made the fullest contribution to the totality.

However, none of the hard preliminary work shows in his final paintings and that is one of the qualities that make Cornwell’s pictures so enjoyable. He made it look so easy and so inevitably ‘just right’.”

In my final installation on the American Illustrators, I am going to talk bit about narrative painting and my own experiences with the genre. I will also have a step-by-step demonstration of a 28”x48” painting that I just completed. The subject involves the Battle of Juarez during the Mexican Revolution. I’m such a romantic – I love this stuff!


Paint on!