Master Studies: Golden Age of Illustration: N.C. Wyeth

Alex-Bond_Master-Studies_NC-Wyeth

The Golden Age of Illustration was the period between 1850-1925 in which illustrated magazines and books climbed to the height of popularity, containing a wealth of art that embellished both fiction and non-fiction subjects in mass-circulation books, magazines, and posters. Illustration had never before, and has never since, been such a popular or vital form of art in the US. Why did it end, you ask? In the beginning, photographic technology furnished artists with not only reference images, but also empowered them with techniques  such as line-engraving and half-tone; though by the turn of the century photos began to take the place of illustrative art. Now they are the mainstream form of print art.

Key characteristics of this era were the strong values (contrast between light and dark) and clear silhouette shapes, and N.C. Wyeth’s works are among the best examples of those features. His subjects are also really interesting – he embraced both American themes, rich with cowboys and indians, but also themes like knights and pirates, in popular children’s books such as Robin Hood, Treasure Island, and Ton Sawyer – and established these characters visually in the minds of young readers for generations to come. You might even recognize some of them below!

My first assignment this year in Noah Bradley’s Art Camp is a series of master studies, both compositional (gray-scale) and color studies. For all these reasons, I began with studying the work of N.C. Wyeth and set out to learn about his arrangement of shapes, establishment of values, choice of color and subjects. It sounds kind of strange to those who haven’t tried their hand at copying a master, but I feel like when I’m doing it right, I ‘channel’ the artist and get into his head and understand his decision-making process. I take these lessons and then use them in my own work, like adding tools to my tool-belt. After-all, to understand something you have to ‘stand under’ it for a while, set your style aside, and make the subject of study more important than you. Part of the reason N.C. Wyeth was so successful was that he studied under the master Howard Pyle and took his edicts completely to heart. The practice of studying under masters has faded almost entirely from art school, but fortunately, we live in an era when the masters are at our fingertips and we can study under them in the comfort of our home studios.

When mimicking N.C. Wyeth, I noticed not only the strong dark shapes against light backgrounds that I’d read about from this age in art’s history, but also how masterfully he arranged the shapes to carry the eye through the composition. Composition is a balancing act – one element on the left balances one on the right, what’s below balances what’s above. I also noticed that Wyeth liked to pick only a few hues and then made the best use of them through their less saturated tones. To my eye, the ones with fewer hues seemed the most striking – hm, something to keep in mind…

References:

  1. The Golden Age of Illustration: Popular Art in American Magazines, 1850-1925.
  2. N.C. Wyeth: American Imagist.