Saturday, September 7, 2013


This one's for Connie Moon. Years ago when I was showing my late mother-in-law some of my illustration collection she promptly told me her favorite illustrator was Jon Whitcomb. And I could easily see why. For women of her generation, Whitcomb was the epitome of fashion and style.
(Connie and Bill looking like the perfect Whitcomb couple.)
He was a master at portraying beautiful young people in romantic situations, always acutely aware to present them in fashions that went beyond the contemporary to what would be the new trend. And this was all created with a cinematographer's eye for lighting and color that reflected his love of the Hollywood mystique.

Born in Weatherford,OK  in 1906 his father was a drafting teacher and his mother had taught art before her marriage. Consequently there was never a shortage of art supplies for Jon and his three sisters, one of whom went on to become a famous designer of women's gloves. Even as a young child, he had a distaste for antiques and anything old, always gravitating instead toward the new and exciting. He was never one who was enthused about the old masters.

The family moved  to Oshkosh, WI when Jon was six. He attended college at Ohio Wesleyan University, but after flunking Greek, an ancient language, he transferred to Ohio State to finish his degree. It was here that he became friends with the great cartoonist Milton Caniff. (Why do so many of the greats, like Bob McGinnis, come from Ohio State? Couldn't they have gone to Michigan?)

Soon after he began his professional career, the Depression descended on the country, but Whitcomb was not as adversely affected as most. He continued to work successfully as an illustrator in Ohio, and in the late 30's moved to New York where he began working for the magazines such as Post, Colliers, Lady's Home Journal and Collier's where his specialty was creating the young and the beautiful.

At this time his work was divided between story illustration (80%) and advertising (20%). While advertising payed more, he  discovered there was much less editorial interference as a storyteller. Whitcomb  soon left the Fawn Agency he was working for and with Charles E. Cooper created the famous Cooper Agency. He also discovered Hollywood. He had used a model for the first installment of a story and when she left for the west coast, he was unable to recapture the look with anyone else. Consequently, he followed the model, who turned out to be a young Susan Hayward, and was soon creating glamorous portraits for many of the classic hollywood faces. His love of Hollywood and the movies lasted a lifetime.
(Susan Hayward who didn't let a pretty face keep her from becoming a great actress.)

At the outbreak of WWII he was commissioned as a lieutenant in US navy. He saw action in the Pacific which ended with him being hospitalized with jungle rot and returned to the states in 1945. But things had changed- he had always had been a forerunner; now he felt that he was three years behind everyone else.

Fortunately, that wasn't the case for long, and in the fifties and well into the seventies Jon Whitcomb continued to be one of the masters of American Illustration. He would begin an illustration with a series of rough sketches to work out the story and the composition. These would follow with intermediate drawings, where he would use models (photographed by himself) for artistic verisimilitude. The final rough was then blown up on illustration board with a projector. Transparent washes of inks/designer colors (which unfortunately for later illustration collectors were not lightfast) were added. At various stages of the painting,  fixative was sprayed on the piece to eliminate smearing and also an aid if corrections were needed later. Final touches were done with pencil, crayon or pastel.

Some interesting Whitcomb quotes:

Oh himself as an artist: "You can say I don't think of myself as an artist. I'm a manufacturer, supplying some
thing editors want to buy. Somewhere I discovered what these people want and through a fortunate chain of circumstances I find myself able to produce it."

On teaching : "the self analysis required in preparing a course makes me terribly aware of my limitations."

On commerceality:  "I believe that the things that make artists interesting to a buyer are their shortcomings. Flaws plus virtues add up to character."

On photography and the camera lens: " does not receive the same messages as a human eye. To this extent, every photograph is a lie, and all cameras are liars."

More Jon Whitcomb illustration next week.


  1. Although his work was criticized Whitcomb was not afraid to bring glamuor color and romance to people's lives.His pictures have a flavor of Hollywood and escapism about them and he should be celebrated for his commitment to that.Technically they look very good, but I do wish these artists had taken the trouble to find and use archive guality materials. I know the argument was that the work wasn't viewed as anything other than ephemera but I'm pretty sure Rockwell and Leyendecker made the effort.