Sunday, March 29, 2009


In 1958, a staff artist worked patiently in a back room at the famed Cooper Studio in New York, retouching the Pepsi Cola logo on a stack of illustrations. He came to an illustration by a new, unknown artist and stopped dead in his tracks.

Illustrator Murray Tinkelman, who also worked at Coopers, remembers receiving the call: "Hey Murray, come take a look at this." Tinkelman went over to see the new picture. "It was gorgeous" he recalls. The two decided to call in the superstars of Cooper Studios, Joe Bowler and Coby Whitmore. Bowler and Whitmore arrived together to inspect the new painting. Whitmore was "speechless." Bowler said, "I don't know who the hell did this, but the business is never going to be the same."

Bowler was right.

Young Bernie Fuchs arrived in New York and quickly set the field on fire. By the time he was 30, the Artists Guild of New York had voted him "Artist of the Year"-- an unprecedented achievement. His dynamic illustrations for magazines such as McCalls made him famous and attracted dozens of imitators.

So Fuchs was feeling pretty cocky by the time Sports Illustrated called him in the early 1960s to ask him to illustrate an article. Fuchs met with the legendary art director of Sports Illustrated, Richard Gangel. A tough minded visionary, Gangel gave Fuchs an assignment, but as Fuchs was leaving, added-- "Oh-- and I don't want that shit you do for McCalls."

Fuchs could have walked off in a huff. It would have been easy for him to continue working for other clients in the successful style he had already developed. Instead, he rose to Gangel's challenge and became even bolder and more innovative:

Image courtesy of Illustration House gallery

For a later issue of Sports Illustrated, Fuchs turned a portrait of the rather dumpy looking Branch Rickey into poetry.

Fuchs left behind all the imitators who continued to exploit the formula for Fuchs' earlier approach, and instead moved forward to grapple with new challenges. As illustration styles came and went, Fuchs' work was selected each and every year for more than 40 years by different juries from the Society of Illustrators as among the very best work produced that year. No other illustrator can claim such a record.

I am convinced that in order to accomplish what Fuchs has, you need both of the qualities demonstrated in the two stories above. You have to begin with great talent, sure, but perhaps even more important, you have to be prepared to take your initial success and re-invest it in new challenges. There is no guarantee that such a gamble will pay off, but if you are really, really good, that's what artistic success is for.