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Ribald Classics Part 2: Sleepwalking Into a Style

FEBRUARY 25, 2010
I began my career drawing pictures for a series called the Ribald Classics published in Playboy Magazine. Playboy had been publishing the feature since I was in grade school. Now, a few years out of high school, I was given the opportunity to make the feature my own.

From Playboy’s beginning in 1953, the Ribald Classics had always been a black and white series. But after my first year, the editors seemed to be pleased with what I had done, so they gave me more space and full color.

Color should have been a welcome addition, but in fact it sent me back to the drawing board to work out a new approach. I knew that however I adapted my black and white style to color it would have to be consistent with the graphic style of the first year's images. In the meantime, I would still have to juggle all the other elements that went into the ideas for the pictures.

Our working arrangement always began when the art department sent me a layout based on the story's word count. Whatever picture idea I came up with then would have to fit into the pre-determined space they had given me. Moreover, the figures I drew were often going to be naked. That meant that whatever colors I used would either be limited to skin tones or introduced as other elements.

Working under a tight deadline every month color now became just one more cat to herd.

At first, I tried to saturate the pictures with color and draw over them with black line. That worked for a picture or two, but I realized that for an ongoing series, there were limits to how many times I could get away with painting people blue and yellow.

Some of the pictures from that transition period worked perfectly, although when I see them now, some of the others make my skin crawl. To do a picture every month, I knew I'd have to come up with a consistent approach that was less eccentric.
My original Ribald Classic style dated to my teenage years, and owed a large debt to a number of artists, most of them dead. It turned out there were several advantages to this, the chief one being that I was never likely to run into any of them at cocktail parties.

But in general, my influences had been Ben Shahn’s  drawings, Leonard Baskin's prints and the woodcuts of the great 18th century Japanese artist Hokusai. Yet what I made of these influences owed a good deal to my youth, ignorance and lack of education.

I had never taken an art course since the ninth grade in high school. In the long run, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, but at the time, when I was first floundering around in Chicago, it seemed to be a blessing that had been very well disguised.

Many of the artists I admired were printmakers, yet at 18, I didn’t really understand that. Of course I knew vaguely what a woodcut was, but at that age I couldn’t have told you how one differed from a wood engraving. As for lithographs, I mistook the texture of the limestone blocks for the effects of charcoal, crayons or pastels. And etchings I believed to be plain ink drawings and I marveled at how anyone could achieve the subtle background tones that were actually the ghostly residual tone of ink wiped off the surface of the etching plate.

So in fact my Ribald Classic style evolved from trying to get the effects of woodcuts, lithographs and etchings without knowing at the time that it was the printmaking process itself that yielded those effects. As a result, I exprimented with direct ways of getting textures and succeeded in getting something original.

In evolving this style, I seemed to have benefitted from the instinctive confidence of a sleepwalker. I certainly never knew what I was looking for. I simply fooled around with paint until I'd found it.
Now, in looking back, what strikes me is how far out of the mainstream it all was. At the time, Pop Art and the Mod look were in fashion. Illustration was being influenced by that.  I seemed to be going in a different direction. And meanwhile, editors at Playboy who had originally expected period pieces out of me, began to get used to getting something else.

The limitations of the page led me to another innovation that, for a while, baffled the editors. In order to compress ideas into a limited space, I began using figures of differing sizes.
Setting big figures against little ones became one of the trademarks of the Ribald Classic pictures. In fact, I believe it was through this series that the use of disparately sized characters entered modern graphic art. With the exception of Heinrich Kley's sketchbook drawings, done in Germany in the 1920's, I'm unaware of the device being used anywhere before this.
But as useful as the innovation came to be, it was certainly one that disturbed editors at the time. "Tell him he isn't illustrating Gulliver's Travels," one editor at Playboy told the art department. It was a complaint I was to hear more than once in the early days of my career.
For anyone who expected illustrations to illustrate, there could be no excuse for portraying figures of different proportions unless the difference had been specified by the text. On a symbolic level, disparity in size could be interpreted in various ways. The most cliche would be to represent differences in power or status. But in fact the innovation came about as a solution to a very practical problem.
The challenge of devising a picture that could be matched to a particular story and still fit the limits of the space alloted for it was one that confronted me from the very first assignment. I can remember staring at that first art department layout for hours and trying to find a way to stuff a picture of any kind inside it.

For a whole day, I sketched possible concepts that led nowhere until I hit on the idea of filling the space with a dominant figure and subordinating the others. From that moment on, I realized that I had not only found a solution to the problem of space but I had hit on a device that would give me extra flexibility in composing the kind of images I was seeing in my head.

The layouts usually called for spot illustrations or half pages, sometimes a full page, sometimes a double page spread. To get consistency out of these irregular spaces, I tried to keep the format flexible and the style comprised of elements that  let me run the gamut from pure line drawing to full color.
What finally evolved was a confection of thin ragged pen lines, patterns of flat blacks, mottled textures of various kinds and, ultimately, details of faces and figures painted simply and directly.

In general, a ribald classic might be anything of a sufficiently racy nature: an Old Wives Tale, an undergraduates drinking song, an urban legend or a story you heard in the Navy. In Playboy, it usually it meant dirty stories by famous writers.

Over the years, I was to do pictures for tales by authors such as Ovid, Boccaccio and Jonathan Swift; Chaucer, the Marquis de Sade and Mark Twain. The stories were rarely reprinted from the original texts, some of which would have been foreign of course, like Balzac, archaic like Chaucer or nearly unreadable, like anything by the Marquis de Sade. So as a rule, they were retold in modern language by contemporary writers, some of whom used phony names so as not to jeopardize their day jobs as book editors or literature professors.
The stories may or may not have been literary masterpieces, but given their nature, it’s a sure thing they had been left out of the literature textbooks of the era.

According to scholars, ribaldry is different from pornography or erotica because it's supposed to be funny. That worked for me, although my sense of humor has never required me to be jolly. For me, a picture was as ribald as it needed to be if it showed something you hadn't seen before or showed something you had seen before in a novel way.

Ribald humor tends to satirize both taboos and the people who violate them. Its subversive element is the reason authorities in many societies have often tried to censor it.
But by the time I entered the ribald humor business, the US had already become an aggressively permissive society. There was little you could do to shock people any longer except maybe to say please and thank you.
Of course, I wasn't really looking to shock anybody. I just saw each story as a  hook to hang an interesting picture on.

Ribald humor doesn't have to be about sex, although in my case, this was Playboy so it seemed to turn out that way. And anyone with enough experience with sex knows there's plenty there to find humor about. Yet sometimes sex is just a metaphor to satirize something else.  That may have been the case with some of these pictures.

By the time I took over the series, it had been part of the magazine for more than a decade. Its genesis had been in the magazine’s impecunious beginnings. As a start-up, Playboy had had little money to spend on writers. Publishing fiction from the public domain let the editors pad out the girlie photos on a shoestring budget.
Yet by the time I came on board, Playboy was an entertainment empire and the highest paying magazine in the world. The editors were publishing interviews with newsmakers and fiction by Nobel Prize winners. The magazine often broke stories, made headlines and was frequently the center of news itself. It had transformed itself into one of the most successful magazines in publishing history; and as art director, Art Paul had used it to revolutionize magazine design and illustration.
Hefner himself has compared his founding art director's influence on popular culture to that of Andy Warhol’s: “Arthur, quite frankly, was responsible for changing the nature of commercial illustration,” he's said. “He blurred the lines between fine art and commercial art."

In the decade before me at least three different artists had been assigned to the series and all had done admirable work.
Leon Bellin, Eugene Karlin and Robert Dance had all worked in different black and white styles and all had stayed within the traditional function of illustration. That is, they illustrated scenes from the stories and did their best to stay true to the text. That was something editors could understand and respect. So it’s not surprising that some of them were put off when I came aboard with a completely different approach.

Yet it appears it was that approach that had appealed to Art Paul.

Art had been schooled at Chicago’s Institute of Design, with its Bauhaus philosophy of combining crafts and fine art. For him, the opening spreads of magazine articles should act as small posters, and he designed them to surprise and hook the reader.

Equally important, Art saw himself as an art editor, seeking out artists with styles as different from Norman Rockwell as printmakers, sculptors, fine artists and folk artists. His goal was to publish art that captured the “mood of a text and not merely a situation within it.”  

But his greatest challenge in assigning art, he once told the Art Directors Club, was "to convince illustrators to free up and to persuade painters that they weren’t selling out" by doing work for a mass circulation magazine.

Maybe that’s why, when I told him that I wasn't interested with illustrating other people's ideas, but in doing something personal, we found that we were speaking the same language.

As inconceivable as it  might seem these days, in all the years I worked on the Ribald Classics I never had to send in a single sketch for approval. A week – or sometimes just a few days – before the final art was due, I'd get a layout from Bob Post, the Assistant Art Director. Then, on the day it was due, Bob would get the art from me. Year after year, from the very beginning, nobody at the magazine ever knew what I was going to send them until they got it.

A partial list of the artists Art published in Playboy include many who in the course of a generation helped redefine illustration as a form of popular art: Paul Davis, Kinuko Craft, Seymour Chwast, Alan Cober, Don Punchatz, Dugald Stermer, Randy Enos, Guy Billout, Jim Spanfeller, Charles Bragg, Roger Hane, Sandra Hendler, Herb Davidson, Alan Magee, Kathy Calderwood, Roy Schnackenberg, Ed Paschke, Frank Gallo - it's really too long a list to go on.
And a longer list would have to include all those artists who‘ve worked for Playboy since Art left, people who may never have met or worked with him, but who’ve nonetheless been the beneficiaries of the staff and the legacy he left behind.

It was my good fortune to stumble into the magazine at just the right time, when its reach was the greatest and its reputation the highest, but while its founding art director was still in charge and willing to let even a young artist with more imagination than good sense experiment with both style and content. The platform Art gave us at Playboy is a testament to how decisive one art director's vision can be, not only in defining the look of his time, but in exposing to the world the talents of others who have something unique to say.