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Dear James: Letters to a Young Illustrator Hardcover – Bargain Price, October 13, 2009

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"Under the guise of letters of advice to a young illustrator, R. O. Blechman has written a profound and witty discourse on the nature of all creativity, not just the artistic kind. It reads like a nimble treatise on life itself." —John Ashbery

"This little book is professionally essential, as well as sweet and wise." —Milton Glaser, author of Drawing is Thinking

"I often receive letters from struggling young artists looking for, begging for, advice. I shall point them to this book for it says all they need to know." —Maurice Sendak

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

January 20, 1984

Dear James,

Before commenting on the drawings you were kind enough to send me (or foolish enough -- my tremulous line can sometimes cut and draw blood), I feel compelled to comment on your name. James. That speaks well for you. You've resisted the dreadful trend of reducing a perfectly good name to a sound bite. In going against the contemporary grain, in avoiding the crowd of Bobs and Bills, Tims and Toms, you have taken a different path than most people, and that is a good sign. All art worthy of its name has a counter look, has taken an errant path, one that others have not as yet taken -- a path that a James might tread.

You write that you would like to become a professional illustrator. Beware. Your work will ultimately not be judged by your peers. It's an editor, not an art director, who wields the almighty thumb in the savage arena of journalism. And editors are not noted for their visual taste. In the relationship of editors to art directors, the latter are invariably the junior partners. The very title, illustrator, implies the rank of the image. An image serves the text, it merely "illustrates" it. (A curious reversal of these roles occurred in the late 19th, early 20th centuries with the Parisian art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard. He often commissioned artists to provide visuals, then hired writers for the texts.)

A while back I wrote of the unequal relationship between writer and illustrator, and I can do no better than to repeat myself. If a text read, "'Bill kissed Sally in the hammock as it swayed gently between the hemlocks,' the illustrator's job was to strictly render Bill kissing Sally in the hammock as it swayed gently (not vigorously!) between the hemlocks (not pines!). It was not for illustration to aspire to the status of literature, as Anton Chekhov described it: 'The moon reflected in a piece of glass at the bottom of a stream.' Illustration was the moon, period. Or the glass, period. Nothing less, and nothing more -- no reflections, no distortions."

That has changed. In the mid-fifties, a revolution occurred and a new word entered the vocabulary of commercial art. Concept. Illustrators asked themselves, "What's the idea behind the text? How can we express an idea, and express it in a novel, and maybe even a startling way, that will expand, or comment upon the text?" In jazz parlance, a theme had become the occasion for a riff. Pranksters with our pens, we had become so many Charlie Parkers.

But the change was not entirely good. Our gain was also a loss.

The literal approach to text implied a literalness of technique and a high level of draftsmanship. There was great value in something well observed and carefully delineated. If the head and heart were often absent, there was something to be said for the presence of a hand.

Now, James, I have to pause and take a deep breath. It occurs to me that I've done everything except what you wanted me to do. Talk about your work. So I will answer your question. Finally. Let me say, as an overall comment, without going into details and very simply, that I like your work. I like its modesty. I like what's not said that doesn't need to be said. You get your ideas across with just enough to feed the eye as well as the mind. You draw a jacket and there are no buttons, no cuffs, no collar -- but there it is: a jacket that reads as a jacket, and satisfies as a drawing. Its simplicity shows respect for the viewer. You don't give more than what the mind needs, nor less than what the eye deserves. So bravo! Let's see more.

A final word. If you send your work to the magazines, you may be in for a shock. You may get a rejection note. The worst kind. A printed form. And probably you will be shattered. Shattered. We artists are hypersensitive, or we wouldn't be -- couldn't be -- artists. But don't, for God's sake, do what I once did -- try to find out if the signatures are real. They won't be. I used to get rejection slips from The New Yorker, but stubborn, or silly, me, I kept sending them stuff. Although once -- hallelujah! -- I did receive a letter, a real one with a genuine signature. At least it looked genuine. I wasn't sure. So I gave it what I call the spittle test. I licked my finger and ever-so-gently touched the edge of the signature. And it smudged! The y in Geraghty smudged! It was the real thing! The art director of The New Yorker, William Geraghty (or Geraght), had written twenty-three-year-old me to say that I should send him more work. Of course I didn't. Why tempt fate when I had taken such a notable step up the career ladder?

But you may not get letters signed by art directors. You probably will get printed rejection slips. And as I've said, you will be shattered. It may have been the third or fourth or thirteenth or fourteenth rejection slip that you've received, and you will think, No, I'm not going to waste any more twenty-cent stamps (twenty times two! There are all those self-addressed and stamped return envelopes), so I will not send out any more drawings.

So don't. You can send them to me. But not right away. I have a crazy deadline that will keep me busy for another few weeks. And then you can send me more of your drawings. It's not only your name I like. I like your work.

Best wishes,

R. O. Blechman

Copyright © 2009 by R. O. Blechman


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 13, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439136874
  • Product Dimensions: 7.4 x 5.4 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,666,196 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By LKP on November 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In this small-but-choice book, R. O. Blechman conveys his love of his chosen career, and so much more. This intimate book gives one the feeling of a rare chat with an experienced and generous artist, willing to reveal his bag of tricks as well as some favorite quotations gathered over many years. Far beyond a practical guide for emerging illustrators this book is for ANYone who is fascinated by Where Ideas Come From, and the necessary dance that takes place in the artist's studio.
Encouraging, insightful, humorous, moving -- I felt that I had tripped over a wonderful bounty of private correspondence between a wise mentor and an eager beginner. This is a book to be read, and then re-read, and then re-re-re-read. I plan to keep it on the shelf, next to my favorite-quotation journal. Treat yourself!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
this is a lovely little volume from one of my all-time heroes, r.o. blechman, an important illustrator of our times, whose commentary through his art is always sensitive, understated, yet effective. his simple style has been copied by many, yet his technique and voice remain unique. blechman gives advice to younger and just-getting-started illustrators, explaining how his business works, and how he approaches projects. i found the book to be motivating, being a frustrated ex-art director/wannabe illustrator. my biggest challenge is getting started and fearing my own lack of perfection, and blechman addresses these and other relevant challenges faced by many creative people. his tone is always kind and encouraging. this is a fast and enjoyable read, for anyone who is or wants to be more creative. it would also make a great gift.
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By Khrysserx on June 23, 2014
Format: Paperback
I came across this little book at the exact moment when I needed it; I had suffered a major setback in my writing career and found I had to start over again from scratch. 'Dear James' helped me tremendously - it's not full of shattering revelations, but rather sound encouragement, good common sense, and wisdom. Plus it's funny! I was so impressed I wrote an email to Mr Blechman to thank him for writing the book, and to my surprise he wrote back to me, thanking ME for my message. Maurice Sendak was right when a called Blechman a real mensch, I will always treasure that reply from the man himself and I will always treasure this book.
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