Al Parker’s Ever-Changing Style

107 years ago today, Al Parker was born in St. Louis, MO.  He would later go on to graduate from the St. Louis School of Fine Arts at Washington University and eventually lead the change in the style of magazine illustration in the mid-20th century.

When you think of Al Parker’s illustration style, do images of fashionable mothers and daughters dressed alike pop into your mind?

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October 1939 Ladies Home Journal cover.

Or images of a man and a woman together because of some odd circumstance, with a line of dialogue or narration describing the scene?

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Dragonwyck part 2,  Ladies Home Journal, September 1943

Parker’s modern, less-rendered style, combined with his creative use of space and color, and his uncanny ability to draw people with believable yet interesting poses and gestures, set him apart from the other illustrators.

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Melville Goodwin part 3, Ladies Home Journal, July 1951

That style then became the trend that the magazine industry wanted, so others ended up copying the “Parker style”.  Parker however realized that he needed to continue to set himself apart from the imitators and was from the 1950s on, was continually experimenting with different styles.

A good illustration of this experimentation is in his artwork for the serialized story Melville Goodwin, USA, by John Marquand.  The story, about a war hero general, the marital affair he has, and the PR campaign to cover it up, was published in seven parts from May through November 1951, and would later be published as a book.

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Melville Goodwin part 5, Ladies Home Journal, September 1951

Typically when publishing serialized stories, the magazine would have each installment have the same look and feel in typeface, layout, and artist styling.  Since the same artist was hired to draw all of the installments, the art styling would stay the same throughout the run of the story, since artists didn’t typically change their styles.

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Dragonwyck part 1,  Ladies Home Journal, August 1943

The Dragonwyck artwork shown here and the one shown earlier both have the same typeface and same style to visually connect the installments together. For other examples of this practice, check out Mario Cooper’s Agatha Christie artwork in Colliers and Robert Weaver’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service artwork for Playboy.

The Melville Goodwin artwork shows a distinct deviation to serialized story presentation.  Parker, who was so trusted by art directors that he was often allowed to use his own representational ideas, used differing art styles and different typefaces for each of the seven installments.

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Melville Goodwin part 1, Ladies Home Journal, May 1951

Part 1 shows Parker’s experimentation with flat color in backgrounds of simplified scenes.  The stripes not only fill the double-page spread but also artistically emphasize the American military hero theme of the book besides just having the general in his uniform.

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Melville Goodwin part 2, Ladies Home Journal,  June 1951

Part 2 is a more traditional Parker illustration, except for the general’s head floating on the page over the title.  Parker would start to experiment with just using the heads or hands of characters, rather than just drawing the entire figure.

Part 3  (shown earlier above: parlor scene) is what people think of as the “typical” Parker illustration — the girl leaning into the guy, a background setting drawn out in detail, but not heavily rendered.

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Melville Goodwin part 4, Ladies Home Journal, August 1951

Part 4 shows a style that Parker would continue to experiment with throughout the 1950s and 1960s — flat color, flat perspective, and negative space, with the character drawn very simply and precisely without shadowing.  Parker narrowed down the scene to the fewest props, also drawn without shadowing.  The diagonal of the woman’s legs connects the art to the text.

Part 5 (shown above: the dance scene) would show another style that Parker would use more and more — character rendered with shadow, but with minimal background except for a few props to show location.  This time the props are drawn with his usual detail and dimension.

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Melville Goodwin part 6, Ladies Home Journal, October 1951

In Part 6, Parker has combined the flat color background of Part 1 with a flatter style, although the woman is drawn with more dimension than the woman in Part 4.  The one lone set piece, a chair, is in the background using the stripes as color, except for the seat cushion.  The diagonal of the woman connects the title and the chair to the bottom of the page and text.

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Melville Goodwin part 7, Ladies Home Journal, November 1951

Parker changes looks again in Part 7, with the flat color engulfing the entire page, except for the text and the illustrative caption.  The woman’s face and hand are drawn plainly with minimal shadow, yet her hair and flower are drawn in full three-dimensional effect to pop off the page.  The woman’s body is just a line that fades away, similar to the Part 5 girl in white.

Parker’s use of flat space and lack of dimensionality would also be copied by imitators later in the decade. From this point on, Parker would continue to experiment with styles, trying to stay a step or two ahead of the competition who was all too quick to copy him.

Happy Birthday Al Parker.

Credits:

The images displayed are from Modern Graphic History Library’s Al Parker Collection.

Information for this blog came from:

Ephemeral Beauty: Al Parker and the American Women’s Magazine, 1940-1960. Norman Rockwell Museum, 2007.

Parker, Al. How I Make A Picture.  Institute of Commercial Art, 1949.

Plunkett, Stephanie. Artists You Should Know #5: Al Parker. Available on Facebook.

 

About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.