Go Back to School with Al Parker

Now that students are heading back to school, Modern Graphic History Library presents lessons from the correspondence course created by Al Parker for the Famous Artists School.

Parker was one of 12 artists that founded the Famous Artists School in 1948.  The school was based in Westport, Connecticut, which was a popular location for artists to reside due to its proximity to the New York City art market.

The idea for the school came from Albert Dorne, a successful artist in both advertising and fiction illustration. Art students would ask Dorne for advice, and Dorne thought a correspondence school would be a way to help provide aspiring artists with top-rate instruction, no matter where they lived.


June 1966 advertisement on the back of Marvel Comics’ Fantasy Masterpieces

After obtaining the support of Norman Rockwell, 10 other top artists, including Al Parker, were recruited as Founders.  Each of the Founders created their own lessons and then trained and mentored art instructors to critique the assignments that the students mailed in for grading.  There was also a course in Cartooning.

Students could select which artist they wanted to study for a two-year course for the cost of $300 plus the cost of art supplies.  Students wanting to study realism could select Norman Rockwell or Stephan Dohanos.  The lessons of Austin Briggs and Robert Fawcett included tutorials on drawing the human figure.  Some lessons focused on the specializations of the artists: Peter Helck was known for drawing automobiles, John Atherton was famous for his rustic, rural scenes, while Harold von Schmidt and Fred Lueckens were experts at drawing the Wild West.   Ben Stahl was a popular Saturday Evening Post illustrator and Jon Whitcomb was known for his glamorous illustrations for romance fiction.

mghl_parker 2

mghl_parker 4mghl_parker 3 mghl_parker 5

And then there was Al Parker, who in 1948, was one the most popular artists of the day and admired by many other artists, including Norman Rockwell.  Parker designed his lessons based on how he drew an illustration from start to finish.  Parker would reference finished illustrations (printed in black and white in the lesson book) and provide insight on his thought process for that particular assignment.  He would often provide sketches and photographs that were used in creating the final work.

mghl_parker 6

sketch for Extra Woman, McCall’s, July 1948

Lesson 1 was Reading the Story Manuscript.  Parker describes his analysis of a humorous story for Ladies’ Home Journal and how he set about to illustrate the story so the hero would appeal to the women readers.

mghl_parker 7

Below is the original artwork.

mghl_parker 8

from The Voice of Jerome Kildee, Ladies’ Home Journal, January 1948

Lesson 3 was on Composition.  For an illustration for the February 1947 Ladies’ Home Journal, Parker deconstructs the tones of the image.

mghl_parker 9

Below is the original artwork.

mghl_parker 10

Ladies’ Home Journal, February 1947

In another Composition example, Parker shows how a first attempt did not work partly due to the placement of objects in the scene.

mghl_parker 11
Below is the way it appeared in Cosmopolitan.

mghl_parker 12

from Honor Bright, Cosmopolitan, November 1948

Parker talks about using photographs in Lesson 5 : The Camera and the Illustrator.

Parker shows how to combine several photographs, since the models were not all available at the same time.

mghl_parker 13

Below is how it was printed in McCall’s.

mghl_parker 14

from Extra Woman, McCall’s, July 1948

Parker also shows an example of a model pose he selected that ended up not working with the composition.

mghl_parker 15

Below is the final composition as it appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal.


from Kinfolk, Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1948

Eventually, individual lessons from each Founder were combined into one basic lesson.  In 1981, the Famous Artists School was acquired by home study course publisher Cortina Learning International.



The images from the lesson pages are from the Al Parker Collection.  The collection includes lesson plans from other school Founders in addition to Parker’s lessons.

The advertisement in the comic book is from the Center For Humanities Comics Collection.

Information on the Famous Artists School is from:

Famous Artists School.  Wikipedia, no date.

How The Famous Artists School Began.  Famous Artists School.com, no date.

Mitten, Ryan. Uncovering The Treasures Of The Famous Artists School Archives.  Norman Rockwell Museum, November 2013.

About the author

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