The Innovative Lines of Austin Briggs

This past weekend, illustrator Austin Briggs would have been 106.  The transportation industry welcomed the artist into the world when he was born on August 9, 1908 in a private railway car on a siding in Humboldt, Minnesota.  Since his father was an electrical engineer who installed telegraphic systems for the railroads, the family moved along with him.  He started drawing at age 4 and filled the railroad car with his artwork.  By age 12, the family had moved permanently to Detroit and Briggs soon had a scholarship for the Wicker Art School.

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1955 Friskies advertisement from unknown publication

Ultimately it would be the transportation industry that would give Briggs his first illustration job — but with automobiles instead of trains.  After graduating high school, Briggs was an assistant to an illustrator for car advertisements for $35 a week.  Briggs was skilled at drawing figures, so he would add in the people surrounding the car, but at a smaller than real-life scale, to enhance the car’s proportions.  However, once Briggs discovered that his employer was making $1000 per drawing, he left the job and began a freelance career with advertising illustration.

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1960 Renault advertisement from unknown publication

Briggs eventually wanted to draw fiction illustration.  His chance came in the mid 1920s with the weekly Michigan newspaper, Dearborn Independent.  He later sent examples of his illustrations to Collier’s and was encouraged by the magazine’s art editor.  That prompted Briggs to move to New York and enroll in the Art Students League.  He drew for Collier’s, McClure’s, and Pictorial Review.  Briggs had yet to develop his own personal style, so his work had yet to stand out from the other fiction illustrators.  When magazines cut back during the Depression, Briggs was yet another expendable artist.

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from A Star For Christmas, McCall’s, December 1960

He ended up “ghost drawing” for artist Alex Raymond’s “Flash Gordon” comic strip and illustrated for pulp magazines including Amazing Stories and Blue Book.  The art director at Blue Book gave Briggs freedom to experiment with his drawings, and Briggs then developed his own style.  This allowed him to get illustration assignments at Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Saturday Evening Post and advertising agencies.

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from Bonus Rookie, Saturday Evening Post, August 12, 1950

Briggs was drawing at a time when magazine illustration was transitioning from representational, rendered art to a more modern, less-rendered conceptual style, as championed by artists such as Al Parker.  Briggs’ earlier work is more representational.

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from You’re Only Young Once, Saturday Evening Post, April 6, 1946

During the 1950s, Briggs developed a unique modern, conceptual look, using minimal outlines and oversimplified details.  Often these illustrations were black and white line drawings with occasional added color.  This style would become so popular that it would be used by other artists throughout the decade.

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om Love’s A Sham, Saturday Evening Post, January 12, 1947

Briggs was always reinventing his style and experimenting with different techniques.  He would alternate between his various illustration styles depending on the assignment.

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Sports Illustrated cover, October 22, 1962

No matter which style he used for fiction illustration, his goal was the same — to capture the emotional aspect of the scene, often in a slice-of-life moment.

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from  The Unexpected Warrior, Saturday Evening Post, June 1, 1946

Briggs saw his role as the stage designer for the scene.  He saw fiction illustration not just an embellishment to the text, but a way to get the reader curious about what might happen in the story which would prompt further reading of the story.

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from Who Sent The Duchess?, 1963, from unknown publication

Briggs would brainstorm his story illustrations with a series of sketches until he found an idea he liked, finding that often one in ten ideas might work. He later used friends, family, and neighbors to pose for photographed scenes to help him fill in details.  For some assignments, such as a picture essay for Look, he would go on location and sketch.

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from The Fast-Changing South, Look, November 16, 1965

He painted in a variety of mediums, including gouache, non-acryllic oil paint diluted with turpentine, which ended up looking like gouache, and pen and ink.

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from Question, Mr. President!, This Week, December 8, 1963

Briggs would end up illustrating stories, essays, and covers for major magazines.  His commercial illustrations included ads for telecommunications, dog food, coffee, and beer.  One of his major clients was American Airlines.

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American Airlines advertisement, January 15, 1949

Another major advertiser was Chevrolet.  Turns out, Briggs never could get too far away the transportation industry.

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Chevrolet advertisement, from Saturday Evening Post, June 13, 1953

Credits

The fiction illustrations for “You’re Only Young Once” and “The Unexpected Warrior” are from the Charles Craver Collection.

All other images are from the Walt Reed Illustration Archive.

Information about Austin Briggs is from:

Ermoyan, Arpi. Famous American Illustrators. Rotovision.  1997.

Peng, Leif. Austin Briggs: “…regarded as an important young illustrator”.  Today’s Inspiration, February 10, 2009.

Reed, Walt. The Illustrator In America: 1869-2000.   Society of Illustrators, 2001.

Taraba, Fred. Masters Of American Illustration: 41 Illustrators & How They Worked. Illustrated Press, 2011.

About the author

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