1942 Floyd MacMillan Davis - Article - American Artist, Vol. 6, No.1, Jan.
An Interview By Ernest W. Watson
“When you approach Floyd,” warned a friend, apprised of my desire to interview this popular illustrator, “you’ll have to be almighty persistent. The first thing he’ll say is ‘Why bother with me when there is a real artist in the family?’ (Referring to his wife, Gladys Rockmore Davis).”
I was prepared for that because I had already asked Mrs. Davis to be the subject of our February painting article - this before I knew that the two famous artists were members of the same family. Even so I had my troubles; first to persuade Floyd, then to get at him. My first letter brought no answer. A follow-up phone call by my secretary brought a brusque refusal, followed, later the same day, by a remorseful apology for being so unfriendly, and promising to cooperate if we still wanted to use him. He explained that the phone call had interrupted him at a moment when he was wholly absorbed in a creative problem; at such a time, he said, he was as snappish as a bear surprised at a feast.
It is quite a trick to get an appointment with almost any artist who is a top-flight magazine illustrator. Deadlines, in present-day publishing practice, come so close on the heels of assignments that the illustrator scarcely finds enough time for sleep. A telephone call can indeed be serious when he is striving desperately to complete a drawing that has to be put aboard the six o’clock plane. Or when he is in one of those creative impasses so often encountered at the beginning of a new assignment.
Little wonder that Davis, answering the phone at such a time (I called him when he was starting Heads You Lose - a serial by Christianna Brand to begin in the December 31st issue of The Saturday Evening Post) was hopelessly befogged and had to be rescued by Mrs. Davis, whose studio adjoins that of her husband. It’s a good arrangement when rescuing is turn about as it is with the Davises.
If it is a bit difficult to get your foot in the door of Davis’ studio, once within, you meet the friendliest and most considerate of men. So it was that I and my photographer were most graciously received.
One of the pictures we got that day tells a lot about the man and his organization for work. Over the north window - it looks out on the Harlem River - is a battery of fluorescent lamps which, switched on in late afternoon, extend the day far into the night without perceptible change in quality of light. Davis does a good bit of night work; the telephone is quiet after business hours.
The mirrors seen behind him are in frequent use as he draws. He doesn’t depend too much on models, though of course he has a considerable number of different types within call. Like many artists with years of experience behind them, he is less dependent upon models than upon memory and imagination.
Those are bottles of colored inks on the windowsill. In a corner, not shown, is modeling wax and an unfinished figure. The camera is only a hobby - Davis does not use it for photographing his models.
Note those heaps of photographic magazines with their wealth of scrap on costumes, customs, action and all manner of flora, fauna and miscellany from the world over. No illustrator could function without reference material of that kind.
As for types, these crowd Davis’ mind till there is standing room only. They come from a retentive memory which seldom loses an interesting face once seen. These he grafts onto models that come to pose for him in the flesh. He relies almost wholly upon memory and is not addicted to sketching. He seldom uses any model literally; an old lady, for example, may serve as model for a sensitive old man. “But,” he asserts, “models usually conflict with exaggerated imaginative attitudes which are more truthful and far for interesting than photos or poses - caricature and some distortion is more arresting and much more fun for me in illustration than the literal.”
He is particularly fond of rough types and decadent highbrows of smart society, though he is by no means pigeonholed in any specialty. As Mr. W. T. Martin, art editor of The Saturday Evening Post, says, “Davis is not a ‘Johnny-One-Note’ pounding away at the same melody. He is equally at home with hill-billys and Park Avenue, with the interior of a small-town barber shop and the backwater in an English village.”
“Like every illustrator who is worth his salt, his pictures are painted with imagination and honesty. He manages to put excitement into them and impact and a differentness born of his own originality. His style and approach are so original that they encourage imitators, and at the same time make the task of imitators insuperably difficult. Davis has such a feeling for characterization that none of the people he draws are ordinary, and he is willing to lavish loving care upon a job and put all into it he feels it needs regardless of time and effort.”
If you are numbered among Floyd’s friends you may bob up in one of his illustrations. “Frequently,” he says, “I find myself creating a story character in the image of a friend or acquaintance. Sometimes it turns out to be an actual portrait.” To illustrate, Davis pointed to a striking likeness of Earle Winslow, a fellow illustrator, in one of his recent drawings. This practice often comes to his rescue when he is having a difficult characterization problem. He had been struggling for a day and a half with a figure in the illustration reproduced on page 6, until the actor Charles Laughton came to mind as the type he was trying to visualize.
Asked to show steps in the development of an illustration, Davis said, “I’m afraid you’ll find me a poor subject for a how-to-do-it article in your magazine, because the whole creative business goes on in my head where you can’t see it. Here’s all I’ve got to show on paper for my study of this Post story - displaying a few sheets of note paper filled with nearly unintelligible scribbles, clipped to sections of the story galley. “These hieroglyphics - to you - represent my only preliminary study on paper. From them I go at once to my final drawing, in colored inks, on illustration board. Sometimes the picture materializes quickly and with comparative ease. Frequently it ‘comes off’ only after a protracted struggle of two or three days; this is more likely at the start of a serial when the very first drawing establishes the story characters. These same people, you know, have to appear and reappear in the drawings for six or seven installments.” Before the first drawings are delivered Davis has them photostated for reference in doing those that are to follow. In color, too, the artist commits himself irrevocably in his very first drawing to a color scheme that will give continuity to the entire series.
Ask Floyd Davis how he composes his illustrations. All he can tell you is that he usually begins at the bottom which, when painted, gives him a sense of foundation for the rest of the picture. Generally speaking, he works from the bottom up, pretty much completing things as he goes. This in contrast to the method of working all over the canvas simultaneously - a more usual procedure. From this we must deduce that Davis has an exceptional faculty for developing his motive on an unseen canvas.
Does he do this analytically? Is he “design-conscious”? “No,” he replies, “My drawings are not composed; that is, they are not conceived as abstract pattern, as designs. All my creative faculties are focused upon purely illustrative qualities - characterization, action, putting the story across; and adding that something to it which goes beyond a factual interpretation of the author’s narrative, extending and enriching its significance. It seems to me that the artist, if sufficiently endowed and adequately trained, doesn’t need to give composition much thought; composition should be intuitive, just as dressing well is intuitive for the person of good taste. It happens.”
As for training, Floyd Davis never had the benefit of art school instruction. He learned his craft the hard way. Forced by circumstance to quit high school at the end of his first year, he got a job in a lithograph house in Chicago. For $3.00 a week he made tusche and did every kind of manual work entrusted to an apprentice. He was brought into contact with art - didn’t he carry lithographic stones about the shop? - and was given some opportunity to develop his own drawing skill. His first real art job was with Meyer Both & Co., the well-known Chicago Art Service.
His art career, interrupted by two and a half years of service in the U.S. Navy during the first World War, was resumed when he returned to Chicago and joined the Grauman Brothers’ organization as an advertising artist. It was here that he met the girl who was to become his wife. Gladys Rockmore, a successful fashion artist, had been taken on at Grauman’s, the only woman on the staff. It was an experiment; it didn’t work. As soon as Gladys entered the studio Floyd’s output dwindled, and as the weeks went by became practically non-existent. At the end of two months the management, in self-defense, if with reluctance, invited the young lady to leave - a martyr on the altar of romance.
But for Miss Rockmore martyrdom had a happy ending: she and Floyd were married in 1925. He had left the studio and was now a free-lance advertising artist. The following year the couple moved to New York where Floyd, dividing his time between advertising and magazine illustration, soon became top man in both fields. Now, art editors compete with art directors of advertising agencies for his drawings.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Daumier, Goya, and Toulouse-Lautrec are chief among Davis’ graphic heroes. These masters of caricature and characterization have influenced him consciously. They are, he says, his best clipping file.
Floyd Davis’ hobby is his summer home in Barnegat Bay. Here he loves to get into his old clothes and become carpenter, stone mason or painter, according to the current needs of his place. He swims in the ocean two or three times daily and takes long walks. In the city he devotes his spare time - what little there is - to music, the theatre and his friends.
Two children, Noel 12 and Debora 11, must be reckoned as influences in the lives and work of Floyd Davis and Gladys Rockmore Davis. They play their part in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For one thing, as may be expected, they are the subjects of drawings and paintings by their parents, particularly by their mother, who, in a few years, has achieved an enviable reputation as a painter. About her and her work our readers will learn in a feature article in the February American Artist.
Again quoting Mr. Martin of the Post, by way of a final word on Davis, “He is an artist’s artist, without the disadvantage of baffling the average American magazine reader. Men like him lift illustration to a place where it can rub shoulders with the fine arts without a sense of inferiority.”
Article is accompanied by 6 illustrations and 1 photograph.