Turn Back the Pages: Austin Briggs Part 1

1960’s. Publication Unknown.

In this edition of “Turn Back the Pages” I’d like to talk about two things: Style and Austin Briggs (with Jack Kirby thrown in because…he’s Kirby!).


The word “style” is one that I’ve heard quite often and it started when I was a student at The School of Visual Arts. As my professional career grew it came up on a regular basis, particularly during my time as an agent at Gerald & Cullen Rapp, Inc. I still hear the word from time to time as a freelance Illustrator. You may have thought about and discussed style during the course of your own career.

My general definition of the word, in relation to illustration, is that it’s the visual look an artist brings to their work. It can be the technique or the way a composition is drawn, but for some it might go deeper and be the specific viewpoint in an image. It’s this look, or style, that can make the difference between a client hiring you or moving on to another artist. Professional competition and a lack of a specific direction, when it comes to the development of a personal style (we all need to follow our own gut), can often make it a divisive topic to discuss. Here’s the definition of style from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/ :

Style noun

a way of doing something, esp. one that is typical of a persongroup of people, place, or time:

For me, personally, I think it’s something that should come naturally and develop over time. That way the end result has meaning to you beyond surface technique. Here’s a quote by Jack Kirby, the legendary comic book creator, that mirrors my own thoughts on the topic:

JackKirbyQuote copy


Austin Briggs (1908 –1973) is an Illustrator that I think about when I consider style and influence. He started his career as a teenager at an Ad Agency in 1925 and later moved on to create freelance work for almost every big name client including: Blue Book, McCall’s, TV Guide, Reader’s Digest, King Features Syndicate (taking over the Flash Gordon comic strip from 1940-44) and The Saturday Evening Post. He is also one of the founding members of The Famous Artist School and is in The Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.

Here are two pen and ink illustrations that he did for the January, 1936 issue of Blue Book Magazine:

Briggs had this to say about the early part of his career:

“My black-and-white drawings of that period were fairly typical of those generally in vogue at the time. Then, suddenly, I discovered that the market for that kind of illustration had quietly faded away. I found an opportunity to do comic strip drawings, and these kept me going during some rather lean years. One day I went to Blue Book and was happily surprised to find they would give me all the work I wanted. While holding on to the comic strip job I spent all the time I could on drawings for this magazine…between 1935 and 1945. These were experimental years; I explored new compositional approached, new techniques or variations of old techniques, and new manners of working with limited means. This was my chance to learn, and I worked over drawings until they were as good as I thought I could make them.”

This is one of his comic strips for Flash Gordon from July 30th, 1944:

Flash Gordon. July 30th, 1944.

The reason why Austin Briggs comes to mind when discussing style is because of the various techniques he used during a long career. As shown above he started with tight pen and ink drawings and then later worked on comic strips. From there he did paintings for major advertisers and publications. Then in the late 1950’s he started to incorporate line into his finished pieces. Below is an example of an illustration that he did for The April, 1959 issue of The Saturday Evening Post and a more line based image for McCall’s from 1960.

Here are a few thoughts Briggs had about style in 1965 (from a talk he gave to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Association of Professional Artists):

“…the illustrators of the past have fallen into the grip of the same stultifying watchfulness that infects the fine art establishment. Each appearance of a novelty compels the established illustrator to take inventory of his resources and to decide whether it is to his advantage to embrace the novelty or to fight it – I am now quoting Harold Rosenberg from his book, The Anxious Object. He continues, speaking of the gallery painter – but it is the same for us – “Must the artist weigh the advisability of a new move against the likelihood that the style with which he is identified will continue to around interest? – Has the time come to unload and take on something new, and if so, whose judgment ought one to follow, one’s Own? Or some current loud noise?”

Let’s remind ourselves that last year’s fresh idea is today’s cliché. The field we love and live on is infected with thieves and peddlers. No new brush stroke can appear in any publication but some skillful craftsman in a studio can master it by the following noon. I am not opposed to these people because of their mastery of technique, but rather because they are not provoked to perform out of an observation of humanity…Really it’s because they have observed and coveted the success of another. Should they ever look at the public, whom we must actually see in order to communicate, they would see nothing at all. A Japanese poet once wrote, “When you look in a mirror, you do not see your reflection: Your reflection sees you!”

It’s interesting that since 1965 not much has changed. Artists today are still following trends and occasionally copying one another. I’m not saying that every artist does this and I understand why it happens. The business of illustration is a competitive one and every artist is looking for a way to stand out and get noticed. However, I agree with Briggs that it’s important for artists to “observe humanity” as he states above.

Briggs continues:

“Because our reading habits have changed so drastically, the printed picture carries a greater responsibility than ever before to function literally as copy…as text…I have been fortunate enough during a long career to invent and abandon a whole series of technical innovations, and these techniques have had much to do with the length of that career; but today we are awash in a veritable sea of Liquitex. Technique without the merest shadow of content is our “Stencilled Brillo Box.” We much make our pictures easier to read and identify with than the written or spoken word. I am certainly not opposed to innovation. I do not suggest that we, like Christopher Isherwood, become cameras with the shutter left open, but we are goofing a great opportunity through a kind of simple inertia. Even the good, new artists are less interested in solving the problem than in “doing what they want.”

The artist’s traditional role is to lead, but we seem to have lost the necessary virility with which to do it. Everyone knows that we see things as we are, and not as they are, so why copy artists as fallible as ourselves? Let’s stop feeling threatened by truly new ideas and have some of our own.

The past has always seemed a pendulum…what was in would surely go out, and what was out, in! But now with the pendulum eager to swing in our direction…nobody swings!”.

Below is a selection of artwork created during various stages of Austin Briggs career.

The quote about the early part of his career is from the 1952 book “How I make a picture” by Austin Briggs.

The red image at the top is from Cosmopolitan Magazine June, 1947.



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Categories: New Illustration

Author:Daniel Zalkus

Daniel Zalkus is an Illustrator and graduate of the School of Visual Arts in NYC. You can see more of his work at: danielzalkus.com

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