Harvey Dunn was perhaps the most highly-regarded illustration teacher of the first half of the last century and influenced many famous artists who studied at the Art Students League in New York and at the Grand Central School of Art. Dunn was so quotable, in fact, that two collections of his teachings, transcribed from students, were published as small books (Harvey Dunn Class Notes and An Evening in the Classroom). Thanks to the internet, Harvey Dunn’s wisdom lives on, despite the books being long out of print.
A star pupil of Howard Pyle (“the Father of American Illustration”) at his Brandywine School of Art, Dunn became the leading espouser of Pyle’s teaching philosophy when he became a teacher himself. Dunn, along with N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish and Jessie Wilcox Smith, all studied under Pyle and helped form what is known now as the “Brandywine Tradition” of illustration.
The reason an illustration teacher of the 1930s and 1940s is of such interest to me is because I am a legacy of the Brandywine tradition. You see, Harvey Dunn was my teacher’s teacher’s teacher. He taught Harve Stein, the founder of the illustration department at Rhode Island School of Design, who taught the award-winning RISD professor Thomas Sgouros, who taught me.
As the next generation of illustration teachers, and because some of my students have become illustration teachers too, I can’t help but wonder what, if anything, is being passed on. Reading these old quotes, I’m pleasantly surprised by the similarities of attitude and approach. A single phrase from a Harvey Dunn exhibition catalogue from The Biggs Museum of Art in Delaware says it well: “As a teacher, Dunn continued in the tradition of Howard Pyle, focusing on ideas rather than technique.”
from Harvey Dunn Class Notes by Charles J. Andres, student of Harvey Dunn 1938 – 1941
In his teaching Dunn was more concerned with the essential spirit of the work than technical procedures. “…he never taught what kind of brushes or paint to use. It was merely whether the result had anything in common with the excitement of human existence”
The pictorial idea was essential. It had to be grasped and held and followed. Dunn said, “There are ten thousand people in the United States who can paint and draw to beat the band. You never heard of them and you never will. They have thoroughly mastered their craft. And that is all they have — their craft.”
The pictorial concept indicates or suggests in some manner how to achieve it. It deals with its spirit, its essence. Anything less is incidental. This pictorial concept is the essential thing and it is derived from the spirit or character of the idea. Howard Pyle realized this, and finding the art schools inadequate, started one from which N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Harvey Dunn, and many others emerged, forming the “Brandywine Heritage”.
“Teaching is the most important work I have done”
“Mr. Dunn taught art and illustration as one.” -Dean Cornwell (award winning student)
from An Evening in the Classroom; being notes taken by Miss Taylor in one of the classes of painting conducted by Harvey Dunn and printed at the instigation of Mario Cooper,1934
“Once when I had a little job, the editor said, “Mr. Dunn, don’t spend too much time on these things, we’re not paying you for a lot of work, and they’re not worth it.” And I replied, “Mr. Editor, you may be paying me for these, but I’m really working for this fellow Dunn, and he’s got to be pleased.”
“It’s the invisible something in a picture which makes it a good one.”
“People say to me how wonderful it must be to be an artist, how I must enjoy my work, etc… Not knowing how we have to slave and sweat and struggle and swear before that picture.”
“Don’t make it necessary to ask questions about your picture. Howard Pyle used to say it’s utterly impossible for you to go to all the newsstands and explain your pictures.”
“The idea is not to “simplify” a picture. Keep your thoughts about it, simple.”
“When you come into the class I asked you if you wanted to be an illustrator and you said you didn’t know. I am reminded of the time we were starting a class in Leonia, (in a house to which clung the odors only years can accumulate) and I asked Mr. (N.C.) Wyeth to come up and talk to the students. Some of them told him they wanted to make money so they could go out and paint and be an artist. Wyeth said: “Fine! — but the only trouble is you’ve got to be an artist before you can be an illustrator.”