Process: Love’s Secrets Revealed

When we fall in love with a picture, it’s almost always at first sight, and that was the case with me recently, on a research trip to the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University, in St. Louis. (My trip was sponsored by a New Faculty Grant from the Rhode Island School of Design, where I teach.) Like on a Christmas morning, I opened up a box before me, and swooned at what lay inside.


What faced me was a lush, atmospheric, drawing by F.R. (Frederic Rodrigo) Gruger. Created for the September, 1923rd issue of Harper’s Magazine, the picture illustrated “The Lotus Eaters” by Henry James Forman, and it took my breath away. The artwork spoke to all of my personal proclivities; an exciting Italian streetside composition featuring dramatic light and dense darks. The stunning, monochromatic work drew me into a deep space, and to a far away place of wonder.


My two days of research at the library were dedicated to intense looking and learning from original illustration art, which is seldom seen. Perhaps, they could reveal some secrets.

For instance, how did F. R. Gruger create such convincing light sources in his works? I’m not really a technique geek, but in this case, I was truly curious and envious of his methods. Looking at original art is always revelatory, even if you’re only learning that the art is bigger, or smaller than you expected -having only seen reproductions. In this case, I wanted to know how he got light to pour from that Italian alley.


Gruger’s work, like most of the other illustration artworks that I examined that day, was created on “illustration board” a kind of cardboard. Actually, the board he used was cheap, but made famous by his work, and referred to, in time, as “Gruger board”. The drawing itself was created with a carbon pencil, and didn’t look as much like a charcoal drawing as it does in reproduction. A matted border had perhaps been glued around the picture before, and it left an ugly discoloration at the margins, perhaps because of glue.

The board was gray, and I was surprised to find no white paint or marks, in the brightest parts of the picture. Rather, the brightest brights were just the untouched board. Looking closer, especially at the margins, I could see that this carbon pencil drawing, was drawn over a toned wash of gray ink, or watercolor.


Gruger 003

F. R. Gruger was a famous and infuential illustrator of his day: the 1910’s and 20’s. Known for  his “innovative technique.” he was refered to, in his  Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame profile as “an artist’s artist” – the envy of his peers. Actually, he so intrigued them, that a cartoon of him was created by another illustrator (seen above), showing a knight guarding his studio, and the process secrets therein.



Examining a second drawing, I noticed, what might have been his luminosity trick. That is, when Gruger lay down the grey wash on which he alway drew with pencil, he left specific places untouched – and in doing so, it made all the difference.

Looking closely at the illustration above, the man’s face, shirt and hands, along with the hole in the ceiling above, are untouched by the grey -so they appear to shine. In the “Lotus Eaters” illustration, Gruger left the brightest brights untouched, too. Both drawings have specific exceptions to his value range. And this trick is hard to see in reproductions of the art, like the one below, or in a framed piece, where one can’t know the actual tone of the paper. It’s a good trick, and a very effective one. When the light hits things in Gruger’s pictures, they’re extra bright, and extra convincing.


An amazing piece of detective work? I think not. Nor is it the entire reason for F.R. Gruger’s fame. He was a terrific illustrator: a great draftsman, composer, and interpreter of fiction.

But, it is a testiment to close looking and the patient examinination of original art. Something I’m eager to do again, and soon.


For more about F. R. Gruger, check out the Illustration Art blog.

Further Observation:

In describing his sensibilities, which could be considered as a fondness for the picturesque, Gruger said this:

“One may perceive the charm of smart clothes and exquisite equipment, of beautiful women and well-dressed men, of trimmed hedges and smooth lawns and weedless paths…I could never do anything with it so I left it to others and contented myself with admiration of what they did. For me the weathered street, the lived-in houses, the old trees…Used belongings, comfortably worn and pushed about into homely order long before the incident in the story occurred. To remain, bearing the scars of use, long after it has passed. Perhaps that is the poetry of character. “