Dean Cornwell: Shaping the Story many triangles can you find in this picture? Hint: a bunch. They are formed by legs and arms. Actually, all of those soldiers combined with that gun that they’re firing form a triangle. And where do they all point? Yes, up to the left.  All of that is on purpose – by design. It’s composition at its most exciting. The elements in the picture are thrusting upwards in a unified way. The squares and rectangles have corners pointing in the same direction.

Dean Cornwell was a master illustrator and muralist. Hi nickname among contemporaries was “The Dean of Illustration.” To us, he was old school. That is, a narrative painter in the vein of Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, James Montgomery Flagg,  Howard Pyle, and his teacher Harvey Dunn. His work looked realistic. But one shouldn’t doubt that everything was created and served his communication concepts.


In this second illustration above, you won’t find thrusting triangles. Instead you’ll follow that drooping line of the couch, echoed by drooping of the man’s head. The composition sets up a feeling of despair.



In this painting the figures are the pupil of an eye-shape – formed by the Venician bridge and shadow. We can compare the two of them to the other pairings in the picture (poles). They are more separated. She looks away.



This picture has triangles like the first, but notice they go in different directions. There’s a pronounced element of confusion and distress created.


“A Composition,” says Cornwell, “is not just a nice arrangement with everything gracefully filling the space. No matter how satisfying it may be from abstract point of view it is meaningless in illustration unless it is built around and wholly expresses an authentic idea that motivates that particular picture.”*  


Further Observation

Looking at these examples, we see that Dean Cornwell not only told a variety of human stories, but also took us to convincingly to many places. All from his suburban studio in New Rochelle, New York. Which leads me to a second quote worth sharing, found in the same book*:

“An important difference the painter of easel pictures and the illustrator, is that the former goes through life painting the things that he sees before him, the things that appeal to him, while the latter is forced to paint something that neither he nor anyone else has seen, and make it appear as if he has actually been an observer on the spot.”

“The Measure of an illustrator is his ability to take a subject in which he may have neither interest nor information, tackle it with evertything that he’s got and make the finished painting look like the cosummation of his life’s one ambition.”



*-from Forty American Illustrators and How the Work by Ernest W. Watson (Watson-Guptill Publications, 1946)