R.O. Blechman is one of the world’s most celebrated illustrators. He’s also incredibly modest. We asked this year’s Masters Series honoree how he has survived the digital age and remained prolific after more than 60 years, and during a time when so many long-time advertising and publishing pros are getting pink slips. “I have enough knowledge of Photoshop to enhance my work,” he responded.
Blechman’s peers know that Photoshop isn’t what put him in the pantheon of top industry stars. It’s his subtle wit, narrative warmth—and, of course, that distinctive wiggly line—that have made him a legend within the illustration, cartooning, animation, advertising and publishing communities.
Your iconic 1967 commercial for Alka-Seltzer is considered a milestone in advertising history. Please tell us why it was such a game-changer.
I suppose it was such a soft-sell commercial in a period of hard-sell commercials. My main contribution to the actual screenplay (remember, I did not write the copy) was that the original script had the stomach and the man shake hands at the end. I scotched that and had the man say (regarding the therapist’s suggestion that they shake hands), “Well, I will if you will.” And they don’t. Now that’s real life.
How did the idea to do an animated film adaptation of The Soldier’s Tale come about? It’s not as though a theater piece by Igor Stravinsky had ever been on America’s hit parade.
Pure luck. I was in Milan for a film conference and passed a billboard at the La Scala Opera house announcing an upcoming production of The Soldier’s Tale. The director of PBS happened to be at that conference, so I suggested the project to her. She said, “Write me proposal.” I did, and thought that was the end of that. But Stravinsky’s centennial celebration was coming up, and for that reason—pure happenstance—there was interest in my project.
Your work oftentimes carries a political or ecumenical—though not necessarily religious—undertone. Do you see yourself more as an illustrator with an activist voice, or an activist with a pen?
That depends on the occasion. I’m a commercial illustrator and on occasion—too occasionally—an “activist” illustrator.
You’ve said that some people don’t see illustration as a fine art. Please comment.
Illustration combines message and meaning along with artistry. It reaches the mind (and sometimes the heart) along with the eye. I think illustration is often a finer art than so-called “fine art.”
Who are your artistic heroes?
Too many to list here. But to name just a few, and quite arbitrarily, Saul Steinberg, who created a vocabulary I still draw from. Rea Irvin, the first and greatest art director of The New Yorker. James McMullan—I’m in awe of his mastery of watercolor, and how he combines realism with a keen design sensibility. But I could fill pages with my list of artistic heroes. I’ll list one more: Christoph Niemann. What a mind! What an eye and hand!
The dreaded “method question”: Steven Heller has described watching you piece your images together like a jigsaw puzzle—drawing dozens of noses, for example, and pasting the perfect nose onto the image. Is that typically how you work? Why don’t you trust the first nose, metaphorically speaking, that you put to paper?
Sometimes my first sketch captures all the artistry I need and want. But more often than not, my noses are too long, too bumpy, or too wrong in too many other ways.
Any avuncular advice for budding illustrators, animators, ad execs and storytellers?
Learn to say yes. It’s better than no. Sometimes the least promising jobs turn out to be the most meaningful. Take on a job that doesn’t pay well, if it means that you can do something that will add to your portfolio. And look to that 60-something year old lady [Diana Nyad] who swam from Cuba to Key West. She said something to the effect that you should never give up. “Never. Ever.”
The 25th Masters Series exhibition featuring the work of R.O. Blechman is on view from October 2 – November 2 at the SVA Chelsea Gallery, 601 West 26th Street, 15th floor; the exhibition reception is on Thursday, October 3 from 6:00 – 8:00pm. R.O. Blechman in Conversation with Victor Navasky will take place on Thursday, October 17 at 7:00pm at the SVA Theatre, 333 West 23rd Street.
Images, top and bottom: R.O. Blechman by B. Docktor; “World Trade Center Memorial Lights” by R.O. Blechman.
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