Ron Lesser is a man who’s worked successfully for a long time in many genres as an award-winning commercial artist.
Lesser’s website includes numerous links to his extensive work as an illustrator for major film studios, thousands of ads, and honors from The New York Art Directors Club and The Society of Illustrators for best movie art.
Lesser has also done hundreds of acclaimed book covers for pulp fiction and men’s magazines, not to mention a great deal of commissioned work on Americana—the Old West, Native Americans, the Civil War—that reflects his classical training at the Art Students League of New York. There, his mentor was the celebrated American painter, illustrator and muralist Frank J. Reilly who, along with Norman Rockwell and Georgia O’Keeffe, was a student of the fabled American impressionist and illustrator, Frank Vincent DuMond (1865 – 1951).
Reilly instilled in Lesser an abiding love of the Old Masters, their realism, their tonal subtlety, their old-school attention to detail. Passion about heroes who included John Singer Sargent, Dean Cornwell and J.C. Leyendecker (the Arrow Collar illustrator) and Lesser’s talent led him to a heady career in New York City, the center of illustration at mid-century, when famed commercial studios attracted illustrators who had cred as fine artists, people who thrived on competition and knew how to draw.
This week’s cover, “Summer Wind,” evidences the fine art design side of Lesser’s rich professional life and also shows that this “old master” keeps evolving. The 30” x 40” oil is unlike most of his paintings because it has no people in it and because it exudes quiet solitude. In just the last few months, Lesser has been working on a new series of paintings—”Romantic Fantasies”—beautiful women folded erotically into lush, flowing material.
Are you sad or angry that the heyday of illustration is over? And why did it disappear?
Yes, yes. The huge business was at its height from the ’30s to the ’60s, but by the time of the first recession in the ’70s it dried up. Publishers started cutting back and Photoshop came along. Soon, computer manipulations were replacing what artists did by hand. By then, the boutique illustration studios in New York that had affiliated with the large movie organizations also dried up when the big studios moved to California. Book publishers and movie people saw that Photoshop could do the job for less money and they didn’t have to deal with pesky artists and their agents. Movie stills replaced creative art. We used to use models and then superimpose the actor’s or actress’s head, but now everything gets to be manipulated from stills. By the early ’90s fine-art illustration was over and done with.
Hand-made illustration was time-consuming, yes?
Yes, because there are stages. You start with a sketch (your own or maybe the studio suggests something), which is transferred to a “prepared” wood panel. Then you lay down successive layers of colored glazes (sometimes as many as 10) to obtain the color and texture of the subject matter. Details like faces and buttons are often painted under a magnifying glass. Depending on the size, an original can take as long as four months to complete. I always had an affinity for historical scenes, but when you do a Civil War illustration, say, you have 20–30 figures, and horses. I follow leads though about new topics, such as a series I did recently with the Hamptons in mind—of polo scenes. And there’s “Summer Wind” and the beach.
Did you ever try abstract?
Don’t get me started.