Thursday, December 20, 2018

Floyd Davis: Successful Illustrator with No Training, Few Models

In those olden times when American illustration was in flower, there was no clear path for continued success for artists who had attained a certain degree of fame.

Essentially, this was the matter of one's style in the context of inevitable changes in stylistic fashion. An illustrator with a widely recognized style -- one whose work can be identified at a glance -- can rake in plenty of income while that kind of style remains fashionable. But when the fashion changes from, say, painterly brushwork in oils (1915-1927 or so) to thin linework and watercolor (1928-1935 or so), one's happy career could easily crash.

Other than dropping out of illustration to become an art director, taking up portrait painting, teaching and other non-illustration possibilities, the successful illustrator has two main strategic career alternatives. One is to continue his basic style, perhaps with a few minor adjustments. Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker did this, though Leyendecker's popularity eventually faded whereas Rockwell's did not. I suspect that this holding-the-fort strategy is rarely successful.

The alternative strategy is to try going with the fashion flow. That is, changing one's style and (if necessary) one's preferred medium. This can be very difficult for well-known illustrators because, all of a sudden, they aren't producing what made them popular in the first place. One successful example of this style shift is Mead Schaeffer, whose 1940s work is noticeably different from what he was doing in the 1920s and 1930s. Dean Cornwell shifted his style enough to stay competitive, but John La Gatta's career began to fade as he tried to adjust to the times.

Changing illustration style fashions often worked to the advantage of artists who were fairly successful, but not as famous as the ones just mentioned. The reason is, by not being famous, their initial style hadn't become a strong trademark. So as long as they were competent and could easily practice the new fashion, their careers could continue chugging along.

The present post deals with a top-level illustrator who never had a strongly identifiable style, and therefore easily went along with the changing scene, happily earning a nice income.

Floyd MacMillan Davis (1896-1966), known simply as Floyd Davis, thrived from the mid-1920s into the 1950s, though he dialed back by the latter decade. Background information can be found here and here as well as elsewhere on the Internet and in several books dealing with American illustrators.

Briefly, Davis never had serious formal training. He had a knack for illustration, and that was enough in his case. It seems he seldom used models -- unusual for other top-earning illustrators. And his work could include caricature-like distortions and small, humorous details that did not interfere with his main theme. As for how he approached his work, here is the text of a 1942 interview of Davis by Ernest W. Watson.

Below are examples of Davis' work. I have to admit that I find it surprising that he was so well-known and successful, given the visual variety of his output. All that I can offer is the thought that Floyd Davis was the anti- Normal Rockwell.


A 1928 advertisement where Davis uses contemporary fashion illustration style with a touch more modeling, less flatness.

This would be from the mid-1930s, following the end of Prohibition.

Story illustration from the mid-30s, the setting being a polo club.

DeSoto Airflow advertisement from 1936. Davis did at least two of these. In each case, the ad made a big deal regarding the artist, so Davis was clearly a Name in those days.

This is quite different from the other examples, though various Web sites contend it's his work. I include it here even though I can't vouch for it absolutely. Let us know in a comment if this really was/wasn't by Davis.

Comedian Bob Hope made special efforts to entertain American military personnel during World War 2 and for many years after. Davis was hired by Life Magazine to cover the war, and this cartoon-like painting apparently was from that effort. I don't have a date for this, but it might have been from around mid-1942 when the U.S. Army was transitioning helmets from the British-style Hope is wearing to the one most usually seen on wartime photos.

This is titled "Bar in the Hotel Scribe, Paris, 1944." It's now housed the the U.S. National Portrait Gallery, a work in oil that is a collection of caricatures of well-known people who flocked to Paris after the Liberation. Links to identification are here and here. The style Davis used here is quite different from the other shown here.

A graduation day scene featured in a H.J. Heinz advertisement form 1945. Again, it has a cartoon-like flavor.

No comments: