Artfully Done: An Interview with Robert McGinnis

Artfully Done: An Interview with Robert McGinnis

Titan Books published The Art of Robert McGinnis in hardcover last year and we spoke to the man himself earlier this year to talk about his career and how he’s still passionate about illustration decades after he started. This feature was originally commissioned for a UK national newspaper but it was never run…

At the age of 88 years old, most people put their feet up and take things easy. But illustrator Robert McGinnis is unusual. If you were to ask people they probably wouldn’t know his name but they would have seen his work. McGinnis’s CV reads like an encyclopaedia of movie poster history including Breakfast At Tiffanys, Barbarella, Diamonds Are Forever, Sleeper and The Odd Couple. McGinnis’s illustrative approach to his poster work meant that he was one of the main players in changing the way that movie posters looked. As well as working on the movie poster art, McGinnis has also drawn over 1200 covers for classic detective and thriller novels by the likes of Stephen King, Donald Westlake, Erle Stanley Gardner and Lawrence Block in his long career. McGinnis didn’t start his career as a movie poster artist: he grew up in Wyoming, Ohio in farm country and then found himself as an apprentice learning animation at Disney. The Second World War cut his animation career short and after the war where he served in the Merchant Marine, he returned to Ohio. After studying at a private art school in Cincinnati run by artist Jackson Grey Storey, he went on to work at a Cincinnati advertising art studio, drawing adverts. Influenced by the work of illustrator Coby Whitmore, he got his first magazine cover work in the late 1950s on True Detective and Master Detective which led to his movie work.

This year sees McGinnis’ long career celebrated in hardback book The Art of Robert McGinnis, published by UK publisher Titan Books. The book covers every aspect of his eight decades as a professional artist including illustrations for magazines like Good Housekeeping and National Geographic and his crime and thriller book covers. His first James Bond poster was for Thunderball and he actually illustrated this with fellow artist Frank McCarthy, who drew the adventure part of the image while McGinnis drew the women on the poster. The artist recalls how he approached the Thunderball poster:”Both Frank and I had the reference of the movie stills that were produced from the film. We had seen it and we were inspired by it. The stills were black and white which is great. I prefer to work from black and white because when you work from colour you copy the colour.”

Despite the fact that McGinnis has made his name drawing titillating, sexualised women on movie posters and on book covers, it is actually his work for an American Christian magazine that he looks back at more fondly, he revealed to us when we spoke to him recently from his studio in Connecticut. In fact, the magazine gave him more work than any of his other employers over the years.

“The religious magazine Guidepost dealt with articles that were submitted to them from around the country. They were true stories written by the actual people who were involved in the incidents and adventures. They were basically religious responses to adversity and they were more enjoyable because they were real and written by ordinary people. They weren’t celebrities like I had to draw in my movie work. Norman Vincent Peale was the minister who wrote most of them. He wrote a book which was very famous, The Power of Positive Thinking. These people were mostly from the MidWest and round the part of the country where I grew up, so I understood them. There was no conflict with the rather racy stuff I did for other magazines and the movie posters and the sexy women I drew in my other work.”

With a career that spans such a long time and a body of work arguably unmatched by any other living illustrator, you would think that McGinnis would want to take it easy. But this couldn’t be further from the truth as his attitude to his work remains the same as it has done even when he was a younger man.

“I didn’t plan anything. I was just trying to make a living. I was working in a small studio in Cincinnati, Ohio, and [my wife] Ferne and I lived in an old converted country schoolhouse, 20 miles upriver near New Richmond, Ohio. We then moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, to have a try at illustration – where I’ve remained. An assignment would come along and I’d do it. I do have artists that I admire like Andrew Wyeth, Norman Rockwell and among my contemporaries people like Bernie Fuchs and Bob Peak and a faint vision in my mind of how I could improve or make it come alive. But I am still plagued by the desire to work and do something better,” he admits to us. He used to work in variety of media including oils, gouache or acrylic but these days he works in egg tempera.

Film posters have changed over the years and the vogue for the sort of work that

McGinnis used to do seems to have fallen out of favour in Hollywood. The artist sounds a little bit regretful that the same approach isn’t taken to today’s movie posters.

“Posters don’t have that human warmth, the strengths and the weaknesses of a painter or an artist. Sometimes they can be flawed and now you can have a computer which can make perfect images. And I can’t knock computer art and the work that they do because it’s just so imaginative and wonderful. But that flavour is gone. I am reluctant to criticise current movie posters. I do get an occasional call to do a movie poster but I don’t get many,” McGinnis says.

For him, drawing is in his lifeblood and he is a very modest man as he is still striving to match on paper what is in his head even after years as an artist and with accolades from an impressive list of people like Pixar director Brad Bird and Richard Taylor from Peter Jackson’s special effects company Weta (Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit).

“It’s a deeply ingrained habit. I go down to my studio and be quiet and put on a bit of music, sit there and work on a painting, something that I have a feeling for, an affection for. It’s very satisfying and I may be deceiving myself in thinking I am accomplishing something. I couldn’t do anything else.”

McGinnis continues to work (he did an illustration for gin company Daffys this year, Stella Artois commissioned new images from him back in 2009 and he still produces work for crime and thriller publisher Hard Case Crime). Despite his own modesty and his advanced age, McGinnis is still an artist whose work is still thrilling and instantly recognisable. Remember his name.

Titan Books

The Art of Robert E McGinnis

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