“Study Hurst’s line carefully”, wrote Ernest Watson in a 1942 profile in American Artist magazine. “You will see how it fluctuates, now full and lush as it accents some dominant action, now delicate as it defines a subtle bit of expression; but always sensitive, directed by complete knowledge and technical mastery”.
Watson goes on to say “You will never find a deliberately drawn line in a Hurst illustration: only a swift-moving brush will produce that sense of alive-ness which is the essential characteristic of his work”.
Earl Oliver Hurst was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1898. After a stint in World War I, he took night classes at the Cleveland School of Art while working days at The Plain Dealer, where he drew political cartoons and fashion illustrations. From there he took a job as art director at a direct mail house. It was while in this position that he discovered his covers for booklets were being pirated and used on national magazines. Hurst saw this as patently unfair and on leaving the studio job, set out to make himself visible in broader markets. He reasoned that if he had time to experiment, he could put himself into a nationally prominent position, so he explored his skills in seclusion. But without the discipline of client-imposed deadlines, Hurst’s work began to suffer as did his finances, so he came out of exile. But the artist was unsure of how to pick up where he had left off in his career.
He went to his friend, art director Chester Siebold of General Electric, for advice. Siebold encouraged him to take his efforts to a higher level. He said, “I want you to promise me that in the future you will not make one drawing for each assignment, but three or four, then deliver the best one of the lot”. The artist was aghast, but agreed to try it. Following Siebolds advice, Hurst executed five fully realized drawings for one job. Years later he recalled, “As I examined those five drawings, standing against my studio wall, I was really shocked to think that according to former procedure I would have delivered the first one, truly a fumbling performance compared with the subsequent drawings”.
The 1942 American Artist article detailing his working methods, quotes Hurst as saying, “In every illustration I first put down on paper, in pencil, my impression of the entire situation, no matter how poorly conceived or how far from fact it really is. I find it saves a great deal of time to make several little thumbnail compositions of a convenient size. I do like to do these note sketches about two or three inches high, and in a few quick strokes of the pencil lay in the basic pattern of the composition”.
His compositional control through strong lines and bold colors is, probably more than any other single factor, his enduring legacy. In the case of magazine cover illustrations, Hurst considered the idea [to be] the first hurdle. Working from the dominant shapes of the compositional sketch, he was able to build his ideas into the framework.
“Not until his conception matures does Hurst take up his brush and begin his final drawings on heavy watercolor paper”, Ernest Watson wrote in the American Artist profile that was later published in the book Forty Illustrators and How They Work. Hurst executed his finishes in black India ink and waterproof colored ink washes. His choice of media kept the work bold while giving him a maximum of flexibility to heighten or lessen details and depth.
“Where the color washes flow over the black lines they soften them. When pure black lines are wanted, perhaps in the foreground, Hurst leaves those lines until the last, drawing them on top of the washes. He never attempts to go over a line to strengthen it; in doing this, he declares, he would lose that which he most prizes spontaneity”, explains the chapter on Hurst in Forty Illustrators.
The fact that the colors remained fresh allowed Hurst to keep the utmost confidence in his lines. He wrote in an American Artist article from February 1950, “The width of line in the original is important. A fine line can be beautiful, and faithfully reproduced, providing the artist understands just how much diminution in size the art will take. Generally it is best to work close to the size of reproduction or as small as is convenient”.
Hurst was interviewed for an article in Great Neck News (New York) in 1932. Part of the article provides a glimpse at the key element that set Hurst apart from most of his contemporaries:
“Mr. Hurst has a theory that his illustrations should be decorative as well as illustrative. He pays special attention to the lost and found quality of his line and by how it catches and directs that attention to the reader. This came at a time when much of the illustration was becoming more reliant on photo reference. However, Hurst truly believed that it is part of the artists job to exaggerate or minimize to bring about a desired impression”.
In his 1949 interview with Hurst, art director Joe Lopker points out how little in the way of personal expression there was in American illustration due to the industry’s reliance on photography. Hurst replied, “Well, of course, my work is the answer to that. I’ve tried photography but find that instead of helping me, it slows me up”. He combined the exaggeration of perspective and character with an attraction to the decorative possibilities of general interest illustration to help forge a new type of illustration. His vision was tricky for others to duplicate since many of his characters sprang directly from Hurst’s own memory and imagination.
By the late 1930s, Hurst had arrived, with two one-man shows at the Society of Illustrators, one in 1939 and one in 1940. He and his family divided their time between Manhattan and Douglaston, Queens, where they kept a boat. In the summer they would sail to Maine for relaxation.
As his illustration style became more sought after, his efforts continued to improve because he found the busier he got, the more productive he became. Ernest Watson explains, “Hurst says he works best under such pressure, but without efficient organization he could not satisfy his clients. From the early 1940s through the end of his career he employed an assistant to lessen the tiresome elements of his work”.
The illustrator combined his talents into a highly successful career, though not without bumps in the road. Among the many magazine for which Hurst did regular commission work were Colliers, American, Pictorial Review, McCalls, Ladies Home Journal, and True. His advertising clients included Nabisco, Royal Crown Cola, General Electric, Sanka, Jantzen Swim Suits, and Swan Soap.
Beyond the good design apparent in Hurst’s work there lies an outlook on life and a sense of humor that is the fuel for the creative engine. The profile in Forty Illustrators and How they Work defines the artist’s whimsical nature this way: “Hurst’s humor is that of character. It springs from a deep understanding of human nature and a feeling of sympathy albeit mirthful for those who find themselves victims of predicaments. Some of his biggest laughs have been at his own expense”.
Frederic B. Taraba
Founder of Taraba Illustration Art and author of Masters of American Illustration: 41 Illustrators and How They Worked, from The Illustrated Press.