I Failed!!

I wanted to be an artist in the worst way. And that’s exactly what the folks at The Famous Artists School correspondence course thought. If I were an artist, I would be the worst. In fact, back in the 60s I failed the test you see above. Apparently, I couldn’t even draw a simple fish to their satisfaction.

The “Famous Artists” were intent on populating the world with artists and designers like them. Founded in 1948, they were Norman Rockwell, Stevan Dohanos, Robert Fawcett, Al Parker and the Saturday Evening Post band. They were all accomplished artists, but nary a modernist in the group (and all wore suits and ties to work). Abstraction was anathema, conception was ignored. Technique was holy and I couldn’t master the technique test.

I tried three times, and each one produced disappointment and resentment. I later became friendly with Tom Allen, the youngest of the faculty, who apologized, but by then it was too late. The hurt was felt. The scars were formed. The battle lines were drawn (abstractly).

(Speaking about art, read about The Nose)

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7 thoughts on “I Failed!!

  1. john lauer

    “Failing” was good.
    As a young boy, I watched my mother participate in the Famous Artists corespondence art course. She did well, got all the parts right and Being a solitary person – Enjoyed it. Later as a “grown-up” studying graphic design and illustration, I found her instruction Binders (with the “fa” logo) and went through them thinking just what you said -no contual anything? sort of left me flat. I would say you were so much better off!

  2. Sara Davies

    I started out in fine arts, drawing and painting from life, which I can do, though not well from memory. I believe graphic design calls for a very different skill set, as it is more about arranging objects into pleasing abstract relationships and recognizing spacial rhythm and color dynamics than it is about analyzing what you see the way a camera sees. When I studied design, I was one of the last people to catch on, and heard a number of dire warnings about my lack of talent. The teachers couldn’t articulate why a layout worked, probably because they acted on intuition and instinct instead of intellect. It wasn’t until I discovered the Robin Williams series on “design for non-designers” that I learned and could duplicate her very clear and simple instructions for making a page layout. So what’s my point? Skills can be taught. You can learn to draw (copy what you see.) Design is also a skill that can be learned. Someone who isn’t capable of breaking the subject area down into steps that can be communicated to others shouldn’t be teaching. In the context of a teaching environment, discussions of “talent” are not very useful – they’re just an excuse lazy teachers use not to improve their teaching skills.

  3. Patrick King

    Great post Stephen.  I’m sure that scores of your readers of a certain age melted with nostalgia upon seeing these images.
    I still have my graded copy of the exact same test. I passed with flying colors but couldn’t get my parents to part with the tuition to send a 12 year old to correspondence school.  I dreamt of running away to Westport just to breathe the air of their distinguished faculty.
    Years later I acquired two full binders of FAS lessons ca. 1958, which proudly sit next to 40 lessons from their rival, Art Instruction Schools of the same era. (Drawing today’s pretty boys and girls is a favorite campy example.) They, along with the Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw book I was given at 8 provided better drawing instruction than i received in my first year of art school.  That year, for Design 101 I had to produce a slide show on printing processes.  I was fascinated to find that the Minneapolis printer I chose to shoot just happened to own Art Instruction Schools. In their lobby, a framed Schulz drawing, for Charlie Brown worked there and Peanuts was born there. It was 1975 and their heyday had long passed, those endless bullpens of drawing boards would soon go the way of the soda fountain.

  4. Ellen Shapiro

    I don’t believe that you flunked, Steve! This was a test that everybody passed. I drew hair on the human and shaved the dog and still passed. A salesman came to our house and my dad threw him out, so there was no Famous Artists’ School for me, either. All the better, I think. Its sister school, Famous Writerss School, became the subject of a scandal in 1970, when Jessica Mitford published an exposé of its false advertising and unethical business practices in the Atlantic Monthly.

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