Coles Phillips (1880–1927) was among the most in-demand illustrators in his field during the 1910s and 20s. A dynamic and highly skilled watercolor artist and draftsman, Phillips created dozens of covers for mainstream American magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Life, and The Saturday Evening Post. In 1908 he created a style in which the figure in the foreground blended seamlessly into the background, rendering some amount of the clothing invisible save for the edges. Dubbed "The Fadeaway," the eye-catching technique became a huge hit and was employed to great effect by the artist for most of his career. This original compilation features more than 80 color plates selected from two of Phillips' early collections, A Gallery of Girls and A Young Man's Fancy, in addition to images from other sources. An Introduction by illustrator and graphic designer Scott M. Fischer provides a modern appraisal and speaks to Phillips' lasting influence. Students of illustration, graphic design, and advertising as well as fans of 1920s fashion will appreciate this collection of striking works by a Golden Age designer-illustrator.
About the Author
Coles Phillips (1880–1927) was among the most in-demand illustrators in his field during the 1910s and 20s. A dynamic and highly skilled watercolor artist and draftsman, Coles did dozens of covers for mainstream American magazines. In 1908 he created a style in which the figure in the foreground blended seamlessly into the background, rendering some amount of the clothing invisible, save for the edges. Dubbed "The Fadeaway," the eye-catching technique became a huge hit and was employed to great effect by the artist for the rest of his career.
Read an Excerpt
"Absence makes the heart grow fonder." While this phrase is not usually associated with art, in the case of illustrator Coles Phillips (1880-1927), it certainly applies.
In viewing Phillips's work, one is immediately struck by what isn't there. We quickly understand that what he chose not to paint is as important as what he chose to paint.
Myself, being an artist that is obsessed with the mechanics of great picture making, I might even argue that what Phillips left out of his paintings is actually more important than what he put into his paintings. Sure, an art director needs an illustration to have a subject by the very definition of the word "illustration." But today, some 100 years after Phillips was working, would we still be talking about him with the same reverence, if he had made the choice to paint every element in his work?
What I am looking for in great art is evidence that the artist was there, making bold decisions that often break the rules of reality. Because here is the thing — reality is a crutch. I am not suggesting that hyper-photorealistic art is easy. It requires amazing technique and a discipline that I do not possess. But what I am suggesting is that in this day and age of super HD imagery, you can always paint toward that observed perfection. If you want to render down to the pores on someone's nose you can; because the answers are in front of you the whole time.
I am much more interested in seeing an artist's mind at work. If they are a chunky painter, I want to see those brushstrokes taking us on the ride of an artist discovering the form of his subject. If they are a realistic painter I want to see where the artist deviated from that reality, and tiptoed into the surreal. If they are a portrait artist, I am looking for an unexpected moment in the pose or expression. And in the case of Coles Phillips, I revel in seeing his "math-mind" at work. For me, it isn't about how well Phillips rendered his subjects at all. Though he is an exceptional draftsman, there is no shortage of artists I can look at for painting technique. I am looking at him for the way he saw things more than the way he painted them.
My late twenties is when Coles Phillips started to have a serious impact on my art. Prior to that, my journey was all about technique. Once skill is acquired, though, the question becomes, "What do you want to do with it?" The old adage, "You have to learn the rules before you can break them," applies. And I wanted to break stuff. And what I began to realize was it did not matter how you frosted a cake, if the cake itself was as bland as cardboard. I don't care if you render like Chuck Close or Rembrandt, if you can't give me something unexpected, you've lost me. From that point on, I considered myself as much an editor as a painter. And few artists in history have the editing genius of Coles Philips.
To put this into context, we have to realize that Phillips was doing all of this long before Photoshop existed. But if you look at the work, though the subject matter is antiquated, it has a modern feel to it — as if you are seeing a Photoshop screen today. His mind is clearly working in layers. Like Photoshop, each element is on a layer, and he is deciding which layers to turn on and off in his head in order to optically tease us. Just like a great puzzlemaker.
It is a bit of a paradox. In Phillips's "Fade Away" style, he is literally editing out elements (by making them the same flat color as the background), but those elements are still there. It is just that we, the viewer, are completing them with our mind. We are participating. To me the best works of art do this — allow for the viewer to participate in the process of completing the picture. I love it when you view a painting on the wall from 10 feet away and think it is a highly rendered subject, only to have it dissolve into brushstrokes upon closer examination. With Phillips, it is less about strokes and more about viewing ghosts of things that aren't there, but kind of are there. When everything is spelled out for us, art becomes less of a cooperative experience and more of a lecture.
To pull this off is no easy feat. There is little room for error. I am reminded of a quote by children's book illustrator Mo Willems, who said, "Simple and Easy are opposites." For Phillips, the results have a simplicity that is far from easy. One misplaced element and the entire image will fall apart. Your composition skills have to be off the charts, and beyond that, you have to be a master of "shape language." Pay attention to the silhouettes of his subjects. Phillips is a master of making sure the silhouette tells the story of his paintings, even if the silhouette is an implied silhouette. Because it shares the value/color of something behind it, we can read it.
There is an irony in the lasting affection artists have toward Coles Phillips. Probably because most artists want to be remembered for what they paint, and Coles Phillips is remembered for what he didn't.
Scott M. Fischer July 2018(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fadeaway"
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Table of Contents
Introduction Plates from A Gallery of Girls Plates from The Gorgeous Isle Plates from A Young Man's Fancy Advertisements Life Magazine The Saturday Evening Post The Ladies' Home Journal "Cole Phillips and his Work" from A Young Man's Fancy