“A halftone is a millionth of a tone” Dad said. Huh? How do you paint a millionth of a tone?”
It would take me years to understand this advice, coming from a man who spent 30+ years as a Commercial Illustrator in San Francisco during what some would say was the Golden Age of Illustration. My father, John Rutherford, was a major influence in my artistic career, and the careers of countless artists who crossed paths with him.
My Dad graduated from the ArtCenter College of Design in 1955 and spent most of his illustration career at Landphere Associates in San Francisco. When I was young he brought me into the studio to meet his work friends. I was taken in warmly by fellow artists such as Don Churchfield, Sam Daijogo, Jim Blakeley, and others. I visited each artist’s work area and watched them draw, design, and paint. I remember watching Don Churchfield draw beautiful calligraphy and typography by hand, and I watched my Dad draw and paint illustrations for advertisements, books, and magazines. There was always a photo shoot in progress, and people running around setting up food and lighting. The team let me raid the refrigerator for snacks, but on this particular day it was packed with 100s of cans of Dole Pineapple getting ready for the camera (I’m guessing the pineapple was cooled in the refrigerator so that it wouldn’t wilt under the hot lights).
Dad described his illustration style as “line and tone”. Other illustrators of the same time period used a similar technique which was driven, in part, by the technical limitations of photography and printing of that era. Local newspapers were limited to black, and maybe 1 – 2 other colors if they were lucky, so the line portion of the drawing had to be separated from the color (tone) portion. As a result, all of the illustrators at the time had to be excellent draftsmen with a pen, my Dad included. Dad used a gold-tipped Monte Blanc pen – an expensive art supply at the time, one pen could cost upwards of $250 in 1970. Having drawn with one myself, I understand why this was considered the best tool to achieve a beautiful, expressive line drawing, especially on a rough surface like illustration board. Dad worked that Monte Blanc like a violinist works a Stradivarius, even as he developed shaky hands toward the later phase of his career. I used to joke with him that his shaky hands lent “character” to his drawings.
Dad was an active member of the San Francisco Society of Illustrators. He attended meetings and helped promote illustration and encourage fair practices. In the early 1960s, along with many other members, Dad was invited to participate in the U.S. Air Force Art Program whose central purpose was to document the “Air Force story”. There are nearly 9,000 works in the Air
Force Art Program currently housed at the Smithsonian and other Federal Government locations.
Around 1976, Dad started freelancing out of our Mill Valley home. His studio was next to my bedroom and I woke up to the smell of his pipe which he smoked while working on his illustrations. I spent many hours hanging out in Dad’s studio watching him create illustrations. He started each illustration project by researching images from magazines mostly. He had filing cabinets full of magazine pages organized by topic: men, women, children, sports, activities, and locations. He started by making small sketches of the scene he was creating, or used a sketch he received from an Art Director. He drew each section of the illustration on tracing paper, refining it layer by layer. When he was satisfied with the final drawing he transferred it to illustration board using a blue-line process where the drawing was printed on the board in blue so a camera couldn’t see it. Then he had the line drawing transferred to clear plastic film by a local printer. He did his painting on the illustration board, usually with watercolor. The plastic film laid on top of the painting and the two would be photographed together as one piece of art. Dad loved using line and tone. He loved how the line provided structure to the image, and the tone was an enhancement. One of the advantages to this technique is it can be printed in a newspaper in black and white (by omitting the painting), or in a glossy Corporate Report, and still look great. Drawing was a skill Dad was very proud of and he made sure I appreciated the importance of it as I progressed in my art career.
Dad was also an avid Plein Air painter, and the two of us would paint together on various sites around the Bay Area including Sausalito, China Camp – anywhere there were signs of decay, abandoned buildings, or the results of rust and harsh weather. Dad had a French wooden easel he brought to the locations where we painted together. Inside the easel he kept sepia pencils, brushes, and watercolors. Like his commercial illustrations, he started with a line drawing, then painted in color to add shadows and depth, except his plein air paintings came alive and were more vibrant than his commercial work which was necessarily clean and somewhat sterile. “Dad, why do we always paint rusty broken stuff?” I asked. “Ugliness rendered with compassion is beauty”, he replied. I’m not certain, but I believe he was quoting W. Joe Innis, author of “How to Become a Famous Artist and Still Paint Pictures”.
As I approached my late teens and showed interest in illustration, Dad took me to visit his customer’s when he delivered his work, or to talk about the requirements for new illustration projects. I soaked up the illustration and advertising “lingo” quickly and learned how to talk to Art Directors, especially when there were problems or fixes were needed. Commercial Illustration began sinking into my bones, thanks to my Dad.
For one of his illustration projects, an ad for Apple Computer, he said he would do the drawing and I would add the color. I was still a kid and could not believe Dad trusted me with one of his professional projects. This was Dad’s way of testing me, I thought. I was very nervous thinking my work will be presented to the Art Director. My hands shook as I painted watercolor on the illustration board after Dad had made such a beautiful drawing. What I didn’t know at the time was Dad completed the same painting himself as a backup. I don’t think he ever intended on using my painting, but that experience taught me how to take risks and work under pressure.
Over time, he gave me small, simple mechanical line drawing assignments he picked up from Clients. These were assignments beneath his capability, but perfect for an apprentice like me. He knew that if I screwed one up, he could easily complete it himself in a few hours. I’m so thankful Dad took a risk and gave me an opportunity to learn his craft on the job.
When I turned 19 in 1981, Dad and I went into business together as “Rutherford & Rutherford Illustration”. He continued with his groovy, 1970’s line-and-tone style, and I handled the mechanical drawing work that came in. We bought a GMC Sierra pickup truck for delivering artwork to ad agencies and design firms in San Francisco. We commissioned Don Churchfield to design our logo which we applied to the truck doors. I was so proud of that truck and our business together.
Dad was teaching at the Academy of Art College at the time, and I enrolled there as an Illustration student in 1982. This is where I met other great illustrators at the time, such as Norm Nicholson, Chris Kenyon, and of course the venerable Barbara Bradley. During critiques of student illustrations, if Barbara liked a piece she would say, “You could eat that color with a spoon”. Dad and I ate lunch together at the Hofbrau or maybe grabbed some dim sum in Chinatown. Sometimes we might drag other instructors along with us such as Bill Sanchez or Brooke Shields, one of my fine art teachers.
I felt proud, and a little awkward attending Dad’s illustration classes at the Academy. The students laughed one day when I accidentally called him “Dad” out loud. He didn’t treat me any differently than he did the other students. Every 2 weeks, he gave us an illustration assignment based on a real assignment he had completed recently. We had one week to create one or more small sketches, and one week to complete the final illustration. Dad critiqued each phase of the work, giving us feedback on things to fix, remove, or change.
After I graduated from the Academy of Art in 1985, I worked for a small studio for a year, then decided to pursue my Illustration career in New York City. When I told Dad I was leaving, I could tell he was disappointed and a bit sad, but he gathered the strength to wish me luck and sent me on my way with paints and brushes, and a portfolio of my work from the Academy, all tightly packed into a U‑Haul truck.
A few years passed and Dad’s freelance business was tapering off, so he and Mom moved north to Ferndale, CA so they could start a new life. Dad started painting on his own, with no deadlines, and no more line drawings (unless he wanted to). He focused his artistic energy on beautiful landscapes of Northern California and developed a more painterly style. It was great to see his creativity soar once he distanced himself from the deadline-intensive advertising business.
My parents eventually settled in Mendocino, and my wife, two daughters, and I visited them every year. My Dad and I painted the Mendocino headlands together, and on Wednesdays we attended a local model drawing session organized by a retired dentist turned artist. During one session, the model didn’t show up, so Dad modeled for all of us. I made a sketch of him which makes him look sort of intense, but he was a man with a fire burning within, so I think the drawing captures that.
One night, sitting with Dad on their Mendocino patio enjoying a scotch and a cigar I said, “Dad, I never got a chance to ask you, what’s a millionth of a tone?”. He said, “Steve, it just means go easy on the shadows, OK?”. Yep Dad. Got it. Thanks for that…