Robert Heindel

2011 Hall of Fame Inductee: Robert Heindel

This is a difficult assignment for me—writing an essay on Bob Heindel. How should I approach this? As a close business and personal friend of almost 40 years? As a designer who commissioned illustrations from him in the 1970s? Or, as his business partner in The Illustrators Workshop in the 1980s? Then again, perhaps I should I simply describe and applaud his enormous talent and creativity as an artist.

Bob was born in Toledo, Ohio, and his career was a truly creative journey. By the age of 16 he knew he wanted to be an artist and boldly enrolled in The Famous Artists School, eventually to become its most heralded graduate. While still studying at FAS, he was hired as a staff artist at Coen & Foger in Toledo. He married Rose Petres, whom he’d known since high school, and together they had three sons, Toby, Troy, and Todd. Bob often said that from the start Rose had a major effect on his work, for which she often posed. In the late 1970s he would acknowledge her contribution in a beautiful suite of work entitled Notes to A Flower.

His journey continued when he moved to Akron, where he drew automotive parts, then to Denver, where he started an art studio, and subsequently to Detroit, where he illustrated cars and backgrounds at New Center Studio. It was an exciting time in his emerging career. He completed the FAS course and made a short trip to New York City to see what some of the top agencies and publishers thought of his work. Bingo! Assignments came from advertising agencies and magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, TIME, Redbook, and Sports Illustrated. He loved having his work seen by the millions of people who read the popular magazines of the day. His confidence growing, it was time to move again. This time, close to New York City—where the action was.

The Heindels bought a 100-year-old farmhouse in Easton, Connecticut, in the early 1970s. The artist found himself among the legendary illustrators who lived in the Westport area, including Bernie Fuchs, Mark English, Fred Otnes, and Bob Peak. Frequent luncheon meetings with some of these artists at Chez Pierre in Westport were analogous to the gatherings of artists at Le Dome in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century. The level of creativity in the area enlivened Bob’s creative juices.

Artists Associates in New York, a major firm representing top illustrators, asked him to join their ranks and his star continued to rise. Assignments broadened and included jobs from major pharmaceutical companies such as Ciba-Geigy and Roche Labs, and limited edition books for the Franklin Library including The Grapes of Wrath, plus a host of advertising campaigns and editorial assignments. He worked in oil, conté crayon, collage—whatever suited his mood.

The 1980s were an exciting and extremely busy time for Bob. He pursued three creative fronts simultaneously: First, he continued to attract interesting and lucrative assignments as an illustrator. Second, he joined Alan E. Cober, Mark English, Bernie Fuchs, Fred Otnes, and Bob Peak to form the core faculty of The Illustrators Workshop. The headline for the workshops was “Come Study with Six of the World’s Greatest Illustrators.” Bob had clearly joined the ranks of the elite American illustrators of the day. Young and emerging artists from all over the world came to study with these great talents. The programs were held in cities across the country—from New York to Monterey, California, and abroad in Paris and St. Maarten. Bob’s interest in teaching flourished in this environment and he once said he didn’t know who benefited the most from the workshops, the attendees or the faculty.

Third, he became interested in dance—especially ballet. Never one to rest on his laurels, he began working with various ballet companies, exhibiting his paintings at the opening of their ballet season. Interestingly, his drawings and paintings focused on rehearsal rather than performance. In 1985 his works were shown at the Royal Festival Hall in London, with HRH The Princess Margaret attending the opening. A giant banner hung outside the hall, “The Obsession of Dance by Robert Heindel” announcing the show. A new creative world was in the making.

He garnered awards from the major graphic arts competitions and many medals from the Society of Illustrators, as well as its prestigious Hamilton King Award in 1982 for a painting for The Dallas Ballet Company. At this time he met Andrew Lloyd Weber, for whom he created iconic images for the musical spectaculars The Phantom of the Opera and Cats. He followed those commissions with set and costume designs for the folk ballet Still Life at the Penguin Café. 

He focused more and more on paintings of the ballet, and mounted major shows of his work in America, Europe, and Japan. Art Gallery International stated “Heindel has become ‘the Degas of our time’.” His work is held in many private and public collections, including the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

On his blog, American Illustration, David Apatoff quoted Bob as saying, “When you do really terrific work, you know that you’ve done it. You can tell. I know who I compare myself against, who I’ve been up against. And it starts all the way back with the cave paintings in France. You start out thinking your competition is the guy you want to get a job away from that day. Then you gradually realize that you are your competition. The job is your competition.”

Throughout Bob’s career he tried to see things through fresh eyes. His color palate was broad and what he left out of his illustrations and paintings was as important as what he included. He wanted the viewer to discover something that possibly he or she had not anticipated seeing.

Lest one think he was overly serious, let me correct that thought. He was a brilliantly informed conversationalist, argumentative to a fault, salty in his use of the language, very funny, and as warm and friendly as anyone I have ever met. He loved to cause tongue-in-cheek angst whenever possible. For instance, at one of the Illustrators Workshops, he surprised me one day in front of a live audience of aspiring illustrators. He delivered a finished illustration assignment I had given him and asked for a critique of his painting on the spot, then proceeded to argue every criticism I made—with a big smile on his face.

Bob leaves a legacy of creativity, risk-taking vision, and achievement. Election into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, in recognition of his extraordinary career, is a fitting honor for this remarkable artist.

John A. DeCesare