“What’re ya gonna do to save it?”
This critical retort, capable of withering most illustrators’ resolve, was a standing gag between Sandy Kossin and his studio buddy, Dave Blossom. Not just a challenge to one another, but a reminder to themselves that the art of illustration is about taking risks, always improving, and building compelling images while telling stories.
From art student in high school; to famous illustrator of countless paperback covers, such as The Shadow and The Last Temptation of Christ; to creator of Hollywood blockbuster movie posters Beckett and The Train, Kossin felt his work came down to two things: take the challenge, and draw like hell.
Building those images with line became the hallmark of any Sandy Kossin painting. Starting with his roots in West Los Angeles, near the MGM Studios, to his eventual move to New York City following his service in World War II, Kossin took it a step at a time. As his drawing skills improved, he managed to get his work in front of the right people, those who encouraged his desire to incorporate better concepts through better drawing. Each endeavor gave him more information for the next piece, while consistently maintaining the strength of his drawing.
As early as grammar school, working on linoleum cuts taught Kossin how simple black-and-white lines can become powerful statements for drama and story. But his wasn’t a swift rise to professional illustrator. Drop a world war in between his dream to become a painter and his father’s practical side, and you get—plumbing. Kossin was outnumbered. Plumbing was the profession his father advocated, because, he said, as an illustrator “you’ll never make any money!”
At the time, Sandy didn’t have confidence in his drawing skills. Seeing the logic in his father’s words, or maybe out of “plain ole’ respect” for him, Kossin gave plumbing a shot. But he never let go of his drive to draw. He even made drawings on the sides of bathtub and water heater cartons. At the end of a year among the pipes, he proclaimed,“it was pure drudge,” and returned to his art studies.
In the late 1940s, art schools were propagating the “anything goes” style, perpetuated by illustration giant, Al Parker. So Kossin experimented a lot, continually crafting his feeling for good line. He was pushed farther still by his art instructor, Rico LeBrun, whom he credits for teaching him how to see, and helping him to understand how students progress in levels, learning step-by-step, building from strength to strength.
After art school Kossin threw some drawings in a folder and went to New York “just to look.” There he met other illustrators and was able to build his confidence. LeBrun had encouraged him to show his work to the art director at Parents Magazine, where he sold his first illustration. Getting in print was Kossin’s first success, and his first shock of disappointment: the art director pulled his secretary into the office and asked her, “what’s wrong with this artwork?” She then proceeded to criticize it, starting at the lower left and continuing across the entire piece.
But the work from Parents led to assignments from a range of children’s magazines such as Children’s Digest and Tom Thumb. Soon Kossin was doing black-and-white pictures on a continual basis, including science fiction stories that, as he says, “is really where I learned to conceptualize.”
Art directors were excited to find someone who could draw well. And with his children’s work Kossin realized he could do anything based on the strength of the drawing—how a strong drawing could go “over that edge to give a painting weight. My work had a calligraphy to it.”
With a sense for good timing, he found an apartment in New York and started doing illustrations for Amazing, Galaxy, and Beyond magazines, whose art director just happened to live in the same building. He was excited to knock out black-and-white images for a whopping $20 a page.
Sharing a studio with several art buddies, Kossin experimented with a watercolor brush to develop lines with more character. This led to his interest in caricature, “because,” he says, “if you can draw, you can characterize anything.” So began a steady flow of work from Young Miss Magazine, as well as children’s book projects based on his humorous work.
He didn’t stop there. Working in color, armed with a sense for humor and realism, Kossin took the next step, the next challenge. He upped his game when he threw three or four examples in a portfolio and approached Len Leone at Bantam Books.
Leone encouraged Kossin’s further development by assigning him challenging book covers. With this high-test art director behind him, Kossin’s drawing skills were pushed to their creative limit to combine his expressive line and excellent drawing: to “build scenes that would tell stories and create interest.”
Leone assigned Kossin many mystery covers. By now, his line and color had become the solid foundation for all of his paintings. The artist credits Leone for helping him hone his sense of design and cropping, which strengthened the cover. “The cover is really a poster, y’know. A movie poster!”
Striving for his personal best, Kossin became his own most formidable enemy as he sought new statements, new visions. “Scary thing is, I always had to outdo myself . . . each piece had to be better than the last.” But Kossin, by now matching his drawing skills with speed, called on these powers to stunning brilliance for a special 1963 LIFE magazine spread on the Bay of Pigs, knocking out 19 paintings in 21 days.
Studying a Kossin painting is a lesson in how a simple line can vary in strength and express the realism necessary to describe a scene, while pushing the limits of abstraction. The line is everything to the artist. The push and pull of the thickness, the weight, the heft—shifting from hard to soft edges creates what he calls, “that electric line.” His focus on raw energetic line work carried over into describing dimensional edges as well, in order to achieve form. Smudging with his finger or scraping through layers of color to create an exciting edge was Kossin’s calligraphy, an unmistakable signature.
Then there’s his intense color, added unabashedly in bold passages. But was it laid down first or after the line? The layers don’t reveal his process so easily, as they combine to build a luminous layer of line and color—all piled up with Elmer’s Glue and Designer’s Gouache. The color appears fearless, almost cavalier, but there’s method here. “As long as you get the value right, you can get away with anything!”
And he does get away with it, time after time, in humorous paintings, movie posters, or serious storytelling images.
So, Sandy . . . what’re ya gonna do to save it?
Don’t answer that. Obviously, you nailed it every single time.
Hamilton King Award Winner