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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Jon Gnagy

Moon and Grapes, 1943, John Gnagy. Norman Rockwell had nothing to fear.
1946, Jon Gnagy signs on live TV.
He was no great artist. There are even those who would argue he was no great art teacher, either. I would not be one of them. Having to some degree stood in his shoes for twenty-six years, I know there's a lot to be said for his method of teaching drawing. By the same token, there's a lot to be said against it. Unlike any number of artists whose website biographies you come across, I did not learn to draw from watching Jon Gnagy's TV show, Learn to Draw, which began in 1946 and ran until the late 1960s. Each episode was a half-hour and were cheap to make--Gnagy, and one or two others working beneath studio lights strong enough to melt crayons. TVs screens ranged in size from seven inches to as much as twenty-four by the time my family was able to afford one around 1953. The first time I recall watching Gnagy on TV was in visiting my aunt and uncle in Cleveland. A boy about my age in an apartment downstairs liked his show. I was intrigued by the plastic film he had which would adhere to the TV screen allowing him to literally draw right along with the artist (not the best way to learn to draw, but hey, this was the 1950s).

Cables and lots of lights--1955. The glamour was paper thin, the black and white
cameras were bigger than, and weighed more than, their operators.
Artists (and others) are often remembered most for being "first." I doubt if anyone could argue with the fact that Gnagy was the first television art teacher. He and Jack LaLane owned what passed for reality TV at the time. When you're the first (not to mention only) television art instructor, being "best" is not only irrelevant but grammatically incorrect. He was good. Gnagy was born in 1907 in Pretty Prairie, Kansas (I kid you not), coming of age in the depressed 1930s. Jon Gnagy was self-taught and the type of artist who would, could, and literally had to take on virtually any art job to come his way. At seventeen, he became an art director for an Oklahoma oil company (that means he painted posters). With a wife and two kids, he bounced around the country from job to job, city to city, painting paintings, painting signs, teaching art and being taught art; until, in 1946, he discovered TV. His show was the first to be broadcast from the new TV antenna atop the Empire State Building and is often touted as being NBC's longest running TV show (a doubtful assertion).
The first TV I ever watched looked something
like this late-1940s Emerson. Drawing from
a 14-inch screen took good eyesight.
Legend has it Jon Gnagy worked for free (at least initially) his only income from the show coming from the sale of his Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw sets and their 64-page instruction book. Of course, when you sell 15-million of them, perhaps there might be some truth in the legend. Later came painting sets, deluxe painting sets, several additional "how to" books, crayons (presumably resistant to hot TV lights), even a Jon Gnagy Pantograf. I had one. They were definitely not ideal for children (cumbersome and crude at best, it was easier to actually learn to draw, which may have been the whole point in putting them out).
Basics and beyond, a page from the
instruction book.
Each Learn to Draw TV episode centered on just one image, (usually a still-life or landscape) and offered detailed, step-by-step draw-along instruction. I used to use self-made videotape drawing lessons teaching linear perspective drawing in much the same way. For some types of drawing instruction, this method is ideal. Critics, then and now, hated his show, complaining it virtually eliminated any potential for creative endeavors by viewers. Gnagy mostly agreed, but pointed out there was no market for any other type of TV art instruction. Years later, TV artists such as Bill Alexander and Bob Ross adapted Gnagy's methods in teaching oil painting and for the same reason.

Everything a would-be artist
could ever need.
The fabled drawing kit sold for around five bucks and included a 64-page instruction book, sketching paper, 3 drawing pencils, a carbon pencil, 3 sketching chalks, a kneaded eraser, a shading stump, a sandpaper sharpener, and a laptop drawing surface. Mostly you were paying for the instruction book, which was really quite good for its time. In it Gnagy began with the square, proceeding to the cube, shading, and all the other basic three-dimensional shapes, adapting them to everything from apples and oranges to houses and horses. His words beneath his photo on the second page of the book summed up his art philosophy:

"I believe that in the life of everyone there comes a time when the Art Spirit is dominant. You may have passed it when you were 5 or 7 or 11 years of age. But it will come again several times in your life when you are looking for something outside your practical, everyday routine."

Not as easy as it looks.


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