Doug Johnson

By Norman Hathaway

Jesus Christ, he answered.

After a couple of years of sleuthing, Dan Nadel found his number and rang it, and there he was, still in New York, still had all his original art, and seemed flummoxed that we knew who he was and were interested in finding him.

Strange, that - considering Doug was one of the most respected illustrators during the 1970s, holding his peers in awe with his mystifying technique.

When we were assembling the final roster for my book on ’70s illustration, Overspray, Doug just missed the final cut. Dan loved his work but we decided he wasn’t a Californian so out he went, but his work haunted us, so we continued our quest to locate him and were thrilled once we had. 

Aside from being a successful illustrator for magazines, Doug painted the famous Judas Priest album covers

and the poptastic packaging for Cosmic Candy.

His style was quite graphic and was nearer to that of a poster designer, which was unusual back then as most illustrators were working in either a more photorealistic vein, or a winky cartoony style as popularized by the Pushpin mafia.

So Dan and I went to visit Doug at his loft in Manhattan.

And we were finally able to pepper him mericlessly for several hours about his career. Sadly for him he is such a gentleman that he was unable to prevent Dan from ransacking his home as he dug out piece after piece of his beautiful original illustrations.

Doug was born and raised in Toronto where he had done some fashion illustration as well as editorial work, before pulling stakes and moving to New York in 1968. He explained to us that he was coming from the drawing-based expressive illustration look of Bernie Fuchs and Jimmy Hill:

a style that would later find its apotheosis in Bob Peak. Doug quickly found work, but eventually tired of his style and wanted to experiment  with a new look for which he later became famous. In 1970 he took the summer off and developed his painterly approach with two assignments: A Society of illustrators Call For Entries poster and a series of pictures about football for Sports Illustrated.

Doug, and Charles White III, with whom he a shared a studio (complete with astro turf, deck furniture and an umbrella) in the early 1970s, were instrumental (following after Push Pin) in shifting illustration from being about literal or expressive representation into something more free form and improvisational

which was in sync with pop culture, i.e. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Eugene Ionesco and nostalgia.

But if Pushpin was design-centric and, to a degree, polite, Doug’s work, like Charlie’s, was image-based, intent on roasting your eyes with vivid, colors and forms, pushing the medium so it could compete with other pop media of the time. He seemed to have cracked a way of taking the work of earlier graphic drawers such as Hohlwein:

and Bernhard and modernizing it. Almost overnight Doug’s new style was a huge success and he was inundated with commissions from Life MagazineEsquireTime, advertising accounts and record sleeves

Doug’s trademark was to blast hard highlights on top of a more traditional and considered image, so it kind of fucked with your head

Usually illustrators that possessed a strong graphic style weren’t always the best draftsmen, but Doug obviously could draw and paint. Yet he still felt compelled to stomp on the accelerator and keep layering all this STUFF onto a perfectly fine picture until he wound up with these odd hybrid images. Upon initial glance the paintings seem quite traditional, but the longer you study an image, it’s as if you’re in the early stages of a Hollywood dream sequence, where everything starts to wiggle and blur a little bit. This beautiful painting of a tennis player is a perfect example of his peculiar vision

It’s very difficult to ascertain what order it’s been painted in. I was always impressed by what appeared as a very laissez-faire attitude towards plopping a lot of casual brushwork onto a beautifully painted and considered and - basically completed illustration. This marriage of the planned with the improvised was unique to Doug. 

Illustration is a fickle beast, and Doug stayed busy into the early 1980s, but as the industry changed it became a hell of a lot less fun. Art directors were less and less inclined to allow him to cook up his own solutions, and became increasingly prescriptive. But Doug had a sideline going that would prove to be his parachute out of illustration. In 1974 he was hired to create an image for a a theatrical production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide in Brooklyn.

He continued working with this production company throughout the decade, eventually becoming a partner, and then forming Dodger Theatricals, which produced  Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, for which Doug designed posters, print advertising, and sets, including Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Big Boat and Tommy.

A funny aside: Early on Doug needed to have some typesetting done for a newspaper ad, and realized he didn’t possess the know-how to mark up the type for the typesetter, so he called on his friend Herb Lubalin for advice. Herb looked at his typewritten text, mumbled a few words and spec’d the type for him. Needless to say Doug’s theatrical phase has been hugely successful and has long since allowed him to ease out of the illustration work that had become to be a bore. Some of his last “straight” illustration jobs were a remarkable series of album covers for Judas Priest in the 1980s. 

One virtue of heartlessly ransacking an artist’s studio is looking at originals to see, well, just how tough these guys really were. Doug is a badass. His originals are just perfect. No repair work or signs of hesitancy are to be found anywhere. He supplied us with examples of color roughs done for two projects

which were done at quite small sizes, then enlarged for the final paintings, which were then executed as airbrushed and flat gouache base paintings, then studied and finally completed with additional layers of hand painting and subtle spray effects

He was no slouch in the work-until-you-drop department. 

It was an awfully fun day spent in the company of a master illustrator any student of image making should know about. Doug is awesome. We love Doug. 

Video of Doug discussing his Ike and Tina cover

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