Thursday, August 27, 2015

Tom Bjarnason: "Do what you do best and hope to hell you make a living at it"

When Gerry Lazare recently shared his recollections of being an illustrator in Canada during the mid-20th century, he dedicated his entry to Tom Bjarnason. Just the other day, while working on the text of the "Art of Will Davies" book, I came across a brochure from the 1970s featuring the work of several prominent Toronto illustrators - including Tom Bjarnason. Suddenly I realized how remiss I've been to have never yet featured Tom's work on Today's Inspiration. Tom was a fabulous, creative artist - and a helluva nice guy. I feel so fortunate to have known him. So here goes...


Tom Bjarnason was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His mother was an artist and he had seven siblings, of which he was the youngest. Tom attended the Winnipeg School of Art and later, In Detroit, Michigan, the Meinzingers Art School, where he studied for three years. His first job was at a Windsor, Ontario art studio called Greenhow & Webster, but by the mid-'50s he was in Toronto at TDF, one of Canada's premier art studios, creating advertising and editorial art alongside his friend, Will Davies.

(Will & Tom modelling for reference photos for an illustration assignment, 1963)

In the '60s Tom moved to London, England and produced art for publications in the UK, Scandinavia and Germany. "I arrived in London, wanted to stay - but ran out of money," Tom recalled. "So I looked around to see if I could get work. An art director at Good Housekeeping suggested I get a good agent and gave me the name of one. The agent promised to show my work around and it wasn't long before he called and said, "I've got a story to illustrate. Want to do it?"

1965 illustration by Tom Bjarnason
(A 1965 illustration for the British magazine, "Woman" from the Flickr collection of totallymystified)

Returning to Toronto in 1970, Tom began creating stamp designs, both for Canada Post and Unicover Corp. in Wyoming. "I meant for it to be temporary... but I ended up staying." (And he was still here when I first met him at 63 A Yorkville Ave. in Toronto in the late 1990s).

(Four of a series of Canadian stamps Tom designed in 1978)

Along with assignments for magazines like Canadian and Weekend...


... Tom created artwork for corporate clients such as Canadian Pacific, Royal Trust, Toyota, DeHavilland Aircraft and many others.

(Above & below: Department of National Defence, Canada, early 1980s)


Tom talked about his influences, saying he certainly had some when he was younger, and how art directors would mention big name US illustrators when handing out assignments. "If you wanted to make a living you had to reproduce that style," he said. But, "when you come right down to it, you do what you do best and hope to hell you make a living at it, because you'll never get to the top if you're too busy looking over your shoulder at someone else."

By the time I became aware of his work in the late 1980s, Tom was well into a period of creating beautiful, huge, semi-abstract works - sometimes for clients but often just for his own pleasure.


"I'm always interested in composition," said Tom, "and I think that's what I like most about my work. I do a lot of it by instinct. I take a very personal approach to composition."


When I met Tom, he had mostly retired from what could be called "illustration." He still painted representational work, mostly aviation art, some of which would be printed in Canadian Legion magazine, but mostly for gallery display or private collections. Nine of Tom's paintings are in the collection of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

He had moved on to building three-dimensional abstract installation pieces, and whenever he visited, if someone was throwing out, say, a broken fax machine, he'd take it. You knew it was going to be dismantled and some part of the guts would likely become an element in one of Tom's sculptures.


Tom was a soft spoken, thoughtful person with a gentle sense of humour. When he spoke with you, you got the sense that he was genuinely interested in hearing what you had to say on whatever subject was being discussed. He used to say, "I don't really know where I'm headed. I just want to continue doing what I'm doing. It's the doing that's the fun.I never worry about getting awards, I just like doing what I like to do and if somebody else likes it, well, that's even better."

Tom Bjarnason passed away in August 2009. He was 84 years old.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Postscript: From Illustrator to Painter (The Final Step - Part 2)

By Gerald Lazare

As an illustrator, I loved doing anything with a foreign setting. My ancestors had come from France. In 1979, I made another trip to Europe, starting in Paris to sketch and paint and produce a show. In 1981, I had an exhibition ant the Prince Arthur Galleries hosted by the French and Italian embassies in Toronto. A catalogue was produced in French, English and Italian called Lazare in Europe.

Chien du Café

Pont Neuf

Rue de Siene

Venetian Masks

Venetian Market

People in the city, often the protagonists in the fiction I illustrated, were all around me, the girls at Murray’s restaurant at the Park Plaza hotel where I had breakfast near my studio and Country Style Donuts where I had coffee. The nearby popcorn man at ROM, people on the subway, teenagers in the mall, they all became my subject matter. What fun! I remember it all with such pleasure! I wish I was back there again. With my pictures I tried to stop it, to capture it in a frame to look at and have forever.

The Girls at Murray’s

Coffee Style Donuts

Popcorn Man

St. George

Mall Rats

Nude on a Mattress

In the Ottawa Citizen newspaper Cathy Scafter wrote, “His painting of a passenger on a bus, a waitress, musicians in a mall, opens our eyes to the most ordinary marvels. He feels enough empathy for people in the city to depict them with perfect candor." I’ve been painting now for over 35 years, had many shows and awards both here and in the United States. But each new picture is a challenge, an adventure and I still feel that I’m learning.

I’d like to thank Ivan Kocmarek and Leif Peng who still care and remember without their help, generosity and expertise I couldn’t have produced this story.

Gerald Lazare.

Text and images to this series are © Gerald Lazare

* Read Ivan Kocmarek's articles on Gerald Lazare's early career in Canadian comic books here and here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Postscript: From Illustrator to Painter (The Final Step, Part 1)

By Gerald Lazare


The story of Artists who both illustrate and paint has a long history. Many illustrators painted and many painters illustrated. One of the 20th Century’s most famous painters, Claude Monet, was a cartoonist and illustrator before The Water Lillies and our own Jack Bush illustrated for decades before he turned to abstraction. Edward Hopper, The great American realist, was an illustrator much of his working life. There are obvious differences between the two disciplines. As an illustrator, you create images that enhance stories by writers for publishers or ads for the business world that promote companies usually, in both cases, working with art directors.

​As a painter, you tell your own story. You make pictures of what you love and what matters in your life and imagination and you do this alone, without direction from anyone else. For some artists this can be problematic. As an illustrator you are secure in a system that asks you to work for them and pays you well to do so. As a painter, you are vulnerable on your own, showing your work, hoping someone will be attracted and moved enough to want your picture.

​When I was a teenager, I discovered the work of the master painters, especially the ones who drew well: Rubens, Watteau, Ingres, Degas, Sargent and many others. They became my hallmark, my school and inspiration. When I was 25, in 1953, I went to Europe for over a year’s study of their work in the museums and earned my living there as an illustrator. When I returned and continued my freelance life as an illustrator, I dreamt of someday being a painter, painting my own pictures and subjects. When I left illustrating to paint in 1974, I was in my 40s and realized, if I didn’t begin to paint then, it would be too late.

​I had more illustration assignments than ever from both the Canadian and American markets and was winning awards in the U.S. I had no idea the future would bring a decline in illustration with the exodus of many magazines and their fiction and the rise of photography and computer technology. With the best wishes of my clients and agent in New York, I changed my course and changed my drawing board for an easel. Within two years I had my first one-man show at the Nancy Poole Gallery in Toronto.

Gallery Show Invitation: “Coffee Break”

It nearly sold out and caught the attention of the critics.

Gallery Show review, Toronto Star, 1976

My years of illustrating added much to my success as a painter. I had learned to compose a picture. I had learned to draw well. I had an understanding of value and colour. I had disciplined myself to work hard. The main change was subject matter… but even there, it carried over to some extent.

​I had always enjoyed doing faces and portraits and art directors would often comment on that ability. I was advised more than once to consider portrait painting as a career. I enjoyed painting the public, but I soon discovered painting your family and friends was more enjoyable.

Portrait of George

Portrait of Dawn (Commissioned)

Hair (Portrait of artist’s son)

Portrait of the artist

Portrait of Setsuko (the artist’s wife)

A lot of my paintings include cityscapes. The old Junction where I grew up is still etched in my soul. My parents were storekeepers and my walks to school and back passing the shops and movie theatres and what I later called “street furniture” became my early themes and awakened in me a love of architecture I hadn’t known. In 1992, The City of Toronto gave me a retrospective titled “Painting the City” and quoted me:

"Born and raised in Toronto, I have always been a lover of cities and find the human comedy is played out in infinite variety on a city stage. The way we work, play and build our shelters and giant towers to commerce presents an inexhaustible opportunity for the artistic imagination. I’m drawn to a personal view of the city… the soul of it, rather than historical documentation."

catspaw 004
Cat’s Paw

hollywoodjobbers 001
Hollywood Jobbers

Winchester Hotel

The Canary Restaurant

When I was in public school, I discovered the big bands and Jazz. When I was a teenager doing the comics I created Drummy Young, a crime busting band leader. As an illustrator, I did LP and CD covers for Jazz musicians.

Art Hodes CD

Frank Rosolino LP cover

In 1974, for my first show, I painted “Take the A train,” my homage to Duke Ellington, the famous composer and band leader who died that year. It was accepted by the Ontario Society of Artists Exhibition in 1975 and later a print was made and sold to fans and musicians all over the world. Ellington’s sophisticated music has influenced my work and like most musicians, painters are improvisers and composers too.

Take the A Train

Washington Square Rag

Live music is especially rejuvenating and I’ve spent many hours sketching in Toronto jazz clubs like The Montreal Bistro and Café du Copins ... long gone now.

John Lewis sketch at Café des Copains

Concluded tomorrow.

Monday, August 17, 2015

An Illustrator’s Story – Magazines and Newspapers (Part 2)

By Gerald Lazare

Canadian Homes Magazine had features like travel and gardening still popular features for magazines. Its art director was Art Guest, a lovely gentle man who always had time to chat. They featured a travel spread I enjoyed illustrating and here are two examples:


Canadian Homes Magazine was full of ideas for the family. “Backyard Fun for Youngsters,” (1961) was a do-it-yourself article on inexpensive things for kids to play on. Drawing children was a constant requirement for illustrators.

"Sewer pipe is great for crawling."

The corporate world needed illustration to embellish brochures, ads, and annual reports, to create a climate of confidence in companies of all kinds. Trade magazines had articles helping industries tackle marketing and employee concerns.

An article on growing produce, processing, packaging, and delivery to supermarkets in one illustration for Executive Magazine by Charles G. O’Neill (1961).

“Why so Many Executives Flop,” by Tony McVeigh, Executive Magazine (1960).

Layout for Noranda on building houses (1960’s)

From a brochure soliciting people to work as agents for the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States.

My cartooning ability was still an asset as an illustrator. Magazines often used cartoons to illustrate humorous articles and for companies to promote their products.

A 1950s Chateau Gai magazine ad done while as an illustrator working at Bomac Engravers.

Television graphics for children’s programs were ubiquitous as well. I did numerous assignments for “The Polka Dot Door” TVO Ontario’s award winning children’s show 1971-73.

"The King's Butter," The Polka Dot Door, TVO Ontario (c. early '70s)

4 Favourites

An artist always has a few favourite illustrations that, for some reason or other, pleased him more than others he may have done. This is very subjective and is no reflection on the rest of his work or professional competence. Four I liked especially and why.

In the McClelland and Stewart book Johnny in the Klondike, two boys watch the villain strangle a chicken. The text reads “Taut with excitement, they watched in horror as the man took the chicken deftly by the neck and gave a quick twist.” This was a bit of a problem. Never having seen anyone actually do this, I had to visualize it. I had a friend act it out minus the bird, which I added later. The arch of his back hid the poor chicken with one leg and tail feathers telling the story and solving a difficult problem. The tree places the boys and reader the right distance from the act.

Johnny in the Klondike, McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1964

When you’re given a story like My Fair Lady to illustrate, you tend to be a little more focused. The likes of Lerner and Loewe and their adaption from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion challenges you to do your best. Edwardian fashions and the elegance of the plot and charm of the two lead characters Eliza and Professor Higgins are irresistible for any illustrator worth his salt.

My Fair Lady, Four Winds Press, 1967

The final illustration in the book with Eliza and Higgins’ mother plotting to bring him around involved a row with Higgins at the top of a winding staircase shouting down on the two below. By putting Eliza and the mother at the bottom of the left page and Higgins at the top of the right, shouting down across the two pages, I created a feeling of the actual space described in the text.

Another assignment from Scott Foresman and Co. was a story called “The Squealer.” It was about a young boy accused of squealing on a very tough gang member who is looking for him to administer revenge. He is approached by the very angry boy in front of his high school and has to plead innocence and convince his adversary. It is the pivotal illustration in the story. After sketching the two boys arguing, I added two other students hearing the commotion and looking over in a concerned way. I felt it added an element of sound to the picture and brought the picture out of the ordinary. I only have the sketch okayed and returned by the publisher for finish. I never did see the published finished art and would love to.


Crosshatch came naturally to me and I’ve always liked things lyrical. The portrait of Fanz Schubert falls into this category. I like it because of its style and mood.


When I was barely a teenager, I saw the work of European painters who were great draughtsmen. Edgar Degas, Antoine Watteau, and Augustus John who attended the Slade School in London that stressed drawing in its curriculum. Edmund Sullivan, the great English illustrator and Charles Dana Gibson, the American, were also early favourites whose work I studied assiduously.

I look back on my 20 years as an illustrator fondly and with great memories. It seemed to go so quickly and when my peers awarded me CAPIC’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, I couldn’t have been happier. Since then I’ve been painting pictures for myself for over 35 years, but each picture, whether it be the comics, illustration or fine art has taken me to another place away from the ordinary world into the wonderful possibilities of the imagination.

Next: From Illustrator to Painter (The Final Step)