Thursday, May 24, 2012

Don Ivan Punchatz and The Sketch Pad Studio Story

By Don Mangus, Heritage Auctions Comics and Illustration Art Specialist

Heritage Auctions is pleased to offer an eye-popping selection of vibrant visions pulled from deep within the flat files of a seasoned vet of Don Ivan Punchatz's Sketch Pad Studio. Keep a sharp eye open for these visual delights in our upcoming SICA sales.

Ray Bradbury once wrote, "Don Ivan Punchatz — Don Ivan's ability to touch men with acrylic and melt them into beasts, or touch beasts with oil and ink, and voila, they are senators or brokers is endlessly stunning. Metaphor, after all, is the universal language and Don Ivan Punchatz could teach at Berlitz." Harlan Ellison simply describes Don Ivan as "One of the truly great modern artists."

To briefly outline the origins of Sketch Pad Studio, a seed was planted, when New Jersey high school graduate Don Ivan Punchatz (1936-2009) won a full scholarship to Burne Hogarth's legendary Cartoonist & Illustrator School, bestowed on him by the world-famous cartoonist himself. Inspired by the tutelage there, with Hogarth acting as his mentor, Don Ivan "payed his experiences forward" by sharing his own working life with generations of cartoonists and illustrators.

In the fifties, after C & I, Don Ivan found himself in the Army, stationed in San Antonio, Texas. It was in the Alamo City that Don first caught Pat Boyette on TV, as a local newscaster. Through Vanguard Productions publisher J. David Spurlock, Don Ivan met Boyette in the 1990s, as did I. Pat hosted wonderful coffee klatches for us at his Ft. Worth apartment, and we enjoyed our artistic fellowship.
At the time, in addition to being a working, hall-of-fame illustrator, Don Ivan was also teaching illustration at TCU in Ft. Worth. Even after decades of accolades in his chosen field, and an outstanding teaching career of nearly 40 years, the administration had begun carping to Don Ivan about his lack of an "advanced degree." I hold an "advanced" MFA degree myself and have taught college level art, and believe me when I point out that this was academia at its most disingenuous — any aspiring illustrator would leap at a chance to study with Don Ivan Punchatz.

Many did, and not just at a school. It turns out, that in addition to his college teaching, Don Ivan also had established apprenticeship-styled/work-for-hire jobs for the young turks, especially those with the "eye of the tiger," at a place he named Sketch Pad Studio. The roster included Gary Panter, Chad Draper, José Cruz, Mike Presley, and Roger Stine among many, many others. These talented tyros toiled under Don's watchful eyes, more often than not collaborating on the cutting-edge images that saw print in a wide variety of venues throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties, until the 9-11 attacks led to a seemingly overnight decimation of those metaphorical twin towers of commercial art — the advertising and freelance illustration markets.

To recall those deadline-defying days of the Sketch Pad Studio (also known as the seventies and eighties to the rest of us), here's a brief, candid interview of two mainstays of the Sketch Pad Studio — illustrators Chad Draper and Jose Cruz.

Q: Chad and Jose, how did each you each come to work at the Sketch Pad Studio and how long did you each work there?

CD:  Roger Huebner, my mentor/professor in Oklahoma, sent me to Don Ivan under the auspices of "extern-ship." As in, I could become an assistant at the Sketch Pad Studio for full college credits if Don liked my meager portfolio — and he did. Mainly because he trusted Roger's judgment that I had actual talent and could not learn another thing in school; I had to get real illustration experience. Roger taught me everything he could in college (including how to pick-up unsuspecting co-eds), so now I was in the real world, from 1980-84. Don had just moved the studio into his own home. Now I was part of his great, extended family (strangest time-warp of all — I am back in that very same home/studio today, living and working with his widow, Sandra. A quite complicated, mystic scenario).
JC: After taking Don Ivan Punchatz' illustration class at TCU in Ft. Worth, Don invited me to work over the summer of 1975 at his studio, the Sketch Pad, in Arlington. It was supposed to be just for the summer but when I told him that I couldn't return to TCU for lack of funds, he let me stay on full time. I worked there for two-and-a-half years.

Q: What sorts of things would you do at Sketch Pad Studio?

CD: Every conceivable (and inconceivable) thing. From the thumbnail sketch stage to finished illustration. Frisket cutting, airbrushing, flat-painting, rendering, fixing, screwing-up, and correcting. And this usually meant "all-nighters," wherein the illo had to get to its destination at the very last moment. Deadline Hell. The mad rush to DFW airport to actually place it in person on the next flight to New York. But that wasn't all. There were domestic duties (after all, I was part of the family). Household shopping and cleaning, cats to the vet, kids to the school, runs to the ubiquitous loan officer, the doctors, the libraries, but oh, don't forget the late lunches with the art directors, or the early parties with the art buyers, or the infrequent visits from the mysterious Darwin, the holy art rep. I never really understood that dynamic — he would only show up about twice a year and it had something to do with art and commerce, the two immutable forces.

JC: At first I would cut the cardboard for the backs of the illustrations. Thank God I had all that experience at the "Box Factory" that I worked at for my old man when I was young. We (the Sketch Pad crew) went to a Paper Party, and I had too much to drink, so I told Don that I was going to quit and go back to the "Box Factory" because I already knew how to cut cardboard. The next day he had me watching Mike Presley, his number one assistant, pull washes on his (Mike's) illustrations. I was sent from one illustrator to another around the studio 'til I got the hang of what they all did in an assembly line of illustration. I got into the airbrushing thing thanks to Greg King and learned everything he knew. I then became Don's assistant, sitting next to him and working on Don's illustrations, and eventually my own.

Q: When you struck out on your own, what was the illustration game like "back in the day?"

CD: It was fairly common then to show your "book" to all of the art directors in Dallas. You hand it to their assistant, they sit it on a table, it gathers dust for a while, then they give it back to you. The actual art director is not even in the goddamn building. If you are lucky (or "cute and new" enough) you get a "spot" illustration in an actual magazine — in black and white (color is only for the established pros). After about four more months, you get a check for $150. Thank God. However, back then, I was extremely lucky to get sizable jobs from illustrators who were too busy to do it themselves. Hand-me-down ad art jobs, almost always by way of Don, himself. That saved my life over and over. Eventually though, my style caught on for editorial work, especially out of town. If I got a two-page spread or a cover for a real magazine I thought I had completely transcended this sphere. Of course, such transcendence is short-lived.

JC: I first got a representative in New York City to show my work, so I didn't really have a day that I wasn't working. In those days there was a lot of work for those who had realistic portfolios. I got into book covers and magazine editorial illustrations. I realized that I needed a distinctive style in order to set myself apart from the rest. That took five years of development on my own in-between the realistic work.

Q:  What's the field like now post 9-11? What are some of your current projects?

CD:  Somewhere in there, amidst all of the illustration junk, I began to sell screenplays. Actually, I began to sell options for screenplays. I lived off of option money for years and then an actual film got shot. (Look at False River on IMdb to see how a script is promptly eviscerated before production begins). Now, sequestered in Don's old chateau, I still write every single moment I'm not doing storyboards, executing custom-made children's books, painting personal pieces, or taking care of my best creation, Franky, my 7-year old son.

JC: I'd call it dead, but I think the field has completely changed, and is saturated with too many illustrators and clones-of-clones. After the 9-11 attack in 2001 many of the publishers streamlined their magazines and made cutbacks to accommodate the lack of advertising. Magazines got pretty thin in 2002. Many of the art directors of my time vanished from the scene and were replaced by a new breed, with their own brand of art direction and design. Many illustrators who had been working became unemployed illustrators.
The computer also became a sort of "anyone-can-do-this" tool and many illustrators like myself, who worked by hand, either had to learn the computer or do something else. I know too many illustrators who went back to school to teach.

Q: Looking back 25-30 years ago, what lessons have stayed with you from Don Ivan and Sketch Pad Studio?

CD: If I look back to 30 years ago, I see that I never should've moved out of here to begin with. Don was, and still is, the single greatest human spirit I have yet encountered. (Good God, I think he's listening right now). The best thing he ever told me, in-between all of the practical stuff about life and work, was this: "Never, no matter what it is, take anything personally." I have leaned on that saying in many hard times. Once, no long ago really, I reminded Don of his advice. He didn't remember that at all. The reason is — he dished out wisdom like that naturally, without even thinking about it. He made you look at things differently, through his own piercing eyes. Oh, also, by the way, he literally saved my life four or five times over the years, but that's a whole other story.
JC:  I am quite handy with an airbrush. I still use the acrylic paint techniques I learned at the Sketch Pad Studio to do my fine art.

Thanks to Chad Draper and Jose Cruz for their look back at Don Ivan Punchatz and Sketch Pad Studio. Contact Chad Draper at; and visit José Cruz at and his X-Factor-E Blog; he's also on Facebook.

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