Friday, September 9, 2011

Illustrator Richard Hess

Richard Hess (1934-1991) started his career as a teenager, designing paint-by-number kits for the Palmer Paint Company of Detroit. Years later he must have enjoyed the irony of creating an Esquire magazine cover with a Lyndon Johnson paint-by-number portrait.

Hess always wanted to be a painter, but after his early days at the Palmer Paint Company, he found success instead as designer in the advertising world. After stints in advertising agencies in Detroit, Philadelphia and New York, Hess formed his own company and had a very successful career as an art director. His clients included IBM, Du Pont, Xerox, PanAm, AT&T and many more.

His work for Vista magazine was typical of his expansive talent — he would redesign the logo (which could be read correctly upside down) redesign the magazine format, and then paint the cover illustration. Above are Hess' logos for Vista, Franklin Typographers (with a positive and negative "F") and Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation.

As an art director, Richard Hess would assign work to the great illustrators of the 1970s, including Milton Glaser, but in a pinch he'd do an illustration, always with great success. Below is a drawing of Winston Churchill that Hess did at the last moment, when an illustrator missed an assignment deadline.

Starting in 1971, Hess began doing illustrations on a regular basis. He continued to art direct as well, essentially juggling two separate careers. He even named his company Hess & Hess. (Since this original posting, illustrator Mark Hess has verified that Hess & Hess referred to the collaborative work between him and his father.)

Franklin Typographers poster   |   1972

Franklin Typographers poster   |   1975

Illustration for Vista magazine  |  1975

Cover for Graphis magazine  |  1977

Book jacket illustration for Joe Lewis: My Life  |  1978

Illustration for "Poor Concentration/Poor Memory"  |  1978

Illustration for Xerox employee brochure  | 1970s

And I'll end with one of my favorite Hess paintings, his record cover illustration celebrating Charles Ive's 1974 centennial, for Columbia Records.

Click to enlarge

Richard Hess collaborated throughout the 1980s on illustrations with his son Mark Hess, whose style is very compatible. Mark Hess is equally talented, has illustrated numerous covers for Time magazine, and his work can be seen here.

Richard Hess died in August of 1991 at the age of 57. That same year, he was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame.



  1. Hello Mark:
    This is all absolutely fascinating and completely absorbing. And such talent covering such a range. From the vista logo, which is so very clever, through to the exceptional art work for so many varied publications, we are astonished, and ashamed, that we have known nothing of Richard Hess before now. Is he, we wonder, widely known in America as an artist and illustrator for we are uncertian that much is known about him in the UK?

    Whatever, this is wonderful and we are certainly prompted to discover more about him.

  2. Dear Mark - I found Richard Hess's obituary in The New York Times where it said he died at the age of 57 years. It also said, his son Mark, stated that he had died of complications from septic shock syndrome.
    What a fertile imagination he had to design those logos so that they could be read upside down.
    I like the Xerox employee brochure, slightly reminds me of Escher.

  3. Hello Jane and Lance: Your comment brings up an interesting point, and that is that fine illustrators are seldom held in the same regard as "fine artists." Richard Hess and his son are very well known in the advertising community, and most Americans have seen and appreciated their work. (Mark Hess paints very fine portraits.) But I don't think that either is widely known to Americans in the sense that you mean, and that's a great shame. All the more reason for this posting!

  4. Dear Rosemary - Thank you for your research — I wish I'd thought of going to The New York Times! I will make the appropriate editing changes to the posting.

    I like the Xerox illustration, too, and I especially like that it's presented as a diamond.

  5. I'm familiar with his work, Mark. Hess was an incredibly fine illustrator and designer. Thanks for featuring his work. It's a damn shame he died so young.

    I'm going to be featuring one of my favorite illustrators' work next week on my blog. But happily he is still with us. Far as I know, anyway.

  6. Hi, Yvette - One feels a personal loss with someone like Richard Hess, especially if, like I, you collected his work into files as it was published. There's a strange feeling to "closing the file..."

    I look forward to your feature.

  7. Hi Mark, This was a real time machine back to the 1970's. As you, Jane and Lance discussed, graphic artists tend to be unknown or forgotten, yet often they affect us on a daily level more than "fine" artists.

  8. Hi, Parnassus -

    All very true. I probably gravitated to design as a livelihood because I was conscious even from childhood that everything I was touching had been designed by someone, and I noticed some of those things were so much better thought out than others.

    Conversely, I'm always surprised to realize that so many people are completely blind to the design and makeup of their own environment.

  9. Again, Here is another illustrator whose style I was familiar with, but had no idea who it was. Some of his work has the feel of Henri Rousseau, in the style and the lighting effects

  10. Hi, David - Richard Hess had the ability to successfully copy the style of others (which I was often asked to do), and he was often asked to duplicate René Magritte.

  11. Having worked for Dick at Franklin, it was very rewarding to see our efforts put to such noble use. Dick would show up at midnight (or later)at our 'hot metal' shop with his copy, sit at a desk, and come up with the typographic treatment he wanted to convey. Type as art...unique (the great designers held type in the highest esteem)...for textmatter, he'd go from small 'x' height with long descenders and much 'leading', to large 'x' height, small descenders and tight line-spacing, and when sophisticated phototype became available for text setting, he used that process and all of it's possibilities (condensing, expanding, slanting,) to it's fullest, but never digressing from type's most important quality...user friendly readability!

  12. Thank you so very much for contributing your reminiscence of Richard Hess. You bring up a point that many people never realize, which is that the great typographers will design the same font differently for different point sizes.

    Reviewing the work of Richard Hess makes one appreciate how he was concerned with design on many levels.

    Incidentally, I've worked with "hot type" myself, so I know that you have witnessed many changes in the printing industry. Thanks again for contributing here!

  13. I am amazed at the pervasive influence of Magritte and Surrealism in many of the illustrations of the 1970s. That influence and appreciation seem to have all but disappeared in the arts of today.

    Even something like the famous 1971 Surrealist Ball given by the Rothschilds in Paris would likely not be presented or be appreciated in 2011.

  14. Hi, Terry - The work of Paul Davis (whom I have featured) was a big influence on Richard Hess, and Hess, as art director, often used Paul Davis.

    So many successful advertising campaigns employ irony, and I think that both Davis and Hess were inspired by Magritte's art because that imagery is so compatible with ironic copywriting.

  15. Mark. Thank you, and the other commentators for all the kind words about my father. He was an incredibly charismatic, generous and kind man in addition to being so talented. I didn't grow up with him, but saw him regularly. In 1973, in my second year in college, I was looking for something more than "just a liberal arts education" and he offered to take me on as an apprentice. I rented a place three hours for NYC where his studio was and would come in one week every month for 9 months. I'd sleep on the floor and meet all his illustrator and designer friends and get critiques from them and the "old Man" on paintings I would be working on. It was a rich and extremely fast way to break into the biz and I had an agent by the end of it. We then collaborated on many illustration assignments and also did our own work for the next few years. I loved his sense of style and also the meaning he tried to convey in his paintings. BTW, not a big deal, but the Hess & Hess company name was based on the two of us, although I love your inference that it was based on him having two sides to his career. That's a better story... Someday I'll have to tell you about how the old man wanted me to be a cowboy, so sent me to rodeo camp to learn to ride bulls as a boy.
    Keep up the great work you do here. It's amazing how fast people forget my dad and his contributions.

    1. Dear Mark, I will NEVER forget your dad or his contributions. His work greatly inspired me, and to this day I have a folder of his illustrations (and I might add, yours too) which I collected as they were published. How great that you were able to collaborate with him and get critiques from a circle that was the best of its field! And I would love to be in touch and hear cowboy stories. Thanks for your visit and for taking the time to comment. You made my day.

  16. I had him as a teacher at the Cooper Union in my senior year (1979-1980). Great talent, wonderful instructor, and terrific person.

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  18. Mark:
    As a client, working together with Dick taught me me two great life lessons. Having a genius as an art director will make everything you do look smarter and can change your career and your life. And if you are realy lucky that art director will turn out to be kind, funny and tolerant of his client's struggles. Watching him work was a joy.
    Robert M. Randall