When I was a kid, during that period when I spent much of my time haunting news-stands and library magazine-racks, one of my favorite illustrators was John Ford Clymer, who was born at Ellensburg, Washington in 1907, and raised on a ranch.
One day his father bought some illustrated magazines from a salesman on a buckboard. The illustrations, particularly those of Walt Louderback in Cosmopolitan magazine, inspired him to a life of art, beginning with a correspondence course from Art Instruction Schools in Minneapolis, Minnesota where he came under the notice of animal illustrator Walter Wilwerding. Wilwerding helped him make his first sale; to the Colt Firearms Company.
The closest big city near Ellensburg was Vancouver, B.C, and the young man moved there in search of a job in commercial art. Clymer took a variety of studio jobs before deciding he needed further instruction and applied to John Innis, the famous Canadian landscape painter. George Southwell became his teacher and he shared the older man’s studio for 4 years.
“Through photographed samples of my work that I sent around, I got assignments from McLean’s, Western Home, and practically every other Canadian magazine, as well as Blue Book in the United States.”
Clymer’s early illustration work featured bold shapes as seen in the crime story illustration (top) from Winnipeg’s The Western Home Monthly for November 1930.
“The first illustrations I did were for McLean’s and, in my inexperience and impatience -- I worried little about engraving or reproduction at that time -- I did them on canvas so rough that it was more like old burlap than canvas for painting. It showed every brushstroke unmistakably and every blob of paint was a good solid bump on the surface. I thought it was mighty artistic and displayed a good professional style. So quickly that it made my head spin, I heard from the Art Editor, who bluntly told me that, if I wanted any more work in the future, I’d have to employ the more practical smooth canvas.
Despite this rude shock to my pride, I had the good sense to conform to this constructive editorial mandate, which resulted in a happy twelve years service to this Canadian magazine.” (All quotes from The Technique of John Clymer, Art Instruction Schools 1963).
After scores of times shuffling back and forth between Canada and the United States Clymer finally made his breakthrough in America in 1945. He painted over 80 covers for the Saturday Evening Post before he retired from commercial work to concentrate on oil paintings of the fur trade in 1964. He continued freelancing to numerous Canadian and American magazines while contributing to the Post. I had always thought Clymer was a native Canadian until the truth came out in the eighties.
By 1977 his western paintings were selling for $20,000. John Clymer’s painting “Long Cold Winter” sold for $150,000 at the 16th annual Cowboy Artists of America in 1981 and at the time of his death his paintings were selling in the $350,000 range. He was elected to the New York Society of Illustrators in 1982 and was profiled by PBS. He died 2 November 1989 at Bellevue, Washington.
John Clymer, an Artist’s Rendezvous with the American West was published in 1976. Ballantine books published a John Clymer collection in the eighties in the same format as their Frank Frazetta paperback collections. Bottom: True magazine.