Who I Am... And How I Got That Way - The Impressive Career of Graphic Designer and Illustrator Ron Rae - Part I

50 Looong Years of Graphic Art and Design. 
by Ron Rae

First Beginnings
I was born in 1937 in Saginaw, a town in Mid-Michigan famous as a lumbering center in the mid to late 19th century. A couple of sections of Saginaw have clusters of Victorian Era mansions built by the Lumber Barons. My first home was in one of these Victorian palaces, a mansion turned into an apartment house. My grandparents lived in another elaborately detailed Victorian home close by. I think growing up in this overtly decorative environment  influenced my life-long interest in historical art movements and design styles. I started drawing as a youngster as most of us did and often illustrated my school projects to get better grades than the written content deserved. Many of my teachers fell for this ploy. I knew early on that I was destined (or doomed) to be some kind of an artist.

Hitched and Married at Twenty-One
When I married in 1958. My wife Kathy and I soon became avid antique collectors and she became, and still is, an antiques dealer. She handled a wide variety of antiques, but our own favorites were of the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and later on, Mid-Century Modernism as it is now called. We recently found some of my 1970s silk screen prints showing up in the Modernism antique shows. I’m now officially an "antique artist" - I guess.

Just a Smidgen of Education 
I attended Wayne State University in Detroit for one year (1957). My formal art education also consisted of one year (1958) at The Art School of the Society of Arts and Crafts in Detroit. Today it's known as Center for Creative Studies. In the 1970s I taught graphic design there myself. Incidentally I have no degrees (except 98.6). My first job in 1959 was as an apprentice in a desirable commercial art studio in Detroit called Gilchrist-Osler Studios. My first boss was Jerry Campbell, Detroit’s premier lettering artist and designer. My early training was for a position called “Layout Man” the old designation for a graphic designer.

First Hard Knocks in the School Of
My first job “on the board” (that’s drawing board) was at a small but pretty hot art group called LeBeau Studios. At this studio I first met and worked with my friend of 48 years, Edward Fella, now a world famous designer/graphic artist, teacher and lecturer. Ed and I discovered and explored a lot of art influences both historical and contemporary while working together in the same room. It was with this group (1960-1962) that I was officially called a graphic designer, and it was here that I was caught up in what I call "The Great Graphic Art Explosion of the 1960s". My first admired New York contemporary group was the original Pushpin Studios... Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Paul Davis and John Alcorn. Imagine how amazing it was, when a few years out of Saginaw I was actually (if only occasionally) competing with Pushpin Studios for specific projects. In their "Historical  Eclecticism" approach the Pushpin guys were referencing the historical styles and eras of art that I was so interested in, Victorian woodcuts, The Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and the great early illustrators, both American and European... Howard  Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, The Beggerstaff Brothers, Ludwig Hohlwein, Arthur Rackham and Aubrey Beardsley. Other important inspirations were Polish posters of the 1950s-60s, hippie music posters of the 1960s-70s, The Royal College of Art in London, Modern Fine arts... Picasso, Matisse, Max Ernst collages, Surrealism and Rene Magritte, Joseph Cornell, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. My brain was swimming in all these influences and inspirations.

Decorative Illustration, My All-Time Best Act
My new designation as I started to do mostly illustration changed to decorative illustrator. I was by then receiving constant requests from agency art directors to do work in my decorative illustration approaches. The main pitfall throughout my illustration career was to be the request "I love the way you style your illustrations, but could you give me a little more realism?" Of course the answer was an emphatic - NO! As Clint Eastwood says in one of his westerns right after drawing on and shooting a bad guy... "A man's got to know his limitations!"

My First Big-Time Big Studio Stint
My next move was to McNamara Brothers Studios (in 1963), my first big studio job with about 40 other artists. I went there to work with my favorite local graphic artist of the time, Jimmy Dunne, a little Northern Irish fellow direct from Belfast with a delightful accent. Jim became my most important mentor/teacher. At the same time, Jim was mentoring another of Detroit’s best designer/illustrators, Nelson Greer. One of the promotion pieces that Jim and I did for McNamara’s was a large illustrated silk screened folder/booklet on heavily textured color paper. The subject was old railroad trains. It was my concept and design with Jim and I each doing half of the art work. It was my first work to be accepted in The New York Art Director’s annual and in CA Magazine (in color, no less).

Glad to be Separated (and Divorced) from Hand Color Separated Art
To give you an idea of how tedious the precomputer graphic art business could be I’ve included this description of hand separated art. The illustrations I did for the next ten years were very often hand separated flat color. The art had a line drawing on the illustration board with separate cell overlays for each color and screen of a color. Sticky red colored material had to be cut for each color shape with an X-Acto knife and the excess peeled away. Then each cell had to be registered to the line art. Many of my jobs were three or four colors, with many traps and two to four cells for each color. If you don’t recognize this as the description of a nightmare, add in that the art was usually due the next morning. Imagine how happy I was when four color process color became the norm for color art.

A Deliberate Move to the Center
In 1964 I moved with Jimmy Dunne to start a small design studio called, Design Center where we were joined by another of Detroit’s best designers, Al Evans. Design Center was a subsidiary of New Center Studios, Detroit’s biggest ever Art Studio. It had about 75 artists by the late 1960s.

I Join Skidmore-Sahratian - Where it All Really Happened
My new job was in Detroit’s finest 1930s skyscraper, The Fisher Building, an overtly over-decorated Art Deco wonder. I worked at Skidmore for 22 years in total 1965-1985 and later 2002-2004. In the 1960s Skidmore became Detroit’s finest art studio with about 30 artists. My national success as an illustrator came during my time at Skidmore. During this period I worked with Ed Fella and Al Evans again, and also with a number of others in the ranks of Detroit’s finest artists of the era... illustrators Bill Klemm, Frank Wagner, Chuck Gillies, Rudy Laslo, Steve Magsig, Bob Andrews, auto painters John Ball, Leo Skidmore, Jerry Monley and designers John Dudek, Wallace Mead, Bill Kastan. I just missed working with Bruno Hohmann, another of Skidmore's finest graphic designers. The studio's best ever rep, John Sahration, went to New York and Chicago regularly to bring us the coveted non-automotive projects. I always managed to make a pretty good living doing very little automobile work. I was working on a commission (percentage per job) for most of my time at Skidmore. The work I did always came in specically for me to do. It was like I had my own little "art store" within the big studio. For most of my working years I was fortunate enough to be able to have a work philosophy of... “If it ain’t no fun for me, I ain’t doing it!”

"If You Can Make It There..." How I Didn’t Love New York
At the height of my illustrative success in the late 1960s I had offers for representation from New York art reps. The downside for me was that I would have to move to New York. In later years with overnight delivery companies, moving to New York was not so important for artists. A few of my illustration clients from1963 to1985 (without moving to New York), were Alcoa, Bendix, 3M Corp, Brown Paper Co, Dayglo Corp, CBS/Fox Video, Orion Video, GM, Ford, Chrysler, Upjohn, Eli Lilly, Dow Chemical, Detroit Free Press, Booth Newspapers, Playboy Magazine, Good Housekeeping Magazine, Cosmopolitan Magazine, McCalls Magazine, Friends Magazine, American Youth Magazine and on and on. By 1982 I had started doing a lot more graphic design, but I still did a fair amount of illustration, especially as part of my own design work. At this time I was doing work for the burgeoning movie/video industry, especially promotion campaigns to market classic movie videos. To illustrate these movie collections, including those of Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn and Shirley Temple I used three of my favorite independent Detroit illustrators, Gary Ciccarelli, Bill Hosner and Ken Granning. The last part of this movie video business was done at Pepellashi and Rae/Pelkan Pictures (1986-1993), my only period of art studio ownership. Pelkan Pictures, an offshoot of Pepellashi and Rae was a studio built around a main-frame graphics computer called the Quantel graphic paintbox, which allowed us to do a lot of "real time computer magic" in 1990, just before the Mac Computers and Adobe Photoshop gave us the desktop computer revolution that changed everything in our business. Soon large, expensive mainframe computers were no longer necessary to do major graphics imaging. The Mac and Adobe did it all and more.

Join us again tomorrow as Ron Rae's career enters the "digital age" of graphic design and illustration. Ron also talks about his experience working with Detroit's best interior and environmental design group - his work as a fine artist and his work as a stained glass artist.


  1. I am so glad to see this site and the pictures included. I have a Ron Rae illustration framed from circa 1980 when I worked for McCann Erickson. I found the piece in storage perhaps from the office of an earlier art director, but no one seemed to be in possession of it. Its a Blue 1953 Buick with a front and side profile of the vehicle. There are cut outs revealing tendon and muscle and the illustration is immaculate. Signed Ron Rae '70. I would love to communicate with Ron to know more.

  2. Hi Torrey:

    Please send me an email with a photo of the poster and I'll pass it along with your contact information to Ron. You can send it to lou(at)illustrationpages(dot)com - Thanks


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