Sometimes a slice of humble pie can turn out tasting sweet, as Automotive Fine Arts Society and Society of Illustrators member Ken Dallison learned at the start of his illustrious career. From the teen who spent lunch hours drawing cars at the roadside to the adult who receives commissions from collectors, automakers and the world’s finest concours d’elegance, Ken has moved to the top of the game.
Born in London but residing in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, for the better part of the last 50 years, Ken grew up sketching the buses, ships and fighter planes of the World War II years that had impacted his childhood. He explains, “I was not exactly an academic genius, so it was fortunate that God gave me some ability to draw, and I practiced a lot.”
A scholarship recipient, he attended Twickenham Art College from ages 14 to 16, and was thereafter hired as a lettering artist. “Peter Hutton, an artist from the same school I’d attended, came to work at the same agency. Every lunchtime, he’d disappear. One day, I asked; ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m sketching.’ I said, ‘Come on, we don’t practice any more, we’re professionals now!’ I asked him what he was drawing, and he said buses and cars; he asked me to come along.
“We went down to Grosvenor Square in London, where the American PX store and the United States Embassy were, and all around this circle were fascinating, colorful American cars, from Studebakers and Cadillacs to a turquoise and white Crown Victoria convertible. For us in London, where every car was black or blue, these cars were such a fresh approach to automotive design, and full of fun. My first pencil drawing, of a London bus, was terrible, full of scrubbed-out eraser marks. My friend worked in pen and ink, and his sketch was vibrant; I was ashamed, because I’d graduated a year ahead of him,” he recalls.
“The next day, he came in with a bottle of ink and a pen for me, and said, ‘Here Ken, let’s go.’ So we took our brown-bag lunches and sat on the curb, drawing every day. That helped our ellipses, drawing the circumferences of the wheels, and flared-out fenders–we got our freehand practicing doing all that. My fascination with the automobile really stems from that experience on Grosvenor Square with the American car designs that I was infatuated with at that time.”
Ken’s freelance art career began shortly after he immigrated to Canada in 1955, during an era that some call the golden age for illustrators. “I first did station identification sketches of things like big crane cameras with bundles of wires and music stands, and these were aired when they announced the station and channel,” he explains. “Gene Buttera, the art director for Car and Driver, was my mentor and the one who gave me my founding start in New York City in 1961. His layout designs, and the way that he used it against my work, elevated it above what I was doing. He was the first of a number of art directors who motivated me and appreciated my style, my shaky edge work.”
In addition to creating detailed fine illustrations for Car and Driver, Road & Track and numerous other prominent automotive titles, Ken created a series of historic aviation airmail stamps and “Classic Car” and “Horseless Carriage” letter stamps for the U.S. Postal Service.
He’s also enjoyed working outside of the automotive genre on editorial projects for publications like Esquire, National Geographic (including projects on the Space Shuttle Columbia launch and the Chunnel) and Sports Illustrated (where he worked on Big Ten football and the Kentucky Derby), and for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
A dip pen and Pelican black ink, with Winsor & Newton watercolors overlaid for transparent washes of color; these are the media for which Ken is famous, but a special request proved that he’s no one-trick pony. “About 15 years ago, Fred Jungelaus, the art director of the Indianapolis Speedway called and said that they wanted me to do an Indy 500 race program cover, which they’d also want to display in their museum. Fred showed me Bernie Fuchs’s work–he’s the king of illustrators, in my book–and he had done a collage that was beautiful. But it was big, about 5 by 4 feet. I thought, ‘My average drawing is 15 x 17 inches… I can’t draw pen and ink that big, it doesn’t translate.’
So I said, ‘It will have to be in oil.’ Fred said, ‘We’ll be delighted to accept your first oil painting!’ So that was it–I broke out into the oil medium, and as time went by, I did more.”
Because oil paintings can take more than three months to complete–double the time it take to finish a pen and ink piece–Ken reserves them for special commissions. But no matter the medium, his art is sought for collections around the world; many of Ken’s famous images have also been made into prints, note cards and postcards.
“I’m well into my so-called retirement years, but I’m not retiring–it’s not part of my curriculum,” he explains. “When I’m working on-site, I always enjoy the interaction with the people who look over my shoulder and ask, ‘Is this a hobby?’ I say, ‘You know, I converted a hobby into a career.’ ”
Source: By Mark J. McCourt from the December 2009 issue of Hemmings Classic Car