In 1940's South Philadelphia, Charles Santore's artistic talent made him something of a local celebrity. But he grew up in a working-class section of town in which nothing was taken for granted. His neighbors regularly dared the young Santore to let public scrutiny be the judge. "Oh, yeah?" they would say. "You think you're an artist? Let's see you draw me." Again and again, as he took up the challenge with his pencil, an uncanny likeness would emerge. By the time he was in high school, people stopped leveling challenges and started to pay Santore for portraits.
In South Philly, his right hook was another useful skill. As a child with a stuttering problem, Santore compensated for any communication problems by throwing the first punch. He started smoking at age eleven. To complement the vice, he began hanging out at pool halls, where he picked up the game. But for all the hard-knocks sound of it, people were comfortable, and Santore's childhood happy. Six blocks from his house was the Liberty Bell, which he and the gang used as a jungle gym. There was always a game of street ball to join. Families were far from rich, but no one went hungry. As Santore sees it, this ease with life cultivated a complacent mindset that could be difficult to escape. The worlds of high art, politics and literature were thought to have nothing to do with the people in his neighborhood. "What you hoped for was to get a job and stay out of jail," says Santore. To strive for something bigger was to think beyond one's station.
Santore ended up well beyond his station. His work, influenced by the narrative style of the Brandywine School and by artists such as Edwin Austin Abbey and N.C. Wyeth, is included in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, the Brandywine River Museum, and in special museum exhibitions across the country. He has earned medals from the New York Society of Publication Designers and the Society of Illustrators, as well as the prestigious Hamilton King Award.
After more than twenty years as an illustrator for magazines and advertising, Running Press approached him to illustrate The Complete Tales of Peter Rabbit and Other Stories in the mid-'80s. The opportunity to create a work of permanence more than made up for the financial sacrifice of book illustration. "An advertisement runs in a magazine today," Santore says, "and someone wraps fish in it the next day. With a book, you know it's going to be around." Santore has since illustrated eleven titles, nine of them with Random House. These include Aesop's Fables, The Wizard of Oz, The Little Mermaid, Snow White, and The Fox and The Rooster. He is both author and illustrator of two award-winning books, William the Curious and A Stowaway on Noah's Ark. When we met, he was in the process of illustrating his third story, about a pig named Bianca, which was the first he would complete in oil, not watercolor.
Santore wasn't swept away from what he sees as a culture of complacency by virtue of skill alone. He remembers the moment he chose ambition over mediocrity. It has more to do with being a pool hall toughie than an artist, but the same fighting spirit pervades his career. At age fifteen, he represented his region in a nationwide billiards championship. As Santore describes it, it didn't occur to him that he might play to win. No one expected it. Simply glad to be in New York City on someone else's dime, he proceeded to happily lose. Midway through the losing streak, he looked up to realize he was letting a less talented opponent beat him. Santore clenched his jaw, won the next sixteen games, and eventually the championship title. From then on, he reached beyond his blue-collar background. Even today, he is suspicious of other people's expectations of him; they are invariably lower than those he self-imposes.
His first formal leap as an artist began as a student at Philadelphia's Museum School of Art (now the University of Arts), where the nuances of art opened to him. "I had no preconceived idea in those days about what an artist should be," he said. "I never heard the term 'illustrator.' I had no idea what contemporary art was, what abstraction was. It was like being a folk artist, like being a primitive." When he recounts his early successes after graduation, it's as though he's still astonished to have gotten each job: a drawing for the Saturday Evening Post, a poster for the 1964 New York World's Fair, ads for the Bell Telephone Hour, 40 TV Guide covers. By the 1970s, Santore had become one of the most sought-after magazine illustrators in the industry, working for high-profile publications such as Esquire, Good Housekeeping and Redbook. But as the '70s wound down, the formulaic nature of the articles he was illustrating—primarily love stories for a readership of homemakers—began to have a stultifying effect.
To understand this reaction, it helps to know that for Santore, the text is everything. The tales he illustrates are not Disney's. They're the tragic, often gruesome, myths of the Grimm Brothers. His Oz is the allegory of L. Frank Baum, with Dorothy in silver slippers, not Judy Garland's ruby reds. "What the years have taught me is to have a reverence for the subject matter," he says. "If you really pay attention to it, it will dictate what your picture should be. It will teach you something." Santore will fight to maintain the integrity of the original text. No amount of coaxing can convince him that his Little Mermaid should wear a halter top, as editors once suggested. Santore, who does not abide by what he calls illustration by committee, says that when a publisher hires him to illustrate a book, they are buying his opinion. "If they're not going to accept my opinion, I'm not going to sell them my hands."
These opinions are the result of rigorous research. He mines every story for literary symbols that resonate, combing the theoretical literature of myth and the history of the period. "I don't want you to think I'm some sort of mythology scholar," he says, then goes on to speak just like one, citing the writings of G.K. Chesterton, Bruno Bettelheim and Sir James George Frazer. He talks of Snow White's Electra complex, Dorothy's quest for a father figure, The Wizard of Oz as a response to the Industrial Revolution. It stands to reason that his illustration style should be as rich. His pages are filled with tightly-rendered details-textures, costumes, flora and fauna. At the same time, he composes each book as though it were a piece of music. There is room amid the details for crescendos, for bursts of staccato notes, for silence.
For an artist who grew up on the two-week deadline of advertising, Santore is uncompromisingly slow with books. "I need time for the struggle," he says. Given his solid sales performance in an impossibly crowded market, Random House grants him as much time as he needs. Santore works seven days a week in his studio, which is arranged in concentric rings of chaos and quiet. A French-made, double-balanced drawing table from 1963, on which hundreds of images are pinned helter-skelter for reference, dominates the corner. Surrounding the table is a ring of empty space, as if to cushion the work area from the rest of the studio, filled with boxes, flat files, canvases, easels and books.
"This place is a madhouse," he said on a recent visit, as if it had just dawned on him then. He was speaking from behind a pile of cardboard boxes, searching for a copy of The Wizard of Oz. "Here it is," he said, triumphant, and then: "No, no. That's the French version."
Santore's methodical approach belies the disorder. He begins each project with a small "dummy book" of about three by five inches, in which he choreographs the movement of his stories. Dorothy's journey, for example, moves from left to right until she encounters the witch and her minions, who thrust the movement backward. Page for page, the dummy books vary only slightly from the final product. He composes countless studies, then transfers the final drawing to stretched, slightly textured watercolor paper, laying down washes with large Kolinsky sables and gradually moving to small brushes.
The process requires a great deal of discipline. And yet he most loves the moments at which his picture spins out of his control. His goal is to approach each illustration as an amateur would. "What you do when you're a professional," he says, "is you produce what you already know. If you merely apply your technique to the subject matter, in my value system, all you've done is obscure the message." Instead, Santore wants to be slightly uncomfortable, to feel in over his head when he begins each illustration. "As far as I'm concerned," he says, "I'm really in training for a day when I could do something really good. I'm practicing for the big event." As if to remind himself of this, he fills the walls of his home with early American folk paintings. These works, flawed and slightly out-of-proportion, stand in contrast to Santore's skill as a draftsman. But he feels an affinity. Like these artists, he engages in a struggle. His is the struggle to avoid the easy reliance on established techniques, to constantly evolve, and to end up at a point he couldn't have predicted when he started. ca