Drawing from Life

James McMullan, interviewed by Leanne Shapton

James McMullan

James McMullan

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

The cover for our 60th Anniversary Issue was painted and hand-lettered by the artist, illustrator, and educator James McMullan. In addition to the eleven children’s books he has published with his wife, Kate McMullan, and the watercolors depicting a Bay Ridge disco that he painted for Nik Cohn’s 1976 New York magazine story “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” the source material for the movie Saturday Night Fever, he is probably best known for the posters he made over the past thirty years for Lincoln Center and Broadway theaters.

McMullan was born in Qingdao, China, to Anglo-Irish missionaries, and fled to British Columbia with his mother after the Japanese invaded the city in World War II. He returned to Asia—Darjeeling—while still a boy, and then to Shanghai after the war, and then went back to Canada, where he was tutored in art by Peter Ustinov’s Russian aristocrat uncle Plato (whom he remembered as “a bit of a hack”). After a sojourn in Seattle he landed, finally, in New York, where in the Sixties he joined the influential Push Pin Studios design firm, which was founded in 1954 by Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, and Ed Sorel, and which for many years made its headquarters at 207 East 32nd Street, the new home of the Review

From 1992 to 1994 I worked in the building, too, as one of McMullan’s two studio assistants. He taught me to draw from life and by observation, how to look at fine art and illustration, when to argue for it, when to compromise, and how to work with editors and illustrators. This cover is a convergence of sorts: of the past, present, and future of the Review and its art. I went to lunch with McMullan, who arrived straight from a doubles tennis match with his daughter, Leigh Abramson. We talked about drawing, words, and bodies.

Leanne Shapton: What did you read and look at when you were growing up?

James McMullan: I looked at the Chinese scrolls on the walls of our living room, and I was fascinated by the tiny detail and the stories they told—and the fact that it was all done with lines. I read a lot of English kids’ books like Winnie-the-Pooh. I loved the illustrations in those books, too.

You’ve painted 207 East 32nd Street, our new home, for the cover. Can you tell me a little bit about your time there?

In the early 1990s the economy got bad, and I wasn’t getting as much work, and the maintenance at my studio on Park Avenue was fairly high. It was a period when I was always having lunch with Milton and complaining, and so he said, sell your place and come to my building. My rent was $500 a month for the ground floor.

Did you also work in that building when Push Pin occu­­pied it?

Yes, on the third floor.

How did you start to work with Milton in the first place? How did you find each other?

I had a loft on 26th Street, and in the floor below me there was a guy who ran life drawing classes. I took the life classes, and who should show up but Seymour Chwast. Seymour and I got to be friends, and he saw that I had a certain ability to draw. He asked if I’d like to join Push Pin—which was quite remarkable, because even though I had done a lot of work and had the beginnings of a reputation, Push Pin was way up there. I said, yeah! And he said, well, you have to come and meet Milton. Milton and I talked a lot, and we just realized that we were made for each other. I introduced him to Kate, and she, Milton, his wife Shirley, and I began to have dinner together all the time.

Do you remember what year you started at Push Pin?

You’re not allowed to ask this.

I love that it all started with life drawing. You’ve since taught thousands of students how to draw from life. What is it about the practice that you believe in and think is valuable?

The human figure seems to me the ultimate subject of art.


Well, because that’s who we are.


Yeah. I realized early on that I was interested in the whole human figure and its energy. When I began teaching, I had to go back into myself and say, why do I draw well? What’s involved in that? I realized that I had psychological responses to the figure. The figure was another human being. You’re seeing all kinds of things in the way that they look and the way that they move. I very quickly moved beyond a kind of academic view of life drawing and became more interested in the energy.


How does your understanding of life drawing inflect how you draw something like a building?

Well, the building itself became a figure and the figure was full of celebration and energy. In the first sketch I gave you, I felt energy coming out of the windows. I’ve abstracted those qualities, focused on them in a more abstract way.

What makes an editor or art director good to work with?

Art directors and editors who appreciate your work on a kind of primal level, who understand there’s something, an undercurrent in your work, that’s always operating, and they accept it, like it, and look forward to it.

When you say undercurrent, do you mean like a voice?

Yes, it’s more like a voice. Bernie Gersten at Lincoln Center, Richard Gangel at Sports Illustrated, they loved my work on an artistic level rather than always worrying, how will people see this? And Milton always gave me a lot of room to be who I was.

Why do you like hand-lettered type so much?

I don’t think of type as letters. I think of it as words. I always want words to be part of my art. Like in my first theater poster, for Comedians, by Trevor Griffiths and directed by Mike Nichols. The lettering continues the energy of the art.  

How did “Art is Work” come to be written over the front door of the building?

Milton wanted to say that all art has worth. He was challenging the idea that if you’re doing art that you’re paid for, you’re not doing art.

Objecting to a division between fine art and commercial art?

Right. He was saying all art is work. It’s all profound, and noble.

We should do a life drawing class on the fourth floor for writers and editors. You should teach a life drawing class. Marlon James draws from the figure.

That would be an interesting thing to do, to have life drawing class for writers. God.

An earlier version of this article misspelled Nik Cohn’s name.

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