''Ball, cube, cylinder, cone,'' the guy in the plaid flannel shirt and the beatnik beard would declare at the start of his weekly TV show. ''By using these four shapes, I can draw any picture I want. And so can you
Like thousands of other 1950s kids mesmerized by the grainy, black-and-white images on the marvelous new toy called television, I was absolutely sure that this guy, Jon Gnagy, was talking to me personally. I believed him, and I pestered my mom until she went the Baptist Bible and Book House, my Mississippi hometown’s only bookstore, and purchased one of Gnagy’s Learn to Draw kits, complete with sketch pad, soft pencils and gum eraser. I think it cost $3.95. With it, I could sketch along with Gnagy, following his instructions for drawing an old mill, a mountain vista or a cowboy on a bucking bronk. Until just a few years ago, when it finally crumbled into dust, I still had my lopsided rendition of Gnagy’s “Mexican boy with sombrero.”
I started thinking about Learn to Draw when a friend emailed to alert me that a feature story I had written in the mid-1980s for The Orlando Sentinel about his daughter, Polly Gnagy Seymour, had been posted on the official Jon Gnagy website.
Gnagy had been deceased for a few years by that time. Seymour was just beginning to evaluate and catalogue the artwork her father had left behind — everything from the old black-and-white TV shows to test drawings for a planned full-color revival to fine-art illustrations he created for clients from fishing guides to wineries. From talking to her and from additional research, I came to realize that the “bohemian” artist I had discovered in the late 1950s had actually been on hand for the creation of the new medium.
Gnagy was a TV star before Lucy, before Berle, before Kukla, Fran or Ollie. A self-taught artist raised Mennonite (thus the beard) in rural Kansas, Gnagy was making a good living doing illustrations for ad agencies in New York and Philadelphia when he decided that teaching was his true calling and that this new communications breakthrough they were calling television was ideal for him.
His TV career began May 13, 1946, when network fare included such forgotten hits as Esso Newsreel and Geographically Speaking. On a trial video version of NBC's Radio City Matinee radio program — emceed by Warren Hull, later the host of TV’s Strike It Rich — the variety acts included a woman whose shtick was modeling assorted funny hats and a professional decorator who arranged miniature furniture on a tabletop. But only Gnagy, who spent his segment talking the audience through his live sketching of an old oak tree, got what would later be known in TV parlance as “traction.”
By November, Gnagy had his own 15-minute NBC series, You Are an Artist, airing on Thursday nights in what we now call “prime time.” He did charcoal drawings of moonlit haystacks, children sledding, geese in flight. In The New York Times, critic Jack Gould praised Gnagy’s ''thoroughly engaging setside manner.'' Writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Merill Panitt, later to become editorial director of TV Guide, said that ''Gnagy's Midwestern easy-going manner conceals the hours of rehearsal and gives an air of spontaneity to the proceedings.''
And while Gnagy could never boast Uncle Miltie’s famous flush-influence, he did have an impact. At the height of his popularity, Manhattan bartenders handed out paper and pencils to patrons who put down their cocktails to sketch along with ''America's Television Art Instructor.''
It didn’t last, of course. Like so many early-TV staples, You Are An Artist was cancelled to make way for shows with broader appeal as the number of sets and stations multiplied. Gnagy lost his slot after two years on NBC to the immortal Mohawk Showroom, a music show starring bandleader Morton Downey, father of the toothsome “trash TV” pioneer to be.
What aging children of my era remember, however, is the syndicated series, Learn to Draw, that Gnagy subsequently co-produced and marketed to local TV stations to fit into their Saturday or afternoon schedules alongside the likes of Meet Mr. Wizard and Howdy Doody. It continued to appear on local airwaves long after it ceased produced in 1960, and the brand has survived into the era of YouTube. You can see clips of Gnagy drawing and teaching online, and you can still buy the kits, complete with videos and gum eraser.
It’s impossible to know just how many artists were inspired by Gnagy’s show. For my 1986 article, I got quotes from a variety of artists who praised Gnagy, including Andy Warhol, who said, “I watched his show every week and I bought all his books.”
I wish I could say I became a competent visual artist because of Gnagy, but my charcoals of old mills and gnarled oaks never quite matched his. My little Mexican boy looked more like Pancho Villa. On the other hand, Gnagy did enhance my appreciation of art and television and teach me something about the latter’s potential. Considering how I ended up making my living, I’d say my mom’s $3.95 was well spent.
Editor's Note: Looking for the modern equivalent to Jon Gnagy's drawing lessons? There's a growing collection of drawing apps for smartphones and tablet devices now available. Some are best for simple doodling, but there are others that invite users to be more detailed. A few of the better free apps include SketchBook Express (which can be upgraded to the pricey but well-rated SketchBook Pro), Learn to Draw Digital Sketchbook by Walter Foster (which offers limited free lessons with the option to purchase more) and the spectacular Paper by FiftyThree, a free download that charges a nominal fee for upgrades. Happy drawing!