(Art) The Pulp Mysteries of Tom Lovell

Tom Lovell (1909-1997) was an American illustrator and painter best known for his pulp fiction magazine covers.

“Painting for the pulps was great training,” he said. “You learned to tell a story in close compass. You couldn’t spread out over two pages, and you couldn’t take three months to research it. You had to get the job out in ten days. This took discipline.”

His works are famous for their use of bright colors and for the way Lovell “focused” his images, painting the action in high contrast and leaving the fore- or background less sharply defined.

In the cover image to this post, for example, the chairs and table are almost completely black. The woman, trapped in a gazebo reminiscent of a prison cell, throws a high shadow even though it’s not at all clear where the light is coming from.

He often depicted men’s magazine stalwarts like the Old West and ancient Rome. On historical research methods, he said:

“When you’re painting history, it always comes down to fundamentals. Reading is a help. But writers don’t need the depth of information that a painter does. With a few well chosen words, a writer can set the scene, whereas an artist must know the costumes, the weapons, what the interiors looked like, the horse tack – all the thousand things to make it come alive. I wasn’t there when Alexander marched across India. But I was able to do a painting of what Alexander did by working like hell at it.”

I prefer his mysteries. In the depiction of the family Christmas below, for example, there is clear tension between the towering figure of the wife and her husband, in uniform on the floor, while their child opens presents gleefully. Indeed, it’s precisely that ability to capture human conflict and vulnerability in a single moment that makes him such an excellent illustrator.

“I consider myself a storyteller with a brush,” he said “I try to place myself back in imagined situations that would make interesting and appealing pictures. I am intent on producing paintings that relate to the human experience.”