In 1949 Tom began high school at Danforth Tech in Toronto. "The school had an academic course," says Tom, "but it was mostly industrial arts... the printing trade, auto mechanics... and they had a first rate commercial art course, which had all the basic fundamentals."
"I wanted to work in the arts... and everybody wanted to make a living. But how do you put the two together? I didn't think about that much. At that point I just wanted to be published in magazines or newspapers... but I had no definitive direction. I wanted to (if I could) bring my painting level up to the level I admired."
Tom says he didn't realize at the time how fortunate he was, because immediately after high school he had a job waiting for him at a major commercial art studio, Rapid Grip and Batten. Tom explains, "They had a system where they picked an art student each year and they'd offer him a job. And I didn't have to look for a job. At the time I just naively figured, good, I'll take it!"
"I had really no idea that it was the studio that had supported the Group of Seven. Most of the Group had worked there in their earlier days, until their work had gained enough publicity. And there were good designers and illustrators already working there and I just started an apprenticeship, as in any kind of craft. You just sweep up and change the water bowls and clean the brushes... and I was happy to be there."
One of the first 'real' jobs Tom remembers being asked to do in that first summer of '53 was a line drawing of a large glass bottle of olives. "It was a bit of a struggle trying to suggest glass in line," recalls Tom. "The drawing was ok," he says, "but when the salesman came around to get the drawing he said, "ok, give me the sample." I had left the jar open and all the fellows in the studio had taken one or two olives. So I had to go out and buy olives and repack the jar."
Tom kept working on his portfolio, changing his samples as often as he could, in the hopes of getting work from the magazines. "I was keen to try every medium," says Tom, "so whether the medium suited the problem or not, I didn't give two hoots. So they didn't work very often.When something should have been softly painted, I was doing a hard line drawing. When something should have been a hard line drawing I was making a chalk drawing."
"But that's experience..."
When I asked Tom how it felt when he finally saw his work in print, he says, "Yeah, it was good... but most of the time, most of the guys I knew, any fellow illustrator... you're rushing so hard to develop your own style, you're just kind of blind to the world. You just sort of hope you live long enough so your eyes open."
Next weekend will see the launch of "Tom McNeely, 50 Years of Visual Arts", a book showcasing work from every period in Tom's career. If you would like to order the book, you can contact the artist at fmcneely(at)rogers(dot)com
My Tom McNeely Flickr set.