The Advantage of an Artist Who’s Always Learning

Harry Borgman elicits new reactions by coupling old-school illustration with major art movements creating art that is of all times.

Ghana (acrylic on canvas, 30×36) by Harry Borgman

Art-making is a risky alchemical experiment that pits creative genius against the vagaries of fortune. Countless hours of practice and refinement over a lifetime may lead to the development of a significant style and work that expresses technical mastery, philosophical rigor, and aesthetic grace. Or that good effort may fall short of meeting the artist’s internalized critic or the approval of a broad viewership. Alas the rewards of the creative life are elusive in the hands of fate. It’s no wonder that the attrition rate among artists is so high. Harry Borgman is the exception that proves the rule.

Sweet Purple Nude (acrylic on canvas, 44×44) by Harry Borgman

A Precocious Start

Borgman began working in the commercial art field at the age of 15; he is still creating art more than 75 years later. Sharing his formula for success Borgman notes, “I am still learning. Art is a lifetime learning process that never ends.”

Borgman had shown prodigious talent while still attending high school in Detroit. He recalls, “I had a great art teacher named Margaret Stein who came from New York City and had commercial studio experience. She was in charge of producing the school’s yearbook and handled the project with her students like a professional assignment. I was given the job of art director. She was recommended to an engraving company to produce the book’s printing plates. But it was wartime and the artists that worked there had been drafted in the army, so they hired me. I worked every day after classes and on weekends. One day I would have to draw a cartoon, the next day I would be designing a brochure. It was pretty tough, but a great learning experience.”

Vamp (acrylic on canvas, 36×36) by Harry Borgman

His Big Break

After graduating from high school, Borgman received a scholarship to attend Detroit’s Society of Arts and Crafts (now the College for Creative Studies). Shortly after enrolling Borgman was offered a job at a new commercial studio started by an art director from his former employer. Having mixed feelings about the teachers he was studying with, Borgman dropped out of the art school to work at the new studio.

“I was hired to do graphic design, but I also got illustration assignments. My first big break came when I did a painting with a little red Ford in it. Ford Times, a travel publication produced by Ford Motor Company, purchased it and stated they would acquire every painting I did with the same little red car. My work was in Ford Times for the next five years. This exposure landed me illustration assignments with other Detroit art directors. This was a tough period; I received assignments that were beyond my abilities so I had to learn as I worked.”

The lucrative and image-rich advertising and print publication market in the 1950s and 1960s afforded Borgman a good living and a highly visible and challenging exhibition arena. Unbeknownst to Borgman, he was joining an important tradition in American art. Some of its most celebrated practitioners had made their living as commercial artists while developing their fine-art practices. Among them are Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent, Charles E. Burchfield, and more recently Andy Warhol.

Theme and Variations (acrylic on canvas, 60×60) by Harry Borgman

Transition to Fine Art

As the demand for illustration waned in the wake of photography and television’s popular ascendency, Borgman found freelance work creating storyboards for commercial spots. Though the work was plentiful and paid well, he soon wearied of the demanding (often overnight) turnaround time. Borgman notes, “I quit making storyboards and began painting full-time. Throughout my career working as an art director, graphic designer, and illustrator I had steadily painted fine art at night and on free weekends. There is a real connection between working in those various fields — it’s about creating ideas as well as design.”

The painting Ghana exemplifies the crossover between Borgman’s commercial and fine-art work. One imagines it equally well suited as a story illustration in Ford Times or hanging in a gallery specializing in contemporary figurative painting. Generously constructed with abstract shapes and flat areas of saturated color and bright patterns, Ghana recalls the American pattern and decoration art movement that emerged in the 1970s in reaction to Minimalism and Conceptualism.

Almost Relaxed Nude (acrylic on canvas, 30×30) by Harry Borgman

Pictorial Illusion

Placed within the context of commercial art, the work’s abstract design and layered appearance recalls the illustrations of Borgman’s contemporaries Bernie Fuchs and Mark English. Like Borgman, Fuchs’ first job was illustrating car advertisements for a studio in Detroit. English and Borgman share a similar career trajectory; both have transitioned to fine art and now create paintings for galleries with the same native talent and innovative thinking that informed their commercial work.

Though stylized, Ghana still connects to the natural appearance of things. Multiple Figures, however, is further removed from that world. It privileges an abstract application of color and line that deconstructs pictorial illusionism. Expressive drawing traces a wire-like armature around and through the five-figure grouping — such that each diaphanous figure appears to weave in and out with its neighbor. The figures’ dissolution demonstrates an important shift in Borgman’s artistic intent; he’s no longer focused on objective representation but rather employs his figurative subjects as a means to explore a variety of abstract expressions.

Multiple Figures (acrylic on canvas, 20×20) by Harry Borgman

Playful Strokes

Playful strokes of Maxfield Parrish blue evince Borgman’s newfound expressive powers in Multiple Figures. Vibrating against the ochre-toned ground, they quote a popular technique used to indicate light and shadow masses in quick-pose model sketches. The former exercise, drawing the life model in 2-minute poses, is often assigned to beginning art students in an effort to get them thinking and working in a more abstract manner.

The ever-shifting poses short circuit attempts to focus on details or render the models realistically. At first, the novices’ hasty sketches yield clumsy, half-drawn figures. As they become more practiced, the students’ focus shifts to drawing tonal, gestural and spatial rhythms. Subsequently, this study of space, color, form and movement leads to an appreciation for and application of aesthetic design principles.

The Tenth Muse (acrylic on canvas, 30×30) by Harry Borgman

Abstract Figures

The paintings Jubilant Muse, The Tenth Muse, and Almost Relaxed Nude demonstrate Borgman’s continuing interest in figurative abstraction. Each work further suppresses naturalism; the human figure and the space it inhabits, is rendered in a limited palette using geometric forms. The approach recalls Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist paintings — an abstract art style based upon what Malevich called “the supremacy of pure artistic feeling rather than the visual depiction of objects.”

Jubilant Muse (acrylic on canvas, 30×30) by Harry Borgman

Jubilant Muse most certainly aims to portray emotive content — perhaps the joyous bond that joins the artist to his favored model. By retaining some reference to the figure, albeit vague, Borgman’s work stops short of the austere view offered by Malevich’s purely geometric arrangements. The exaggerated voluptuousness of the forms that compose the figure in The Tenth Muse, along with abbreviated anatomical shorthand, strikes us as being both modern and archaic at the same time. In fact the work suggests that most primitive of female icons, the Venus of Willendorf.

A New Medium

Borgman reports that he first explored painting nudes in an abstract manner around 1965 — but soon abandoned the project. He adds, “My wife was a professional model and she would always pose for me. Up until about the year 2000 I was drawing and painting her in a realistic manner. Around that time I purchased a computer. I did this mainly to appease a commercial art client who wanted completed assignments sent via email after one went missing in the post.

“One day I had some free time and started experimenting with computer-generated imagery. I was amazed at the possibilities this new medium offered. Ultimately, this design flexibility inspired me to try making abstract nudes again. Most of my idea sketches are now created on the computer; it enables me to do a number of quick versions of the same design using different colors for evaluation purposes.

“Because I had spent so many years painting and drawing my wife from life, I can invent poses in my head. I sketch these designs on the computer and then transfer them to the canvas using marker pens. The designs evolve and change once I start painting — and I allow that to happen. The computer is only a tool; it does not create.”

We are the Dreamers of Dreams (acrylic and paper collage on canvas, 24×36) by Harry Borgman

Moving Forward

As had Braque and Picasso before him, Borgman has been experimenting with collage as a means of creating abstract imagery and energized surface textures. In an updated version of the cut-and-paste process these artists used to affix swatches to their canvases, Borgman first creates his collage fragments on the computer. We are the Dreamers of the Dreams also employs text, a wink at the use of printed ephemera in modernist collage as well as a reference to Borgman’s graphic design background.

A seemingly restless creator, Borgman has recently begun making sculptures. “I guess I get bored real easily,” he notes. “The world keeps changing; I’m just trying to keep up with it.” For most artists, finding and sticking with that one genuine expression that is uniquely their own is a worthy and achievable goal. For other artists, like Borgman and Picasso, such complacency is anathema to their creative spirit — which is relentless in its search for, and mastery of, the next new thing.

Advice to Students

Life is full of funny coincidences. The one teacher Borgman admired during his brief stint at art school, Sarkis Sarkisian, eventually became the school’s lead administrator. Sarkisian invited Borgman to return as head of the advertising department. Borgman notes, “I couldn’t find many reference books to recommend to my students, so I decided to start writing some. I eventually wrote 10 instructional books for Watson-Guptill. I used
to tell my students to do art every day — Practice! Practice! Practice! Have heroes, study other artists’ work that you enjoy, go to galleries and museums regularly. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes — that is how you learn. Think! Use your imagination. Jump in and have fun!”

Learn more about Harry Borgman and see more of his work at

Michael Gormleyis the former editorial director of American Artist. He has been a regular contributor to Acrylic Artist, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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