Steven Heller | Essays

Draw Me Schools Of Commercial Art

Long before isms, ologies and otics. Before the Chicago Bauhaus, Yale, RISD, Cranbrook and Cal Arts. Before commercial art was called visual communications, the correspondence school was the principal American academy of art and an early training ground for American graphic designers. Scores of advertisements, like the famous "Draw Me!" matchbook cover, offered willing aspirants the big chance to earn "$65, $80 and more a week" in "a pleasant, profitable Art career." Although the ads often shared space at the back of cheesy pulp magazines with offers to learn, well, brain surgery at home, they offered a legitimate way for anyone with a modicum of talent, limited means and an existing job to train in their spare time for a new profession. Let's call it the precursor of "distance learning." 

During the late teens and early twenties, when advertising began a meteoric rise and commercial artists and letterers were in demand, correspondence schools were founded to train illustrators and designers. The most notable included The International Correspondence Schools in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Washington School of Art in Washington, D.C., The Lockwood Art Lessons in Kalamazoo, Michigan, The New York School of Design in New York City, Art Instruction, Inc. in Minneapolis, Minnesota and The Frank Holme School of Illustration in Chicago, Illinois. The leader, however, was The Federal School of Commercial Designing founded in 1919. The Federal School's headquarters occupied a three story high, block long building in Minneapolis; had branch offices in New York City and Chicago; boasted over seventy-five advisors and full-time faculty members, was larger than any of the other schools; claimed over 3000 home study students annually enrolled and offered "a well-rounded, practical preparation for a profession" that was recognized by the Home Study Institute and the Midland National Bank of Minneapolis.

Above: "Draw Me" advertisements for art schools

The Federal School issued an opulent 64-page catalog in 1927 in which it made the challenge:

"What would you give to be able to draw professionally? Do you long for the ability to make splendid pictures, such as you see daily in advertisements, attractive story illustrations, richly colored magazines covers?" Profusely illustrated with photos of artists and examples of their work the Federal School lured prospective students to the practice of commercial art by invoking the glories of advertising, which the catalog declared was "the newest art, the youngest great creative force, in the modern business world."

The Federal correspondence method ensured students a place in that lucrative world through "the conscientious individual attention of the Federal faculty" which included teachers in advertising, fashion and animal illustration, booklet and catalog construction, general commercial art and posters. Among the famous faculty; poster designer C. Matlock Price, "Painter with the Pen" Franklin Booth, Saturday Evening Post cover artist, Frank E. Schoonover, and Good Housekeeping cover artist and advertising luminary Coles Philips, did national work that commanded the top fees of the day and were models for the artists of tomorrow.

Hyperbole was invariably used to attract candidates. The Draw Me! Ads on matchbooks and in magazines, which began in the 1930s and were continued into the 1960s, promoting Art Instruction Inc., offered "Your big chance.… An easy-to-try way to win FREE art training!" while the ubiquitous "Art For Pleasure and Profit" ads published during 1930s through the 1940s showing an illustration of a smock-clad artist drawing a scantily clad model promoting the Washington School of Art, promised that one could "learn to draw at home in spare time" and make big bucks as a result. The International Correspondence Schools guaranteed a whopping "366 percent increased income" and a "1000 percent interest" on the investment made in its Sign Lettering Course, but this and other come-ons actually masked the serious nature of the well-rounded courses. In the 1920s and 1930s resident art schools charged an average of $300 annually as compared to an average of $75 to $100 for the correspondence school and entailed anywhere between one and four years of study during which time students were often unable to earn steady incomes, home study provided a real service. As the Federal School catalog boasted "the cost for tuition of such schools will average much higher than the tuition of the Federal School — to say nothing of your living expenses." The home study course further offered the benefit of measuring progress by the student's own ability to advance. The Washington School of Art proudly noted in its 1928 catalog that "We take great pains with backward students." And the International Correspondence School's 1929 catalog reassured its more challenged aspirants: "Don't hesitate to enroll because you lack an education.… Courses include punctuation and a 25-cent pocket dictionary will give you the correct spelling of all words you will likely have occasion to letter." Even women, who were not encouraged by the resident schools, were singled out as beneficiaries of a correspondence education: "Yes, you read it right," declared the Federal School's catalog. "It's true. Woman are constantly taking a larger place in the modern commercial world.… Buyers of commercial art will just as readily buy from women as from men.…"

A standard correspondence course included a dozen or so text-lessons and workbooks that taught practical lessons in drawing, composition, lettering, typography and more. The Federal School and Art Instruction Inc. both offered a unique twelve lesson course — what they called "divisions" — presented in a series of surprisingly clear, entertaining and profusely illustrated booklets, illustrated with some of the most fashionable and award-winning work of the day. Each division included step-by-step introductions to a variety of skills, crafts and analyses, such as Federal's "blocking in" with pencil and crayon in Division One, lettering — historical and modern — in Division Four, retouching photographs in Division Seven, artistic covers and title pages for booklets, catalogs and circulars in Division Eleven and reproduction methods in Division Twelve. Schematic diagrams enabled the student to work start work immediately. And a foreword to each division booklet proposed methods for studying, such as how to acquire a firm understanding of the principles, how to do the practice exercises and ultimately how to prepare the work to be submitted for criticism.

Lesson plan for a drawing school, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Individuality was extolled. "You are in a class by yourself," asserted the International Correspondence Schools' 1928 catalog, Show Cards and Signs. "The instructor attends to you alone; you are encouraged, counseled and guided at every step." This was accomplished through frequent reviews of assignments designed to keep the student on a forward track. Training manuals, workbooks, lesson charts and exercises were prepared by staff members based on study guidelines established by the luminary faculty, who were really only nominal teachers and rarely set foot on the school's premises. An exception was Frederic Goudy, who in the early teens was already a veteran type designer and a lettering instructor at the Frank Holme School in Chicago, which counted type designer Oswald Cooper as one of its graduates. The average instructor, however, was not famous, but a skilled boardman, letterer, or advertising artist recruited from the local art service agencies. These instructors were hired either full-time or part-time to evaluate the assignments and write the detailed reports which criticized rendering or conceptual skills; as a rule they did not develop the curriculum, but could offer students personal tips through their critiques, such as Federal instructor and newspaper illustrator C.L. Bartholomew's shortcut for drying wet paint with the lit end of a cigar. Teachers might be assigned an exclusive group of students or share them among other instructors. The student never spoke to or met the instructor, but mail relationships were nurtured to provide the student with a mentor. Students were given as much time as necessary to complete a project or particular phase of instruction. G.H. Lockwood, who edited The Student's Art Magazine and ran Lockwood's Art Lessons, personally critiqued all work submitted by his students, such as a drawing by an aspiring cartoonist to whom he candidly responded: "First I would entirely eliminate the lettering…it is what I would call a strictly bum job. The general rendering itself in [sic] so far ahead of so many of the drawings received at this office that I haven't the heart to be severe with you, nor the desire either.… My main criticism on this is in the 'action' or lack of action.… The sum total of the result is a drawing without power or forcefulness or attractiveness, for 'action' lends attraction to a composition better than most any other one thing."

All these programs issued diplomas to students who completed the course. But if for any reason the student was "not absolutely and unqualifiedly satisfied with the results of his or her study, provided written application for such refund is made within thirty days from the date the student completes the course in accordance with the rules of the school," as the Federal School promised, the full tuition would be refunded. According to the schools' own literature, such instances were rare because the schools enrolled students found their calling, as in this testimonial for International Correspondence School: "Your course has done for me what it will do for any one else if they enroll and study. I now have my own shop.… The last week in June and first week in July I made $100…I've had my I.C.S. diploma framed and feel very proud of it." The vast majority of these students turned to freelance careers or were absorbed by the local agencies, sign shops, printers and type shops. With the notable exception of Oz Cooper I have not found any others as nationally famous, nor do any of the catalogs tout well-known alumni.

Correspondence schools were operating as early as the 1890s, but the 1920s through the 1950s was its heyday. The Federal School ceased operation in the '50s around the same time that The Famous Artists School in Westport, Connecticut was founded, in 1947. The Famous Artists School began its full page advertising campaign in national magazines which showed its renown illustration faculty, including Norman Rockwell, Stevan Dohanos, Coby Whitmore, Albert Dorne and others (the so-called Westport School of American illustration), sitting around a table. The Famous Artist School, which focused exclusively on illustration, had this faculty develop classes, while part-time instructors reviewed and critiqued the student work. The Famous Artist School merged with Cortines Learning International in 1981 and still operates today, but the correspondence art school movement was overshadowed in the late 1960s, replaced today by distance learning programs as a "direct way of turning [a] liking for drawing into money."

The New York School of Design

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Illustration

Comments [27]

First all...what is URL?
Second...I took the "Draw Me" contests back in 1950
and won the right to spend $250 for a cartooning course
with the Art Institute in Minn. A man by the name of Schulz
(Peanuts) was my instructor. I went to the Chicago Academy
of Fine Arts when I left Hi School with cartooning as my major.
Didn't grad as a cartoonist, but had a 4 hour visit with Mr.
Schulz in Minn., looking for a job on "Peanuts". No job was
available. So...I became a famous (note the lower case letters)
graphic designer.
Nice article Mr. Heller!
pat Taylor

I thought I'd read that Charles Shulz had been a correspondence school student as well as a teacher.

Like most, I went to the Steve Heller Academy of Swing by Barnes & Nobles after work. Surprisingly easy!

Love the irony in the "your opportunity" poster of indian shooting an arrow straight into the air (at some point, this "success in commercial art" is headed back down to Earth).
felix sockwell

Holy shit... was that the real pat Taylor who posted a comment?

In 1977 I was a miserable teen with little grasp of my self-worth or the meaning of life. Yeah I know, sounds familiar! One day I came across a booklet from SVA that explained, in Q&A form, how to have a career in the graphic arts. More importantly, it described what commercial art actually was.

I hold this experience up as just one epiphany in a series of key events in my 46 years which have led to a very whole life in graphic design.

Long before isms, ologies and otics. Before the Chicago Bauhaus, Yale, RISD, Cranbrook and Cal Arts.
Perhaps, but not before MICA, originally named the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts. Founded in 1826, MICA

is the oldest fully accredited, degree-granting college of art in the country.

Carl W. Smith

Didn't have time to read the article, will have a look later, but had to mention the fantastic cover of Commercial Design!

folks like steven look down on this type of commercialization of their chosen field and enjoy mocking the importance it has in others' lives. stop being a snob

care to elaborate? "this type of commercialization" means what to you? are you saying we should stop using our computers and start drawing cowboys in pen and ink? i don't see the snobbery. this is history. kitsch. and fun.
felix sockwell

Re. Felix's this is history. kitsch. ...

The average instructor, however, was not famous, but a skilled boardman, letterer, or advertising artist recruited from the local art service agencies. These instructors were hired either full-time or part-time to evaluate the assignments and write the detailed reports which criticized rendering or conceptual skills; as a rule they did not develop the curriculum, but could offer students personal tips through their critiques ...

This pretty closely describes the current working model of the Art Institute Online (now known as the Art Institute of Pittsburgh Online, which apparently they thought would make it sound more prestigious). Their marketing strategies pretty closely map the model described here, too, as does the rough demographic profile of their students.

Hi Steve - interesting article, as ever. But, please: "Long before isms, ologies and otics." Ah, yes, those good old days when the world was a simpler place, when education meant real, practical training for jobs, and life was unsullied by... what, exactly? You're not seriously suggesting that things like 'sociology' and 'semiotics' (your favorite straw figure) only came along after the 'early twenties'? Come on, now. Cheers, Matt
Matt Soar

I've always felt that graphic design was a trade as much as an academic discipline and that it could be better learned through self-study and apprenticeship than in a "high theory" classroom. The correspondence schools are in this camp. I don't have a BFA or an MFA and I have had a wonderful and varied and relatively well-paying career in the communication arts. Along the way (I'm almost 50 now) I have noticed increased academic snobbery, especially from younger practitioners. I suppose they need to believe that toting an expensive tuition bill is the only way to make the grade in this field.

Matt Soar, is it the students who have increased in academic snobbery, or is it the field? BS and BFA are virtually standard pre-requisites on any design job ad. I am an individual who is fortunate enough to have a BFA, but I know that those three letters are only as good as I am.

I have worked in the field, and now am teaching. And, whether online/distance learning, or hours of lecture and criticism, a design education is second to none. I can honestly say that my personal evolution is one of an arrogant punk with a pencil to a skilled individual with a whole new perspective on design, marketing, advertising, and our society as a whole.

The best part about being a designer? At the end of the day, after all the emails, clients, managers, interns, offices, lay-offs, snobbery, and snide remarks and confused looks from non-designers, I still get to play with pictures and fonts all day, when others are employed to do much worse. Now, if that's not enticing, I don't know what is.
John Mindiola III


Couple of major/MINOR CORRECTIONS to your Editorial.

The Famous Artist School EXISTED as The Institute of Commercial Art before it was Known or Renamed The Famous Artist School.

Ben Shahn Founded the Painting Course at the Famous Artist Schools.

Milton Caniff, Founded the Cartoon Course at the Famous Artist Schools.

Neither the Painting Course nor the Cartoon Course and its Founders were mentioned in your Editorial.

Cartooning can be considered one of the Commercial Arts and not Fine Art per se.

Coby Whitmore was not a Founding Member he was later Added after Bernie Fuchs, Bob Peak, Thomas B, Allen, Larraine Fox and Franklin McMahon, circa 1968.

In reference to Coby Whitmore, One of my Favs.

It is Misleading and WRONG to IMPLY otherwise. Many other Illustrators associated with the Institute of Commercial Art
and Famous Artist School Course should be mentioned and were more Prolific, more Successful and Garnered more Press than Coby Whitmore, such as, Austin Briggs, Al Parker, Robert Fawcett and Peter Helck who specialized in Industrial Illustration depicting imagery of industry, such as Industial Plants, and Manufactured Industrial Equipment e.g. cars, ships, planes etc. Incoprorating the aforementioned imagery into the Wesport School Style of Illustration, which was a Slice of Life.

The Twelve Original Founding MembersThe Institute of Commercial Art and Famous Artist Schools were:

Albert Dorne, (Founder) whom invited:

Norman Rockwell,

Austin Briggs

Al Parker

Steven Dohanos

Ben Stahl

Robert Fawcett

George Giusti, Graphic Designer

Fred Ludekens

Peter Helck

Jon Whitcomb, Pretty Girl, Cover Artist

Harold Von Schmidt
Added circa 1968 to Famous Artist Illustration Course.

Bernie Fuchs,

Bob Peak,

Thomas B, Allen,

Larraine Fox

Franklin McMahon
Famous Artist School, Painting Course

Ben Shahn, (Founder) whom invited:

Doris Lee

Dong Kingman

Arnold Blanch

Adolph Den

Fletcher Martin

Will Barnet

Syd Soloman

Julian Levi

Joseph Edwards
Famous Artist School, Cartoon Course

Milton Caniff, (Founder) whom invited:

Al Capp

Dick Carvelli

Whitney Darrow Jr.

Rube Goldberg

Harry Heenigsen

Williard Mullin

Virgil Patch

Barney Tobey

Unless my Librarian Eyes have Failed Me. You didn't mentioned The Art Instruction School is still in business and continue to Advertise on Television, Web Banners, etc.


Art Instruction Schools was Famous Artist Schools biggest competition.

Back to my Much Deserved Sabbatical from BLOGGING.

Current ipod Listening,at this writing, Mamas and the Pappas, California Dreaming.


The Hostile Takeover of Corporate Identity



For Accuracy Sake.

Cartoonist Harry Haenigsen name is misspelled in my previous post.

My three yr old Capuchin was trying to type as I typed.

Holiday Cheer to All.

Back to my ipod selection of Richie Havens


The Hostile Takeover of Corporate Identity


Ahahahaha. Nice article.

For Sake of Accuracy. More Name Corrections:

Lorraine Fox

Joesph Hirsch not Edwards as previously cited.


I have two of the "Famous Artist Instruction Books", because these are still in print.
It would be very nice to have all of them and those of the other courses. Since these are mostly defunct--can somebody scan them and post them somewhere?

"Training manuals, workbooks, lesson charts and exercises were prepared by staff members based on study guidelines established by the luminary faculty, who were really only nominal teachers and rarely set foot on the school's premises. An exception was Frederic Goudy, who in the was already a veteran type designer and a lettering instructor at the Frank Holme School in Chicago, which counted type designer Oswald Cooper as one of its graduates.“

This statement about Fred Goudy and the Frank Holme School of Illustration is confusing. The school established in 1898 and was defunct by 1906. Goudy was not a well-known professional (except locally in Chicago) when he was hired, age 33, to teach at the school. He had failed to make a career as a freelance lettering artist in Chicago and then tried bookkeeping in Detroit before being lured back to the Windy City by Holme. The famous teachers on Holmes' staff were the Leyendecker Brothers and Will Carqueville.
Paul Shaw

I grew up in the late 70's and 80's collecting "draw me's" from books, magazines, t.v. guides, etc. to practice and draw. I would like to have pictures from any draw me's that are available, if they could be E-mailed to me. I remember some names were: tippy, spunky, cubby, pirate, lincoln, lumberjack, cowboy, suzy, afro woman, and any others that are available. Thank you.

I had just been researching International Correspondence Schools recently because I found an online, digital version of one of the publications used by them for training, "International Library of Technology...Engraving and Printing Methods...", you can download a .pdf of the entire 561 page text book from here:


Also, there is an odd short story about a young man who ends-up working for an art correspondence school in the J.D. Salinger short story, "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period".

Nancy Sharon Collins

Thanks for this post, as a youngster it is very interesting to find out more about the roots of design and commercial art

Great post
Inspired Development Web Design

My mother lost her diploma from Washington School of Art in Hurricane Katrina. She would like to replace it. Do you have an address for the school, if it is still in existence. Her name is Frances Robin Nuccio. Thank you.

Love the article, and I spend alot of my time trying to get ahold of the Famous Artists Advanced Program, instructional books.

Not before RISD either, though. Founded in 1877, I think. Until it got its liberal arts programs, it was a good old fashioned trade school. The illustration department has changed alot since then, but the school existed, none the less.

Thanks Design Observer!
Wesley Allsbrook

Great article. As a young man who was one of the school "artists" when I grew up, I remember drawing the "Pirate" and sending it off just knowing that my immense talent would wow somebody.

Nope. My age (I might have been all of 12), precluded me from active participation in a fine art curriculum, "free" or not. The letter thanked me for my submission and encouraged me to try again when older. Forgot all about that until I saw this article.

And here I am, many years later working as a graphic designer. Was that ad influential? Perhaps. Maybe I should redraw that buccaneer and see how far I have progressed.
Ed Marsh

Interesting article. I was taught illustration and design by two individuals who taught at Famous Artists School. From what I could tell, one had a few book covers that were published but some were books he wrote himself or they were written by a friend of his. No doubt they were both talented artists, illustrators, and painters. I don't believe he could be considered famous. The other did more cartooning and illustrated books he wrote himself about a subjest he enjoyed and knew a lot about. FAS never even uses either of their names in their advertising. I always wondered about that. I guess they were the local, lesser known artists who did the actual writing responses to the students. Interesting how they both chose to teach at a community college in the midwest. One invited the other to come here to do just that, in order to make a living at art. Only a different art teacher quoted someone else, "Those who can - do. Those who can't - teach." I feel I have to note that one of those former FAS teachers barely taught. He did not stay in the classroom except to dole out an "assignment" and then when it was due, he spent an hour or two critiquing each piece in front of the entire class. Most of the time he was in the college cafeteria drinking coffee and shooting the bull with the other art teachers. I can honestly say that although he was personable, I never learned a darn thing from him. Eventually, students complained of this and he and other art teachers were forced to stay in the classroom for the alotted time they were being paid for. He even recieved an award for being a "great" teacher which, I believe was more for being a likeable person, not for being a good or great teacher. I don't know anyone who learned anything from him. The first guy, at least I learned something from him and he stayed in the classroom more often but still ... he was in the cafeteria having coffee and talking, quite often. Other teachers would work on their freelance art work while being paid by the college (but that eventually got them caught too and that was ended) or they were doing their own assignments to earn a graduate degree in art from the university while they were being paid to teach at the community college. I always felt that was "odd" but someone else obviously reported it as unethical and downright thievery from the college since they were being paid to teach while they were doing everything but.
I did attend the local university here as well and they don't teach either. I learned more on my own and from the public library than any time I spent in any college. HOWEVER, the advanced degrees in art got me the jobs. I know others say - and it's true - the BFA or MFA "is only as good as I am." But since the eighties, when job applicants were in the hundreds and thousands, if you di did not have an advanced degree, you were not considered for the positions you applied for. Experience meant nothing. Your portfolio of work was not considered until you got the interview.
Educational snobbery exists but it is mainly because artists are still a dime a dozen. I exited the art field during layoffs and found I had a lot of skills and abilities I did not know I had. I earned the most successful living as a legal assistant in the State Attorney General's office. My test scores and advanced degrees earned me the interview and a higher salary than my counterparts. I recieved full benefits and when I became disabled, I managed to survive well. As an artist, that never would have occurred. Hate to say but that is reality. If I knew then what I know now, I would not have attended community college in art. But that's another story. Point is: you can learn art on your own and probably will even if you attend a school or college or do it via correspondence. Why pay someone else to tell you if you are any good or not? You know in your heart if you are good enough to make a real living at it. Chances are, few are that good and those will tell you it was mostly luck or WHO they knew not WHAT they knew. After retiring, I slowly got back into drawing and painting just for myself and then found I can sell a few pieces here and there. There is no doubt I have talent and skill and now experience. Point is, I would still never be able to live on what I make as an artist. NO ONE at any art school will ever tell you that. If they did, would anyone really hear it? We tend to hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest.

I have been a big fan of correspondence schools since getting out of high school. I have been satisfied with all of them and can only think of one reason why people like Susan Collins are down on them--the Ivy League people like to slander anything that lifts people up. Collins and others like her are certainly no friends of the lower classes.
Kenneth Casper

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