John Gannam’s Amazing Watercolors

In the field of commercial illustration we have, in the work of John Gannam, our Rodney Dangerfield. It’s not that other illustrators didn’t respect him. In fact, they were in awe of his talent. But the broader public and even many a casual observer of illustration and advertising in the 40s and 50s wouldn’t recognize his name.

John Gannam was born in the Middle Eastern country of Lebanon in 1905. His birth name was Fouzi Hanna Boughanam and his family arrived in New York in October of 1909. They settled in Chicago where Gannam grew up with three younger brothers. Due to his father’s untimely death, he had to leave school and go to work at age 14. He went through a succession of menial jobs until he eventually got a position in one of Chicago’s largest engraving houses. There he became acquainted with the artists working on the layouts, lettering and drawings. Within a few years, through observation and self-education, he reached his goal – working for studios in Chicago and Detroit.

His first big success was a series of ads he illustrated for Dodge Brothers in the late 20s. They were executed in b&w with simple line art and a dry brush technique.

Simple line art and dry brush technique by John Gannam for 1929 New Dodge Senior Ad
Simple line art and dry brush technique by John Gannam for 1929 New Dodge Senior Ad
Simple line art and dry brush technique by John Gannam for 1929 New Dodge Senior Ad
Simple line art and dry brush technique by John Gannam for 1929 New Dodge Senior Ad

His next step was to move to New York and eventually, magazine illustration. He received his first assignment from Henry Quinan of Woman’s Home Companion, followed soon thereafter by work from most of the other magazines.

John Gannam illustration Magazine spread American 1944

American Magazine, 1944

John Gannam illustration Magazine spread American Magazine 1953

American Magazine, 1953

John Gannam illustration Magazine spread American Magazine 1934

American Magazine, 1934

John Gannam illustration Magazine spread American Magazine 1945

American Magazine, 1945

Good Housekeeping 1944-Woman sitting on stairs in yellow sweater on the phone-john gannam

Good Housekeeping, 1944

Good housekeeping 1944-woman looking out window-john gannam

Good Housekeeping, 1944

Good Housekeeping 1941-American magazine-Woman laughing in chair--john gannam

American Magazine, 1941

good housekeeping 1959 - woman holding baby illustration - john gannam

Good Housekeeping, 1959

Gannam’s forte was watercolor. He was a master of the medium which can be difficult to control and work over, especially when advertising clients insist on multiple changes. When necessary, he’d start fresh on any revision which kept a spontaneous look to his illustrations. Throughout the 40s and 50s his work was in steady demand by advertisers and publishers. His artwork for campaigns by Pacific Mills and St. Mary Blankets made him the king of linens. Here are some examples of Gannam’s fluid watercolor technique.

1947-John Gannam-child playing peter pan looking out the window

1947

Pacific Mill Sheet ad - 1949 - showing a young girl helping make a bed - john gannam

1949

john gannam pacific mills sheets advertising 1946-bride

1946

Pacific mills ad 1945 - showing family pillow fight - john gannam

1945

John Gannam died in 1965 and was inducted into the Illustrator’s Hall of Fame in 1981. Although he stood only 5-foot four, he was truly one of the giants in the field of American illustration.

John Gannam in his studio surveys a comprehensive sketch for an illustration in good housekeeping. Strips of film from his camera hang on the door jam. The lay figure patiently awaits the next pose. Empty coffee cups bear witness to the artist’s insistence upon a clean cup for each fresh drink - of which there may be half a dozen at one sitting.

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