The Art of Fritz Willis

willisA master of translating
the beauties of the
feminine form to canvas……

Fritz Willis was a
talented and prolific artist,
…… and his work is
still quite popular today.

His style is
easy to spot —

softer and more sensual a4
than that of Gil Elvgren,
more true to life than George Petty,
more feminine than Earl Moran,
his lines and palette
were more suited
perhaps to high fashion —

But his work speaks for itself.

Although he’s among the
most well known of artists
known for their classic
pin up art,

……a lot isn’t known about
Fritz Willis’s early life.fritzwillis

Fritz was born in

Oklahoma City
on December 30, 1907,

…and is thought to have
moved early in life,
with his family,
to the Boston area.

In the 1920’s, he trained
at the Vesper George
Art School there,
and then moved to California.a3

In Hollywood, he landed a job
as a production designer and artist
at the Warner Brothers movie studio.

He was extremely
busy in this job,

…..but still had
time to take an
acting role in a movie
with Katherine Hepburn,
in “Alice Adams” (1935).

fritzHis gig with Warner Brothers lasted into the early 1940’s, and his art work was steadily gaining popularity.

During the World War, Willis produced a number of art works, including pin-up pieces, geared toward servicemen —

—- including a 1943 booklet called:

Sinning in Hollywood- Los Angeles and the Beaches – 100 things you need to know, 100 places w to go, 100 girls by Fritz Willis” .

By then, Willis’s art had attracted a number of advertisers and magazines that were interested in utilizing his art,

and his work was slowly starting to reflect the look and style that would, in the 1960’s, be identified as uniquely his.

…… like this ad from 1947 for Spring Maid Fabrics.


His work during the period of time
between 1940 and 1954
included a good deal of advertising–

cannonChiffon Toilet Tissue, Spring Mills, Trend Dishwashing Soap, Cannon Towels, Ice Follies, and the national War Bond Drive, were just a few of his commissions.

In these advertising pieces,
you can see the evolution
of Willis’s art style very distinctly —
especially with regard to the way faces were rendered.

In fact, Willis got so good
at rendering facial features,
he wrote a book on the subject for the
Walter Foster Art Series —
“Faces and Features “,b

one of many art instructional works
by Fritz to come as a series—

Called “The Fritz Willis Method”,
it was advertised with the slogan:
“now anyone can draw beautiful girls!”.

He was also busy doing illustrations
for the popular men’s magazine ‘Esquire’–

Friend and fellow artist Joe De Mer
had gotten him involved in
working on the Esquire
‘Gallery of Glamour’ as far back as 1946–

americanlegion—– when Willis produced the series’ inaugural pin-up.

And as the fifties wound down into the 1960’s,

his Esquire work caught the attention of the publishing giant Brown and Bigelow,

….. the world’s largest publisher of advertising art and calendars at the time.

Some of the biggest names
in commercial art worked for them —

—- Gil Elvgren, Rolf Armstrong,
Earl MacPherson, Zoe Mozert, Earl Moran —-

This very talented group of artists
had given the
Brown and Bigelow calendars1949macpherson
a style that, by the late 1950’s,
seemed a bit too familiar-
rather dated and old fashioned.

This trend can clearly be seen
in this 1949 “Artist’s Sketch Pad”
calendar piece by Earl MacPherson.

In 1961, Willis was commissioned to change all that —

B&B wanted a total revamp
on the wildly popular ‘Artist’s Sketch Pad’ series.

The style Willis came up with,
called “The Willis Girl”, was an instant hit,

a2combining the best of the old classic pin up sense of innocence and perkiness,

….. with a new sensual sensibility that wasn’t afraid to be outright sexy.

By now, he was using all of his skills and experience to produce breathtaking art works that rekindled interest in the pin-up genre, and inspired a whole new group of up and coming artists .

Muted color, variegated tones, and soft focus lines were blended with careful precision —

–usually he worked with oils,
but some of his earlier work was also done in gouache.

Willis continued to produce high quality work
through the beginning of the 1970’s,
when he and his wife Pat
retired to San Clemente, California.a1

He died of Parkinson’s Disease on January 13, 1979.

When viewed from a historical perspective,

the art of Fritz Willis was a game changer–

The ‘Willis Girl’ forever changed the way pin-ups would look after that —

Even Esquire’s and Playboy’s
approach to their illustrations
changed because of it.

The sensuality and sexuality 
of the 1960’s and 1970’s
were clearly being translated
on to canvas by Willis —

— almost as if being documented for posterity.

And that’s why I’m sure that
the unique Fritz Willis style
will still be appreciated and admired
by many generations of artists
and admirers to come.