Doodling The Stars From The Broadway Stage
To The World Stage
You have most likely seen Ken Fallin’s work as it appears with “alarming regularity” in the Wall Street Journal, Playbill Online, The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker and on the posters for Forbidden Broadway. He also got his start here in Boston doing a weekly drawing for the Sunday Arts section of the Herald back in the 80s. You may not know his name because he prefers to not allow it to intrude into his pieces.
Ken has always loved cartoons, and has been drawing, or what he calls doodling, since he was a kid. His dream was to be an actor and he pursued that career for many years, but found he made more money drawing caricatures of his fellow actors on the side. Eventually, he got his big break, not in acting, but when he was asked to do the drawings for the poster for “Forbidden Broadway” in 1983. This led to the job at the Boston Herald, followed by working for Wall Street Journal, where he still contributes work every week. I recently spoke with Ken by phone from his home and studio on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The first thing you notice when speaking to Ken is that there is a calmness to his voice. He comes across as a man who loves people and enjoys his work. I ask him about how he calls his work doodling and not his art.
“I try not to take myself too seriously.” Did you doodle when you were a kid?
“I did, I did, but it was something that was just a lot of fun. I loved cartoons. I loved comic strips in the newspapers. I loved watching cartoons on television, and I loved Mad Magazine. Warner Brothers made a lot cartoons with caricatures of their famous players like Humphrey Bogart, and that just blew my mind that they were taking real people and making them into cartoons. That’s how I saw it…it was just the best, because when I would look at people, especially funny looking people, I would think this person looks like a cartoon. That’s where I think I got my love of caricatures.”
Were you taught drawing?“It wasn’t taught. It’s kind of an instinctual thing. You see somebody and the way you see them is your own vision of them, and I don’t think you can teach that. It’s the way you see the person.”Ken has doodled just about every major Broadway performer in the past thirty-five years as well as world leaders including President Obama for the Wall Street Journal. I was curious what it was like to sit with these famous people and sketch them. I was in for a surprise.
“I don’t get to meet them. It’s not a glamorous life like a photographer where you actually get to go and see the person. I work from photographs. Photos are sent to me via the Internet. Sometimes I get an assignment at 11:00 A.M. that has to be done by 4:00 P.M., I can work fairly fast.”
A lot of the time Ken does not know anything about the person he is drawing,
“I usually try to pull probably a dozen photos, and if something catches my eye I think, I can draw that, I can draw that angle, the eye, or the nose, or whatever; and I try to do that, and sometimes it doesn’t work and I have to switch over to another photo.
Ken has been heavily influenced by the work of Al Hirschfeld. I ask if he had ever met the great artist,
“I have. Well, this is funny because years ago I actually got my big break doing a show called “Forbidden Broadway”, and Al used to go to all the opening nights. He went to one in New York and they showed him the program cover that had my drawing on it and said, ‘what do you think of it?, and he thought he had done it. I took that as the ultimate compliment. He was a very nice man. I never got to know him really well. After he died I got to know his wife and I got to go up to his studio. I actually got to sit in his chair. That was
very exciting. Louise Hirschfeld and the people at the Al Hirschfeld Foundation have been very supportive of my work. They can see I am influenced by, but not copying him.”
Other artists, photographers, and architects, have influenced Ken including Aubrey Beardsley, Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn. I read a quote from Irving Penn to him. “Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show to the world…very often what lies behind the façade is rare and more wonderful then the subject knows or dares to believe.” I was curious if this would apply to Ken’s art.
“Usually, when I am drawing, my mind is pretty blank because I need it to be that way in order to create something. It’s probably subconscious with an artist. Anytime you do anything creative you’re not really aware of it at the time, but things come through when you love it, and I really love what I do. I am an old fashioned illustrator. I use a quill pen that I have to keep dipping in ink, and scratching on illustration board. I love the old fashioned stuff, and I’m hoping that comes through, and when people buy my stuff and they tell me they love looking at them that means the world to me.”
With his upbeat yet easy going manner, Ken hardly seems to be a suffering artist. I mention that I don’t see him pulling a VanGogh and cutting an ear off. “I sometimes clip a fingernail, but that is as far as I go.”
I find it amazing he is able to draw such meaningful doodles without having met his subjects. It is as if Ken has a sixth sense.
“I’ve had relatives of people I’ve drawn tell me you captured something there, and I’m like I did this from a photograph. I guess it was subconscious, but that is such a compliment.”
Ken got his start with the Wall Street Journal in 1994. “I had an agent and she got me my first WSJ job, and they hired me to draw sports figures. I did every sport. I even did the Winter Olympics that year.” I ask if he got to go, “Oh no, it’s all photographs. You’re trying to make my life much too glamorous. I’m not a sports person and I know very little about it, but I would look at photographs and just hope they wouldn’t come out looking like chorus boys or something. And it worked cause they had me doing that for almost four years.”
I bring up the subject of drawing political figures without having his own views, either positive or negative, come across.
“I have to be real careful if it’s somebody I know and that I don’t like, and they don’t want my drawings to be editorial. They just want me to show the person. It can be frustrating, but then I think of the paycheck and I push forward.”
Caricature can be a bit of a minefield particularly when drawing different ethnic groups. Because so many of the early illustrators had a field day making hateful statements with their disgraceful pieces. Ken is comfortable with any subject he doodles.
“I grew up around a lot of prejudice, but I never understood that, it didn’t make sense to me to be prejudiced. I just didn’t understand why people didn’t like other people. It usually is from ignorance and fear of the unknown. With caricatures, it’s interesting we are talking about this, when I got my first assignments to draw black people my editors would sometimes be very nervous, but I would say, ‘You shouldn’t be nervous’, and this is true, I’ve drawn blacks, I’ve drawn Asians, you know, all types, and I approach all of them the same way, and I think it shows in that. It’s not like I’m trying to make fun of any particular person, it’s just the way I see them without being cruel, I never try to be cruel. I’ve never had a problem.”
I ask Ken how old he is, and as he tells me he is 65 he reflects a bit on his very interesting journey.
“When I turned 50 my life was actually better. I got started in my late 30s that is when I got my first big break. Things have just gotten better. The really great thing is I don’t think I peaked too young, and I’m not jaded. It’s like things are happening. I’m hearing from all these people I went to high school with and they are so happy to be retiring, and I’m thinking I love what I do, I would never retire unless somebody stopped paying me.”
Fallin talks about his time in 1975 at the New School in New York and studying under famed cartoonist Mort Gerberg.
“I wanted to be a cartoonist for a brief period. Mort knew all these cartoonists at the New Yorker, and every week he would bring one in to talk to us, and we had people like George Booth and Charles Addams, and they were wonderful. And for our assignment every week we had to send a batch of cartoons to the New Yorker, and we had to bring in our rejection slip to show proof that we did it.”
Ken had spent a number of years after school as a starving actor as he kept pursuing his dream. What went on during those “lost years” from school until your big break in 1985?
“I did everything you can imagine. I’ve had just about every job. I’ve never worked in a hospital, but I’ve done just about everything else. I’ve been a waiter and a cab driver (Ken drove for Red Cab in Brookline, MA). I was drawing and acting, that was my original goal and the reason I came to New York. I got a job in 1979 working in a summer stock company in Connecticut, and I was making more money doing their posters for the shows and doing caricatures for the actors. You know, they’d pay me like five bucks for a drawing of them, and since I was only making like $45.00 a week as an actor, this came in very handy. I still thought of myself as becoming an actor but it got to the point I was making more money doing illustrations, these rinky-dink jobs, but they were coming in. What’s ironic is now a days I have meetings with Broadway producers and directors and writers about my art, but I’m always thinking, gosh, why didn’t I know these people when I wanted to be an actor. But it all worked out, I have no complaints.
“It wasn’t until my late thirties when I got my big break. It got to the point where I didn’t think anything was ever going to happen, and I was very discouraged. But then things just started happening and it was great. I think you just sort of have to be ready. If you believe in your self, and I have to admit there were periods that I didn’t, but if you can just sort of hold on and have somebody else tell you they believe in you that helps too.
“I have to throw this in because everyone has a parent story. My father never understood what I did as an illustrator until I started working for the Wall Street Journal, and other people would say ‘look at what Ken’s drawing here.’ And he started taking pride in it, but he could not believe people would pay you to draw. He was a salesman. If I was selling drawings that would be one thing, but he finally got it. Just before he died he told me he was proud of me, and that made it all right, but for years he thought I was a bum.”
What else would he like people to know about him?
“You can say I am very kind to animals. I do dog rescue, that’s my big, big thing. I help rescue dogs out of the shelters here in New York. Our main goal is to get them out of the kill shelters cause we have very bad shelters here in New York. We try to get them either into foster homes or into a shelter that doesn’t kill. I like drawing dogs too. I don’t get to do that much in my pay work. I think they are such characters.”
After my conversation with this very warm and talented man I feel it is never too late to pursue your dream. It wasn’t easy for Ken, but he persisted and we are all the better for having him sharing his art with us. I hope you will now feel you know the man behind those wonderful doodles you see in so many publications.
Originals and prints of all Ken’s work are for sale including his work for the Wall Street Journal. The day we spoke he had earlier been on the phone with Patrick Stewart who was buying a copy of the wonderful piece Ken did for Playbill of “Waiting For Godot” starring Stewart and Ian McKellan.
You can contact Ken through his website at kenfallinartist.com