Tres to the Bone

Faculty Guest Blogger: James Romberger

James Romberger: One of the things I try to stress to all my students—at Marywood and at my regular and varied teaching gigs at Parsons/The New School is that to make a living over the years, I have had to develop diverse art-related skills. I believe that artists are well advised to be versatile—to cultivate a wide range of abilities. By this, I mean techniques that one can accomplish by hand, NOT just in digital formats.

In the early 1960s, my mother took the Famous Artists Correspondence Course; which was widely promoted at the time in comic books and magazines like Good Housekeeping by ads which featured either one of the school’s founders like “America’s favorite illustrator” Norman Rockwell, or brilliant commercial draftsman Albert Dorne, or by various profiles of cartoon animals bearing such copy as “draw Skippy.” Unfortunately, as was typical of the constraints imposed on women then, Mom had not finished the course before she was forced to devote her time to raising four children, but she kept the three huge loose-leaf binder textbooks and the lessons she had completed bore hand-written instruction from her personal snail-mail instructor. I poured over them from a very young age. These grounded me in hand lettering and an incredible range of drawing and painting techniques applicable to book, magazine and fashion illustration. They also showed how to construct perspective and deep-space multi-figure compositions, which can still be clearly seen reflected in my work.

Complex composition by Albert Dorne from the Famous Artists textbook

Complex composition by Albert Dorne from the Famous Artists textbook

Mom didn’t get to be an illustrator, but in the 1970s she and my Dad did start a sign-painting business. As I grew, I began to help them, designing and painting lettering and decorative flourishes, etc. I recall once that I had to work up on a very high ladder painting a chef chasing a chicken with a cleaver in behind the neon on a huge sign for a Bar-B-Q house by a highway. Another time I painted flames and pinstriped the 20-foot hydraulic arm of a backhoe belonging to a massive cigar-chomping pal of my father. These skills would serve me later when my own little family had to make ends meet. In slim times, I have always been able to make signs, graphics and posters for people.

In 1988 I lived in Brussels, Belgium for six months. I was just starting the work on my graphic novel 7 Miles a Second and I had also just begun to be represented by an uptown gallery in New York City, but sales were sporadic and we were in a foreign country. As well, my partner Marguerite Van Cook and I had a band; so our guitarist lived with us and our infant child in an apartment in the predominantly Moroccan neighborhood of St. Gilles.

Ad for Le Petite Pirate by James Romberger

Ad for Le Petite Pirate by James Romberger

We regularly went into the city center to busk, but that wasn’t enough to live on, so I did various art-related jobs. I made several color stencil/spray paint paintings on the backs of cheap denim jackets from the local flea markets and consigned them at a friendly local vintage shop. One of those, depicting an exploding skeleton with the inscription “Tres to the Bone” (melding the French tres bon or “very good” with the blues-ism “bad to the bone”), was bought by the leader of the then-popular band Deep Purple! And I went to a small, unobtrusive frite (french fry) shop around the corner from us, which made claims to be Greek, but which was really run by Moroccans—I talked them into having me paint their name in their window as well as designing menus and an ad for the local paper. In return I made a few Belgian francs and more significantly, for months we were allotted a tab for a substantial meal for four people each week.

So, students should strive to master a wide variety of practical abilities that would enable them be adaptable to fluid and extremely changeable circumstances—to live doing what they want. Art: it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure!

James Romberger teaches the summer session of “Sequential Art and Storytelling” at Marywood. His pastel drawings are in many private and public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He collaborated with his son Crosby on the Eisner-nominated multimedia comic book/flexidisc project Post York in 2013, a year that also saw a revised and expanded edition of the critically acclaimed 7 Miles A Second, his graphic novel collaboration with Marguerite Van Cook and the late writer, artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz. In 2014, he collaborated with Van Cook on her graphic memoir The Late Child and Other Animals. Website:

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