The Art of the Post: Illustrator Fred Ludekens — The Post’s “Problem Child”

Falling horse? Man on Mars? Thirteenth century Mongolian warriors? When the Post needed someone to illustrate the unusual, they called Fred Ludekens.

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Illustrator Fred Ludekens was known as the Post’s problem child, but in a good way.

When the Post needed illustrations of the most challenging or problematic subjects, they’d call upon Ludekens.

For example, in 1947 the Post needed an illustration for a story by Robert Heinlein that takes place in “interplanetary space.” According to How I Make a Picture, the art editor recalled that he scratched his head and wondered, “What the hell does interplanetary space look like?” Next, he called Fred Ludekens.

The story, The Green Hills of Earth, was about a blind accordion player living in the Martian city of Marsopolis. Ludekens first thought he might avoid a lot of homework by proposing a flat, “decorative” design as an illustration. Here is his preliminary draft that he submitted to the Post:

But the Post said no. Then he thought he might get off easily by adopting a “fantasy” approach:

Fred Ludekens sketch
(©SEPS)

 

Fred Ludekens sketch
(©SEPS)

But again the Post said no. Any illustrator could do that kind of painting. The Post wanted a “realistic” illustration. The magazine had housewives and truck drivers amongst its readers, but it also had astronomers and university professors itching to criticize any technical error they might find. The Post needed an artist who could please a general audience but at the same time satisfy the experts.

Remember, Ludekens’ assignment arrived before photographs of Mars were available. There was no television or internet. This was before satellites or space travel or the Hubble telescope. So Ludekens consulted an astronomy professor at the University of California, where he took copious notes, even studying the positions of Mars’ two moons and the location of the stars in the night sky. He studied the surface of Mars through a telescope and read several textbooks on the subject.

Even with all of this research, there were some questions that modern science couldn’t answer in 1947. Ludekens would just have to think about and project those additional details. That’s why the Post needed illustrators, to provide the answers that scientists and photographers could not. According to How I Make a Picture, Ludekens wrote “I said to myself, ‘If I were to build a city, amid canals which photographs show to be very straight and which most astronomers believe are fed by a polar ice cap, I would base the city at the hub or intersection of the waterways, build a ‘rocket port’ for it and everything would work out fine.’”

Fred Ludekens illustration
Click to enlarge (©SEPS)

Of course, today we know there are no canals or polar ice caps on Mars at all.

The Post was so pleased with the result that it added a special page describing Ludekens’ efforts to grapple with life on Mars:

Click to read "Keeping Posted" from the February 8, 1947 of the <em>Post</em>.
Click to read “Keeping Posted” from the February 8, 1947 of the Post.

On another occasion the Post needed an illustration for a story about the Mongol invasion across the Moravian plains in the year 1230. There were of course no photographs of the historic battle. The Post couldn’t think of any illustrator in their stable better equipped than Ludekens to reconstruct the moment.

Ludekens recalled in How I Make a Picture, “I was able to get accurate pictures and photographs of the archers’ costumes and bows [but] the Mongol costume and armor was a different story. After several days of searching I found in the San Francisco library, under lock and key, an obscure French costume book with one small drawing of a Mongol soldier about an inch high and without date. I made a tracing of this and reconstructed the costume, bow, quiver and helmet. In the story the author mentioned chain armor on the Mongol horsemen which none of my research could find.” Ludekens carefully reconstructed outfits complete with shoes and lances based on written descriptions.

Fred Ludekens illustration
(©SEPS)

For a third story, “The Black Pits of Luna,” Ludekens found himself back illustrating outer space, this time on the moon rather than Mars. “I went to a planetarium and studied the character of meteor deposits found on earth,” he said. His research even affected the colors of his palette. He had to use black in his illustration “because during my research I learned that shadows on the moon are pitch black.”

A Fred Ludekens illustration
(©SEPS)

Not all of Ludekens’ challenges involved outer space or ancient history. Sometimes it was a problem like painting a horse falling upside down.

When Norman Rockwell painted an assignment for the Post, he carefully chose his models and painted them meticulously. But no horse could hold that “falling” pose for Ludekens. He had to combine his knowledge of horse anatomy with his ability to imagine how lighting, gravity, movement and other factors would look. How would the mane and tail look when falling? How would the legs flail?

Assignments like this would never go to an artist like Rockwell; they would be reserved for the Post’s “problem child.” Fortunately, the Post never ran short of problems to illustrate, and Ludekens continued to work for the magazine for many years.

Featured image: ©SEPS

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Comments

  1. Really interesting feature on a gifted artist that was certainly challenged by the Post to come up with illustrations nearly ‘flying blind’ for things that had no pictorial existence for reference. Interplanetary space, Mars, a Mongol invasion and more, per the article.

    I can’t blame him for wanting to take an easier way out at first, particularly with outer space depictions. The planetarium research that led to finding the shadows on the moon were actually pitch black was important. He certainly went beyond going the extra mile with his studies to make whatever was asked as accurate as possible. Hopefully the astronomers, university professors and historians were as pleased as much as the regular readers.

    We know they would have written negative letters if they weren’t, but less likely if they were. Isn’t that always the case? It does seem the hard-to-please were pleased here though. They better have been with all that effort; basically walking a tightrope above a snake pit. Ohhhh, now THAT would be a scary illustration!

    I love Ludekens’ early 1944 propeller World War II Post cover, and actually have that issue. (I hope it made LIFE jealous.) He did a lot of very varied types of works and was obviously in the right business at the right time. Thanks David.

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