Jim Spanfeller 1930-2014
posted: August 11, 2014
This morning I learned of the passing of a great artist, illustrator, teacher and friend, Jim Spanfeller.
Of all the wonderful instructors I had during my years at Parsons (1971-1974), it was Jim that had the most profound influence. Unfortunately, many younger illustrators and designers today may not know his work. This was a truly unique artist. Under the layers of intricate detail and thousands of dots lies the essence of Spanfeller... his passion for drawing.
Jim's approach to drawing from the model was unlike anything I had encountered up to that point. It was my 2nd year at Parsons and I was struggeling to find a direction that seemed meaningful to me. His was a non-academic, very expressive, almost zen-like method with a fine pen line that really clicked with me. No rules applied, it was liberating. He made you see that drawing could be fun.
Jim began his career in the late 1950's and achieved the most recognition in the late 1960s, 70's and into the 80's. He illustrated many children's books, magazine articles, book jackets and advertising campaigns. Although Jim won numerous awards, his unusual style befuddled some art directors. One champion of his work was the great Herb Lubalin, who featured Jim in Avant Guard and Upper & Lower Case.
Spanfeller was also an advocate of illustrators initiating their own projects and self-publishing, a practice that has become commonplace today.
Jim and his wife Pat have spent part of the year living in NYC and part on Martha's Vineyard (where he passed) with their son Jim (CEO of Spanfeller Media Group) and his family. I feel extremely fortunate to have had this man as a mentor at a crucial time in my life and to have remained friends over these many years.
Jim would often use himself (or his wife and son) as a model. I borrowed this jacket image from the Bibliomanic blog....

Halley's Comet. Hard to tell here, but the original drawing is 6 ft. long. All drawn with a 3x0 Rapidograph....

Here's a detail. Jim would often draw various sections separately and then paste it all together. And I don't mean in photoshop....

One of Jim's life drawings. Probably drawn with a 6x0 point....

Tim OBrien August 12, 2014
Sorry to hear this. Touching tribute.
john cuneo August 12, 2014
I always looked forward to his amazing drawings in Upper&lowercase - such a personal vision, and surely the only man who could coax that kind of performance out of a 6x0 rapidograph. I'll miss seeing him with his pad and pens, and martini, at the Society on sketch nights. Condolences Joe. This is a lovely tribute to your longtime friend.
Marc August 12, 2014
What incredible work here, Joe. The martini glass/portrait is particularly fun to get lost in. I met Jim a few times at the bar at SI—always warm and good-humored. Sorry for your loss.
Victor Juhasz August 12, 2014
Very nicely written, Joe. One of those teacher/mentor relationships that lasts long after graduation. Glad we studied with him at Parsons and maintained our relationships. So glad to spend the time I did with him during the drawing sessions at the Society and those martini breaks. So very happy that we were able to spend time with Jim a couple days before his last sojourn to Martha's Vineyard and get some laughs out of him. One of a kind.
Robert Crawford August 12, 2014
Thanks for this, Joe. An amazing artist with a great legacy.
Drew Friedman August 12, 2014
His work was new to me. Pretty incredible, I'd love to see some more. Sounds like he was an incredible teacher to have.
Bill Russell August 12, 2014
My buddies and I at Parsons were marveled by Span's stipple. He was a gentle man and great teacher. And bought us drinks once at the Society bar. Thanks for the tribute, Joe.
Flaherty August 12, 2014
Wonderful work. Thanks for sharing Joe.
Joe Ciardiello August 12, 2014
Thanks for the nice comments guys. Yes Vic, I'm so glad we got to visit with Jim one last time. He was a terrific guy. Extremely generous and loved a good story and a good laugh. And of course, a good martini.
Janice Fried August 12, 2014
Jim Spanfeller was one the reasons I went to Parsons. He was also the best part of my time there. I remember the class when you and Chris Spollen came in to show us your work. I stayed in touch with him for years after graduation. He was the loveliest, most supportive teacher and friend. I am sorry to hear about his passing...
Paul Rogers August 12, 2014
Thanks for this Joe, sounds like he was a great artist and a teacher who inspired many.
Kevin McCloskey August 12, 2014
I took his "continuing ed" illustration class at Parsons in the 70's. He was super cool. I recall once he took my pen in hand and showed how one should watch the model, not the paper. Alas, my pen was clogged, but I did not want to interrupt his focus. Seemed like several minutes before he looked at the paper and said, "Oh, well, you see my point?" If my pen was clean I would have had an original Spanfeller in my sketchbook. Crawdaddy's office was there at 13th and 5th Ave, and he introduced me to the A.D. I got my first illustrations in a national magazine thanks to James Spanfeller.
Steve Brodner August 12, 2014
Thanks Joe. I met him only once and he was warm and genuine. Perhaps today not easy to see the great achievement here. We should keep in mind the reproduction limitations in the pre-color illustration world. Most places needed black and white only. Jim figured out how to get maximum detail out of that constriction. Most art, I think, is about negotiating technical and stylistic limitations and overcoming them. And he transcended. Also, I gather, from looking at his students, he was a great teacher. RIP Jim.
Chris Spollen August 12, 2014
Great job Joe ,Jim was one of a kind both a wonderful guy ,and a fine teacher was well as a great talent, Glad to have known him and study under him.
Rob Dunlavey August 12, 2014
I loved Spanfeller's work; I saw it in U&Lc. He was one of my earliest illustration influences. Haven't see his work in ages but the examples above brought back a flood of memories and of a time gone by. Thanks Joe. Does anyone work in a similar style now?
Dale Stephanos August 12, 2014
Sorry for your loss Joe. I wasn't aware of his work until now. Thanks for shining a light on it. Incredible that he'd cut and paste parts of drawings so seamlessly considering how detailed and delicate his work looked.
Mark Ulriksen August 12, 2014
Lovely tribute Joe. I knew Jim's work thru U&lc too. May we all be so fortunate to touch others, leave an impact and live a long life, with plenty of martini's.
Mark Ulriksen August 12, 2014
Lovely tribute Joe. I knew Jim's work thru U&lc too. May we all be so fortunate to touch others, leave an impact and live a long life, with plenty of martini's.
Katrina Taylor Clifford August 12, 2014
Thank you Joe for the wonderful tribute to a wonderful teacher, illustrator & man
Steve Caler August 12, 2014
A fantastic artist who could lay out a visual feast. Godspeed.
Greg Clarke August 12, 2014
Beautiful work. Thanks for the tribute Joe.
Stephen Kroninger August 12, 2014
great post
Denise Saldutti Egielski August 12, 2014
Remembering like it was yesterday going upstate to their house to visit while we were living in NYC. First time I saw a huge buck standing a startling 3 feet away from me.He was eating leftover popcorn that Pat had thrown out to him. Being up at their place in the woods, the long driveway up the hill, was like being in his drawings, in his world. Thank you for the tribute to this talented gentle man,artist and friend.
Joe Ciardiello August 13, 2014
Thanks everyone for all the kind thoughts and memories. I'll be sure to pass them along to Jim's son.
Linda Spollen Haile August 13, 2014
I'm sorry for your loss,Joe. These drawings are stunningly beautiful. Your acknowledgement of his influence is a beautiful gift to his memory and to his family.
Tatsuro Kiuchi August 13, 2014
I wasn't familiar with his works. Thanks for the great post.
Bill Mayer August 15, 2014
So sad to hear this news... I remember his work in U&Lc...such a talented artist. Thanks for posting this tribute to him. Beautiful...
Marcellus Hall August 15, 2014
Awesome work.
Harry Campbell August 15, 2014
Thanks for posting this fine tribute Joe-I knew the work but didn't really know the artist, thanks for this tribute and brief education. I did so much stipple in college and loved it-it was however a technique that was ridiculed-not sure why. I guess this is when I was more aware of this work. I should try to figure out how to stipple in vector, not quite the same thing as dot after dot with that Rapidograph, god I loved that.
Robert Neubecker August 18, 2014
Thanks, Joe. He was a great teacher & illustrator. That makes two Parson's people in scarcely a year, with J.C. Sigh.
Jon P September 4, 2014
I just came across this. What a shame. I worked with him in the mid 90s, he had a small print shop in Brewster, NY. I did typesetting and platemaking, but I could sit for hours and just talk shop with him.
Joe Ciardiello September 4, 2014
Jon P - I remember that print shop very well. A book of mine called "Like Jazz" was printed there in 1992. Perhaps we met.
Robert F. September 20, 2014
I had Jim as a teacher in late sixties at the New York Phoinix School of Design he was great.
Robert F. September 20, 2014
so sad today just found out of his passing
Monica C. December 14, 2014
Jim was a wonderful professor at The New York Phoenix Schools of design. I studied with him in 1972-4 and found him one of the most interesting and kind artists.
Vic Kulihin December 18, 2014
I just learned today of Jim's passing. As well as an instructor of mine in the early 80s, he was a sounding board and an inspiration for my career. He will be missed.
Brad Foster December 21, 2015
Just searching today for info on Jim Spanfeller, recalled his work from the fantastic pieces saw in U&lc. So sorry to read here that he passed so recently-- yet glad to see he was around for so long. Are there any collections of his work that you know of?
Joe Ciardiello December 21, 2015
Brad - if by collections you mean a book of his work, sadly no. You can find many examples of his work in the Society of Illustrators Annuals from the '60's - '80's.
Brad Foster December 21, 2015
Thanks for the reply Joe. I've linked to this article from my FB page to let folks know about Jim's amazing work. Wish someone could, indeed, give it a book al its own to preserve.
Brad Foster December 21, 2015
Thanks for the reply Joe. I've linked to this article from my FB page to let folks know about Jim's amazing work. Wish someone could, indeed, give it a book all its own to preserve.
Harry Medina January 15, 2016
Attended his Illustration Class at the New York Phoenix School of Design in 1969. Was very Inspiring, Mentoring..Very Kind to all, with an unmistakable style. He would often bring his buddy Illustrator Allan Cober to class for added color. Great to know Jim. Will always be remembered.
Joe Ciardiello ph: 908-996-4392 email: all images copyright Joe Ciardiello 2019