The Art Of John Alvin review

One of the greatest poster illustrators ever gets a volume devoted to his work. Here's Ryan's review of the lavish Art Of John Alvin...

In 2008, John Alvin died at the tragically young age of 59, robbing the world of one of its finest poster designers. Although his signatures were often erased from his artwork, Alvin’s individual style rang out from every image he produced: his work for movies such as E.T., Blade Runner, Cocoon and Short Circuit displayed a keen eye for colour, space and proportion.

Although technically gifted, it was Alvin’s talent for crystalising a film’s subject tone in a single, clear image that really set him apart from other illustrators. His best posters often focused on one or two objects suspended against an expanse of sky or stars, such as the alien and child’s fingers touching in his poster for E.T., or the silhouette of a boy in Empire Of The Sun. Alvin was one of a handful of practitioners who elevated the movie poster to an artform.

Published by Titan, The Art Of John Alvin provides a lavishly-illustrated look at the late artist’s posters and working methods. Written by Andrea Alvin, his wife and business partner, the accompanying text not only describes how Alvin approached his work, from the materials he used and the extraordinary amount of research he put in, but also some of the strange Hollywood industry occurrences that often informed their making.

The book takes us back to the beginning of Alvin’s career in 1974, when he seized the opportunity to design and paint the poster for Mel Brooks’ comedy western Blazing Saddles. Alvin captured the film’s irreverent tone with his acrylic paints and airbrush, but there was a catch: although Brooks was highly impressed with the artwork, he didn’t like the black limousine charging into the foreground at the bottom of the image – “Too funereal,” he said. Determined to make the alteration without going to the painstaking effort of rendering the entire thing again, Alvin cannily painted a flow of golden clouds with a jet plane hurtling across the middle, and carefully pasted it over the offending limo. The result is seamless to the point of being invisible – it’s but one example of Alvin’s skill and ingenuity.

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Morsels of information like this are sprinkled throughout the book, including the removal of swans from the poster for Brian De Palma’s rock oddity Phantom Of The Paradise, the last-minute shifting of Harrison Ford’s eye in the poster for Blade Runner, and the tragic accidental destruction of the original artwork for Cocoon. We learn that the child’s hand in that world-famous E.T. poster doesn’t actually belong to young actor Henry Thomas, but Alvin’s daughter, Farah. Alvin spent untold hours researching what happens when a World War II fighter plane gets hit in mid-air, resulting in the gorgeous, silhouetted plume of smoke, oil and fire captured forever in his Empire Of The Sun poster.

Thanks to the chronological arrangement, we also get to see Alvin’s artistic development over the course of more than 30 years. Although this is by no means an exhaustive collection of his 100-or-so posters, the book provides an effective cross-section: stunning though his 1982 rendering for Blade Runner is, the art he created for the same film in 2002 and 2007 was, for this writer at least, even better. You can see how his personal style developed through the 80s and 90s, too, as his individual talent for selecting one, unforgettable image (as opposed to a collage of images, as was common) came to the fore.

Just look at his poster for Gremlins: it’s little more than a young man’s hands holding a cardboard box, with Gizmo’s furry paws just emerging into the diffuse light. Or check out his poster for Arachnophobia: a single spider dangling in the midst of a full moon. His work had magic and mystery, and it’s little wonder that, when Disney decided to advertise its animated films to adults as well as children in the early 90s, it was Alvin they commissioned to design the posters. Although they’re all wonderful in their own way, Alvin’s poster for Beauty And The Beast has a particular lyrical beauty: the two central characters, waltzing in a sea of the artist’s airbrushed mist.

When the digital age came knocking later in Alvin’s working life, he simply moved with the times and bought a Mac. By this point, he’d long since parted company with Intralink, the Hollywood advertising studio he’d worked with for the first 15 years of his career, and set up a design house with his wife. Together, they continued to create captivating and individual work, such as the photographic posters for Batman Returns and Batman Forever, or the hand-rendered re-release posters for Pinocchio and Aladdin. A passionate Star Wars fan, Alvin also sank his love for the franchise into a string of covers for the DVD re-releases in the mid-90s, and some superb posters for Star Wars Kids Magazine in 1999. Alvin may have “kicked himself” for narrowly missing out on the commission for the original Star Wars film in 1977, but he made up for it with his later work for the franchise, which was filled with the kind of detail only a dedicated fan could bring.

For each artwork, Alvin began by drawing thumbnail sketches before working his way up to larger colour visuals, which would be sent to the client for approval. In many cases, Alvin’s earlier designs were almost as inspiring as his finished artworks – there are designs in the book for an unproduced Batman poster which, sadly, has vanished from his archives.  It’s these thumbnails, unused ideas and sketches that make the book not only a collection of great art, but also a look at Alvin’s thought processes and mastery of a wide range of techniques, from pencil and ink to pastels to paint to photo retouching. To paraphrase one colleague about Alvin’s talents, he really could do just about anything.

If there’s a criticism to be levelled at The Art Of John Alvin, it’s that even at 160-or-so pages, the volume doesn’t afford the space to show all of his sketches at maximum size. There’s a colour pencil drawing for Empire Of The Sun – showing a boy standing on the spine of a crashed fighter plane, his hand held aloft to the sun – which would could have looked stunning as a full-page image. Similarly, Alvin’s work for Disney could easily have filled a book all on its own.

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Such gripes aside, The Art Of John Alvin is a wonderful collection, and for an artist who appears to have been unusually modest about his talent, it’s a fitting tribute to his life’s work. For devotees of poster design, this book is just about indispensable.

The Art Of John Alvin will be available from the 22nd August, courtesy of Titan Books.

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4 out of 5