Richard Amsel was born on 4th December 1947 and passed away on 17th November 1985. He was an illustrator and graphic designer. Unfortunately, his career was brief after being struck down with illness but stunningly successful, entailing a wide variety of commercial illustration work including album and magazine covers, it is perhaps Richard Amsel’s movie posters artwork that remains the most popular. His portrait of comedian Lily Tomlin for the cover of Time Magazine is now part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. He also was associated with TV Guide for thirteen years.
Richard Amsel studied at the Philadelphia College of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While he was studying his proposed poster art for Barbra Streisand’s musical Hello, Dolly! Was selected by 20th Century Fox to be the film’s campaign after a nationwide artists’ talent search. At the time Richard Amsel was 22 years old.
Following this, Richard Amsel quickly found popularity within New York’s art scene, and his illustrations caught the attention of Barry Manilow. At the time Barry Manilow was a young singer/songwriter who was working with Bette Midler, at the time an emerging entertainer in cabaret clubs and piano bars.
Barry Manilow introduced the two, and it was quickly decided that Richard Amsel would do the cover artwork on her first album, The Divine Miss M. The artwork proved to be one of the most ubiquitous of the year and more commissioned album artwork and posters soon followed, as did a series of magazine ads for fashion designer Oleg Cassini.
His movie poster commissions during the 1970s included some of the most important and popular films but his artwork was often more accomplished than the movies they promoted. Some of his work during this decade included The Champ, Chinatown, Julia, The Last Picture Show, The Last Tycoon, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Muppet Movie, Murder on the Orient Express, Nashville, Papillon (unused art although used for the later re-release in 1977), The Shootist. He also completed the artwork for The Sting, with the poster design paying homage to the painting style of J. C. Leyendecker, evoking both his “Arrow Collar Man” and his covers for The Saturday Evening Post.
In 1972, Richard Amsel was commissioned by TV Guide to do a cover featuring the Duke and Duchess of Windsor which coincided with made for television film about their love affair. This started Richard Amsel’s thirteen-year association and resulted in a record of more than 40 covers.
Richard Amsel’s TV guide covers are converted collector’s item and have featured many iconic figures such as Mary Tyler Moore, John Travolta, Elvis Presley, Ingrid Bergman, Johnny Carson, Tom Selleck, Nancy Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Princess Grace and Katharine Hepburn. The most notable covers included Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh for the television debut of Gone with the Wind, the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana and Richard Chamberlain for the miniseries Shogun.
The cover he completed on Lily Tomlin for Time Magazine was completed in line with the magazine’s time deadlines, his illustration was created in only two or three days.
The portrait cover Richard Amsel illustrated of Lucille Ball, is perhaps his most loved. The illustration was done for the 6th July 1974 cover to honour the comedian’s retirement from television. Richard said of the artwork “I did not want the portrait to be of Lucy Ricardo, but I didn’t want a modern-day Lucy Carter either. I wanted it to have the same timeless sense of glamour that Lucy herself has. She is, after all, a former Goldwyn Girl. I hoped to capture the essence of all this”.
The dramatic changes made to movie marketing campaigns in the 1980s saw the work of illustrators being used less frequently and a move to photographic images being utilised instead. With the reduction for hand-drawn illustrations which limited the genres that artist could work in, often limited to science fiction, fantasy and adventure films.
The 1980s marked a dramatic change in movie marketing campaigns, with more and more employing photographs in favour of illustrations. Movie poster artists now faced a narrower field in which to compete, often limited to science fiction, fantasy, and adventure films. The old masters of the industry like Bob Peak, whose bold, striking images for Camelot, Superman and Apocalypse Now that helped to redefine movie poster art started to look increasingly dated in their style and had to make way for the new artists coming through like Drew Struzan.
However, during this time Richard Amsel remained productive and his trademark signature becoming a widely recognised on magazine covers and movie posters. His movie posters in the 1980s included the colourful and camp Flash Gordon along with the elaborate fantasy The Dark Crystal.
Perhaps the most famous illustrative work completed by Richard Amsel was for Raiders of the Lost Ark. He completed two separate poster designs; one for the initial release in 1981 and another for the re-release in 1982. The artwork featured on many of the posters released worldwide. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg reportedly own the originals.
The description Richard Amsel used for Raiders of the Lost Ark artwork was that he “accomplished something”. He said, “Commercial art can be and sometimes is art, but if someone hangs a poster, it is still a poster pretending to be something it’s not. My work is basically for the printed page, and not for hanging in living rooms… If, however, I paint or draw something that takes people into the realm of fantasy, then I feel that I’ve accomplished something”.
The key to his success, beyond raw talent, was the unique quality of his work and illustrative style. Richard Amsel could perfectly evoke period nostalgia with titles such as The Sting and westerns such as McCabe & Mrs Miller, while also producing something timeless and iconic, perfectly befitting both something old and something new. However, even with his different approach from one assignment to the other, they all bear his instantly recognisable stamp.
The last movie poster work completed by Richard Amsel prior to his death was for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the third of George Miller’s apocalyptic action movies with Mel Gibson. His final artwork for TV Guide featured news anchors Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather.
Richard Amsel died less than three weeks after completing the TV guide work, succumbing to complications from AIDS on 17th November 1985. When he fell ill, he had been commissioned to complete the poster for the Romancing the Stone sequel, The Jewel of the Nile.
Although his career was brief, Richard Amsel’s career was stunningly successful, entailing a wide variety of commercial illustration work including album and magazine covers and movie posters artwork. However, his movie posters alone matched or exceeded the creative output of many of his contemporaries.
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