Sharon Watts Writes

when pictures fail me…

Al Pimsler–A Man’s Men’s Illustrator

Pimsler invite

A dapper anomaly in those still shaggy post-Woodstock years, he walked with purpose and panache to the Saks Fifth Avenue offices where he took up residence at the drawing table. Handsome. Diminutive yet self-assured, debonaire, even–an outdated word, but it suited. With a full head of white hair waving back from a fulcrum of dark eyebrows, and an aura of authority and ease draped about him like layered cashmere sweaters, Al Pimsler evoked a masculine, fashionable world I had not grown up in.

We trooped into the classroom in our army jackets and Landlubber bellbottoms, clutching 18 X 24 newsprint pads and khaki green tackle boxes filled with soft charcoal pencils, single edge razor blades to sharpen them, and kneaded erasers to soften our blunders. The class was Fashion Drawing. Waiting for us behind the partition was a model, often male. Waiting in front was our instructor. Both entranced and intimidated, I wasn’t sure if my princess-doodling childhood had the oomph to catapult me into the trenches there at Parsons School of Design. An assertive, testosterone-injected line was what Al Pimsler demanded. I wanted to deliver.

He harkened to the “Mad Men” era and even earlier–the 1940s golden age of fashion art–when illustrators such as Carl “Eric” Erickson and René Bouché easily crossed over the commercial line into fine art. They reigned at Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, and by the 1960s, despite the new topsy-turvy caused by the Beatles and Mary Quant and Twiggy and Roy Lichtenstein (and Antonio Lopez, riding a new wave of illustration), their influence was still felt, the torch carried on by a few working artists like Al Pimsler. When he wasn’t turning out his own strong, linear gestures in full page retail advertising in The New York Times on a weekly basis, he shared his experience and knowledge with us in a characteristic low key.

He stressed drawing, and drawing well, insisting (and proving) that fashion artists were not third class citizens of the art world. Encouraging us to rely on our eye and our hand (the flourish would follow), Mr. Pimsler (I still can’t call him anything but that) saw something in my work that he liked, maybe even recognized. He didn’t shower with compliments, so the subtlety with which I felt coaxed was all the more precious to me.

There were other instructors in the fashion illustration department at Parsons in 1972 that seemed more in tune with the times, urging all kinds of envelope-pushing, gender bending, and creative mayhem. One guest assignment was given to us by Al Goldstein of Screw magazine. Barbara Pearlman, Albert Elia, Katerina Denzinger–all possessed the cult of personality that had us slavishly following. I was stimulated by them as well, in varying degrees. But it was Mr. Pimsler whose respect I craved.

And here I am, forty-odd years later, ostensibly downsizing. I plow through the archives of schoolwork done while under the influence of all these disparate instructors, right on the cusp (unknown to us at the time) of fashion illustration being rudely eclipsed by photography, to never quite claim its hierarchy again as a fine art. It strikes me that, as I surround myself with old newsprint pad drawings and illustration boards bearing classroom assignments, what holds up best is the work I did in Al Pimsler’s class. Looking at one drawing of mine in particular, a man in a pinstripe shirt, I seem to remember him saying that if he didn’t know otherwise, this was one he might have done himself. His demeanor was such that a compliment of that magnitude has me wondering even now–did he really say that? Mean that? Or did I mishear, misconstrue, misremember? Regardless, I’ve carried the glow all these years.

I got to thinking about him recently. Of course, I wondered if he was still alive. A google search revealed that he died just a few months ago. A little kick in my gut reverberated all the way back to that day in his classroom–any day, really–when there was nowhere else on earth I would have rather been. At 96, I bet he was still a handsome devil, and most assuredly, a class act all the way. One thing about Al Pimsler, I don’t imagine that he was ever out of style.

pimsler art

Al Pimsler portraits

pimsler men's art

and fashion illustration



And my art, under the influence…

Pimsler shirt

Pimsler- cinched waist 2

copyright 2015 Sharon Watts

reprinted in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood

Al Pimsler art reproduced from North Light Magazine

Sharon Watts art copyright 1972, 1978


10 comments on “Al Pimsler–A Man’s Men’s Illustrator

  1. Elizabeh
    January 15, 2015

    It was a pleasure to read this on my way home this pm…I like the way you use your tops to hold others in the light!
    Happy New Year Dear!

      January 16, 2015

      So nice to see you here, Elizabeth! Thanks for the comment, it means a lot! And please add me to your mailing list!

  2. James
    January 16, 2015

    Great article Sharon. It made me recall his classes. I am sure he would’ve enjoyed your article.

      January 16, 2015

      Thanks, James…and I wonder what would have happened had he been your mentor. Better that you were untethered to any influence that might have altered your painting style from what it is.

  3. VariousArtists
    January 23, 2015

    Loved this profile of the man, his work, and your personal interactions with him as your teacher. “Rosmine” looks suspiciously like David Hockney. And please, please, please write about the Al Goldstein assignment. Enquiring minds want to know.

    As always, love your writing and how you use language to paint a picture.

      January 24, 2015

      Thanks, V.A.! All I remember about Al Goldstein is that there were 2 assignments, one porn and the other erotic. I chose the latter, and I remember Mr. Pimsler liking what I did (it was sort of a target, with breasts, and lipstick, in pinks and reds). I wish I had it in my archives, but it seems to be MIA.

  4. Meaghan Pimsler
    February 18, 2015

    My sister (whom you got into contact with on FaceBook) just shared this with me. It made me tear up a little, but thank you for sharing your memories.

      February 18, 2015

      Meaghan, thanks for reading and again, my condolences to you all. He gave me much needed encouragement at a vulnerable time. I became a fashion illustrator largely because of your grandfather.

  5. shawn banner
    April 9, 2015

    Thank you for this article…I was doing one of my google image searches for fashion illustrators (when I need a hit of the classics) and Pimsler’s name led me here….I recall him from my FIT days exactly as you’ve described him, and it was a pleasure to go back again. His mark was truly indelible. I am so glad it is still out in the ether for all seekers to find.

      April 9, 2015

      Shawn, how great to see you here! Happy that you remember him the same way.

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