Working with Frank Netter, MD
Craig Luce made 75 paintings between 1989-1991 for Frank Netter MD, who is described as the “Dean of Medical Illustration.” Here are some reflections on working with the Master.
During the previous summer, I had decided something had to change.... Sure, I had work to do, though I wanted to change the direction. Wanting to develop my own books on topics that "needed doing," I had approached several medical publishers with ideas ranging from highly-illustrated journals to anatomy and surgical books to multimedia projects. But I was "too early" and my credentials were inadequate-- "MD" couldn’t appear after my name at a book signing! And that was required to sell books.
Sure, I had done a medical best-seller in 1985: Surgical Anatomy of the Orbit sold 6500 copies in a market of 9000--- that’s definitive market penetration! But although I did the full color paintings and most of the photos, and knew the anatomy cold, and was a full team partner in producing the volume, my name didn’t even appear on the cover! Travesty? No—that’s normal!
What to do? Go back to medical school?
At an investigative meeting with the Dean of Admissions, I learned that (having been out of medical school for ten+ years at that time) UVA School of Medicine would require me to get 2 years of additional undergrad study "to bring your pre-req transcript up to ‘current’ status." That was financially untenable for my family of four. What to do?
So I approached Phil Flagler of Ciba/Geigy--- I flew up to see him in NJ in their Medical Education offices. He had told me that they were having difficulty finding similar talent amongst the MD population (small wonder). boldly proposed that their company send me to med school with the notion that I would work for them for the 30 years remaining in my career. I was 36, about the age Dr. Netter started with them in NY. He replied that, while worth considering, such a bold plan was probably beyond his company’s goals.
Then I wrote Dr. Frank Netter directly, looking for a further plan to move forward: "Dr. Netter, you have created a thirst that cannot be quenched! ....and the publishers only want an 'MD' as author... Since I want to author my own work, do I HAVE to swallow hard and go back to med school ? What would you do in my circumstance?" (entire letter hyperlinked here)
He responded quickly in a typewriter-written note saying that, in order to advise, he needed to see what I could do-- "send me some examples." The Great wanted to see some paintings? WOW! you bet! So I expressed him some slides the same day-- in a mixture of shock, anticipation, fear, and, well, pride.
OK: now.wait. for. the. critique. His return was rapid, filled with praise--- "the best work that has been sent to me." I was sooo grateful!
But-- it also included his prescription: "contact more ad agencies and more publishers..." ... "and don't take 'no' for an answer." Fine: more of what I was already doing.
I sent him a thank you for his kind words and went about my business...... until March. One afternoon, he called and said, "This is Dr. Netter, Craig—I hope you are well. Tell me, how soon can you be here?"
When I could speak, I said "I’ll get right back to you", made some calls, and returned in a few minutes with "Saturday." "Not before then?" he asked impatiently (I thought he must be smiling). "Well, I can fly today if you insist, but we can save $500 if I come on Saturday." "Well, then, by all means-- come on Saturday. Meanwhile, I have a proposal for you to consider: I want you to come here to do some paintings for me." "Well, then how about tomorrow morning?!" I blurted. He laughed at my zeal, "Saturday will be fine-- we'll see you then."
I would have washed his paint brushes for free—instead, he asked me to paint for him. Not for his client, Ciba/GEIGY--- this was out of his own pocket. (What's up with that?) When I offered to do it at travel costs, he insisted that our relationship be straight-up-- he paid me "the market rate that any other advertising client would be offered"...
OK, so I began to work with Dr. Frank Netter. Surely a home run even to be asked. Turned out that my professor from ten years before had been meeting with him, and recommended me, and Dr. Netter had said he already knew my name.
My then-wife and I flew to Florida from Virginia and it was a quick hop to the Breakers by cab. We went over to the Netters' condo next door on arrival and settling, and he greeted us at he door graciously. I was surprised to finally see him-- a dimunitive man with a gravelly voice, quite the red-blooded and vibrantly alive guy --- dressed in the blue golf shirt and light tan slacks that I came to know were his everyday wear. Somehow I had expected him to be more soft around the edges at 84, but he made an impression of gentle, refined power.
So here was what genius wore—a golf shirt echoing the striped bretàn that Picasso always brandished in ease.
While his wife was resting in the back room, evidence of their long marriage shown on every wall. The condo was filled with the gatherings of their full life together, and he relished in describing them. Longtime readers of his work would recognize bits of the furnishings in his paintings-- the chair in this piece, the sofa in that one. His and his wife’s faces in the art as well as his children and "sometimes a neighbor" acting as models over his 50 year carrer.
Rembrandt's etching The Hundred Guilder Print was hanging outside the studio; we chatted about how Rembrandt would work today. Along the hallway were originals of some early things he had done for Ciba and the Army during WWII. This was the era of illustration.
He loved to describe his beginnings, and as far as I can see, he had assembled a clearly well-repeatable saga for visitors, so, having heard that on tape, I asked more details at several points. "What was your interest--- did you consider a career in painting before illustration?" "Not really, I was fascinated by the use of art--- beyond advertising--- using art to teach. As a matter of fact I first made teaching pictures when I first studied medicine--- I used drawings to help myself learn the subjects." He produced small drawings of squirrels and people that he did at the National Academy on the aUpper West Side, stealing time after school to go there in his teens.
My eyes were drawn to the walls of memorabilia, but the originals standing vertical in their slotted files beckoned the loudest. The reproduction is inadequate to reveal the luminance of some of these originals. "Frank, Titian would be proud to have done this hand--- the complexity of the color might defy reproduction," I marveled, "so do you ever get frustrated with how they turn out in print?" "We have made great advances in reproduction in recent years, he said, and I’ve learned to anticipate their appearance." I later learned what painstaking Ciba went through to equalize the color from front to back of his works, despite his rather standard and consistent palette of colors.
We talked in general terms about art and illustration, and then came down to the business at hand. My then-wife took some snaps and I taped the proceedings on a microcassette, which I have only recently revisited.
He got down to business soon:
"What I want you to do is paint my roughs into finished pieces at a rate that can keep up with my production. I am putting this Injuries volume together and am about 60% complete, but I have sketches that far outstrip my painting schedule. On some, I am awaiting confirmation from my consultants, but here are three panels to begin with." They included about 12 paintings. Without a deadline, I would call and set up our next meeting in about two weeks, as I had other projects in the works as well.
This was fine with him, though I knew his output was very high—over a 50-year career, he averaged a panel every three days. Of course, some took longer, some shorter, once the research was done. "Reading, consultation, and sketching are about 75% of my work," he said, "but the paintings are the fun part."
Yes, the best use of his faculties was indeed in the sketch work. I, too, had recently employed an illustrator to cover the finals, though I sometimes touched them myself to match the picture in my head. "To paint these things, you must understand them thoroughly. Its what’s IN the picture that has to be right--- you can talk all around a subject if you want, but its all got to be IN a picture."
We discussed layout, and how he presents them to Ciba, including type-to-scale on the flysheet. Frank had an amazing ability to hand-write at the precise size of the 8 point Helvetica callouts.... I had to rough it on the computer to make it fit. I found that our working styles were similar, though I was surprised to learn he never used models anymore for the figures involved....his work had changed in the years since the sixties. Also surprising was his use of reference pictures traced from the medical literature-- as long as copyright was not infringed. Yes, I could not avoid the temptation to research the topics myself (was I checking up on him? :'), and minutely changed the sketches, giving him the rationale over the phone. He welcomed the changes, but only after hearing the reasoning. "Sometimes a mistake is caught by a consultant, and I'm happy to discuss it, but more often than not, I convince them that my way was right to start with. I can get mad if they avoid telling me until after its in print! What you propose sounds reasonable, carry on."
I was curious how he at 84 could stay so sharp on his work, and soon learned that he played as hard as he worked. Seven am to one pm was concentrated work, then a two martini lunch often next door, then 8 holes of golf and a nap in the afternoon, then a small dinner and a coupla hours work after that. His wife was always at the bed in the room next, and we never met except by phone.
He was happy to host us to lunch at the Breakers, my wife was duly impressed, though Frank and I were mostly talking business of several sorts. He made certain she was included at times, and she glowed-- a first glance at the gentleman Frank lived. I was reminded of the statement by Albert Einstein that "genius is the ability to converse at any level and make the listener feel comfortable."
On my return with the paintings, I tensed as he put his glasses on like a knight's shield and dug in. He wanted them to be perfect, of course, though I was trying to emulate his CURRENT style, so the book went together smoothly. He wanted them more like his style at peak—"don't worry about matching me, lets just make them as good as possible." He was critical at first, studying the panels closely--- (was he trying to prove that his style was inimitable? That only he could do this work and was thus irreplaceable?) That would be a natural sentiment since his age prohibited him working as hard as he had become accustomed. Still, the verdict was very positive, and I have him on tape somewhere saying, "your works are better than any I've seen... certainly much better than ______ or others that have done work for Ciba." A snip of that audio tape is here.
The company had hired an additional illustrator twenty years ago for the Symposia, so that Frank could concentrate on the next books, much to Frank's dismay, "He can't paint!" I think, rather than jealousy, he was dismayed that his work was replaced with lesser, as he held high standards indeed.
Well, we traded panels for a time, meanwhile I was doing other contracts as well. We did that for 18 months or so, a total of about 75 paintings, with the promise of more to come. My recent review of the tapes revealed his saying that mine was "the best medical art I’ve seen"--- decrying those that were employed by Ciba without his consent or approval. The company’s aggressive publication schedule had simply outstripped his capacity and they went on their separate way with the Clinical Symposia, while he remained at the helm of the Ciba Collection of Medical Illustrations.
On my returning to Virginia from Nashville to do the first laparoscopic galbladder paintings in this country in 1990 (I was painting for US Surgical Corporation), I called Dr. Netter on the next set of works with him. He told me that he was going to have his gallbladder removed and we should delay. "Well, this new technique I just witnessed is very successful. I hope you can have it done laparoscopically," I said.
"Well, that is very new and holds great promise, but I'm having it done ‘open’, the old-fashioned way: I trained as a surgeon." I was surprised that Frank was going to avoid the new "keyhole surgery" that reputedly took FAR less recovery time, in favor of the tried-and-true. After all, he had observed and painted innovative techniques all his life! But, then, who am I to advise the teacher of teachers?
Well, it took him almost eight weeks to be back at speed-- it takes longer to heal at 84!
Unfortunately, his "surgeon found other things" that might complicate Frank's life, including an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Knowing only a little of his history, I implored him to leave that alone. But Frank had other ideas, perhaps thinking that he would live another ten years if treated--- instead of simply living until the one night he wouldn't wake up, possibly years later. An aneurysm failure "sometime" after 85 good years is a good option, if one can choose a way to depart this planet. But ask me again when I am 85 myself.
Dr. Netter told me that he wanted his "old friend Mike" to do the procedure, and rumor had it that the surgeon flew in from Texas to the hospital at University of Florida. If true, then Frank had called him long out of retirement. It all had a dark future, I felt. We lost touch after the surgery that he believed would bring him back to an active life, his convalescence prolonged.
I stayed in contact through Ciba, so my information is secondhand at best. I won't include more details than that, but Frank moved to a hospital on Long Island, had complicated stay, infection, eventually a resection and bypass --- it sounded like a year of pure hell. Especially since he had been so active, that must have been very difficult for him and his family. But he was still drawing Ninja Turtles for his great grandson two days before ..... well….
Well, I was at a summer barbecue party and talking with others of the medical trade in the ensuing dusk, when the server told me that he "read in the NY Times today that some big medical artist had died" --- it was Frank Netter's obituary. Shock reigned--- and, though I had expected the news, it came as a blow: The Master had passed. Knock me over with a feather.
No, I had not gone to Long Island, though perhaps I should have: my new child required all my attentions outside work and travel was truncated--- I knew he would rather I stayed and did that.
He had become a grandfatherly partner ---- though he always spoke in a smoky, gruff voice, he lived a gentleman’s life and---- was admired.
We spoke as two painters sometimes in lingo, even when, with no small drama, he sat down to examine my paintings. While he was honest, yes, he was also equally gracious in praise.
OK, he became my hero, yes, that’s right, My Hero. Among simliar thoughts held by many, surely. I came to respect him immensely--- as a great mind, as a great painter---- as the most gifted man I have ever known.
He was a man’s-man, too, despite his short stature. He radiated a sense that, not only was he comfortable in his skin, he truly enjoyed life and all around him. If indeed greatness is telling in how one treats those who are incidental, he was gracious, even to waiters and attendants.
Who could pick up the banner? Is there anyone? No one—they broke the mold after he was born. I think of him sometimes now and know he did pretty much everything he wanted to do, except outlive the future. He would be there at his studio windows today, talking with medical leaders around the world, and making history with every stroke--- even if he took to the new multimedia. His work would embrace any development if it told the story well. We concurred that, if alive today, Rembrandt would be making reproductions at a terrific pace… (and) probably painting with a computer" (something I am moving away from after 20 years).
I wrote about him for a medical illustration newsletter, and presented a tribute at the AMI annual meeting that year, but it all seemed hollow then. It became more synchronized when a medical library contact at UVA called from her current place at UNC saying that their medical history society would be presenting on Dr. Netter ( as his daughter had just given them a set of his originals), and asked if would I talk.
"Glad to help in any way." I was so pleased to meet Frank’s daughter, Francine, and granddaughter that fall. As she is writing a book on her father’s life, I hope to collaborate with her and I’ll propose to supply the library with a portrait of him--- perhaps done in his own style. I have been in email conversation with his son in Germany as well--- perhaps this will all come to fruition.
Ciba sold rights to the Netter Collection to Novartis… along with other companies selling his works in re-purposed titles. A pair of MDs working together for Novaritis in Texas now do a wonderful job visualizing new medicine for Clinical Symposia-- even the resultant composite painting style is similar and very good. Still-- for me, as for most of the medical world of the last century, the most singular work in the history of medicine is that signed
Frank H. Netter, MD.
by Craig A. Luce, MS, CMI
Charlottesville, Atlanta, NYC