“Corn”, 1945, oil painting by Jon Gnagy.
“Corn”, 1945, oil painting by Jon Gnagy.
If you watched TV during the 40s, 50s or 60s, you may remember the handsome man with the trim Vandyke beard, plaid shirt, and smile, who assured viewers that anyone could draw. "Ball -- cube -- cylinder -- cone," he would say, "By using these shapes I can draw any picture I want. And so can you!"

The pioneering television artist was Jon Gnagy, who called himself the "self-taught blacksmith of art". Over 14 years and 700 live TV shows, Gnagy taught the basic principles of art to millions of people. Many professional artists working today credit Gnagy as their first art teacher.

Jon Gnagy was an amazing man. He considered enthusiasm to be the most irresistible power on earth; it motivated his unique career and character and was behind everything he did. His confidence and zest for life helped him develop his innovative painting and teaching techniques as well as his own sense of aesthetics and color theory.

Gnagy, the son of Hungarian-Swiss Mennonites, was born in 1907 at Varner's Forge, Kansas, a pioneer blacksmith-farming settlement. He began drawing and painting at age 11, without formal instruction. .

He began winning sweepstake prizes at the Kansas State Fair when he was only 13 years old. At the age of 17, he was offered the position of art director with an industrial public relations organization, where he created posters for the International Petroleum Exposition and won national awards in poster competitions.

When the Depression hit, Gnagy, now 24, moved with his wife and small daughter to Kansas City to find work. At the Kansas City Art Institute he took a few evening classes and for the first time was able to talk with other artists about art. The discussions of art careers excited him. Gnagy became determined to "hit the big time" as a successful artist. He traveled to New York alone to see if he could start an art career. He later said, "Ignorant nerve plus enthusiasm got me from Kansas to New York in 1931."

With only $24 in his pocket, he took a room at the YMCA. He located two "starving" commercial artists and talked them into letting him share their studio. Then he went looking for freelance work. His constant enthusiasm paid off. On his second day in New York he landed a finished art contract for full page ads to run in the Saturday Evening Post and Fortune Magazine.

Gnagy sent for his wife and small daughter. The family lived in a tiny economy apartment in Flushing, and soon they had another child, a boy. Gnagy took every art job he could find, no matter how small or menial, to provide for his family.

Again, his obvious enthusiasm and drive brought results. He was offered a job as an assistant art director in Philadelphia. The family moved again, to a better house in a growing art colony in New Hope, PA. The job went well and the pay was good. Gnagy loved working with the other artists at his job, and even put the three-hour daily train commute to good use by studying art and philosophy as he rattled along in the smoking car of the train. A number of well-known intellectuals and artists rode the same train, and the discussions in the smoking car were so interesting that the commute became a pleasure. Gnagy later said that these experiences were better than art school or a college education.

During WW II, he served as art director for the War Service Committee, giving lectures and art demonstrations in many colleges and producing poster designs for war plants.

When television began broadcasting to the public, he saw an opportunity and presented the idea for a "how to draw" show to NBC. He became America's first television art teacher. That first broadcast in 1946 was seen by about 200 viewers living within 80 miles of the tower. Eventually the show reached millions of people and he became "America's television artist".

Because people are most familiar with the simple black-and-white charcoal drawings he demonstrated in his TV program, it is important to remember that Jon Gnagy was first and foremost a fine artist. He painted deserts, mountains, cities and oceans with great strength and style. But he frequently returned to his roots as a Mennonite farm boy for subject and inspiration.

His instructional books and drawing sets are still available in art supply stores, mail order catalogs, and on the Internet, where videos of his shows can still be viewed. Gnagy died in 1981, but his legacy lives on through countless people, including fine artists, who credit him with awakening their interest in art.