Retro Animation: Artist looks back, forward in time

Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Drew Gentle created this painting of a castle for an animated verison of the board game, "Candyland."

For the past five years, Drew Gentle has focused on painting portraits of people he has never met. All are real, including his second wife, who he painted in 1974 and met three years later. He sometimes runs into other people he has captured on canvas, people whose faces he sees in his mind's eye. Others are of people from another century, including a work in progress of a 19th century Southern preacher named Richard DeShane.

"I start working on them and they start telling me who they want to be," he said.

Gentle's paintings also capture all the different stages of the subject's life, giving the portraits a dynamic quality that blurs the boundaries of time. He considers them to be his life's work, but for almost 50 years, Gentle has worked in animation, drawing cartoon characters and designing shows for television and movies. He continues to work in that field, and in October, will have a retrospective exhibit, Retro Animation, at the Norberta Philbrook Gallery, with a reception during Gallery Stroll on Oct. 11.

"Out of 50 people I meet, 49 want to see the animation," he said.

Gentle's career as an artist started in 1965 when he was 17 years old. He had just graduated from high school and was thinking "I don't have to be anywhere on Monday" when his father ask, "Do you want to come to the studio and be my assistant?"

So Drew went to work the next Monday at Hanna-Barbara, where his father, Bob Gentle, was an artist. His take-home pay that summer was $70, Drew recalled, but the environment was incredibly rich.

"I was working with people who had worked in the golden age of animation, the '30s, '40s and into the '50s," he said.

Both of his parents had worked on the first feature-length animated movie, "Snow White" in the '30s for Disney, who pulled in artists from other studios when the financial backers threatened to close it down if it wasn't finished. Bob Gentle, who was a reconnaisance map maker for the Allied advance after D-Day, had worked with Bill Hanna before the war, including producing art for the "Tom and Jerry" cartoon movie shorts shown in theaters.

When MGM stopped producing cartoon shorts in 1957, Bill Hanna formed a studio with Joseph Barbara. Adapting production techniques for cartoons to the budgetary restrictions of television, they dominated the market for four decades, starting with "The Ruff and Ready Show" in 1957, followed by Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear in 1958.

The first series Drew Gentle worked on was "The Herculoids," he recalled, one of the action cartoons H-B was producing in the 1960s. He also remembers working on "Birdman" and "Thundarr." By the time he was working on "Quick Draw McGraw," censorship had caught up with children's programming.

"They took away his gun," Drew said. "We weren't allowed to draw his gun."

In addition to cartoons, Hanna-Barbara did the animated opening credits for "I Love Lucy," and "Bewitched." Drew recalled that his father used sponges to create the stones of the caves for the studio's prime-time hit, "The Flintstones." Drew's favorite characters are the Smurfs, H-B's longest running cartoon series, because they were the most rewarding financially series he worked on.

"I was doing them night and day," he said. "I had it down definitively. I made a lot of money with those guys."

In the mid-1980s, the job of production artist morphed into production design. Drew would take a script for a new animated series or feature and design the "sets" for the show, creating the establishing shots and scenes. Projects included the Scooby-Doo movie, "Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island" and "The Land Before Time" series.

Drew said he discovered Arkansas through a co-worker at Hanna-Barbara, who invited to stay at a commune near Fayetteville in the early 1970s. Drew spent a summer there and always thought it would be a good place to retire. Moving to Eureka Springs in 2007, he continued to work on animation projects until 2009, then focused on figurative paintings. He is now in the process of remodeling a 4,000 square-foot building in Eureka that he bought last December. Formerly a dance studio and pottery studio, it is being transformed into an art gallery, research library and four large studios. Studio A is the drawing and water-based media work space where Drew designs animated features, including his current project for Universal, the latest installment of "The Land Before Time."

Studio B is a two-story clay sculpture studio with a coffin kiln for firing large slab paintings in clay. On the other side of the kitchen and art research library is Studio C, set up for encaustic work, and Studio D, where he does portraits in oil.

"My interests have widened," Drew said.

Along with his imagination, Drew's family is also filled with interesting characters. His great-grandmother, Ida Fromm, was married to two Seattle mayors -- she divorced the first one when he lost the election and married the winner -- and went to Alaska during the Gold Rush, where she started businesses catering to the miners' needs.

Ida's daughter, Edith Parmele, was a silent move starlet who was in "Death of a Nation." Drew's mother, Jane Parmele, who once dated Tex Avery and Bill Hanna, grew up in Hollywood and met Bob Gentle in art school. Drew was the youngest of their three sons, and the one who inherited their artistic talents along with his father's conceptual spatial ability, which Bob Gentle employed during the war and made Drew an ace at computer animation when it replaced hand drawing. Of his decades in the business, Drew spent about three-fourths of it working for Hanna-Barbara, he said, and the rest with other studios, including two trips to France to work for a studio outside of Paris.

"I was so lucky to have the talent," he said. "Not too many people have had a 50-year career in animation."

Drew Gentle still has dozens of sketches of people whose portraits he plans to paint. He would also like to do landscapes, but after working in animation for so long, hasn't gotten the techniques used to create scenery for cartoons out of his system.

"When I get old," he said, "I want to go back and do nature studies."

The opening reception for "Retro Animation" is Saturday, Oct. 11, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Norberta Philbrook Gallery, 34 N. Main. For more information click here.

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