Howard Pyle


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, in the New York clubs — Salmagundi Art Students League, the Society of Illustrators — I was cruising historical and current members’ work, listening to wisps of conversation, digging in archives, wandering down memory lane.


“A Wolf Had Not Been Seen at Salem for Thirty Years” 1909
oil on canvas, 17 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches
by Howard Pyle (1853-1911)

Howard Pyle (1853-1911) came to New York from Wilmington, Delaware, in 1873. “Pyle arrived at the right time and instinctively recognized the power of pictures for everyone,” says Pyle’s biographer, Henry Pitz. Beyond his success in magazine and book illustration, Pyle had a large influence on a generation of American artists. His students included N.C. Wyeth, Violet Oakley, Harvey Dunn, Stanley Arthurs, Frank Schoonover and many others. No Pyle student ever forgot him — nor could they ever stop quoting him. What were the qualities that made him the prince of empowerment? What was his advice that might be of value to some painters today?


“Mellicent Stood Motionless, Like a Wild Thing at Gaze” 1905
oil painting
by Howard Pyle

—  Develop a sense of history.

—  Seek your training close to home.

—  Respect books, picture-books and reading.

—  Engage in writing as a parallel skill.

—  Research your interests thoroughly.

—  Seek truth and correctness in settings.

—  Put in time to get your drawing right.

—  Sketch first to find the focal center.

—  Be vigorous and stand up to work.


“Walking the Plank” 1887
oil painting
by Howard Pyle

—  Commit to the highest of possibilities.

—  See the drama and theatre in your subjects.

—  Depict basic emotions — grief, pride, greed, etc.

—  Look for new ways to see and tell a story.

—  Don’t let reality destroy your imagination.

—  Be an eyewitness to vivid experiences.

—  Simplify compositions and waste little.

—  Don’t ask opinions from those you don’t respect.

—  Be idealistic in your life and picture making.

—  Be willing to share and pass the torch.

—  Be willing to mentor and teach without fee.

After writing this sum-up of Pyle’s thinking, I went back and had a look at a letter I wrote about his student N.C. Wyeth. The torch was indeed passed.


“We Started to Run Back to the Raft for Our Lives” 1902
oil on canvas
24 1/4 x 16 1/4 inches
by Howard Pyle

Best regards,


PS: “I can be of use to the younger artists through the advice and criticism which I give them. It is likely that some of my pupils will reach unusual distinction.” (Howard Pyle)

Esoterica: The idea of teaching for free has some merit. An individualistic, successful and non-tenured artist leads well by showing and demonstrating. His cryptic critique and practical insight are respected. He need only take on students with potential. His independent spirit is part of the inspiration. He need not be troubled with curriculum that is best learned privately from books. He can walk out of a lecture room or workshop without feeling the slightest pang of guilt, and he can never be accused of anything but the love of making art.

This letter was originally published as “Howard Pyle” on October 15, 2004.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Paint ideas; paint thought.” (Howard Pyle)




  1. Wise words that can be applied to all forms of creativity in arts, sciences, business, relationships, politics, etc. And why else to teach, other than TO LEARN?

  2. I sometimes go online to look at artists’ work from the past, and do sets of pencil thumbnails to understand the value, composition, and shapes they used. Remembering an earlier post here about “shapes first”. Just looking at these, the compositions are so clear. And look at the one of Mellicent, how that tiny bit of burnt orange in the girdle and the sky echo each other in the otherwise monochromatic scheme. A touch in her lips, and the skin tone also warmed.
    Wonderful illustrations, terrific list, thanks for sharing as ever.

  3. Raymond Mosier on

    Howard Pyle’s influence is clear when reviewing N.C. Wyeth’s paintings, particularly his illustrations. Those same lessons reverberate through Jamie Wyeth. One of my artist mentors never referenced Pyle, but he did live and include many of those principles as examples. What is the painting about and what is the story are the important takeaways which stick with me.

  4. Re: “A Wolf Had Not Been Seen at Salem for Thirty Years” painting by Howard Pyle. Perhaps Pyle didn’t research wolf behavior, like he advocated artists to research what they painted. Or maybe more likely , back in 1909, while wolves were being totally eradicated,poisoned, trapped, and tortured, the prevailing “research” revealed that wolves were aggressive, dangerous creatures inclined to attack people. A wolf would never approach a group of people like that,they are extremely wary and cautious of people, and rightly so. At any rate Pyle’s painting portrayed the wolf merely according to the popular fear mongering hysteria of the time , contributing to this beautiful creature’s demise.

    • and as Pyle said… “— Don’t let reality destroy your imagination.” He was telling a story, not opining on endangered species…

  5. Would be fun to know which books or stories these wonderful illustrations are taken from. I have Pyle’s Treasure Island, with its fantastic paintings — so wild and alive and atmospheric.

  6. Funny to see the ads for Euro painting workshops then read Pyle’s advice “seek your training close to home”!

  7. This was very inspiring and practical to me; what caught my interest was the advice to develop a sense of history, to practice writing as a craft well as painting, to put in the time to develop unique drawing. Pyle had a legendary gift for teaching, like Charles Hawthorne and Robert Henri.

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