Howard Terpning was born November 5, 1927, in Oak Park, Illinois, birthplace also of Ernest Hemingway. His father worked for the Northwestern Railroad. His mother was an interior decorator. As a boy he was torn between two ambitions: to be an artist or to be a pilot. His brother Jack lived out the latter ambition, becoming a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II. Unfortunately, he was lost in New Guinea.
In 1945, at age seventeen, Terpning joined the Marine Corps and served as an infantryman in China. Afterward, he found educational institutions heavily enrolled with returned war veterans. He was told he would have to wait in line to enter the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. His father's friend and neighbor, illustrator Harold Mundstock, interceded with the academy. Later Terpning attended the American Academy of Fine Art.
He had made up his mind to try New York City, but after several discouraging days of looking in vain for work in the many art studios, he returned to Chicago. Mundstock introduced him to Haddon (Sunny) Sundblom, at the time considered the dean of American illustrators. He took Terpning on as an apprentice for thirty-five dollars a week.
After five years he moved to Milwaukee, where for three years he painted such subjects as farmers on tractors. Deciding it was finally time for New York, he signed on with Stephens Bionde de Chicco. There for five years he learned to simplify and to work quickly without sacrificing quality. Striking out on his own then, he painted seven days a week, often thirteen hours a day. He averaged eight illustrations a month, a pace that today makes him wonder how he managed.
In 1967 he accepted an invitation from the Marine Corps to document Vietnam War scenes as a civilian combat artist. Given a temporary rank of major to allow him relative freedom of movement, he spent a month in Vietnam. Though his weapons were a camera, sketchbook, and pencils, his Marine experience led the combat troops into taking him out on patrols, where they engaged in two firefights with the Viet Cong, and flying him in a medivac helicopter behind the lines to pick up the wounded.
Out of that harrowing experience came six paintings now displayed in the Marine Corps Museum in Washington, D.C. Out of it also came something else: a much-diminished regard for material things and a heightened empathy with distressed and deprived people. That empathy would later carry over with much effect into his paintings of the Plains Indians.
In all, he worked prolifically as a commercial artist for twenty-five years, seventeen of them in New York City. Besides advertising art, he illustrated stories and articles for such publications as McCall's, Ladies' Home Journal, Reader's Digest, Good Housekeeping, Newsweek, and Time. He painted more than eighty movie posters, starting with The Guns of Navarone. They include Doctor Zhivago and a reissue of Gone With the Wind. One of his favorites is a poster for The Sound of Music.
He became restless, however. Though financially rewarding, the commercial work was no longer satisfying to him as an artist. To meet his creative urge for something more permanent, he began painting portraits for his own pleasure. Among the first was Sioux Chief Gall, done for his daughter Susan.
In the summer of 1974, at age forty-seven, he took a couple of months off from his commercial work and finished three easel paintings on speculation and hope. The feeling of freedom, of painting what he wanted instead of commissioned pieces, work done to order, made that summer one of the most satisfying of his life as an artist. He sent the canvases to Troy's Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, which sold them in January 1975. That was a turning point. Gradually he reduced his commercial accounts, accepting fewer assignments. Born in Oak Park, Illinois, and educated at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the American Academy of Art, Terpning went the apprentice route to work his way to New York and commercial illustration. Having built a successful career in advertising illustration, he gave it up in 1976 and moved to Tucson to become a western painter, and in just a few years he won the respect and admiration of his peers, and a vast following for his works. In 1976, he walked away from a successful illustration career to pursue his dream of chronicling the Native American people. Within two short years he became one of the giants in his field.
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