Sketching a portrait of Anthony Ravielli, the man who drew Ben Hogan
Words by Michael CroleyPhotos by Anthony Ravielli, Brian McGrath
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Anthony Ravielli is impervious to Google. Whatever one may find via the search engine’s advanced algorithm is nearly as spare as the genre of artwork he made so popular. Don’t even bother with Siri or Alexa. Ravielli search results are, of course, dominated by his work with Ben Hogan, which first appeared in serialized form in the pages of Sports Illustrated in the 1950s, but there’s precious little about the man himself. When the iconic Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf was released in 1957, the drawings Ravielli created of the Hawk became as indelible in the minds of millions of golfers as their first purely struck iron. Page after page of the groundbreaking book is, in many ways, dominated not by Hogan’s instruction but by the images of his hands, taut yet supple on the club, his ivy cap shading his eyes and his machine-like swing brought to life by the stunning scratchboard technique of Ravielli. The attention to detail and photorealistic quality is so striking that those images find resonance even in the digital blue hues of our smartphones and tablets today. More clicking leads to more frustrating cul-de-sacs: 300 words from a website dedicated to Italian Harlem about the local kid who made good in the world of illustrations; a website loaded with Ravielli’s original photos from his session with Hogan; an instruction site that says Ravielli got the anatomy wrong (he probably didn’t). The power of books is that they live on long after their authors have passed, but 60 years after the publication of Five Lessons, the man who created some of the game’s most significant and lasting images of the swing, whose drawings made this difficult game appear as simple as swinging in a barrel, holding a dining tray and, yes, keeping the club under a pane of glass, is a ghost.
Who was this man who had such a massive impact on the game? Millions have attempted to bring his sketches to life on the course, but not many of them know the artist himself. Upon his death in 1997, a three-paragraph obituary in The New York Times became yet another head-shaking dead end. Among his accomplishments, the article says, “His illustrations appeared in more than 100 books, including ‘The Relativity Explosion’ by Martin Gardner and ‘Men, Microscopes and Living Things’ by Katherine B. Shippen. His own books for children include ‘Elephants: The Last of the Land Giants’ and ‘Wonders of the Human Body.’” Five Lessons is never mentioned.
“As he improves, the average golfer will enjoy the game more and more, for a correct swing will enable him to rediscover golf—in fact, to discover golf for the first time.…The strategy implicit on every good golf hole will appeal to him, not befuddle him. He’ll understand the reason why that tree is standing along the left edge of the fairway. He’ll see why the trap edges into the opening to the green. He’ll see why the fairway narrows where it does.” Or so Hogan says. But that seemingly simple, sage advice goes to the heart of one of the mysteries of the game: Not only are our swings rarely repeatable or reliable, but golf is the lone sport that has no regulations on the dimension of its playing field beyond the size of the cup we putt into. In golf you’re not competing just against yourself, as is often said, but against the imagination of a designer and the challenges he has laid down in the landscape before you. We are surrounded by invisible worlds of creation from the golf course to the cars we drive to the chairs we sit in. Only a handful of people change their industries: Herman Miller, Ferdinand Porsche, Tom Doak.
Even fewer transcend them. Though he worked in advertising, helped illustrate medical textbooks with world-renowned doctors and authored those children’s books, Ravielli, the man, remains a mystery even in an era when information lives less than a second from our fingertips.
But once the thread of his life is found and the fabric begins to unravel, it becomes clear that Ravielli was a quiet, humble man who more than anything wanted to get every image as correct and lifelike as possible. Ravielli loved his work and likely never even considered the notoriety available to him.
According to Curt Sampson’s book Hogan, Ravielli never lobbied for the assignment of Five Lessons. When Sports Illustrated took on the production of the book, managing editor Sidney James simply tapped his famous golf writer Herbert Warren Wind for the words and Ravielli for the artwork. This sparked a now-legendary trip to Texas where Wind, Ravielli and Hogan gathered at Shady Oaks to collaborate on what would become the book. No known notes of his sessions with Hogan exist, but Ravielli took a series of photographs and began his sketches immediately. “Ravielli was really the key player,” Wind says in Sampson’s book. “Hogan looked at Tony’s roughs—which he did in pencil—and said, ‘My God, Tony, I’ve never seen anything like this. We’ve really got something here.’”
What gave it that special something was his scratchboard genre, which is perhaps best understood through calligraphy. In that writing style, characters are created by both the angle of the nib and the pressure applied. Scratchboard has changed over the years—nearly everyone does it digitally now—but when Ravielli employed it, he painted a large blot of black ink onto a white piece of heavy scratchboard. Then, using various-size engraving tools as well as pressure, he scratched out each line to achieve his desired fineness until the image began to take shape. The result is that his drawings still pop off the page and hold the viewer in their awesome attention to detail.
The final images Ravielli created for Five Lessons are memorable, in part, because his illustrations were so interpretive. There is that famous pane of glass, but there is also the pair of orange motors inside of Hogan, illustrating the engines of the golf swing, and the club shaped like a lightning bolt extended from the hands. In some cases, Ravielli peeled back the skin to show us the red muscles of the body engaged in the actions of grip, stance and posture. Then there is the shading of the individual figures, that distinctive look of Ravielli’s that became a marker of his work. In an era of high-speed video and photography, where you can control the rate of the frame with your index finger on your favorite app, simple illustrations on white paper with black ink might seem too analog to capture any swing, much less one that accounted for nine major championships. In many ways, though, Ravielli’s style plays into the heart of instruction: By stripping away all distractions, he pulls our eyes to exactly where Hogan wanted us to concentrate.
Take those images of Hogan’s hands. The sparse drawings on each page are intentional. “His use of negative space really stands out,” says Tommy White, adjunct assistant professor in the School of Visual Arts at Columbia University. “I like what he leaves out—the grip being flat, for example.”
The result of this technique is that Ravielli allows us to zoom in on the Hawk’s hands, the index and pinky fingers extended to show the pressure. White also notes the way he eliminates the shaft and club head in pictures. That adds to his use of negative space, but more importantly it keeps our eyes focused on each piece of Hogan’s sequence and instruction: the grip, his formidable hands and powerful forearms. In other images, there is only the back turned away from its target and a club that seems to disappear at the top into blankness. But notice the attention of those lines, the buttons on Hogan’s pants, the shading Ravielli gives the great golfer’s forehead and the bridge of his nose from the cap. The shading even gives a hint of the hair on Hogan’s arms.
At first it might seem that those setups were also interpretive, but each drawing was painstakingly recreated from photos Ravielli took; that missing club head in the drawing is also missing in the photograph’s composition. Tom Watson, who later worked with Ravielli when he moved to Golf Digest, said, “Tony knew the golf swing. He knew the positions you were supposed to be in and understood that. He always had the angles correct and was very precise about ball position, for instance.”
Watson speculates that Ravielli must have been taught the game from his iconic subject—“Who better to learn about golf from than Ben Hogan?” he matter-of-factly asked—but Ravielli’s daughter, Ellen Ravielli-Frissell, knew her father was already hooked on the game. “My mother was a golf widow on the weekends,” she says. “He was a good player.”
She guesses he was an 8 handicap and that, because of his artistic talent and the work with Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest, he took advantage of the access he had to great golf courses. Along with Watson and Hogan, Ravielli’s roster of subjects at the magazines included World Golf Hall of Famers Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Mickey Wright and Jack Nicklaus.
Ravielli was born in 1910 and grew up on 110th Street in Harlem. “Some people call it Italian Harlem, but to me it’s just Harlem,” Ravielli-Frissell says. When he was a kid during the Depression, Ravielli’s family sat him out on the street and gave him chalk to draw with. He was clearly talented and people “threw money at him,” Ravielli-Frissell continues, having the kid busk with his pictures. He attended Straubenmuller Textile High School, then went on to The Art Students League of New York before taking classes at Cooper Union. “I’m not trying to sound pompous, but his teachers couldn’t teach him anything. He was just that gifted,” says Ravielli-Frissell.
Another powerful testament to his skill was when he was drafted into the Army during World War II. Rather than the front lines, Ravielli was assigned to Governors Island National Monument in New York, where he painted murals, including one of American Revolution–era Colonel Jonathan Williams inspecting the plans for Castle Williams that appears in the South Battery Officers’ Club.
Whether it was sports or medical journals or war heroes, Ravielli-Frissell emphasizes that her father was a perfectionist and that, no matter the medium, he needed the genuine articles in order to complete his work. When doing a cover for a skiing magazine, Olympic champion Jean-Claude Killy was asked to bring his boots. Ravielli did a book on bowling, and covers of sailing and baseball for Sports Illustrated. Later, he wrote the children’s books, including one called The World Is Round that was first published in 1963. That book featured an imagined view from the moon’s surface, with astronauts looking out at Earth. After the moon landing in 1969, Ravielli went back in and edited the book to make Earth realistic and to scale, as it was in the pictures sent from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Through it all, Ravielli-Frissell maintains, he was just a normal, hardworking guy. “I never met anyone like my father,” she says. “He was just a very genuine, nice guy, but he was very humble and he didn’t toot his own horn.” She says he studied his projects and got to know the people he worked with so that he could understand what they wanted. Nick Seitz and Guy Yocom worked with Ravielli at Golf Digest and say the same thing about his time there. “Tony’s gifts were many,” Yocom says. “He understood anatomy extremely well and had a way of imparting musculature in his drawings that suggested the golfer was stronger and more athletic than they were. Also, there are many fine artists who struggle with certain aspects—hands, feet, faces, whatever. Tony struggled with nothing and was especially amazing at doing hands.”
Ravielli was an unassuming figure, “old-fashioned,” Seitz says, “who lived for his work. He had no ego about changing approaches mid-project and carefully shot his own scrap photos, doing rough drafts for approval, and was able to come up with imagery to enhance a technical point like Hogan’s pane of glass. If he could please Hogan, then he could please anyone.”
Jerry Tarde, Golf Digest’s editor-in-chief, started as an intern at the magazine in 1977 and remembers a cover story he was writing comparing the games of Hogan, Nicklaus and Watson, which was illustrated by Ravielli throughout. “In preparing for that story, I remember Tony coming to an editorial staff meeting and showing the motion pictures he took of Hogan that he had turned into scratchboard images for his book with Hogan and Herb Wind. It was like having Abraham Zapruder personally show you his film of the Kennedy assassination.”
Yocum praised Ravielli’s instinct for the most dramatic moments. “He also chose his subjects at stages of their swings when their strength, flexibility and balance were at their peak,” he says. “Tony in his prime scaled everything with amazing accuracy, made them look their best.” When something didn’t fit his eye, no matter how hard he worked on it, he threw it out. “We had garbage men picking out pictures from the trash,” Ravielli-Frissell says.
Ravielli worked until he was 82, when a slight tremor entered his hand and he could no longer hold a pencil—a cruel fate for any artist, but especially for one who had essentially created his own genre and distinctive style with those precise lines. After he passed, the family sold most of his studio equipment, nearly 50 years’ worth of material, including 132 photographs of Ravielli’s sessions with Hogan. In those photos, you can see Hogan is wearing all white, just as he is in the book, and you can see that Ravielli’s photos are one-to-one matches in cropping, composition and style. His accuracy is uncanny. Like the subject he was tasked to bring to life on the page, he was taciturn and diligent, unconcerned with much beyond the work he did. “He worked all the time,” Ravielli-Frissell says. “That came first and we understood that. It’s what kept him alive.”
Ravielli kept his nose down and kept out of the way. He stayed in his lane quietly and without realizing it created a legacy just the same.
“When Tony visited our offices to deliver art, you could always smell his pipe tobacco before you saw him coming,” Tarde says. “He’d usually be wearing a plaid flannel shirt and corduroy pants. His spectacles were so thick, they looked like magnifying glasses. His wife would drive him to the office and she’d wait in the car. Sometimes five or 10 minutes after Tony left the art department, you’d find him wandering around the maze-like corridors trying to find his way out of the building. But we all treated him reverentially, as we should have, like the grand-master genius he was.”