Inspiration Source: Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Kit

Yesterday, illustrator Mark Zingarelli posted a few photos and memories on Facebook about Jon Gnagy, and his famous (to me, anyway) "Learn to Draw Kit". Now, I'm one of those people who's saved as much as possible from childhood, but even though I was a proud owner of The Kit from a young age, I can't remember having it in my possession past my early twenties. I'd nearly forgotten it - or at least, I haven't thought about it in many years, and that's a shame because it really was a big part of my youthful desire to be an artist.

My grandfather gave me the Learn to Draw Kit sometime in the mid-70's, when I was around five or six. He was an artist (and a barber, and an amateur inventor), and as the only real-life artist I knew at that age, he was my idol. My grandparents lived with us, so there was rarely I day when I wouldn't run downstairs and beg my grandfather to draw and paint for me. Usually I'd succeed - I was a pretty cute kid, plus I threw a mean temper tantrum when I didn't get my way. Having been formally trained as an artist, I'm sure my grandfather wasn't enthralled at the prospect of recreating a certain Spider-Man image from one of my comics, for example - but, following the rule of grandparents spoiling their grandchildren, he gave in every time.

My memories of the actual kit (which contained drawing tools plus a lesson book) are a little vague, though the more I read and see about Jon Gnagy now, the more memories come flooding back. I do remember his lesson on drawing the core shapes (shown on the kit's box cover - cone, sphere, cube and cylinder) and how he claimed they were the foundation for all real-world objects, though I think I doubted this fact - or, at least, sought out exceptions ("What about The Blob, Jon, huh?! Didn't think of that one, did you?!")

The Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Kit, in one of its many incarnations.

I don't think I actually gave much of a shot to the lessons themselves - I enjoyed reading the book and experimenting with the pencils, charcoals, erasers and blending stumps (what a term) on my own, but from what I recall I was too stubborn to go through Jon's step-by-step process to create a scene. I was probably too easily discouraged when my pieces didn't turn out exactly like the final results in the book. I remember the writing having a simple, straightforward style that I liked. Jon's targeted audience was broad - he wasn't aiming at artists, or even just people who'd considered being an artist. Jon seemed to be reaching out to people who simply believed, "I can't draw", giving them the opportunity to push themselves and to enjoy the activity of art.

And this open attitude comes across in all his television art lessons. You know, it probably said something about Jon having a TV show on the box, but I was oblivious to that fact until yesterday. Silly me. That's how his drawing kit became so popular - it was an offshoot of his successful show. Since the show began in the 50's (and was shot in black and white), I doubt it aired much when I was a kid in the 70's, but it's great to be able to check it out now. I can easily see the appeal - Jon's voice was not what I imagined; he was casual and yet authoritative. I should have expected as much, based on the stylish portrait of Jon that adorned the kit's cover:

Gnagy the badass.

Now that I have more perspective on the man, he seems like the Jack London of art teachers. I wish I could have watched Jon's show back when I was starting to draw - besides the benefit of the actual lessons, it would have been nice just to see and hear this guy who was a working artist. Hmmm... I wonder if that would have conflicted with my image of my grandfather - maybe I'd have invited Jon over and had them both battle on paper in an intense "draw-out". Or maybe they'd have just punched each other around a little.

Check out Jon's Seaport Village lesson.

And apparently the kits are still being produced - a full sixty years after their inception. What a testament to the man. Looks like it's time for me to take another trip down childhood memory lane via eBay. With that and the lessons on YouTube, I'll be set.


  1. My wife Polly is Jon Gnagy's daughter, and we have maintained the webpage on his life and work since 1996. We very much appreciated your tribute to him on your webpage/blog, and I hope you don't mind if I posted a link to it.

    I have been updating the Jon Gnagy page. The original site was done in early HTML, and it is pretty basic. I guess it was when someone wrote, "stupidest and ugliest webpage ever," that I decided it was time to start over!

    Using iWeb and some things I've learned over the years, we now have a new site but with the same address. It is also posted at

    One of the pages lists a number of blogs, including yours.

    I assume that it's okay to post your link. Thanks for your good words about Jon.

    Thaddeus Seymour
    Winter Park, FL

  2. Great to hear from you, Thaddeus! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I vaguely remember the previous version of the site - the updated version does look much cleaner. I'm going to have to fully check it out. Thank you for the link on the Blogs page as well - that was very generous. I forgot that the kits were still available - I'm going to order one for my son, for when he's a little older.

    Best of luck with the updated site, and thanks again for getting in touch!