How Playboy Influenced My Artwork

Digital illustration of a woman on her back smoking a cigar and she blows a plume of Art Deco Style smoke.
“Exhale” Digital Illustration by Melissa Whitaker

Why should I be ashamed to describe what nature was not ashamed to create? (Pietro Aretino)

For the past several weeks I have questioned everything I was taught and everything that influenced who I am today and one of the main things taught was to suppress who I was to please others. What did I learn? I was not good enough and people would not like me for who I truly was. (That is truly F***** up).

So I called a friend and he asked me, “Your artwork is so diverse from childhood innocence to fantasy to sexuality, what is the story? Where does all this come from?”

As shocking as it may seem to some people, the following is what influenced my art and who I am.

My father was a Lt. Commander in the Navy, so my early formative years were spent in several different regions of the United States before he retired and the family settled in rural Southeast Missouri (town population at the time was 181). I walked into my 3rd-grade classroom and said, “What? You don’t get out for Rosh Hashanah?” and I never fit in after that. Life in a small rural town was NOT easy. I had 2 places to go where I felt most comfortable and most like me. One was Art class and the second was the chicken house at home.

My family was a bit different from the other families in town. Besides my grandparents, we did not have any other relations in the area. We came from New Jersey, which to them was another planet. We had an actual bar made from monkey pod in our living room and it even had bar glasses and alcohol stored inside. We did not go to church on Sundays and my father received The Wall Street Journal and Playboy magazine in the mail. We were definitely not like the others. We did raise cattle, build fences, and bale hay every summer just like everyone else, but even that seemed a little foreign.

My father always kept a Playboy magazine on the coffee table or by his chair. He never tried to hide it and he never threw them away. They eventually all went into cardboard boxes and placed in the dilapidated chicken house for safekeeping. (We never had the chickens, only the house).

“But Playboy was liberating. I was drawn to it and went full throttle.” ~LeRoy Neiman

I would often go hide in the chicken house when I had a bad day at school, which was quite often, and I would go through the stack of Playboys. My father had them all, even the first edition from December 1953. I would sit on one pile of playboys as I pulled one from another stack and I always started from the back of the magazine and worked my way to the front cover.

Art Paul laid out the magazine in a way that most of the cartoons were to the back of the magazine.

It was not nude photography in the magazines that I enjoyed. It was the design and artwork. Something so different from the world around me. I could literally escape into another dimension. It was the world of Art Paul, graphic designer and art director of Playboy magazine.

He had an intriguing way of hiding the Playboy Bunny icon somewhere on each cover. Sometimes it was very obvious and other times a very small highlight on a champagne bottle. The point of it was to make the search of it a game and to make the mind work to find it. The layout of the magazine itself was often an adventure with “participatory graphics” that might have cutouts to expose the page underneath creating artworks that could go from one image and change into 3 images (2 separate images that when overlapped made a 3rd), or pop-ups and of course he made the Centerfold.

The magazine started with a game on the cover, then the forum, slowly the artwork would begin to appear. It might be LeRoy Neiman, Olivia De Berardinis, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Patrick Nagel, Mel Odom, or Alberto Vargas. A smorgasbord of talent. For me, the beauty and artwork started about a quarter way through the magazine and increased with intensity until you got to the interview section, and then it would get serious. The interviews would be John Lennon, Jimmy Carter, Bette Davis, Ayn Rand, or Miles Davis and countless others who would open my mind to new ideas (Yes, I read the interviews). At about the interview section Art Paul would begin inserting more comics into the magazine, a kind of light-hearted laughter to leave with the reader until the next edition arrived in the mailbox. A post-coital cigarette so to speak. Each magazine was a trip down a rabbit hole.

The years went by, the Playboy’s became fodder for mice and Marilyn Monroe’s pictures became water-stained, and my first date showed up at the door wearing a Playboy Bunny T-shirt. (To this day I find that coincidence very peculiar. Of all my boyfriends, he was my father’s favorite). That guy accepted my family for the way we were and did not ask for us to change. He respected me and my wishes and left me a virgin at 15 and then broke off the relationship.

When my friend asked me the question, where does it all come from, my mind immediately went to Playboy. The childhood innocence leaving as a new discovery is found, the fantasy of the imagination wanting to escape in to other worlds, and the sexuality of the female body. My parents did not try to hide the magazines from us. They raised us to believe that the human body was beautiful in all it’s shapes and forms and that sex can be beautiful, enjoyable and even an escape at times. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Some may argue that Playboy objectified women. I think it’s more of the opposite. It always gave me a sense of empowerment and knowledge. It opened my mind to the world. I enjoy figurative illustration and thanks to Playboys’ comics by Doug Sneyd, Gahan Wilson, Roy Raymonde, and Robert Brown I learned a little about how to inject a bit of humor in to my art. The illustrations of Shel Silverstein made me a life long fan of his work and the way he could portray childhood innocence.

Playboy is where I learned about LeRoy Neiman, Andy Warhol, Alberto Vargas, and Charles Bragg. It also introduced me to women artists like Olivia De Berardinis, Christina Ramberg, and Elizabeth Bennett and showed me that Art wasn’t just a man’s world any more.

The mighty Hugh Hefner passed away September 27, 2017 and Art Paul soon after on April 28, 2018. The chicken house fell down years ago and in March 2020 Playboy announced that they were going full on digital starting with the Spring 2020 issue. Does this mean that the art of Playboy may be gone? nah….it’s just entering a new frontier.

Artist | Illustrator | Photographer Writing about art, life, inspiration, and the journey of self-discovery. https://melissawhitakerart.com

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