Ron Adair: Art on a Postage Stamp

Article by Peter Burton

Local Artists – December 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

“Every time I drove from Buenie back to Dallas, it got harder and harder. ”

This is how Ron Adair, postage stamp designer, expressed his answer to my question: What caused you to move here? We were sitting in Ron’s office-studio in Buena Vista.

I assume most people have their favorite art, whether it be to hang on the wall or to slap on an envelope. Those who exclusively utilize a postage meter lose out on the intricacy of a well-designed postage stamp.

I was curious what got Ron and his family to move to this area, and also into stamp design. The latter was answered easily.

“I’ve been drawing all my life. My twin brother, Don, and I started with pencils before we could even write. We both drew every chance we got. We taught each other; when I learned something new, Don copied me soon after, and vice versa.

“One day in 1979, I was standing in line in the post office in Richardson, Texas, and noticed all of the art work. I thought, `Gosh, I can do this work,’ sent some samples of my illustrations, and three months later I got my first call. ”

Ron and twin Don have been in friendly competition since early-on. “Don learned to draw the Lone Ranger head-on in the second grade; that’s tough, drawing from the front — the side is easy. I put my pencils away for six months in frustration.”

Ron has now designed five stamps, Don two. The competition continues, friendly and loving. “Don did his first stamp in 1986. I was submitting for a commemorative for the 150th birthday of Texas’ independence, and the competition was open to anyone. I convinced Don to try a couple [of designs] and he won!

“The two of us were recognized that year as the first brothers to have designed stamps. There have been father-daughter, father-son, and others, but never brothers, let alone twins. We were featured on NBC, CNN, Paul Harvey, all three Dallas affiliates. They flew us back to Washington for the celebration. ”

That wasn’t the first first for the Adair twins. On the day they were born, three other sets of twins were also born in the same Tulsa, Oklahoma, hospital. That was a first, also. Don, though, stayed in Texas, and now lives in Arlington.

As Ron tells it, Don is the stronger designer, Ron the more refined, with a stronger use of color. Don says he has looser, more open line-work. He also admits to better design. “And Ron ranks right up there with the top half-dozen in the country for pencil renditions; he’s great.”

According to Judy Banning at the Buena Vista Post Office, individuals look for different things in stamps. “Here, people seem to like more scenery, or the buffalo soldier or Indian dancer. In the metro areas, they tend toward notable people, such as James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. The people here know about Ron, too; they look for his stamps.”

Some postage stamps are purely functional. These include the generics used when postage is increased (when did you last see a decrease?). Their only purpose is to be available the instant the increase is announced.

And others are true works of art. These are what Adair designs. For example, John Hanson was the first President of the United States, under the Articles of Confederation. (George Washington was first President of the United States under the Constitution). Ron painted the original rendition for the stamp in water colors. It’s an excellent likeness.

The subject of another design was quite stern and austere looking. He was asked to enhance her looks without losing the likeness. He did so and the stamp was well accepted.

There are two primary stamp renditions. The first is a water painting, such as that of President Hanson created by Adair. This is straightforward art, applied to stamp design. The stamp is printed from a photograph of the painting.

A bit different, more difficult and potentially disconcerting, is an engraving design. Ron’s rendering is five times the size of the ultimate stamp, which makes it quite small. After his artwork is approved, an engraver tries to match Ron’s rendition on the engraving plate.

This is where the designer hopes the engraver does an accurate job. With Ron’s presentation of Margaret Mit chell, author of Gone with the Wind, the engraver changed her mouth slightly, causing Mitchell to look more severe than Ron’s perception and drawing of her.

After Ron receives the call requesting a design, he follows a clear process. “I research the subject and doodle for about 2 weeks. In that time, I’ll come up with two or three pencil drawings I submit. The Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee decides which it likes, and then I take another week to complete my part with a final rendition. From there, it can take anywhere from four months to several years for a stamp to be issued.”

Two years ago, Ron completed a design, and was paid for his work. The stamp still has not been issued. According to Postal Service authorities, there’s often quite a lag time when the stamp is a large denomination, as Ron’s is, and they’re waiting for a specific event to occur.

The Arkansas River Valley isn’t a hot-bed of design and illustration activity. Ron supplements his stamp design with computer design for brochures and other business purposes, classes and private lessons, and special illustrations. Both twins find the latter of high interest, with sports situations a favorite. Ron particularly enjoys baseball and football, and has worked with the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Cowboys.

Ron’s favorite sports commission was the poster for the inauguration of Brooks Robinson into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He spent time with Robinson in Baltimore where the latter had played third base for that town’s Orioles. “That man can not just play baseball — he could have made it at anything. He really is a class act. ”

Don fondly remembers a recent joint commission for a collaborative effort. Each was asked to produce 100 paintings apiece, over a four-year period, to commemorate the 200-year philatelic history of the United States. “We just went down the list and took every other subject,” said Don. “I got Custer’s Last Stand. That led me to something I enjoy a great deal, the research. I go back and read my history books again, to determine, `Why was this important?’ It’s intriguing.”

Ron Adair received high marks from Vernon Rutherford, a local philatelist who has been collecting stamps for over 40 years. “It’s great to have him in the local area. He’s done some unique designs just for us, out of the goodness of his heart. He’s a special man.”

A local writer, Peter Burton focuses on items of general human interest. He has published in such diverse areas as psychology, management, four-wheel-drive exploration, spirituality, and cooking. He is currently working on his third book, and writing for the Mountain Independence in Lake George.