I could watch him work for hours. I was an early teen and Elmer Lehnhardt was near retirement but he patiently allowed me hang around his studio which was across the street from my childhood home.
I owned one of those tin lunch boxes with Adam-12 TV show cops on it. I kinda took it for granted that the illustration on the box was painstakingly produced by an artist. I took it for granted until Mr. Lehnhardt showed me what he was working on. He was painting the artwork for a Dr. Dolittle lunchbox. The most intriguing was the accompanying thermos art that wrapped around the cylinder. Just the fact that he'd know how to make the art fit around it stunned me. Plus that was the most beautiful painting in the group. He did art for The Land of Giants, the Osmonds and several others.
Mr. Lehnhardt was very gracious. He'd critique some of my drawings and doodles. He'd also share some of his best tricks.
One day I traipsed past his wife into his studio to find myself in McDonald Land. There was a mural taking up most of the room with Ronald, the Hamburglar, the Fry Guys, and even Grimace. There was a restaurant, paths and bridges and a stream of what I assume was Coke. I never knew these characters could be so real. There was one funny thing. A string hung from a nail near the middle of the mural. With that Elmer proceeded to explain the principles of vanishing points to create the illusion of 3D. That nail was his vanishing point. That nail contributed to the realism of the painting.
One day I found Mr. Lehnhardt working on an oil portrait of a woman and her dog. Dr. Dolittle was great but this was brilliant. Again he helped me understand why by answering my questions. He had a mirror mounted on the wall behind him and facing the painting on its easel. I asked him what the mirror was doing on the wall because it looked out of place. He'd positioned it specifically in that place to check his work as he went along. "You see", he told me, "the brain gets accustom to seeing an image in one way and can't tell if there is something wrong or out of proportion". Looking in the mirror at the painting every now and then reset the brain's perception of the painting and allowed him to see the art with fresh eyes. If it wasn't pleasing or looked out of whack he could correct the problem right away.
The mirror trick helped me understand something of the brilliance in that portrait but not completely. The thing was just perfect. I knew the woman and the portrait was that woman but it didn't look like a photo. You know, some portrait artists and illustrators go for the perfect photo-like look. This painting was so much better than a photo. Elmer explained. For the face he used a small brush to create great detail and focus. As paint got further and further from her face he started using progressively larger brushes and simpler strokes. The outer edge wasn't messy. It was just less developed.
The best advice Elmer Lehnhardt gave me for my art but also for life was to stop painting when the painting is done. He died before I took my first commercial art class in high school. I will always remember the lessons he taught me and be grateful for Elmer Lehnhardt.