The Art of the Illustrator

Page 2

 Chris Fauver, 2012  

The story of illustration—like those of photography, film, television, and recorded music—is largely one of advancing technology and methods of dissemination and the ways in which creative individuals have made use of them. Although book and magazine illustration were a familiar element of American publishing in the mid-nineteenth century, they were not yet the dominant cultural force they would later become. At that time the only practical method of mass reproduction was wood engraving. Highly skilled engravers copied and interpreted the works of illustrators by delicately hand-carving blocks of boxwood. Black-and-white engravings of this type decorated the pages of a handful of popular but rather sedate magazines, notably Harper’s Monthly and Scribner’s. Despite the technical limitations of wood engraving, such artists as A. B. Frost, Edwin Austin Abbey, and Howard Pyle set standards of professionalism and artistry that would challenge their successors.

Had advances in printing technology ended in 1880, illustration would never have become a true mass medium. The engraving technique was limited tonally, the look was monotonous, and the blocks of wood yielded only a limited number of impressions. However, in 1881 American photographer and inventor Frederic Eugene Ives patented the halftone photoengraving process, which made possible the reproduction of the illustrator’s work more or less as it appeared in the original. [3] Although the first halftones were limited to black and white and were often indistinct, this new technique was revolutionary. It brought each illustrator’s definitive style to the fore and resulted in works of greater subtlety and ambition than the graphic arts had known previously. While the halftone cost many talented engravers their jobs, it also encouraged illustrators to become painters. Pyle’s Walking the Plank and Frost’s The Circus are excellent examples of what early illustrators were able to accomplish despite being limited to working in black and white. Development of the four-color process in the 1890s permitted the first use of a full range of color in books and magazines reproduced in large quantities. Although color printing was initially expensive and unpredictable, by 1905 it had become well established.

The growing feasibility and affordability of color printing was but one of several factors that combined in the late nineteenth century to spark an explosion in the number of magazines published as well as the quantity printed. There was a large, literate audience for these publications. An 1879 act of Congress established a discounted postal rate for periodicals. Rapid urbanization had swelled the population of American cities, putting many more people in close proximity to newsstands.

Although this last factor may seem trivial, it was the newsstand that made the illustrator the most important person in publishing. The magazines of the nineteenth century were small in size, staid, and pricey. Subscriptions were their chief source of revenue, and advertisements were relegated to a separate section at the back. Although the magazines of the early twentieth century also competed for subscribers, they depended more on advertising for revenue. Given the glut of new magazines, market share became all-important. The various magazines battled for supremacy at the newsstand, with cover prices plummeting from a quarter to a dime—or even a nickel!

The decision whether to subscribe to a magazine may be a considered one, but the decision to buy a magazine at a newsstand is driven in large part by the picture on the cover. As a result, covers became more colorful, were more skillfully painted, and stressed action, sex, and sentiment. The fight for attention amid the visual clamor of the newsstand favored simple and graphically arresting designs. Thus, golden age magazine covers—unlike the interior illustrations—were closer in appearance to posters than to academic paintings. Many of the early cover artists had initially made their reputations as poster artists during the American poster renaissance of the 1890s.

J. C. Leyendecker’s First Airplane Ride and Sarah Stilwell’s Lady with Leopards are excellent examples of boldly rendered magazine covers dating from the first decade of the last century. The former features a pretty girl, a handsome stiff, and a nifty piece of machinery—all suffused with the theme of romance. The couple is rich, attractive, and carefree. The illustration is glib, shallow, and spectacularly executed. Lady with Leopards is subtler but equally eye-catching. The woman, who is enticing, shares the spotlight with exotic animals—another favorite cover subject. Both paintings are "quick reads"—images that are easy to take in all at once. Outlining is used for graphic emphasis, and there are no backgrounds to distract the eye from the central images.

Whereas the magazine covers tended to be light, the fiction within resembled today’s soap operas. The high-minded commentary and morality tale common in the nineteenth century increasingly gave way to melodrama.  Story illustrations in the 1910s and 1920s were as emotionally overwrought as the images in silent films of the same era. [4] Dean Cornwell was unquestionably the master of sophisticated melodrama. His illustrations for soap-operatic pot-boilers like Find the Woman and The Way Home capture the air of repressed hysteria that was popular in magazines like Cosmopolitan. For hysteria that is less repressed, there is Harvey Dunn’s Rich and Strange.

[3] Halftone photographs are made up of tiny dots. Variations in the size and spacing of the dots can create the illusion of a full range of grays using only black ink or of a full palette of colors using only four colors of ink.
[4] Illustration preceded cinema as a mass medium and it would be wrong to assume that early illustrators were copying the imagery of films. Movies became popular in a culture in which illustrators had already established the iconography of popular storytelling. During the 1910s and 1920s, the two media influenced each other, and both owed an immense debt to late-nineteenth-century European academic and salon painting. By the 1930s, however, it was fair to say that film had become the predominant visual medium. That said, however, From Errol Flynn's Robin Hood (1938) to Star Wars to Pirates of the Caribbean the iconography first established in illustration is indispensible.



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