Uncovering the Roots of the Illustrated Decorative Poster

Illustrated decorative poster depicting the profile of a daydreaming woodsman set amid a billowing foliage of herbal leaves.
Know Your Herbs (2021)

Uncovering the Roots of the Illustrated Decorative Poster

Originally intended for outdoor publicity, the decorative poster soon began appearing in people’s homes and offices. Dating back to the beginnings of the modern commercial poster, this deliberate repurposing for interior decor has been with us ever since.

Recognising there was a willingness to display them inside the home, commercial poster pioneer Jules Cheret (1836–1932) prepared runs of ‘avant la littre’ proofs; artwork without lettering. Cheret was a trained lithographer able to paint directly to each of the stone plates that offset colour to the paper. Astutely, he chose to keep the typographic layer separate. Without the commercial text that deterred bygone poster collectors, art proofs became collectible items. Before long they were hung alongside paintings and engravings in the study, drawing room, and dining room. Value was rightly attributed to illustrated decorative posters as artistic works in their own right. This would soon lead to exhibitions and magazines dedicated to these accessible lithographic prints.

Commercial art forked in the 1960s. In time fewer commercial posters were undertaken by illustrators, as the explicitness of graphic design would prove more apt in meeting advertising needs. Whereas the particular style offered by an illustrator was their stock-in-trade, graphic designers provided anonymous messaging for commercial effectiveness. With time studio hierarchisation saw illustrators becoming widely regarded as outside freelancers. Now, more often than not, they are hired to lend their style to project responses that have already been conceived.

Crafted by Hand

As many contemporary designers and collectors look toward works from the past, a renewed appreciation has arisen for the integrated visuals made by commercial artists. To be clear, these are works that predate desktop publishing, and needed to be crafted manually. Specific instruction was also given as to how reproduction ought to be carried out. The expansive role of the bygone poster designer often meant suggesting what written copy might accompany the image. This is exemplified by the characterful posters of the late Milton Glaser (1929–2020). Commercial posters of the past did not emerge from an agency pipeline. They were created from the direct business relationships between commercial artist and their clients.

Illustrated Visual Communication for the Online World

A spectacled character with a back-turned cap holds up a giant computer pointer, arguably the most active icon in visual communication online.
Leftclick (2022)

Illustrated Visual Communication for the Online World

As a means of conveying messages and ideas, illustration has long been central to visual communication. At the turn of the c. 20th, the surge in American and European print-based publishing incubated what became commercial illustration. Today however, the primary medium in which illustrated works exist is not one of mechanical reproduction, but rather the various interfaces of the mediasphere.

When online, images exist as data, irrespective of how they were created. The desktop monitors that display images have, since 2008, been joined by the touchscreens of mobile devices. As a result we are continuously surrounded by web images. Without the inherent stability of print, artwork now dwells in a medium where scale and dimensions are subject to flux. In addition, the ever-wider adoption of broadband has made possible the use of motion in otherwise static illustrated images. As the internet has matured into web2, the place where many first encounter images is not at the url where they are published. Instead, the initial contact with images happens on search engine result pages, and the scrolling feeds of social networks.

Digital Symbols

In 2022 global internet usage stands at around two thirds of the world’s population. To navigate web2 presumes user familiarity with digital symbols. Many of these are provided freely by Google, and are considered a standard convention for desktop and mobile use. The global community recognises these recurring internet symbols and can infer what is meant when they appear in software interfaces. Given our growing fluency with digital symbols, it is clear why they appear in illustrated content, particularly digital product illustration which can be seen on user-facing apps and websites. By definition, illustration must communicate something particular, and these symbols are a way to speak in the language of today’s internet. Historically, changes in print reproduction have affected the commercial art field. Similarly, the evolving web is almost certain to influence the production of illustrated images, and how onlookers interact with visual works.

Hear and Now: Charting the Event Poster

With an oboe held diagonally across her body, a young girl in a long red dress is poised to play. Illustrated poster artwork for World Music Day.
Hear and Now. Event Poster (2021)

Hear and Now: Charting the Event Poster

The need to publicise cultural events has long given call for the event poster. Many of the most revered posters have been created for this reason. Commercial artists were tasked with making the onlooker aware of what shall soon be taking place. Bearing on the way posters looked was not only the knowhow of the hired artists, but also the societal milieu where their work would be seen. And though posters did not command the same prestige afforded to painterly art, when advertisers realised the potential of the poster, a reliable market for artists did emerge.

Still Recognisable

Since the dawn of the modern illustrated poster there have been countless depictions of young women. Among the early entrants are those in the works of Jules Cheret, who harnessed the opportunities brought forth by colour lithography. Similar contributions were made by Alphons Mucha, and Adolfo Hohenstein. In the early 20th century poster design became less ornate, affecting both image and typography. Many norms of contemporary posters can be traced back to works belonging to this period. Today there is broad agreement that images ought to be legible at a glance, with ample ‘air’ for all the visual elements to breath. This is exemplified by the Sachplakat of Lucian Bernhard. To the same end, typography that leaves no room for ambiguity is advantageous.

Advertisers recognised the value that event posters brought to publicising performances of theatre, cabaret, opera, film screenings, exhibitions, live music, and festivals. This, along with the promotion of purchasable goods and services, formed a lucrative market for many poster illustrators. Those most successful images were not made to be studied, but rather were eye-catching and persuasive. These visual works appeared on morris columns and alongside walkways in major cities worldwide. Posters later fell under the remit of advertising agencies, where they were considered a part of larger marketing campaigns. Graphic design and photographic realism would soon usurp the position held by the illustrated poster within the printed commercial sphere, a medium which would later be dwarfed by the internet. Any illustrated festival poster is now obliged to exist in print alongside visuals optimised for mobile screens.

The Affect Digital Drawing has Made on Contemporary Illustration

With a chisel-tip marker, a young girl pulls a line of red ink across the surface of an A4 drawing pad.
Workspace. Drawing Pad Cover (2022)

The Affect Digital Drawing has Made on Contemporary Illustration

Though traditional drawing techniques are far from obsolete, digital drawing has seen a marked rise in the last decade. Aside from spurring demand for software, this is contributing to the market growth of Digital Drawing Tablets. Standing at over 710 million USD in 2021, the global market value is predicted to rise at a compound annual rate of over 7.5% going into 2028. Global growth is also forecast for the traditional art supplies market. However, those who draw digitally do not share the same need for physical supplies. This shift in practical methods is widely accepted as part of contemporary illustration.

The Absent Matter of Digital Drawing

With physical media, visual textures often reveal how an image is made and reproduced. Notably this was foregrounded by the Ben Day paintings of Roy Lichtenstein. Working digitally, a draftsman can make images that are void of textures, or emulate the concrete traits that are otherwise absent. What is more, digital methods have replaced physical originals with files that can be edited ad infinitum. This is a marked advantage whenever commercial assignments are subject to review.

Digital drawing replicates mark-making by way of software algorithms. To paraphrase digital culture theorist, Lev Manovich, the simulation of a medium means to simulate its tools and interfaces. As more than one medium is present in user software, the affordances of digital workspaces expand what draftsmen can do. This industry-standard software is available to professional and amateur users alike. This has removed a major barrier to entry in a global labour pool that is being flattened by access to broadband.

In spite of this transition, what have remained consistent are the competences that predict a successful drawing, which can be applied to paper or digital. When depicting pictorial subjects, a draftsman’s technique bears upon the fundamentals of volume, composition, light, and colour, to mention a few. The means chosen to prepare images are, in essence, part of the cumulative know-how of a draftsman’s repertoire.

Extra Salty Whoppers About the Importance of UK Fishing

A giant fish is cradled by an astonished fisherman.
Extra Salty (2021)

Extra Salty Whoppers About the Importance of UK Fishing

The following is an except from a Guardian article by Poly Tonybee, the author of ‘Dismembered: How the Conservative Attack on the State Harms Us All’.

Does it matter? The fishing industry is worth less than 0.5% of GDP. They rightly fear this pinprick to the economy will be traded for bigger prizes – finance, cars, pharma, airline routes. Why else, they ask, is the government’s fisheries white paper delayed time and again? Thirteen Rees-Moggites and one DUP MP swear they’ll vote down any deal unless the UK breaks from the CFP. As these hard Brexiteers want no deal anyway, fishing is their perfect pretext, though no deal would be the fishermen’s apocalypse.

Poly Tonybee – The Guardian 2018

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