Clip Art: Old Engravings and Illustrations, edited by Dick Sutphen
While thinning out my hayloft of a design library recently, I came across a dusty collection of books that had not been opened in many, many years. Yet, as I began turning the dog-eared, torn and cut-up pages, vivid memories flew out and landed on me like flies on a heifer. These books, universally known as clip art books, some edited by Dick Sutphen and many others published by Dover and Chelsea House, were once owned by almost every American illustrator, designer and art director. They found solace in these books, when an idea was needed, but their imaginations were not entirely up to the task. I know: I was certainly one of the needy ones. The engravings, drawings and assorted decorative devices that filled the voluminous volumes were more than mere mainstays of the editorial and advertising art fields — the word bible comes to mind. While “copyright free digital art” is today generally available on CD or the web, in book form these are becoming increasingly scarce.
I don’t know who coined the term “clip art," but it is the universal moniker for permission-free imagery. The concept dates back to decoupage in the late 19th century, but became a formal anti-art movement in the 20th century with the Dadas in Zurich and Berlin, who freely clipped printer’s cuts found in commercial catalogs and samplers for use in their ersatz advertisement and periodical layouts. It was further fine-tuned by, among others, Max Ernst in his 1934 proto-“graphic novel” Une Semaine De Bonté (A Week of Kindness), which usurps and converts 19th century steel engravings for his quirky surreal narrative. To say the preoccupation with old engravings and printer’s fragments pre-dates psychedelic, punk, and grunge is a cliché. Nonetheless it did, each style used clip art. While influenced by Dada and Surrealism, it was also a cheap and facile way to make something that had all the characteristics of professional art but none of the muss. All one needed were scissors, X-Acto, glue (or wax) and just a meager sense of the absurd. The funny thing about clip art, is it kind of composed itself. There were (and are), so many variations on so many visual themes, that one had to be blind as a mole not to find a way to make graphic connections. In other words, if one could not employ clip art to great advantage one should look for another line of less demanding work.
Meditations From the Countryside, clip art composition by Steven Heller
Paging through my old books was a trip down desperation lane. I was reminded of literally scores of collage illustrations I had made on numerous occasions for a couple of publications just when deadline time was running out. My biggest outlet was The New York Times 'Letters to the Editor' page (see image), which I art directed back in the '70s. In fact, I actually remember many of the specific briefs I was illustrating and the various cuts I played with, until coming up with the finished mechanical. Usually, these things took less than an hour to make, and as long as I stuck tangentially to the text, the image did its job. For the image above, titled “Meditations From the Countryside,” I found cuts of dancers prancing, a Lincoln log cabin, and variations of bulrushes a’ growin’ (all in the same book) that I photostated in three different sizes, cut and pasted into a seemingly seamless whole. It was a pleasurable feeling to make the puzzle work out. I also loved the Oxford rule boarder tape that gave the image more vintage patina. Voila! Instant art! And free too! Yet how embarrassing it was to find other collagists using the same imagery, doubtless from the same source, for totally different concepts.
That was one major problem with clip art: The curious phenomenon that most of us who used it, used the same basic 100 or so cuts. Aside from the typical tropes — flags, Uncle Sam’s, Santa, donkeys and elephants, variations on Venus and David, Model T cars, etc. — pointing fingers were the biggest favorites. It is incredible how many editorial problems could be solved simply with a pointing finger — they were everywhere. But one image that for some inexplicable reason was the most common and annoyingly employed was the one of a crazed old man in a nightshirt frolicking, hand-in-hand with a young barefoot nymph. It is on the cover of “Old Engravings & Illustrations” just beside the famous Gibson Girl (the number one icon of the Gilded Age), and could be found in countless layouts, almost as though it was the sign of some cult and all the members conspired to fill the media with it.
Eventually, I weaned myself of clip art. The style had become too familiar and out-of-date. What’s more, getting illustrators to do original work was far more satisfying. However, there were still a number of illustrators, using clip art in their own work and after a while I forbade any such being used in the work I assigned for The New York Times. Of course, in the age of Photoshop and digital tomfoolery, an entirely new clip art aesthetic has emerged that some art directors I know have begun to reject. I wonder as the style wheel turns, whether the new generation will return to the old clip art tradition. Let’s hope not. I prefer it as a memory.