Steven Heller | Essays

Clipping Art, One Engraving At a Time

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.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Illustration

Comments [18]

Certainly for young(ish) designers like myself who grew up in the '70s, there is some degree of nostalgia to be had for this style of clip art, no doubt due to its ubiquitousness when our early impressions of the world were being formed.

I started buying Dover books of clip art at used book stores long before I had any real notion that design was a field I was likely to end up in. I was maybe 10 when I first stumbled across them. The art nouveau borders, the woodland animals, the old-fashioned men and women in fancy dress. I was smitten.

In college I made a short-lived comic for the student paper that consisted mostly of these sorts of clip art people re-enacting snippets of conversations that I had overheard. I don't think it was particulary funny or insightful, or even all that aesthetically interesting, but it gave me a warm feeling inside in that way that nostalgia does.

I don't expect that they will ever become a mainstay of my actual design work, but I still find myself turning to them for silly little art projects: party invites, birthday cards, quicky collaborations, and the like.

A Plea to The New York Times: Index Your Art

Steven, it would be great to search and browse through your clip art collages from The New York Times 'Letters to the Editor' here. Can you post a few more on flickr? Thank you.
Carl W. Smith

Thank you Mr. Heller for a neat article.
I have nine clip art books from the late 50s, 60s and 70s.
I still use them from time to time. The artwork is outstanding!
The craftsmanship that went into each cut is unmatchable
today. Keep those articles coming. YOU ARE MR. HISTORY!
pat Taylor

speaking of something for nuthin, here is Heller waxing nostalgic with Gary Panter. I assumed Panter (of Jimbo fame) would be a gnarly old codger. Turns out he's an unbewildered optimist. Give a listen.
felix sockwell

For anyone who's interested, David Malki has been creating a clever and amusing online comic strip using antique clip art... http://wondermark.com/

He's also anthologized his work into a handsomely produced book...

And here's a recent interview with Malki, in which he reveals his Dover roots...
Michael Dooley

hacks use others' images.
use your own.
Michael Beirshnaux

Speaking of clip art transformed into comics, one of my favorites has to be Married to the Sea, a webcomic that's being going for a few years now. It's pretty brash and not for everyone, but it never fails to get a laugh out of me.
R Polich

The frolicking girl and man in the nightshirt are lifted from an engraving based on a series of paintings by Scottish artist John Faed (1819–1902) which illustrated the Robert Burns poem 'Tam O'Shanter'. I used a detail of the complete picture a while ago as a lazy way of filling out a poster but didn't realise the figures had a history of plunder attached to them. I haven't seen this particular book although I have a number of the Dover titles, many of which were collated by collage historian (and artist) Jim Harter.

John Coulthart

Hey Steven, I work for Trader Joe's corporate. You must hate us. While I'm a package designer and don't work on the flyer.... I just re-designed our bath tissue, facial tissue and paper towels using our well-recognized "flyer clip art". Should be in stores within a couple of months. I wrote most of the copy attached to the imagery, as well.

I love that old clip art. It has history. It has kitsch. It makes me laugh. Keep an eye out, sir. I'll be braced for the "Heller slap on the face", but hopeful for a laugh instead.

Bobbi Lewis

Bobbi, I love Trader Joe's (though wondering why the prices have gone up). What's more let he (or she) who is free of sin cast the first stone. When clip art is used well, I shall judge not.
steven heller

thanx you nice text

Fashion is moving in a circle. And what has been previously returned again, only in slightly modified form. I like the old clip-art. They have a life.
Nastya Manno

I have this book in the library of my school. Took copies of many pages!

love the flickr idea, above: how wonderful to see more of your clip-art collages for the NYT...please do consider it!
victoria thorne

Love these books. These illustrations use clip art from pretty much every era including some new fangled digital stuff.

Very interesting article. Thank you for posting.
Les K.

People may not remember but Dick Sutphen also produced past life regression tapes. I bought my little cassette years ago and came to find out that I was a Caslon Upper Case "A" in a former lifetime.
Mark Andresen

This is why I love the internet. You come across great articles like this - something you had never googled for but you're very glad you found by accident. Great article, thanks for sharing.
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