Clip Art has been used in various forms since the middle of the last century. “Spot Illustrators” were hired by print publications, ad agencies, and so forth in the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's and into the 1980's to create quick, black and white visuals to accompany advertisements, articles, forums, short stories and other literary works that needed a graphic element to help draw the reader in.
The earliest and most popular medium used to create clip art was pen and ink. Pen and ink or “Line Art” drawings, were created just as the name implies, with a dip or “nib” pen and an inkwell filled with black ink. The Artist, let's call him “Art Guy”, would dip his pen into the inkwell, tap the surplus of ink on the rim of the bottle and using a steady hand, begin to draw his or her illustration. A high quality stock paper with a smooth finish, which included sometimes vellum, was and still is the choice of most artists. Some artists preferred to draw their subject matter with a pencil first to create a “template” in which to apply the ink on top of.
Once the illustration was complete, it was left to dry on its own. To dry the ink more quickly, some artists used “Pounce” which is a fine powder sprinkled sparingly over the wet illustration. Pounce powder can be created using a variety of materials including sand, soapstone, talc and even finely ground salt. Pounce is also used by calligraphers.
Once the illustration was dry, it was given to the Stat Camera operator and photographed in a darkroom to create film from the camera-ready artwork. Shaded or “half tone” black and white images could be created from the all-black art using various dot pattern filters and then transferred to paper. Using this process, endless copies of the original artwork could be created, much like the electronic copy machines invented many decades later. The paper copies were then trimmed and “cut to size” in preparation for the publication process and then “Art Guy” headed to the production room to do his cool “layout” thing!
“Layouts” were created by combining text and images in a pleasing manner and adhering the various objects to ruled paper. The rules helped the production artist align the images both horizontally and vertically. Printed using blue ink, the rules could not be photographed, thereby rendering the rules invisible in the final printed publication. Adhering the text and images to the ruled paper was accomplished by using a variety of methods. Household glues were a common choice, but in the 1940's bees wax became popular. Electronic wax machines were plugged in to an outlet and allowed to warm up. Blocks of bees wax were inserted into a warming tank inside the machine and the heat of the tank melted the wax into liquid. A mechanism on top of the machine allowed the user to feed the paper clip art into one end “dry” and then retrieve the art from the other end “waxed”. The machine only waxed one side of the paper, allowing the user to fix the image onto the layout paper using a burnishing tool and rubber roller. Text was applied using the same process. The completed layout was then taken to the darkroom where it was shot with a camera and a film negative created. A short process later and the film negative became a plate “positive” ready for offset printing.
As the publication industry progressed, Graphic Artists and Graphic Designers were finding that it was easier to reuse the preexisting images they had already shot and prepped for the previous week's publication. So, rather than drawing the same illustrations over and over again, they recycled the old Line Art… and voila! Production Clip Art was born and sadly “Art Guy” was out of a job!
Quickly, Publication House libraries became overflowing with thousands and thousands of clipped images. Over the next few decades, stockpiles of images began to overrun art departments everywhere. Then, thankfully in the early 1980's, personal computers and the “digital age” saved the industry. Now, using a futuristic invention called a “scanner”, a printed clip image could be placed on a scanning tray and converted to digital X's and O's and stored on a computer's hard drive for easy reference! To someone who isn't familiar with the industry, this doesn't sound like an exciting historical advancement, but speaking personally from both the dark room Camera Operator side and as a seasoned illustrator or “Art Guy” who cut his teeth in the advertising industry in the early 80's, scanners were a gift from God! Scanning images actually became a full time job at some companies, and pow! Just like that, “Art Guy” became “Scanner Man!”
Soon everyone was using clip art and unfortunately Spot Illustrators and Freelance Artists (like myself), who previously enjoyed a huge niche market, became obsolete. Hundreds of publication houses and digital service companies jumped on the digital (and printed) clip art bandwagons. With luck, many of those unemployed spot illustrators that I just referred to, found a new niche, provided they took the new computer medium under their wing. If you were willing to give up your pen and inkwell and trade them in for a personal computer, you had a good chance of saving your livelihood. Otherwise, you went the way of the dinosaurs.
As years progressed, the entire process became less “hands on” and more production-oriented. Let me explain. The first stage of creating digital art would go something like this. An Artist would draw an image using black ink only. He (or she) would then take the image and lay it face down on a scanner. Using scanning software, the artist would choose specific settings including Resolution, Scale and so forth and then “scan” the image, thereby creating a digitally formatted file. The Artist could choose which file format best met their needs to produce the end product. The most common file formats for Line Art at the time were.bmp (bitmap), or.pic (short for PICtor format). As scanned photos became more popular as clip art, file formats such as.tiff (Tagged Image File Format) and.jpg (or.jpeg) became more popular. Soon the world wide web came into being thereby creating a huge need for smaller resolution files that downloaded more quickly and hence the.gif (Graphics Interface Format) and.jpg files became the norm for that medium. Both file formats were considered raster files, or rather files based on a dot matrix data structure, and the resolution could be reduced to 72 dpi (Dots Per Inch) and still appear clean and crisp by the web user. And yes, now “Scanner Man” is given a new job title and now becomes “Production Guy!”
As the years progressed, Vector files (or files based on mathematical expressions) of which the popular file format.eps (short for Encapsulated PostScript) became the most widely used format by Printers and Publication Houses due to the fact that.eps files could be enlarged or decreased in scale without losing resolution or the “crispness” of the image. The entire industry took a left turn. To this day,.eps files are still the industry-standard clip art format.
Let's discuss for a moment how an.eps file is created. Much like creating a.jpg or.tiff file as described previously, the “hard copy” line art is scanned using scanning software, but instead of creating a file with “medium” resolution of perhaps 150 dpi, the artist chooses the most optimum resolution possible. The trick is to create a high resolution raster file that doesn't take up all of the remaining space on your hard drive! The larger the file, the more data information, the better the quality. Here's why more information is key. Once the raster file is created, the artist then imports that raster (dot matrix) file, created with dots, and imports it into a vector file conversion program that turns that file into clean, crisp vectors. Bam! Another “not so creative” job given to “Production Guy!” Soon at the larger Ad Agencies and Publications Houses, artists who were once hired to draw original images, spent the bulk of their day converting hard copy, printed clip art catalogs into digital vector files for the computer geeks in the art department! In the beginning, the process to convert a few scanned images into vectors could take up to several hours. Now, most industry-standard graphic software programs have vector conversion tools “built in” and the entire process can be executed in minutes or even seconds. So much for “Production Guy's” job. With the advent of new Graphic Design software, his position became obsolete as well.
But, don't feel bad for “Production Guy”, over the past few years those in creative fields have become tired of seeing the “same old, same old” and “Production Guy” has come full circle. Having played all of the roles we've discussed previously, old “Art Guy” (me) and other Freelance Artists are enjoying a Renaissance of sort and larger companies looking for hip and trendy, cutting edge spot illustrations are putting us back to work! But don't worry, the old “tried and true” clip art images have their place secured in the “royalty free” clip art market. Let's discuss the term “royalty free” next.
As stock clip art companies and font houses grew and grew, they found that some images and fonts consistently sold better than others. Of course the first thought that comes to any true businessman or entrepreneur is, “How do I make money on these “premium” images?” The answer of course, charge a “premium” price for those images that sell better than others. The rest of the “stock clip art” images became stepping boards to up-sell the premium gallery files. Premiums were placed on clip art images that had more detail, consisted of a more interesting subject matter or were just more unique and stood out from the rest of the pack. Large Background, Frame or Border files with more detail were priced higher than the smaller spot illustrations. Holiday-specific stock illustrations with themes such as Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Easter along with illustrations generating a higher demand or interest, were priced above more common everyday images. In a nutshell, stock illustration companies created their own “market demand” for literally any image or image set they chose. For a time, this “scheme” worked, and to this day on a smaller level, it still does. Those with money will always be able to afford to pay a premium. But, what about the “little guy” who couldn't afford the premiums? The smell of “revolution” was in the air!
With the crash of the U.S. economy soon after 9/11, large clip art houses who relied on the costly premiums that had taken advantage of their loyal customer base for years previously, took a beating in the market and as a result, smaller clip art companies started to sprout up. Old Spot Illustrators like myself, who had saved their galleries upon galleries of dusty old clip art images got the idea of giving the larger clip art companies some competition by offering “Royalty Free” images, or images with NO PREMIUMS! Guess what? It worked! Royalty Free images and collections became the norm (again). Art Directors and Graphic Designers who once bowed down before the huge stock clip art agencies woke up and smelled the coffee a brewin'! It was time for a change in the industry and the change had come. No longer were you tied to using the same “boiler plate” images offered by perhaps five or six giant stock art companies. The world of clip art was opening up to the artist rebels with their smaller and infinitely more unique clip art creations and the revolution had finally come!
Now “Art Guy” is back in business, doing what he loves most… DRAWING! Perhaps he's traded in his nib pen and inkwell for a personal computer and a mouse or drawing tablet, but he's happy and content once more… and SO AM I!!!