Andy Warhol and commercial illustration

Alex Bigman

The best cure for “designer’s block” is a change in perspective. Surrounded by only computer-generated 21st century design, day in and day out, it is all too easy to get “tunnel vision” and lose inspiration.

For a refresher, join us in looking at the graphic design world of the 1950s, and the styles and techniques that got clients’ attention back then. In particular, we’ll look at commercial illustration and one of its most famous designers: Andy Warhol. If he can’t get your creativity flowing, no one can.

In the 1960s, Andy Warhol took the art world by storm with his silkscreen prints of American icons, ranging from Marilyn Monroe to the Campbell’s Soup can. The stark, blotchy look of these works has since become a staple in graphic design.

Before his fame, however, Warhol developed his signature style with a different form of design: commercial illustration. To better understand Warhol-the-artist, one must know Warhol-the-illustrator.

warhol

Throughout the 1950s, Warhol’s illustrations appeared in magazines to accompany articles as advertisements. Long before the days of Photoshop, ads frequently used drawings instead of photographs.

Two of Warhol’s favorite subjects were cars and women’s shoes — both symbolic of American consumerism that he would spend the bulk of his career investigating.

warhol

One word that reappears again and again to describe Warhol’s illustrations is “whimsical.” They have a casual, lighthearted air and rarely conform to normal proportions. Warhol stretched and compressed his designs at whim and applied detail in some places but not in others.

warhol

In many of these illustrations, you can see Warhol’s blotted line technique. He would apply abundant ink to paper and then blot it while it was still wet. The technique was akin to a very simple form of print making, and so it can be seen as a precursor to his splotchy, photograph-derived silkscreens. It creates small imperfections — smudges, smears and lines of varying width.

warhol

This off-beat style caught the eye of 50s magazine editors as well as companies looking for ad designers, which goes to show that perfectionism does not always pay! Or at least, controlled imperfection can really bring an image to life.

As Warhol himself said it, “…when you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something.”

Have any commercial illustrations caught your eye? Share them in the comments!

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