Saturday, January 04, 2020


Before Instagram, illustrators clipped pictures from magazines, newspapers or any other source they could find.

At the end of a long career, a working artist might  have several file cabinets overflowing with tattered pictures. The pictures usually reeked of decades in an art studio-- rubber cement and ancient cigarette smoke and turpentine mingled with the unmistakable aroma of disintegrating pulp paper.

Sometimes an illustrator would save a picture for its details about a military uniform or the anatomy of a horse.  But often they'd save a picture for higher reasons-- because they admired a creative solution, or a striking use of color, or it sparked an idea for their next project.


These were working pictures, frequently folded or torn, or stained with paint or ink from other jobs.  If you go through a stack you realize how pictures were integrated into the daily life of the illustrator.  It's not unusual to find handwritten notes in the margin about a deadline for a job or a tip about a horse race.  I once encountered a thumbnail sketch on the back of a bar tab.

Some unknown artist tried to work out shadows and folds in the upper left hand corner of this clipping

And you invariably find the kind of nude photos that were traded in the quaint era before internet porn:


More than once I've come across faded polaroids of an artist's own blushing sweetie, taken on some romantic weekend together.

There are files of costumes and files of facial expressions and files of poses.  There is a lot of mediocre and even bad art which was nevertheless clipped because the illustrator saw a redeeming use for some element.

The market value of these files is less than zero-- not enough to pay for hauling the battered scraps to the recycle bin.  Yet, measured by a different standard they have great value.

Artists at the end of their lives seemed reluctant to throw away all those years of choices.  They are like curators who've assembled their own lifelong art collections based on their personal taste and practical needs.   You couldn't ask for a better map of an artist's genome.  And they seem to want to preserve that part of their DNA by passing the torch to some younger person who might still recognize traces of value amongst the inert clutter.

For this reason I've felt honored when old timers-- some of whom  I've lauded on this blog-- bequeathed their clipping files to me before they died.   I have boxes of clippings stacked in my basement.

 Late at night I sometimes dip into those boxes, shake the dust off some of the files and sit down in a comfortable chair to go through them.  I'm guaranteed to end up with a lap full of paper chips.  But here's the interesting thing: when you engage with these pictures and you start to understand why one was clipped, it's like blowing on embers.  They start to glow again and they warm you, no matter how long the embers have been dormant-- in some cases 75 or 100 years.  They can rekindle and communicate something about the taste and judgment of the curator.

For this reason, I am going to post some of these clippings and tearsheets in the days ahead.  Even if they aren't always great art, I hope you will be as charmed by them as I am.


Craven Lovelace said...

Fabulous post and I look forward to the clippings.

Rigadoon23 said...

Great Stuff. Thanks for posting - And thanks for a great year (2019) and all the best in this new year.

Anonymous said...

If you need someone to sweep up your basement , lemme know . I recall in an interview , Dan Adkins laughing about Frazetta's insistence about never using reference , and that Frank had just purchased a deceased illustrator's swipe file .

Al McLuckie

Laurence John said...

Are these examples all from one illustrator's collection of clippings ?

Paul Sullivan said...

This is a great idea and great post.

About 40 years ago I was working with an older artist who had done a wide variety of illustration and comprehensive layouts. When he retired he left me his entire morgue—or "swipe file". Much of it was like a time capsule of the days when print was the prime method of communication.

One of the lessons in the Famous Artists Course covered how to build a “reference file". This was explained by Al Parker and featured his method of filing with an outline of his setup. With the changes in copyright law many of the works produced with the heavy aid of the nearest clip file would be considered derivatives.

I’m looking forward to this series of posts. PS

Michael Dooney said...

My pre-internet reference file was mostly photos divided into different categories, not other artists illustrations. It's funny on the rare occasions when I open those file drawers now, it's like a time capsule of the 1980's fashion and culture ;)

Timothy Bollenbaugh said...

David, I'll look forward to your posting those clippings! Just because a person got buried won't mean their life had to be also.

Knits and Weaves said...

I especially enjoy the monochrome trees and house in the snow. Looking forward to seeing more of these!

braddie granes said...

This is such a great post, David! Thanks for making out 2019 great. You are amazing. Have a healthy and happy 2020.

Tororo said...

I totally agree with Paul Sullivan: great idea and great post. Thanks!
And, by the way, I, too, have this kind of time capsule sitting in my basement...

David Apatoff said...

Craven Lovelace, Rigadoon 23, Timothy Bollenbaugh, braddie granes-- Many thanks, your reaction is exactly what I hoped for, that if I dragged these old illustrations out of the dark, an errant cyber breeze might bring them to the attention of an appreciative eye. These artists worked hard and deserve a little attention. Who knows where a seed, no matter how old, may take root and grow into something?

Al McLuckie-- That's a great story. I've heard many names for these kinds of files-- swipe files, morgue, etc. I figured that "clippings" was the safest, neutral description. Many thanks for your offer of help sweeping up. My wife would be happy to take you up on that, but I think you'd need something more substantial than a broom. Do you have a fork lift?

Laurence John-- these are from several different collections. Artists such as Leonard Starr and Nick Meglin were kind enough to reach out to me and ship files that they thought would be of particular interest to me. (Both, for example, knew I liked the work of Robert Fawcett and each maintained Robert Fawcett files). My father was an artist and he left me his files. I collected a few boxes as gifts just for helping out with manual labor when an illustrator passed away.

David Apatoff said...

Paul Sullivan-- Yes, by the time the Famous Artists School came along, everyone agreed on the wisdom of building a reference file. I think the invention and wide use of the balopticon made the importance of those clippings indisputable. Albert Dorne's morgue was legendary-- he had full time helpers clipping pictures and photos of everything from horse bridles to car parts. When he received a new assignment, his helpers would pluck the relevant reference from his room full of filing cabinets and leave them for him on his drawing board. I was never interested in that kind of collection because it didn't reflect Dorne's personal taste. When Dorne died, he bequeathed his whole collection to the Westport, CT public library for the use of other illustrators. Have you made good use of the collection you inherited? Were you able to keep it all these years?

Michael Dooney-- Yes, depending on the the illustrator doing the collecting I found plenty of photos-- a ton of material torn from National Geographic or Life Magazine. And sometimes I actually found the illustration that had been painted from a reference photo.

Knits and Weaves-- I like that one too-- so simple, just one color, but effective. The good collections had numerous examples like that, clearly designed to shake an artist out of thinking in a rut.

David Apatoff said...

Tororo-- If you come up with a better way to preserve them, let me know! I've scanned my very favorites but it's impossible to scan everything.

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