Illustration and pulp art 101

What is illustration art?

Original illustration art is the original drawing or painting which was created with the purpose of being reproduced for print. Often accompanying text, be it narrative or advertisement, these images helped to tell a story. While illustration art has existed since before the printed press was invented, the mechanical advancement of the industrial revolution in the 1800s allowed for the breadth and quality that we now associate with illustration art.

Before moving pictures, illustrations were the main mode of visual communication. Artists projected their interpretations onto books, calendars, magazines, and advertisements for public consumption, and their influence cannot be understated. Illustrators like Cardwell Higgins unleashed their imaginative capacity, creating entire worlds out of pen and ink for the insides of novels. Artists reacted to and helped formulate the cultural zeitgeist (see the unending influence of a figure named after her creator, the ‘Gibson Girl’), providing social commentary on the pages and covers of journals (where cartoonists like  Dr. Seuss satirized the hoi polloi of their day). And Norman Rockwell will forever epitomize the wholesome Americana aesthetic in his made for magazine paintings. Exceedingly rare, as paintings or drawings created for print mattered only until the final proof was made, originals are full of the technical mastery of the greats of the medium.

Edmund Dulac's Illustration Plate of Annabel Lee for "The Bells and Other Poems" by Edgar Allan Poe - 1912 edition published by Hodder and Stoughton

Edmund Dulac's Illustration Plate for "Annabel Lee" from The Bells and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe - the 1912 edition published by Hodder and Stoughton.

What is pulp art?

Pulp art is the art originally created for the covers of inexpensive fiction magazines known as pulps, named for the cheap wood pulp paper on which they were printed. Usually painted by commercial artists for mere tuppence and for easy reproducibility, only recently has this artistic field begun to receive its deserved recognition. Designed to live up to interiors filled with sensational stories and compete with other lurid designs at the newsstands, the pulp cover is identifiable by its brightly colored, bold, and often dirty content that pushed the boundaries of legality during a highly censored era. Original cover paintings are incredibly scarce, as the tenuous legality of publishing and quick dissemination rate led to the destruction of most of the original commercial art from this period.

The first of the pulps was Frank Munsey’s 1896 Argosy Magazine, a successor to the 19th century’s ‘penny dreadfuls.’ Argosy’s success led to imitators, and by the early 1900s dozens of pulp titles and their scandalous covers could be found on magazine racks all over the United States. Steadily consumed during and after World War I, their popularity only increased during the Great Depression when the public’s escapist needs and the relative cheapness of the magazines meant a single issue could sell over a million copies. By the 1930s competition and technical advances led to the vibrant and lurid covers we recognize today, from monster menaces and way out westerns to damsels in distress and sci fi adventures.

Pulps continued to be published through the 1950s, but their popularity waned during WWII’s paper shortage and the post-WWII period. Their lasting influence is seen in current comic art.

Allen Anderson's Cover for Speed Western Stories - February 1943.

Allen Anderson's Cover for Speed Western Stories - February 1943.

What is lithography?

Lithography is defined as a method of printing based on the principle that oil and water do not mix. These phobic elements can be manipulated into producing a highly detailed plate, one which revolutionized the practice of printmaking and more or less created the field of advertising art. Originally, the artist used grease to draw on the surface of a ground-down limestone block, the fatty pencil allowing for great delicacy of line quality and more detail than other printing methods like metal etching and woodblock. An emulsion ate away the stone surrounding the grease, etching out the area around the drawing. The block was then moistened, water avoiding the grease and dampening the stone. A layer of oil-based ink was applied and a print made. While only one color could be printed at once, the layering and detail possibility were endless. Multi-colored lithographies used several plates with differing shades to create complex prints, and the number of plates/colors is often referred to when discussing lithographies (i.e. 3 color print). Invented in 1796 by the German actor and author Alois Senefelder as a means of publicizing his own theatrical performances, the artistic and advertising possibilities caused the new printing method to spread quickly. With materials at hand, stone, grease, and ink, and reusability (limestone could be reground and a new image printed), lithography became the art form of the masses. There is a reason revolutions used posters to promote their ideologies.

The invention of mechanical lithography, the most common form of which is offset, allowed for the further dissemination of posters. Offset lithography involves the transferring of the image to a rubber mat, then to the paper itself. Mechanical rollers could be used in this method, and it quickly spread, becoming the means of transferring all types of images during the 19th-early 20th centuries. The reproduction and advertising possibilities were endless.


An Edward Brewer Painting from his Iconic Cream Of Wheat Advertising Campaign.

Edward Brewer's "The World's Fair" Painting for His Iconic Cream of Wheat Advertising Campaign.


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