It's a lonely life...that of the necromancer, er freelancer

A blog by a designer and illustrator, for designers and illustrators which may contain musings on art, movies and random weirdness.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Old School

The other day I was clearing off some shelves when I found 2 boxes of black and white illustrations I had done at my first job after college. My first job was for a newspaper publisher located in Ipswich , MA called North Shore Weeklies. I started there as an $6-an-hour paste-up "artist".
For those of you too young to remember, this was before computers, and we had to physically cut and paste the ads and pages for the various newspapers. All the type was set on an old linotype typesetting machine, in long continuous sheets that we then waxed the back of, (with hot wax) cut into pieces and pasted on a sheet of grid paper, lined with non-photo blue guidelines. We had to place the type by eye, and we added in the decorative borders with border tape. Any artwork was shot on a stat camera with a screen overlay, so that the continuous tones of a black and white photo would be turned into a series of small black dots of varying size and intensity. This was called making a "Photo-mechanical transfer". It was very labor intensive, and there was a whole back shop of people, hunched over desks like modern day Bob Cratchits, waxing, cutting, and pasting, the people in the camera department were shooting PMTs and then shooting the finished pages, which were then chemically "burned" onto metal plates, which were then fitted onto the press. These are things that would take 5 seconds on a computer today, but back then, it took hours to put together a simple black and white publication.
After several months laboring in the 'back shop" I was promoted to the "front office" position of "Graphic Artist". I still did paste-up, but now I did special projects, which included producing illustrations for several regular newspaper columns. One was a guest editorial column called "Sitting In", which ran in the North Shore Sunday weekend paper. The other was a guest recipe/cooking column called "Kitchen Call"
The reason I keep going on about all of this is that I developed an illustration technique that was specifically adapted to these production methods.
I would receive a manuscript for the article on either Monday or Tuesday of the production week. The newspaper was assembled and printed on Thursday night, and distributed on Friday for that weekend. This means I had about two and a half days to come up with a finished illustration. Usually I would read the manuscript and do some rough pencil thumbnails of any ideas that came to mind. The columns ranged a variety of subjects, everything from politics, to humor, to slice-of-life. The illustrations were always the same size and format, a 25 x24 pica box. After I had settled on 2 or 3 ideas, I would discuss what I had in mind with the editor. This was a guy named Greg Bean. He was from Wyoming originally, and was very laid-back. He pretty much let me do whatever I wanted, as long as it wasn't too off-the-wall. I didn't appreciate this until much later.
Once I had the idea approved, I would gather whatever reference I could get my hands on. Remember, this is before the internet, so I used magazines, and a series of printed art reference books that the newspaper subscribed to. I would do a final sketch in pencil.

At this point I needed to render the drawing in a medium that would photograph well, such as black ink. After trying a variety of traditional pen and ink techniques, including using just line, or solid areas of black and white, (see examples above) I happened upon my own technique.

Instead of working in non-photo blue and inking the drawing directly, I covered the pencil drawing with a sheet of thick tracing vellum and inked onto the vellum. The vellum was thick enough, so that if I made a mistake with the ink, I could scratch it out with an exacto knife. I could also add texture to the drawing the same way, by scratching the surface. I also found that I could add shading to the drawing with pencil. I used a very soft, very black pencil.

Once the drawing was finished, I would tape it to a piece of white paper, write the exposure directions for the stat camera operator, and send it off to be made into a Photo-Mechanical Transfer. (see picture above) The PMT had a tendency to gray out all of the tones. You got fairly rich blacks, but no true whites. When reproduced on newsprint, this made the drawings appear to be very gray, and low contrast.

I remedied this by cutting the surface of the PMT, actually removing the surface of the paper so that it would appear as pure white. This gave the illustrations their "sparkle". If you look closely at the image on the left you can see where I cut away the paper on the hippie's beard, the rest of the image has a dot pattern.

Although at the time, I felt these efforts were under-appreciated ( I was not paid any extra for producing the illustrations) I eventually won a NEPA, (New England Press Association) award for editorial illustration, which to date is the only award I have ever received for illustration.
I now marvel at the level of productivity, ingenuity and willingness to do something for the sheer thrill-of-it, that I had in my early twenties. It was a great time, and I didn't even realize it.

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