The Sociables – The Art of Hand Drawn Ads

One of the things that strikes reading through any vintage magazine is the amount of illustration compared with photography in advertising.

It’s hard to realise today, but paying someone (often a staff illustrator) was much cheaper than using a photographer for colour and more effective than using cheaper black and white photography.

Until the advent of graphics computers in agencies in the late 80s, the work had to be shot by the photographer using models, staging, props etc with all the attendant costs of crew for the shoot – hair stylists, make up, wardrobe, lighting. It then had to be processed at a lab and transparencies chosen by the art editor, each step expensive and time consuming, often complicated by tight deadlines.

Brooks Brothers 1979 Catalogue Illustration (Credit to Yamauchi Yuki)

Once the layout and photography were chosen, the two elements then had to be married. This involved a complex and time consuming process of printing photographs, laying out on white board, adding hand lettering (or the time saving Letraset innovation) until a large collage of paper, cow gum and photos was produced.

Only by screwing up the eyes and squinting could one see the advert without all the white paint, cut edges and so on.

Often an airbrush artist would then work on the sections either taking out undesirable elements of a photo background or perhaps enhancing a model’s complexion or helping to blend the photography seamlessly with the other elements of the design.

Once the collage was complete the whole thing was then re-photographed on a large rostrum camera using a screen that turned everything into tiny pixel-like dots that the printers could handle (for black and white illustrations litho film was used to give extreme black to white contrast).

A lot of handwork, labour and time went into using photography for advertising.

Compared to this, one lone skilled draughstman could conjure up a world of sophistication, romance, desire, style and let’s face it, exaggerate any product’s benefits for about a third of the time and a quarter of the cost.

There were thousands of illustrators working in advertising, some well known, sought after and highly paid (like Brooks Brothers’ illustrator Tran Mawicke) but the majority unsung hacks working scratching away in pencil and ink to meet a looming print deadline.

Local Newspaper Ad Illustration for Ivy Style Jackets 1960

With cheaper printing and processing in the 1970s and 80s, illustrations for advertisments grew less common, often relegated to local media and low end advertisers. For the mainstream it had to be four colour process printing to show the reality of their unreal advertising world.

I remember though, as late as 1989, both Brooks Brothers and Lord & Taylor sending out catalogues with around 75% of the products being illustrated by hand.

It’s now quite unimaginable to expect customers to see a mere drawing of a jacket or shirt and buy it without seeing a more ‘realistic’ image of the product.

But back then, we all did.

“Make mine a one of your hand drawn shetland sweaters please Mr Haberdasher”


Reading through some old Life magazines today I found this classic example of the illustration being used to imply something that isn’t quite true. Check the size of this Morris Minor! The family must be related to the little people from Land of The Giants…

Outsized Morris Minor In American Ad

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