Friday, June 24, 2016

Retro-Futurism and Supersonic Pulp Artists

Header illustration from "Startling Stories" March 1940
for "When New York Vanished" by Henry Kuttner.
Here’s story for you. Back in the day, that is, the early to mid-20 C, weekly magazines needed lots of content. Plenty of stories with plenty of art to go with them. It was something like our blogs today but harder because the production process was significantly more complicated. Writers and artists weren’t paid a lot but it was a good, steady job and everyone, who became anyone, started out in the Pulps.

Many people are familiar with Pulp cover art. There have been many books highlighting its flashy "ScientiFiction" imagery.

But what about Pulp interior art? Always black and white, and generally of a lower caliber, interior artwork was the work horse of  the title. Each story had several illustrations, depending on the length of the piece. Generally, there were as many illustrators per issue as stories, unless the magazine had only a small stable of illustrators.

In order to churn out art quickly, interior illustrators had to use fast, easy-to-reproduce techniques. A few took extraordinary care and produced masterful illustrations — Virgil Finlay was one of these. But the majority of interior magazine artists were only so-so in content, but masterful in production speed. I suspect that I’d have been one of these…doing speedy, decent, but not-too-great artwork for a by-the-story pay check.

Despite the nature of the business, some of these speedy, business-like illustrations were really terrific. At the top of this post is a good example of an effective two-page story header by Alex Schomburg (1905-1998). The retro-future cityscape with its departing rocketship is exciting and brings you right into the story, just as it should.

From what I can see, this drawing was done with china marker/grease pencil (and maybe ink) on Coquille Board. The bumps, like stipples, seen in the shading give it away. (“Coquille” refers to the paper surface but also the technique.) Coquille paper, now called “Stipple Paper,” is a highly-textured surface that can reproduce the effect of stipple-shading at much greater speed than traditional ink stippling.

In the old print days, there were a variety of highly-sensitive art papers available to the illustrator. We saw the end of those wonderful papers in the 1970’s/1980’s. It’s too bad…there was nothing like Video paper for carbon dust renderings, and the original Coquille Board was miles better than what we have today. But then, we don’t need them as much today, either.

With the advent of Digital Art, and the capabilities of digital reproduction, we no longer needed to worry about reproduction quality. A high-res .PSD, .PNG or .JPG is much better quality than anything they had available for reproduction back in the old days.

Here are a few of my own Coquille pieces, done recently.

"Deco Car," 8.5" x 11" pencil, china marker,
and colored pencil on Coquille paper.
"Soviet Power Station," 8.5" x 11" pencil, china marker,
and colored pencil on Coquille paper.

"Starlet,"9 " x 12" pencil, china marker,
and colored pencil on Coquille paper.
As you can see, Coquille Paper works as well for colored pencils/crayons. If you haven’t tried it, I’d recommend giving it a go. Coquille is a fun technique with a long and admirable history. 

In a future post, I’ll talk about the pulp writers, also artistic work horses, who pumped out decent, and sometimes extraordinary, stories weekly for an adventure-hungry public.

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