Scanning Around With Gene: Profile of An Early Clip Art Character

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The term "clip art" has become a generic description of any art, illustration, photograph, or other visual material that is sold as copyright- or royalty-free, usually in collections, and almost always without specific attribution to the creating artist. But technically "clip art" is an era-specific term, coined at a time when these illustrations were actually "clipped" or cut out of books for use in paste-up or photographed for print mechanicals.

Prior to the paste-up era, what we now refer to as clip art was generally called "stock cuts" or "electrotype cuts," in reference to the images being "cut" into metal through an engraving process. But the end result was the same -- large collections of illustrations made available to printers for use by customers without restriction. The idea goes back to the earliest days of printing.

And throughout the history of this art form, whether "cut," "clipped," or "clicked," these images have depicted common occupations, tasks, problems, and other situations applicable to a wide variety of customers and businesses. Many of them are drawn without much style or personality so as not to be too recognizable. It's fair to say the bulk of clip art is not just boring, but downright ugly, goofy, amateurish, and unusable by any serious designer.

But of course, there have always been exceptions.

The Cartoonist from Reno
My favorite exception to the ugly-clip-art rule, and one of the reasons I love vintage clip art, is the work of cartoonist Lew Hymers, who sold his stock cuts in the late 1930s and early '40s. His style is instantly recognizable, and Hymers can be credited as a leading contributor to an important American art movement. Illustrators, cartoonists, and other artists saw opportunity in creating small, simple drawings for sale to the growing printing industry. But very few were able to do so with enough style and personality (or pride) for the work to justify a signature. Every Hymers stock cut carried a signature, regardless of the subject matter or size, and each time a stock image left his studio, a bit of Hymers' personality shipped with it.

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All of the images in this column with numbers below them are from the 1950 edition of the Hymers Stock Cuts catalog. The original images are approximately 1-1/2" square, and each letter-size page of the 82-page catalog included between 35 to 40 of them. There are well over 2,500 total illustrations.

Lew Hymers was born in Reno, Nevada, in 1892. From an early age he showed an interest in drawing, and at 20 he moved to California and took a position as an artist at the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. There he worked briefly with Robert Ripley, who drew the famous Ripley's Believe-it-or-Not series syndicated in newspapers throughout the world.

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But young Hymers was restless. He left the Chronicle and went to Europe in 1913. He was studying art in Paris and Munich when World War I broke out. Returning to the United States, Hymers married, worked as a commercial artist for a time in Reno, and then was a staff cartoonist at the Washington Post newspaper in 1917. Soon he was back in Reno, then off to Los Angeles, where he worked briefly for Walt Disney.

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Throughout all of these endeavors, a common theme emerged: Hymers was most comfortable doing his own thing, drawing what he preferred and not what someone told him to draw. Eventually Hymers ended up back in Reno, where he worked as a local commercial artist doing advertising, logos, and other work. He also made quite a name for himself through a series for the Nevada Statesman newspaper called "Seen About Town." These cartoon panels highlighted Nevada politicians, local personalities, and others in a text-heavy format that was half art and half editorial.

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These are examples of Hymers' other work, including from the top a cover illustration for a book collection of the Nevada Statesman "Seen About Town" cartoons; a Christmas card from the Hymers family in 1940; a postcard illustration for the Southern Pacific Railroad; the cover illustration from a stock-cut catalog supplement in 1948; and an advertisement for the Bonanza Club restaurant in Reno. Some illustrations are from the book Seen About Town, the Art of Lew Hymers, copyright 1998 The Black Rock Press.

Getting Into the Stock Cut Business
In 1933, Hymers published his first catalog of stock cuts, offering several hundred drawings that he created specifically for this purpose. Organized by themes, these cartoons depicted all sorts of human conditions, emotions, personalities, trades, and other subjects, some of questionable use. Hymers approached each subject with humor and irony, often drawing a couple of takes on the same scene, and always with his trademark style of exaggerated features and large heads.

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Hymers clearly preferred to draw people and animals -- something with a face and an expression -- rather than inanimate objects. Most clip art collections are heavily populated with drawings of tools, buildings, office supplies, etc. Hymers offered very few of these.

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What I love most about Hymers' work is that no matter the theme, humor takes priority over any other message. Getting in a car wreck is funny. A man about to fall into a manhole is funny. A burglar getting hit on the head by the local cop is funny. Even a home being destroyed by fire is depicted humorously. It's hard to imagine that printers actually used many of these oddly comical images. There are no records to indicate which cuts were popular.

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Hymers kept the actual cuts in a large cabinet in his Reno office (and alternately in his Southern California studio when living there) and filled each order as it came in. Single cuts were sold to printers for $1 to $1.50, and a dozen cuts were $10 to $12. He claimed to keep a full stock on hand at all times, so it must have been a big cabinet.

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A Style Locked in Time
Hymers didn't update his style as times changed. When newspapers starting running more photographs and reproduction methods made color more popular, Hymers' contributions were left behind. The charming cartoon style that worked in the old Reno didn't translate well to a more modern Reno. Once the only commercial artist in town, Hymers began facing competition from modern ad and marketing folks who peddled slicker images.

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Toward the end of the '40s, Hymers retreated to his ranch outside of town, then eventually moved back to Southern California. In 1950 he suffered a stroke, and in 1953 he died.

It's unlikely that Hymers ever made much money from his drawings, and stories abound about his doing work for free. But throughout it all he maintained control of his work and style, and he leaves a unique legacy that is the epitome of one of my favorite genres of graphic design.

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