Who I Am... And How I Got That Way - The Impressive Career of Graphic Designer and Illustrator Ron Rae - Part III

How the big Detroit Art Studios worked (and then they didn’t)
The big Detroit art studios (in 1968 there were eight or so of them) all had six or so full time reps who called on the big advertising agencies every day for work. A typical large studio (Skidmore-Sahratian) had a production department with a manager and, six or so "keyliners", the people who pasted up the boards with type and position photostats for art elements and photographs. This work was done under the direction of graphic designers. The "keylines" or "mechanicals" went first to the ad agency art directors for approval, then to the printing companies along with all the retouched photos and finished art work. The production department also included stat camera operators who could also shoot reference photos for the illustrators and a team of apprentices who ran back and forth to the ad agencies and learned a studio art skill when not busy with apprentice duties. Artists on the board would consist of several realistic figure illustrators, a couple of decorative illustrators, one or two lettering artists, several photo retouchers, a couple of penciling artists who did pencil drawing underlays of automobiles and all sorts of mechanical items on illustration board for the mechanical painters to do final art on. The "pencilers" also drew all the obvious distortions that one sees on 1950s and early 1960s auto art, the stretching and widening and lowering that made the cars look so big (and the figures look so small). Figure artists always put in backgrounds and people. Painting the figures in the cars had a name, "stuffing the cars". The big studios always had a design department. The graphic designers at any of the major studios were excellent at styling the concepts of art directors or designing a project from scratch with their own concepts. They did thumbnail sketches first to plan the project. These could be shown to the art director for approval before tight comps were done. Full sized tissues were then done by the designer as guides for the comps. By the middle 1960s the presentation comps for car catalogs and ads became very comprehensive indeed, with real type setting that had to be specked and sent out to the type house in the evening to be delivered first thing in the morning for assembly by keyliners. Major changes were a big problem. Sometimes patches could be done on the comps, but often the comps had to be totally redone. A whole class of artists came to be, who specialized in “zippy” photo indications for catalogs, ads and TV storyboards. The stylish comps done by these real pros resulted in the saying... "This comp makes promises that the finish can never keep!"

Comps, Sketches and thumbnails from when we used to draw
Below are a few examples of preliminary ultra rough thumbnails, a tighter sketch or two and a few typical semi-comps.

And Then There Was One
By the 1990s when the Mac computers, loaded with the potent Adobe, Aldus and Quark Software came to town, the end of the big studios was in sight. The first entities to fade away were the giant typesetting factories. The advent of Pagemaker and Quark made keyline assemblies and photostat machines obsolete. The ad agencies were able to set up their own in-house studios to do all their production work. The use of photography and artistically reworked photos resulted in illustration being used much less. The big art studios were going out or drastically shrinking. All of the old studios I once worked for are gone, except Skidmore, which is now just a few design people with no illustrators. Detroit illustrators... the few that exist now, are all freelancers. The Detroit art world that I knew (and sometimes loved), is no more.

Our final installment of this series will be tomorrow, when Ron Rae walks us through one of his logo design projects.


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