Illustrating the Automobile
By Mike Reilly
Since the dawn of the automobile there has always been the need to advertise them. These things won’t sell themselves you know. All sorts of gimmicks and trends that have taken place to try to get you into a new car. Everything from 3-D designs to modern day YouTube videos have been used to promote the new models. Some companies opted for extravagant oversized brochures to exemplify their cars while others took a more humble approach and made advertisements for the everyday man. No matter what the budget though, there always seemed to be the constant use of illustration in automotive sales literature.
Beautiful artwork filled sales brochures way before photographs became the mainstream. They accentuated the ornate aspects of the early brass era cars and emphasized the flares and fins of the 50’s. Some of these drawings and paintings could hang in galleries and no one would blink an eye. However, if you were to find these illustrations in a gallery you would be hard pressed to find an artist’s signature anywhere on most of the artwork. Many of the early illustrators went uncredited for their work within the auto industry. Much like comic books in the 40s and 50s or the even during the early days of Disney, these illustrators were seen as simple laborers. They’d bounce from studio to studio getting paid a daily wage for drawing or painting whatever needed to be made and then simply moved on to the next gig. It was more of a way for people to get some work than it was a means of creativity.
Chances are you can pick just about any box of sales literature in our library and find some sort of amazing illustration inside with no attributes to the artist. Take the two example brochures for a 1953 Packard and a 1956 Ford Fairlane. Between the two pieces they appear to have a minimum of two different artists working on each brochure. The stylistic choices for the more painterly artwork is fairly outside the realm of car illustration and really pops when placed next to other more mainstream sales brochures.
The hard line-work juxtaposed with the washed out watercolor tones makes for striking visuals. The illustration of the cars looks to be from a separate artist and/or was used from stock illustrations from the manufacturer’s model year and it is easy to tell the stylistic differences between the mainstream stock look of the car drawing against the more stylistic watercolor. These illustrations are some of my favorites in the collection as they evoke a style that is both beautifully worked and strikingly distant from the normal sales literature.
These illustrations come from a 1958 Edsel Service Management Binder. These images display more of a comic book style of art. The artist makes really interesting decisions for the color placement to bring attention to smaller details. (You can click the images to view them at full resolution.)
Despite the mountains of uncredited illustrations, there were a select few illustrators that managed to get their name affixed to their artwork being used for these advertisements and brochures. One of my favorites and one of the more distinctive artists signed his works A. Kow. The signature of Alexi Kow shows up on many foreign sales brochures with the bulk of them landing on Panhard and Hotchkiss literature. He was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in the year 1900 as Alexis Kojewnikow (which is sometimes spelled Kogeynikow) while his first name is sometimes mentioned as Alexis or even Andre in some places. In 1917, under worry of the political situation in his homeland due to WWI, Alexi was taken in by a Swiss family allowing him to enter a technical college for arts and crafts in Geneva.
During his years of study, Kow had very bold art deco style to his work. He used strong lines and colors to evoke power that really grabbed the viewers’ eyes. Even in today’s culture his illustrations still demand attention. Kow had a way of simplifying the details without sacrificing the design and by the early 20s he had started to gain traction with automotive companies as an illustrator. His earliest illustrations came by way of Panhard and Levassor, which would lead to other gigs illustrating for Hotchkiss, Citroen, D.F.P., and Peugeot as well as for other industries including the railroad and airlines.
This Panhard Brochure cover (1935, above) is my favorite example of Kow’s work. Everything about it is well thought out and executed. The line-work is exceptional and the choice to frame the color within the octagon shape is really dynamic. He creates depth and catches the eye with simple contrast for dramatic effect. The stylistic choices for color and texture really excel and show that Kow wasn’t just some hired pencil pusher as he put forth effort into his designs and created art out of them.
Kow was very stylistic with his artwork that sometimes skewed to favor the form over function. In some brochures he would take less care with the people depicted in his work as they weren’t as important as the automobile. This sometimes left the human illustrations (see above) small in scale. It may have been intentional but it sort of has this air about them being a necessity rather than Kow wanting them to be there. He would add flares and flowing lines to the cars he illustrated and this had an influence on future car designs. It is said that Hotchkiss dealerships had complaints that their cars were not the same as they were depicted in brochures and ads and eventually the Hotchkiss designers started to emulate the work of Kow in the mid to late 30s. Kow would also design the radiator and badges on the early Salmson S4 British models.
Arthur Radebaugh is one of the lucky artists to get credit for their work over the years. His futurist art style is most well known for its featured covers of the magazine MoToR, but he also designed some sales literature as well, while working for companies such as Chrysler, Kaiser-Frazer, and Nash in the late 40s and early 50s. To learn more about Radebaugh please read the Library Column from the 2015 May-June issue of Antique Automobile written by Matthew Hocker, which can be found in print or on the library’s website.
Another artist that can be found with his signature on his works is Australian-American artist Melbourne Brindle. Brindle would work for some of the biggest names in the automotive field from the 1930s and into the ’60s. He’d go on to design brochures and advertisements for Ford, General Motors, and Packard among others in the industry. Brindle infused a much more realistic tone to his paintings and most of his advertisement and brochure work had a very “Norman Rockwell” tone to them. Following the 1960s he left the advertising world and devoted his life to painting and infused his love of cars into that passion. During this time he would dive into painting all pre-WWI Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts. In 1971 he would release a book collecting these works titled Twenty Silver Ghosts. We have a copy of this book in the library that you should definitely have a look at the next time you visit.
Related to the library’s collection of illustrated sales brochures and advertisements found in the library, we also have many books and files about artists and car related artwork here in the library. This includes books on design, photography, advertising art, artist files, and much more. As always we are constantly looking for more info on topics like these if anyone reading has materials to donate. The next time you are in the library be sure to ask one of the librarians to find out more about them. We will be glad to locate our copy of Twenty Silver Ghosts or any of other items in the library for you.