Thursday, December 12, 2013

Nostalgia, Bleeding and Cutting

When I worked as a commercial illustrator, I was not known by any one particular style, and so I developed a range of styles, and that kept me busy.

click to enlarge   |   © Mark D. Ruffner, 1983
This was a full-page newspaper ad I illustrated one Christmas for a local shopping center. For the line art I developed a technique of drawing on thick, absorbent paper with a felt-tip marker. The felt-tip marker would bleed, but slowly so, allowing me to control the line's "nubbiness." Note how I put my initials on the rocking horse's rear, where a brand would be!

The art director for this job was my good friend John Atkinson, with whom I worked on many fun projects — he came up with the concept (and I've mentioned him before, here). Together we spent one evening cutting amberlith overlays for each color.

George Rorick On Using Amberlith   |
This job was done before the days of the computer, so each individual color would be indicated on an amberlith overlay.

Amberlith is a sheet of acetate that is covered with an orange gel that is both semi-transparent and peelable. The amberlith is placed over the artwork, and the areas for one particular color are cut with an exacto blade so that the amberlith covers those areas, and all the rest is peeled away. The step is repeated for each color, and then registration marks are put on each acetate so that all the colors register at printing time.

Producing full-color ads this way was a tedious job, and I sometimes created ads that had more than 20 color overlays! The Christmas ad above required only five.

While this process is now very much outdated in the digital world, it was the norm in newspaper work well into the 1990s.


  1. Amazing what computers have allowed us to do in minutes that used to take hours. I wonder if we're perhaps a little less imaginative though because of it -what do you think?

    1. Hi, Stefan,

      I don't think that we're less imaginative, but I do believe that people majoring today in different forms of design might be a lot less grounded. The design students of today (I think) have to give equal time to both the principles of design, and learning the attributes of various computer design programs.

      By contrast, I feel as though I had the luxury of concentrating on the mechanics of design, and I include in that the problem-solving of design.

  2. Dear Mark - I am pleased to see that in those nostalgic days of the 1980s you drew upon your heritage by showing a vintage wooden pull string puppet typically seen and beloved in Switzerland.

    1. Dear Rosemary,

      There is a specific name for those classic toys — in French at least — and if my mother were still on this plane, I'm sure she could tell me. Mayber Gina can tell us what he's called in German. I modeled the drawing in the ad after a pull toy from my own childhood, such a simple thing, but it brought a lot of pleasure.

  3. Hello Mark, A really fun ad, and we can now appreciate the craft and work that went into it. Of course, that is a true hallmark of success--the hard work should never be apparent!

    I love the busy hands terminated by lacy cuffs--a true Victorian concept, favored in scrap, name cards, and even vases and statuary.

    1. Hello, Jim,

      Collecting all that Victorian ephemera has had a strong effect on my subconscious. It's become what the great designer Milton Glaser would call part of my "visual vocabulary!"

  4. Dear Mark,
    An interesting post and an interesting comment from Stefan that gave me something to ponder. I think that we are more imaginative than ever because there are so many more options for us to use. Working with children I see examples of this every day - they make and do all sorts of things using computer programmes and yet a child handed me a 'thing' made of coloured strips of paper woven together into a geometrical shape - just the sort of thing I did at that age! Today we have the benefits of computer technology as well as the older ways of doing things.
    Bye for now,

    Incidentally I see you branded that horse back in 1983 which was the year I started my working career. We had typing pools filled with secretaries who attended to all our letter writing needs, a boss who smoked cigars in the office; and computers were huge box-like things with spinning disc thingies that made a lot of noise and so were kept in a separate room . . .

    1. Dear Kirk,

      It's helpful to appreciate the computer as one more tool, albeit a ubiquitous one that has many incredible applications. I still paint on canvas, and use the computer to aid in composing on those projects.

      When I started working, commands to computers were still generated by stacks of computer cards that had been punched with holes. Arnold Bank, a great design professor of mine said that we should become interested in computers because we would one day be designing with them — and as you might imagine, I thought he was crazy (but he was a very insightful person, indeed).

  5. I'm interested in process so this is fascinating to see. Is the amberlith the orange material? And that was cut and applied to acetate wherever that color was to be printed on the page? Even though this process is probably now outdated, it seems at the time it was a modern twist on multi-color woodblock printing.

    1. Hi, Steve,

      Thank you for your comment, which makes me realize that I should go back and add a little extra information to my posting.

      Amberlith is a sheet of acetate that is covered with an orange gel that is both semi-transparent and peelable. The amberlith is placed over the artwork, and the areas for one particular color are cut with an exacto blade so that the amberlith covers those areas, and all the rest is then peeled away. Then the step is repeated for each color.

      The process is now very outdated, but it was the norm for newpaper work well into the 1990s.