• Michael Skalka

Can Old Ads Tell Us Something?

I had both the pleasure and task of adding around 375 new images to my collection of art materials advertising. A question was raised: “Why is it important to collect images of art materials advertising?” I did not have to think about an answer. Art material advertising anchors the history of how and more importantly when, products were introduced to artists. Much of art materials advertising is merely structured as, - This is what is being sold. Here is a photograph or drawing of the product and in some cases, a very brief description of the product. - I doubt manufacturers had lavish advertising budgets but as color printing was introduced into art materials magazines, some manufacturers became creative in showcasing their products. However, in the 1930s and 40s, the emphasis was on simple graphics, if any, and selection of a typeface that would attract a reader.



Magazines like “American Artist” in the 1930s and the British publication “The Artist,” is dominated by text-based ads that contained a wide variety of fonts popular in that era. All the major typeface “players” were represented in artists’ magazines. Classics like Times New Roman, Bernhard Gothic, Tower, Cooper Black, and many more.

Today when perusing an old art magazine that contains pages of advertising, at first glance, each page appears to have competing forces for our attention. Each ad “shouts,” “look at me!” Some use white space strategically while other ads pack every available centimeter with black letters.


A subtle financial indicator of a manufacturer’s success is the size of the page space sold by the publisher of the magazine. Ad space was the fuel that drove a magazine’s existence. Most of the popular magazines divided their pages into 3 columns and provided the 1st and 6th column in a 2-page spread for advertising. Art galleries tended purchase one to one- and one-half inch tall ads containing only the gallery name, address and the artist being featured in some cases.


Starter companies ran small ads. The big companies like Grumbacher, Reeves, Winsor and Newton all ran full-page ads. Permanent Pigments and Weber ran large half-page spreads regularly. Art materials ads usually stand out because they incorporate images of the product or have interesting graphic elements that catch the eye. Overall, a majority of the ads appear to convey the message, “Hey, we are here and making art materials in case you are interested in buying our products.”


The comparison between brands came about in the 1970s and was initiated by Grumbacher. They set their sights on trying to beat Winsor and Newton for brand loyalty. Ads with Grumbacher verses the “Leading Brand,” that was obviously referring to Winsor and Newton appeared in many ad campaigns.


So what can we as artists learn from this discussion on art materials advertising? Probably nothing at all. However, it is clear that life had dramatically changed from the time period of the 1930s. People obtained their information in hard copy, analog form.

Where do we obtain any new input on the vast array of art materials today? American Artist is gone. I wrote a column on art materials for American Artist right up until they ended their production due to financial problems. (I don’t believe my column was the cause of their going out of business.) They succumbed to the decline of print media and the sudden loss of Boarders Books that sold nearly half of the stock of magazines they produced each month. Those two factors, along with rising costs of printing and staffing spelled the eventual doom for many art magazines. The only two publications, “The Artists Magazine” (available to artists) and “Art Materials Retailer” (a trade publication not available to the general public) have a conduit to advertising art materials to their target audience.


So, the question remains. Where do artists get information on new products other than perusing websites or walking the aisles of art materials stores and how do art material manufacturers get information out to artists about their products? It is hard to fathom that in today’s world we have less access to art materials information than artists did in the early 20th century.


This information gap cascades into many other related areas. Our ASTM subcommittee has a difficult time conveying the important of holding manufacturers to abide by production standards. New, safer products have a hard time being introduced to artists because no broad communications pipeline exists that is regularly received by artists. In the end, this gap retards innovation. Why make new products that few will know exist? Why improve the quality in products that contain inherent problems if nobody complains about them?


Lesson Learned: I believe in the concept of “what’s past is prologue.” (Shakespeare, The Tempest) This leads me to think that without a resource for continuing education about art materials and the ability to provide feedback to manufacturers, the incentive for innovation driven by consumers becomes negligible. This occurred in the 19th century when a host of fugitive colors flooded the art materials market. The task of “cleaning up their act” I believe was echoed in Henry Levison’s choice of his company’s names. “Permanent Pigments” was a response to poor manufacturing standards of the past. (Click on the link above, "Permanent Pigments" to learn more about this topic.) The use of questionable pigments in art materials still exists today. Extensive pastel testing has revealed that a number of products have very fugitive dyes that fade quickly, especially in light tints that do not have a high pigment load.


Share in the comments how you personally obtain information about products, especially if you are looking for something new to try or to replace an old product no longer manufactured.

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