2.5 Using reference


The brief was to source, collect, catalogue and use visual reference material related to the 1950s.

Keywords from the brief:

  • Reference for the 1950s period
  • Catalogue information
    • People and costume
    • Architecture and interiors
    • Art – painting, drawing sculpture
    • Graphic design – posters, books, typography
    • Advertising
    • Transport
    • Film and TV
    • Surface pattern and decoration
  • Write a short review of the 1950s from a visual perspective
    • Characteristics that typify the decade
    • Ideas and visual trends that were prevalent
  • An illustration of someone sitting in a chair surrounded by typical artefacts
  • Give a teenager an idea of the 1950s

Collecting and cataloguing reference

I spent a day just researching and cataloguing reference materials using the categories from the brief. I mostly used Google, following links and printing out a wide range of images. There’s a lot of easily available material. I started a separate scrap book for visual reference and moodboards and organised the reference by category.

I haven’t included any reference materials or pictures from the scrap book because many of the images will be subject to copyright.

A short review of the 1950s from a visual perspective

The 1950s was a decade with the country in transition. Britain was still recovering from the Second World War; rationing ended in 1954 and the Festival of Britain (1951) involved a nationwide programme of events to promote the rebuilding of areas still in ruin.

On 6th February 1952, King George VI died  and Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation was in 1953. The Cold War started and the two superpowers, the USA and USSR, were building and testing nuclear weapons. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was formed as a response. The UK was involved in the disastrous Suez crisis in 1956.

In the visual arts (sculpture and painting), the innovation was happening in the USA with social realism giving way to abstract expressionism which became a symbol of American freedom in the new Cold War. In Britain, the visual arts were strikingly different; much more inward looking and figurative (apart from a few notable exceptions).

In Britain, the innovation was happening in visual design. Bright, bold colours and spiky abstract designs with a hand-drawn feel became popular.

It was a decade where mass production and consumerism started in earnest, and this was reflected in the range and sophistication of the print media and advertising.

Film was also very much influenced by American culture and the emergence of Hollywood and the other big studios.

In summary, the 1950s in Britain was a period of immense change and growing optimism, and whilst the visual arts took some time to reflect these changes, surface design and the visual media adapted quickly and innovatively to the new opportunities.

The illustration

The brief was to use the reference materials to create a picture that illustrates what the 1950s were like to a teenager. The image should consist of someone sitting in a chair surrounded by typical artefacts from the period.

For the purposes of this exercise I assumed the illustration was based around Britain in the 1950s (as opposed to the US which would have been quite different).

During my research, it occurred to me how much everyday mass produced products that became affordable during the decade had a huge impact on everyday life. It was interesting to see how in the early 21st Century the same products produced by the same brands in the 1950s are still totally familiar and things we take for granted; refrigerators meant food could be stored rather than brought fresh every day, radio and the beginnings of television created the need for mass entertainment channels, vacuum cleaners, blenders, food mixers, family cars all making everyday tasks more convenient, efficient and easier.

The subject I chose for my illustration was a housewife sitting at a kitchen table surrounded by these everyday objects.

I was as true to the research as I could be and the objects, clothes, hairstyle and interior of the kitchen are directly based on reference materials.

Here are a variety of sketches at different points in the process and at different levels of completion.

Following the previous moodboard exercise I wanted to try and incorporate ‘found’ reference directly into the picture. I toyed with the idea of creating something fairly abstract using 1950s surface patterns but ended up taking a more obvious approach whilst incorporating some of the pattern idea in the kitchen wallpaper.

The visual components were ‘placed’ in Adobe Illustrator and the black and white line art was then layered together and coloured in Photoshop.

Kitchen furniture
Exercise 5 – Using reference finished artwork

What I learned from the exercise

What went well

  • I like the combination of hand drawn sketches directly ‘placed’ into Illustrator, and using sketches as a template to work directly on top of. Illustrator is great for creating fine detail such as the facial features of the women.
  • I like the lighting effects which I discovered in Photoshop.
  • I’ve developed an effective process to move backwards and forwards between pen, paper and digital.

What I would do differently/better

  • I started an A2 scrapbook with the research imagery – there was a lot of it. However, working from reference in a large and quite heavy A2 scrapbook proved cumbersome – so I’ll probably opt for something smaller in the future.
  • If I’d had time I would have pushed my more abstract idea further – I think the end result would have resulted in an interesting picture.
  • I’m not happy with the figure. She looks too ‘plastic’.
  • For this illustration, it would have been helpful to get feedback/comment. For example, I was torn between two different approaches and I wasn’t convinced about introducing the wall paper pattern but ended up doing it anyway. I need to engage more with other students; I’ve signed up to several study visits over the next couple of months so hopefully I can make some good contacts.
  • Because of the large of subjects all in the same picture I started to think about content hierarchy – I look forward to covering this off later in the course; I didn’t factor it into my thinking from the start.


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