Photo-like illustrations in old catalogs: how? why?

Some old catalogs had illustrations that weren’t quite photographs, just extremely accurate drawings/renderings. Example here.

How were these done, technically? And why not use actual photographs?

I think it’s airbrushed and drawn on top of a photograph, but that’s just a guess. I honestly don’t know what the method is.

IMHO, those are photographs.

Obviously 1960s-style Photoshop. You can tell by the proto-pixels.


My aunt and uncle were commercial artists during the 40s, 50s, and early 60s. They could draw or paint images that you had to look very closely at to determine that it wasn’t a photograph. In the late 50s and the 60s, print advertising seemed to move away from drawings, favoring photographs instead.

The kids are photographs; the Santa is a drawing. The toys aren’t so obvious, but they look to me like they could be drawings.

I don’t know, but if you told me that, given the technology of the time, it was cheaper or easier to insert drawings like that into an ad than photos, I would believe you.

Pen-and-ink was common, as were gouache and airbrush, depending upon the needs of the illustration.

In the case of J. Peterman, at least, the drawings always look way better than the photos. I repeatedly consider buying from them until I get to the photograph and realize it’s the same old crap every other store sells. But the drawings look great! Not quite photorealistic though.

This. I have some original ad artwork from the 30s even that look almost more like photographs than some of the photographs I’ve seen showing the same things; more detail and clarity. Some of the craziest stuff can be out of both the auto and toy industries. For whatever reason it seems like they attracted or insisted on the best artists possible.

Well, Santa looks real to me. Yes, I believe. I have a list and everything.

Probably the money they spent hiring the best artists paid off handsomely in increased sales.

Because both new automobiles and toys were (are?) commonly bought mainly by looking them up in manufacturer literature, rather than going to see every single one in person.

The reason is that an artist could make an image that would look better than a photograph
when printed. Typically photos were taken of the object to be advertised. These were given
to an artist who would trace the image and then add the shading. The artist could alter the
the dark and light areas to bring out the details and make an image that would reproduce
well when printed. Airbrushing photographs was also used to produce a better image.

X. L. Lent
Former production artist

Thinking back to my days working at one of those classified ad newspapers (Cash in Times), we used a lot of full tone drawings of things such as automobiles (rather than photographs of automobiles) simply because they reproduced better in the inexpensive halftone process that was used to print the newspaper.

While the drawings look more detailed, they’re actually much, much, much less detailed than an actual photograph that has billions of different colors.

When going through a fairly low lines-per-inch halftone process, the fewer shades of grey that you have in the source, the better the halftone job looks.

Not to take the thread off topic but I can’t help but notice one of the toys in that link is priced at $3.66. Sixty six cents? You can tell this was from the days where coins were still considered currency, as opposed to change.

In the pictures linked by the OP, those are just done tha way because that worked for the reproduction process. In a better quality color magazine, it would be done because it looked good, showed better detail, and worked with the reproduction process.

But note that top quality medical encyclopedias from the same era would also be drawn, even when the best possible reproduction process would be used, including photographic plates. Because of the “showed detail better” bit. (Not more detail. Better detail.)