Hall Smith: The Art of The GWG Catalogue
by Keith B. Smith
Productive Artist Draws Canadian Audience
For over four decades, artist Hall K. Smith (1908-1987) created thousands of drawings viewed by millions of Canadians. Hall Smith was one of a very select group of commercial artists who specialized in illustrating the human figure for the fashion content of catalogues. His drawings and watercolour paintings appeared in countless Canadian catalogues published from 1927 to 1968, for companies such as the T. Eaton Co. (Eaton's) and the Great Western Garment Company (GWG). Despite his career effort as an accomplished artist and illustrator, Hall Smith has not been widely recognized for his contribution to both the evolution of art and marketing in Canadian society.
Commerce and Art - A Good Fit
As an element of marketing, commercial art played a major role in mail-order and dealer catalogue production during the first half of the twentieth century in Canada. During that period, printed matter was the most effective visual means to reach large audiences in Canada. The mainstream use of commercial art occurred prior to the introduction of television to the Canadian mass market in the 1950s, and long before the inventions of the desktop home computer and the global internet.
Skillfully prepared illustrations, portraying merchandise in use, provided appealing presentations to attract customers and influence sales volume. Consequently, the profitability of retailers and manufacturers, including GWG, was significantly dependent on product appeal stimulated by catalogues. That appeal arose from creatively illustrated products satisfying the needs, impulses and trends of the time.
The meticulously drawn and painted illustrations reproduced in catalogues were considered both a marketing tool and, with mixed opinion, an art form. That combination conveyed a visual message understandable to Canadians of any language background. Hall Smith was very aware of his position, connecting the worlds of commerce and art.
The Art of the GWG Catalogue
Clothing manufacturers, such as GWG, wanted to project everyday life depictions of their garments in use. Images of headless shirts and bodiless pants were known to be unappealing in print and did not readily generate sales.
Customarily, many artists were involved for each fashion illustration. Whether they were depicting denim pants, children's overalls or women's slacks, fashion artists responded collectively while maintaining their individuality. Although outside observers may relate catalogue illustration work to a production line, the method was in essence, a team effort. The success of the process was dependent on the blending of artistic values with productivity measures.
Although catalogue illustration work was periodically hectic, the artists would not willingly compromise personal standards to meet imposed deadlines. Hall Smith adhered to that principle. He and other artists of the production team met the challenge, but often while working overtime. Nevertheless, artists embraced overtime hours as a welcomed necessity, since commercial artists' wages were modest.
Each artist of the team had a specialty, such as art direction, page layout, body detail (heads, hands, etc.), and clothing detail. Detail artists—the largest specialty group—examined clothing samples to be illustrated and applied their work within the light pencil outlines created by other artists. They completed the clothing detail by drawing a garment's pattern, weave and texture, or by applying a watercolour wash of varying tones for solids. The order of some steps was not always sequential and was based on each artist's workload.
Lettering artists handled page embellishment, including decorative borders, and customized typefaces for page headings beyond the scope of conventional calligraphy. The GWG logo is an example of their specialty work.
Hall Smith's images of people were key to the visual appeal of his clothing illustrations. A good presentation with attractive people could draw the readers' attention first to a page, then to a particular garment of interest.
From the Mind's Eye
The illustration of women's clothing usually required models for accurate representation of complex and stylish garments, whereas the illustrating of menswear relied less on model use. In Canada, the employment of children to model clothing was not common practice until the late 1960s, when commercial photography became prevalent for fashion. Within a photo studio environment, the images of young children modeling clothing are often very difficult to capture with desired poses or expressions. Also, the presence of a parent or guardian is always required.
The child model deficiency was never a problem for talented artists, particularly Hall Smith. When a client provided specifications for a clothing illustration depicting, for example, a child that was five years old, male and active in a specific position, Smith could effectively respond. Without the aid of a child model, he would artfully create children's images, applying a blend of experience and imagination, but still within client specifications.
Hall Smith could produce salient images of people from all races, genders, and ages. Occasionally, to project a western Canada style, his illustrations included horses. To inject personality into clothing illustrations which were otherwise lifeless, Smith applied animated expressions to the various faces in his drawings. His mind's eye had no limitations.
Attention to Detail
Known by his peers for his attention to detail, Hall Smith was nicknamed "Sherlock Holmes". Regularly using a large magnifying glass, Smith painted very fine facial features. Notably, pupils and reflections were often painted in the eyes for faces 25mm (1") or less in height.
Catalogue page layouts were reproduced at a 50% reduction of the original artwork dimensions. Image size reduction allowed clothing detail artists the ability to create finer detail than could be achieved by a 1:1 ratio. The reduction was completed by way of a nearly room-sized process camera during the first, or film, stage of photo engraving for catalogue printing.
All catalogue illustrations were drawn and painted on 1/8 inch (3mm) thick cardboard known as illustration board. A high quality Whatman illustration board was commonly used because of its surface qualities for pencil, waterproof drawing ink and watercolour. A heavy illustration board was needed to endure the many stages of handling, and to resist curling.
Hall Smith created his images of people by blending various media, including soft graphite pencils, metal nib dip pens with India ink, and round sable brushes for watercolour (Peerless). Often, he applied white fluorographic ink over a watercolour base to "drop out" small areas in order to produce brilliant highlights (e.g. hair).
Hall Smith and his associates commonly worked under adverse lighting conditions ranging from direct daylight, fluorescent, and 200w overhead incandescent lamps. Despite a badly lit and inadequately temperature-controlled workplace, Smith managed to produce his images of people, admired by many for 41 years.
To friends and associates, Hall Smith jokingly termed himself as the "head artist", thereby inferring authority. With a grin, he immediately justified that assertion with a clarification—he drew only people's heads—and other exposed anatomy!
Indeed, he might well have been the head artist because his work stood out among others, and received the respect of his peers. Good training, decades of experience, enthusiasm, and natural talent all served him well.
Born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, early in his life Smith developed an avid interest in drawing. Shortly after moving to Winnipeg, Manitoba, he registered at the Winnipeg School of Art in 1923. He subsequently attended the School of Art as an advanced student many times over a period of twelve years, even while working as an aspiring fashion artist.
The teaching staff at the Winnipeg School of Art included Group of Seven artist F.H. Johnston, and the renowned Canadian painter L.L. Fitzgerald. Many students during Hall Smith's study sessions also worked directly with Smith as commercial artists. Some of them are well-known today as the Who's Who in the history of Canadian art. Presumably, as they studied and worked together, there was a mutual sharing of style and technique among many of those artists.
Besides being a longstanding employee for Brigdens of Winnipeg Limited, Smith also diversified his career by moonlighting as a freelance artist. He regularly created art pieces for the Winnipeg graphic arts and printing companies, Stovel Company Limited and Bullman Brothers.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Hall Smith's drawings of people and events were reproduced as covers for dozens of issues of magazines such as the National Home Monthly. He also illustrated stories published in numerous books and magazines. Canadian companies and private collectors commissioned and displayed many of his pastel drawn portraits, often depicting beautiful women in vogue.
When Credit Is Due
In contrast to the typical use of title credits for productions by the motion picture or television industries, commercial artists were never acknowledged for their efforts in catalogue illustration.
Thousands of printed examples of Hall Smith's catalogue art, representing years of work, are currently relegated to the collections of archives, museums, universities and libraries. Hopefully, public awareness may one day illuminate the significance of his contribution to the evolution of both commerce and art in Canada.
Baker, Marilyn. The Winnipeg School of Art: The Early Years. Published for Gallery 1.1.1./School of Art. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1984.
Davis, Angela E. Art and Work: A Social History of Labour in the Canadian Graphic Arts Industry to the 1940s. McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995.