Under The Influence of Historic Postcards

posted in: Blog, Classes, Composition | 10

Artists often look to alternative sources for inspiration. Picasso wandered through the Trocadero Museum in Paris and discovered inspiration in African Masks. Gauguin traveled to Tahiti. Monet looked to the Japanese woodcuts of Hokusai and Hiroshige. Artists of the late 20th century looked to pop culture. I have just briefly turned my attention to the formats and coloring of early 20th century postcards.

With cell phone cameras, Face Book, Instagram, TikToc, and other social digital media postcards are disappearing from common use. They had begun as decorated cards of personal identification in the late 1700s known as carte des visites. You would leave your card with another party as a reminder of your work or status. Within a generation and the development of photography in the 1830s someone could put a picture in an envelope for mailing to friends or family.

Woodblock prints identifying visited locations or holiday festivals were early forms of the image bearing card to be easily reproduced and sent by mail. Remember we only get our first postage stamp in the 1840s.  By the 1860s we had the first Postal Cartes which could present lithographed images of visited places or holiday themes. The idea of the modern colored postcard develops in the early 20th century. The French came up with a trifold card (example 1) with simple limited color lithography.

Example 1. French Trifold post card from the early 1900s.

With only limited colors  publishers relied on more intense color contrasts to attract the attention of buyers. By the 1930’s the modern chrome postcard and modern linen card were popular. The linen stock prevented inks from sinking in and gave a more vivid appearance. And the modern 4 color lithograph replaced the earlier and more expensive chromolithographs. But, intensity of color and clarity of edges through a reliance on high contrast, and simultaneous color contrasts remained as standards.

Here example 2 shows a high-contrast limited color palette in this early 20th century postcard. The high horizon and design are indebted to the same Japanese artists that Monet admired.

Examples 3 and 4 show the use of classical Ideal Italian landscape designs as compositional forms for presenting local images. Example 3 from the 1930s presents a bucolic generic landscape designed with a standard serpentine road wending into the shaded distance.  It’s a recipe of clichés that could fit many locations with its sunny pasture, grazing cow, rich foliage and flowering plants. The colors are unnaturally amplified. Example 4 presents a Claudian design with an overarching cherry tree framing a monument and lake. Again the colors are exaggerated and discreetly placed within their respective forms to accommodate easier printing.

Example 3. Rural postcard from Anywhere, Ohio.

Example 4. Washington DC postcard.

Transferring these postcard aesthetics to my own summer photos I came up with these exaggerated results. The images refer to the earlier 20th century postcards.  With my designs, color and edge exaggerations I can dramatize the connection between contemporary work and historic postcards (see examples 5, 6, and 7).

Example 5.  Summer Highways, photo.

Example 6. Sunset Beach, “wish you were here”.

Example 7. Sunset Beach 2, Wish you were here”.

My final examples 8, 9, and 10 are a sequence of steps painting of a forest stream. The colors and textures and edges have been heightened to subliminally recall a connection to earlier postcard aesthetics.

Example 8, Step one, oil on brushed gold Dibond, “Chromatic Forest Stream”.

Example 9, Step two,

Example 10. Step three and current state after day one painting “Chromatic Forest Stream”.

I invite you to join me in September for more online Zoom classes. Again, I present a demonstration followed by critiques of individual artist’s works. These artists’ works may be anything you wish me to see and offer my suggestions. Registration is at daviddunlop.com.




10 Responses

  1. Paula Eckerty

    David the Florida Highwaymen painters were selling these kinds of paintings from the trunk of their cars. They were carried all over the U S as “postcards” of the lush tropical exotic Florida. Their paintings are almost garish, technicolor, but don’t really compete with Mother Nature. Love this blog!

    • dd_admin

      Thank you Paula. I recalled that I was introduced to the Florida Highwaymen painters through PBS and the “Antiques Roadshow”. Fascinating story there.


    I’m a photographer trying to get into painting and subscribed to your blog for inspiration. As it happens, I collect historic postcards, hoping to use them for inspiration as well as well as for information about good locations, especially the Catskills and Rhode Island cards, and now the two streams flow together! Thank you for this!

    • dd_admin

      Nancy, Thank you for your comments here about the confluence of painting and postcards. Maybe you might wish to join me for a zoom class available at this website. I did a program on postcards’ history and how to borrow their effects in paintings. Thank you, David

  3. Pam Demo

    David, this is one of the best. It is a reminder that the history is as important as the image. Thanks for all your historical background that comes with these visual lessons. It makes it all that more complete.

  4. randy k davis

    GM David-do you have any favorite sources is visual research that you use? Thank you

    • dd_admin

      Randy, That is a question with lots of answers because I am always looking for sources and inspiration. I can say I have three different categories, science, nature, and pan cultural art history. For science I do my reading in both psychology and neuroscience. Thank you. David

  5. Jan Gutweiler

    I have been collecting hand painted postcards( as opposed to hand colored) but the mostly water color cards lack the vibrancy seen here. I love the brilliance in these

    • dd_admin

      Jan, Thank you for your comments on collecting postcards. I like the intensity of these cards too. David

  6. Jan Gutweiler

    I have been collecting hand painted post cards( as opposed to hand colored ) with mostly water color medium. These are far less vibrant and the ones shown which have a very stimulating appeal.

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