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July 06, 2009

French Style Brushwork

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Tour de France season returns. For a few years I followed it pretty closely. Closely by my standards, I should add; most of the time I pay attention only to who the ultimate winner is. I followed it "closely" when I happened to be touring France myself during the first part of July and wanted to make sure my route and the Tour's route didn't intersect within a couple of days of each other.

I mention the Tour de France because of its logo that I was seeing on t-shirts and baseball caps when I was in the country a month or so ago. Here it is:

Tour de France logo

Thanks to my art background I flatter myself thinking I can "read" shapes, patterns, symbols and their ilk. But I must confess that it took me weeks to realize that the TdF logo is more than words. There's a sketchy image of a bicyclist embedded amongst the lettering. The "o" in Tour and the yellow circle represent bicycle wheels, the "r" in the same word is the cyclist's body and the dot above the yellow circle is his head. Get it?

Perhaps one reason I didn't get it was the brushy quality of the lettering which I associate with France. Being hopeless on doing lettering of any kind (a major reason why I decided not to become a commercial artist), I admire even the guys who letter signs in supermarkets announcing the price of carrots. And the free brush style used in the logo is a lot easier than having to mimic an actual typeface, though still beyond my limited ability.

In fact, it's very close to drawing. Moreover, there's a loose, brushy illustration style that also strikes me as being French in spirit even if a French artist wasn't responsible. Let's take a look.


Macintosh "Picasso" poster - ca.1984
This is the Apple Macintosh computer marketing image created 25 years ago when it was launched. Some Web sites call the object shown above Macintosh's "Picasso poster." I can't remember if Apple used the same term. But Picasso himself was long dead and someone else created the brushy, sketchy image. I half recall that the artist was indeed French, but don't remember the name. Any Mac mavens to the rescue?

Macintosh floppy disk
The image wasn't only a poster. That might have been an afterthought because the image adorned Macintosh packaging and other Mac-related stuff including the label on the floppy disk shown above.

Macintosh Selling Guide cover
The Mac guidebook cover above didn't have the entire drawing of the computer but instead featured a design using just the mouse and its cord.

British Vogue cover - December, 1934
Such brushwork was nothing new. Half a century before the Macintosh illustration and graphics we find this December, 1934 British Vogue cover.

Vogue cover art - February, 1935 - by Eric
An example from a few months later is this American Vogue cover art for February, 1935. The artist was an American living in France who signed his work "Eric." His full name was Carl Oscar August Erickson; for more information about Eric, click here.

Vogue cover - February, 1937 - by Eric
Another cover by Eric. Not a purely linear image, but the brushwork is casual and the lettering is by hand.

Obviously a lot of art-savvy people like the style featured above. Certainly no one can accuse editors of Vogue of being style-oblivious. The same can be said for Apple's leader Steve Jobs.

Me? While I normally don't really like tightly-done hard-edge painting and illustration, I'm usually not enthusiastic about art taking the other extreme -- having a too-casual look. I'm talking personal taste here: no assertions that what you see above is bad. Weird old me, I happen to like Eric's 1935 illustration best, and way back in 1984 never cared for nor really understood the reasoning behind the choice of the illustration used for Macintosh.



posted by Donald at July 6, 2009


Um, you do know that Picasso was *Spanish*, right?

(I am half Spaniard)

Posted by: SFG on July 7, 2009 8:29 AM

John Casado was the originator of the Mac "Picasso" design. It appears that Mr. Casado is an American. (trivia for the day)

Posted by: Julie Brook on July 7, 2009 8:59 AM

It does all seem very Gallic, doesn't it? The personal touch, the suave-carefree quality ... Very much like Toulouse-Lautrec poster art, or even ads for weeks on the Cote d'Azur. French comic book artists often develop signature lettering styles in this mode too (or so it seems to me from limited experience). Go to

and then click thru till you hit "ABCDR ..." It's a whimsical alphabet that the artist known as Loustal has drawn, it's quite charming, and it's very much in this mode ...

And, come to think of it, Pedro Almodovar used to parody the hand-drawn "signature"/personal-style thing in the title sequences of his films. (Does he still? Haven't seen his more recent movies.) So maybe it's a Euro thing generally? A Romance-part-of-Europe thing? They seem to crank it out very happily and expect it as part of the visual landscape.

Seems to signify some mix of "an artist is at work," "casual elegance," "flair," "personality," "a great night out" and "vacation," so far as I can tell. A little corny, like wearing an ascot, but still fun.

I hadn't known about Eric before, thanks for the intro.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 7, 2009 10:29 AM

SFG -- Hey, it wasn't me who called it the Picasso poster. But Picasso did make his career in France. And Eric, as noted, was American and also spent time in France.

Regardless, Eric's style is more in synch with the style Apple used than Picasso's which was more structured. I suspect whoever first applied the term to the Apple design wasn't much of an art buff.

Julie -- Thank you for the help. Do you have a source for that info?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 7, 2009 10:32 AM

I've always hated that Picasso-ish Mac logo. It's pure pastiche, almost a paint-by-the-numbers. Not so much expressionistic, as invoking an expressionistic trope as a symbol of coolness. (Hmmm, sounds a bit like Jonathan Hale's critique of "modern" (post-1830) architecture.)

Here's some real calligraphic expressionism. You can feel the inner fire.

The French posterwork is derivative (of Japanese originals, I believe), but is still pretty good. Sadly, I suspect the Tour de France logo is intended to look like a tablet-based knock-off of real brushwork.

Posted by: intellectual pariah on July 7, 2009 2:52 PM

For my money, Raoul Dufy is the best example of that casual brushed line look...And he's French!

Posted by: Mark Heng on July 8, 2009 6:23 PM

3rd paragraph

Posted by: Julie Brook on July 9, 2009 10:38 AM

Julie -- Very good work. That settles it. I knew that a French artist in the mix but had forgotten that his work wasn't the final product. And I see that the "Picasso" label is widespread.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 9, 2009 12:08 PM

What the MAC stuff says/implies/hints/shouts to me... it's "artsy." MAC users are artistic; they can build full images in their heads from these graphical hints -- thus MAC users are creative; they won't be running accounting programs on their computers but instead, they will be painting, and writing novels, and composing great music. People who are not impressed by such partial images are crass, materialistic, philistines who probably like rebuilding car engines for fun and profit, or fiddling around with device driver files -- typical MS-DOS nerds, in other words.

That's my take. But I've never owned a MAC; I started my home computer with a Kaypro II, moved to a Kaypro 286, and over the years have owned 6 or 7 PC running DOS, various flavors of Windows, and half a dozen versions of Debian Linux. Artsy, I ain't.

Posted by: mike shupp on July 11, 2009 12:57 AM

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