Tuesday, 12 March 2013



Graphic Arts is a branch of Fine Arts, to which the term covers a broad range of art forms that are most often two-dimensional. Included under the blanket term ‘graphic arts’ are calligraphy, photography, maps, drawing, painting, printmaking, lithography, typography, serigraphy, and bindery; as well as architectural design. This wide-ranging term also covers graphic design, which in general serves as a means of visual communication.

The history of graphic arts and graphic design in Canada suggests many of these art forms have been thriving since the 19th century and into the 20th century. The use of visual communication has been an important factor in the proliferation of many graphic art forms across the country. Historically, we have seen Canadians utilizing and advancing upon innovative and current artistic forms throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Evidence of this can be found in the pioneer photography of the mid to late 19th century. Professional and amateur photographers headed westward, either by their own intuition or by subsidizing from entrepreneurs such as the railway companies, to document and promote westward expansion. The desire to communicate the vast splendour of Western Canada led photographers to keep up-to-date with leading International industry advancements. They endeavored to keep pace with British and European photographic improvements all within a few decades from the early daguerreotype of the 1850s through albumen printing in the 1870s and 1880s to the silver gelatin printing process in the 1890s. Photographers would often endure harsh climate and terrain in order to best communicate the landscape to prospective visitors to the west.

The work of cartographers can also be considered a form of the graphic arts, and is one that alongside the popularization by Gutenberg of the printed book has permeated into regular use since the early Renaissance in Europe. In Canada the industry of mapmaking has followed suit, and in conjunction with the proliferation of lithography in the 19th century, a more widespread audience would gain access to such art forms. An example of this is a large scale 1889 map of the city of Victoria, which was made using lithography for wider dissemination. This map provides a detailed account of the city streets and surrounding geography. There are street names, accurately rendered buildings, wandering figures, and a delicate atmospheric rendering of the hills and a distant Mount Baker on the horizon. The publishers, Ellis & Co., also were the publishers of Victoria’s major newspaper, The Tribune.

Some graphic art forms like printmaking can serve purely aesthetic purposes. W.J. Phillips’ exquisite colour woodblock prints share more in common with traditional fine art, such as oil paintings or watercolours. The same could be said for the serigraphs that were commercially produced in the mid 20th century in Canada. The Sampson-Matthews Co. and the Marc Graf Company produced silkscreen prints of well-known artists in order to allow for a wider audience for the art. Though arguably, these Canadian silkscreen projects were still intended for widespread visual communication, considering that they were launched as a means for creating public awareness about Canadian artists.

Perhaps the most well known sub-category of graphic arts is graphic design. Graphic design in Canada has kept up with international innovation throughout the history of modern design. Using visual communication for advertisements or for relaying ideas and messages took flight in the 20th century, for Canada included. The English artist and designer William Morris is often credited as the father of modern design. His ideology and style make him a pioneer of the renowned Arts and Crafts movement in art and design. He contributed to the field of graphic design first through dabbling in calligraphy and illumination with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and later with his own typography and the instrumental Kelmscott Press. His illustration, page and book design are the embodiment of Arts and Crafts style, which became prevalent in graphic design in the early 20th century in Britain, Europe and North America. During the opening years of the 20th century, the leading design firms in Canada saw graphic artists working in the popular Arts and Crafts style. This included the design firms of Grip Ltd. and Rous and Mann, where graphic artists very often worked in the Arts and Crafts style. Many of Canada’s most celebrated artists were at some point working at these firms, including most Group of Seven members and Tom Thomson.

Tom Thomson, Quotation from Maurice Maeterlinck, ink of paper (at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

The Poster gained rapid popularity worldwide in the early 20th century as a method of visual communication for advertising or propaganda. A staple in the history of graphic design, the poster saw breakthroughs in Germany in the early 20th century, with a fresh new style that utilized few, but bold, colours with a minimal composition in order to easily attract attention. This specific style for posters was called Plakatstil in German. Plakatstil gained popularity worldwide; and Canada was no exception. Akin to the 19th century photographs of the West, bold simple avant-garde posters were designed to entice visitors out west along the railway lines in the 1930s, 1940s and 50s to ski resorts and outdoor adventures. The Canadian ski resort posters of this time are in tune with current International trends in poster design.

Thus, from the 19th century pioneers of historical photography out West, through the prestigious Toronto design firms on the early 20th century, to the avant garde travel posters of the 1940s; Canada has been forefront in the history of modern graphic arts.

By: Jill Turner

Photograph credits

1. Bailey & Neelands, Rogers Pass from Glacier House, B.C. circa 1892

2. 2. Ellis & Co., Bird’s Eye View of Victoria, 1889

3. W.J. Phillips, Jack Pine, colour woodblock print, 1940

4. B.C. Binning/ Sampson Matthews Co., Ships in a Classical Calm, serigraph

5. Peter Ewart, Ski Canada, Poster, 1941


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