Art Influences in Design: Pop Art

In the Car, Roy Lichtenstein (1963)

What is Pop Art?

Stylish, colorful, humorous, unsettling- Pop Art is highly recognizable and visually appealing. The movement had its heyday in from the 1950s through the 1970s, but remains influential in both fine art and design trends today. Pop Art can be broadly defined as any art which depicts images and iconography culture and mass media out of its original context with the goal of holding a mirror up to the society which created it.

Pop art started with the New York artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Claes Oldenburg, all of whom drew on popular imagery and were actually part of an international phenomenon. Following the popularity of the Abstract Expressionists, Pop’s reintroduction of identifiable imagery (drawn from mass media and popular culture) was a major shift for the direction of modernism. The subject matter became far from traditional “high art” themes of morality, mythology, and classic history; rather, Pop artists celebrated commonplace objects and people of everyday life, in this way seeking to elevate popular culture to the level of fine art. Perhaps owing to the incorporation of commercial images, Pop art has become one of the most recognizable styles of modern art.

Eduardo Paolozzi, Sack-o-sauce (1948)

The Backstory:

Pop Art got off to a stylish start in mid-1950s Britain, with artists like Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi creating refreshingly irreverent collages and paintings which featured consumer culture and mass media imagery. Hamilton gave the movement its name in a 1961 essay titled, “For the Best Art, Try Pop!” In it, the author claimed that twentieth century artists are both consumers of mass culture and contributors to it. The movement aimed to look critically at both postwar consumerism and the fine art world, and to perhaps bridge the gap between the two.

By the late 1950s, Pop Art had made its way to America, where it found a natural home in New York, the epicenter of American capitalism and fine art alike. Not long beforehand, the Abstract Expressionists had established the city’s reputation city’s international reputation. Pop Artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Claes Oldenburg made a radical departure by re-introducing figurative imagery. Specifically, they painted everyday imagery, such as products, packaging, tabloids, comic books, celebrities and advertisements. Often, they divorced the image from its original meaning by vastly enlarging it, repeating it or altering its colors. While Abstract Expressionists and their predecessors sought to tap the artist’s inner experience, Pop Artists focused deliberately on the outward appearances. The use of popular imagery can be seen as an attack on fine art elitism and a celebration of mass media and design. At other times, Pop Art can appear more critical of popular culture itself, revealing themes of sensationalism, greed, vanity and the ever-present promise of immediate gratification.

Coca-Cola 3 bottles, Andy Warhol (1962)

Breakthrough Artist: Andy Warhol

“Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” –Andy Warhol

Andrew Warhola was born in 1928 in Pittsburgh to Slovakian immigrants, and from a young age loved drawing and Hollywood movies. His father died when he was 14, leaving his entire savings for his son’s education. Graduating with a bachelor’s in design, Andrew Wahola changed his last name to “Warhol” moved to New York City to pursue a career as a commercial artist. His illustrations for style magazines like “Glamour” made him one of the most successful designers of the 1950s. Having achieved commercial and critical success in the world of design, Warhol turned his attention to painting in the late 1950’s. He debuted his iconic Campbell’s soup can paintings in 1962 and created an immediate stir with his high-art aesthetic treatment of product design so omnipresent as to be invisible. Warhol employed silk screening, combining this technique with painting, to create multiple identical images of consumer goods. He also produced portraits of celebrities such as Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, using repetition and flat, unnatural colors to create a sense of heightened artificiality. His art sold for huge sums of money and Warhol became a celebrity himself, a role he embraced. Warhol’s 1960’s workspace, “The Factory” became a hotspot for rock stars, musicians and socialites, and the scene of some of the era’s most infamous parties. Throughout the 1960s, he nurtured and collaborated with emerging artists, including The Velvet Underground and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and experimented in film and photography. He died in 1968 following complications after a gall bladder surgery. Warhol’s paintings, which both satirized and celebrated fame and consumer culture, remain some of the most emblematic images of America in the 1960s.

Profile in Style: Artificial Color

In traditional painting, color is used in service of realism, atmosphere or emotional effect. None of these artistic objectives are important in Pop Art. On the contrary, they used color to create a sense of artificiality. This frequently meant emulating the look of mass-produced goods, such as reproducing and even exaggerating the bright, uniform colors of processed foods and synthetic fabrics. In other cases, artists re-created the look of printed media, such as advertisements and packaging. One obvious example is the work of Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), which reproduced the look of printed material, particularly comic book panels, on a grand scale. Lichtenstein not only imitated the flat colors of the mass media illustration, but sometimes actually painted the halftone dots of color which make up colors in the commercial printing process. Later artists like David Hockney (1937-) used bright, flat color to evoke the idealized landscapes of American travel brochures and postcards.

Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol (1967)

Profile in Style: Repetition

Pop artists created in response to the ready-made products of culture, from TV dinners and canned soup, to Hollywood ideals of masculinity and femininity, to idealized homes, cars and landscapes. Because such items were made to be distributed and consumed on a grand scale, they were numerous and uniform. Pop artists, most notably Andy Warhol, drew attention to the hypnotic sameness of such products by repeating images of them over and over in identical form. One way he achieved this was to use silkscreens to print many copies of the same image, and this technique was later adopted by Lichtenstein as well. In his famous celebrity portraits, Warhol sometimes altered the color of each silkscreen to create a semblance of variety within a framework of sameness, as in assorted flavors of the same product.

Modern concert poster in pop art style

Pop Art in Design Today

“I see no reason why the artistic world can’t absolutely merge with Madison Avenue. Pop art is a move in that direction. Why can’t we have advertisements with beautiful words and beautiful images??” -William S. Burroughs

Pop Art was a fine art movement celebrating and criticizing the commercial arts. Today, this fine art movement has itself been absorbed into the world of design and commercial aesthetics. The all-American fantasy of affluence and abundance that dominated in the 50s and 60s is powerfully ironic yet appealing. With a nod and a wink, modern designers make use of this celebration of materialism in contemporary packaging, branding, fashion and graphic design. Instead of playing on consumers’ anxieties and desires, Pop Art-based design invites the viewer to participate in a shared in-joke. Many such designs, for instance, make visual reference to kitsch or popular culture.

The aesthetics of Pop Art-inspired design are all about bright, bold, fun and user-friendly looks. Design in this style features saturated colors, heavy outlines and bold typography, all of which are eye-catching and visually appealing. Pop Art-based design sets a mood of high energy, fun and style.
Some product, fashion or web designs even make direct reference to famous works of Pop Art or the styles of famous Pop artists, featuring art made or inspired by Warhol or Lichtenstein. Other designers look to the earliest works of Pop Art, collaged from glossy magazines, and create a found-image look that creates surprise and humor. With its playful attitude and eye-candy looks, Pop Art today is right at home in its own source material- popular design.

A photo easily transforms into a comic-book, Pop Art style

Try it: Tutorials

Expand your design education; use modern tools to create classic Pop Art looks with these online design resources.

  • Recycle vintage images to create a Pop Art collage in Photoshop

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