Remembering the Artist’s “Swipe File”
It had been nagging me for ages – that long-neglected file cabinet in the corner of my home office. Not the one I use to file current papers in – I'm talking about my swipe file, the one I have kept since I was a kid.
My swipe file was calling out for my attention. Over the years, I had forgone any kind of organizational system I once had for it. I had continued to throw interesting clippings in it for years. Whenever I saw something of interest in a newspaper or magazine, I would cut it out and throw it haphazardly in the drawer.
These clippings were supposed to go into a folder called "To Be Filed," but I hadn't actually placed new clippings into this folder for some time. Both drawers of the cabinet were practically filled to capacity anyway, so the only option was to throw the new clippings on top. This strategy eventually became untenable, as the cabinet was reaching the point where I could hardly get the drawers closed!
The Swipe File is Forgotten
Finding new clippings that I wished to file away was becoming less and less common anyway, as I turned more of my attention to the online world. My swipe file habits began to transfer themselves to the digital realm, and when I encountered an interesting image online, I would often save it to disk for further reference.
My attention was also diverted increasingly to creating works on the computer using such programs as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and the numerous drawing apps for the iPad, as well as spending time studying and playing around with new (to me) software such as Anime Studio and Poser.
But my swipe file continued to nag and to haunt me. It was such a big part of my early years as an aspiring cartoonist that I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it. So when my Mac was at the shop for repairs, it seemed like a good time to finally pay my swipe file some long-overdue attention.
Just What Exactly Is a "Swipe File?"
A “swipe file” is simply a collection of cartoons, photographs and illustrations cut out of magazines and newspapers for inspiration and reference. It went by different terms.
Some artists referred to it as a "morgue,” the implication being, I suppose, that all these previously published works were now dead and forgotten, although that term seemed a bit morbid to me. (I might add that the term "swipe file" is also tongue-in-cheek as you should never blatantly copy or steal other artists’ work.)
The swipe file was an indispensable resource for artists before the advent of the digital age. Virtually every book for artists and cartoonists recommended keeping one. After all, you never knew what you might be called on to draw at some future date.
Why a Swipe File?
Let's say you were asked to draw, say, a knight in shining armor, would you be able to do so off the top of your head? How about a castle? Or a garbage truck? How about a Colt 45 or a Russian rifle? A ’57 Chevy or a saxophone? A speedboat or an F104 jet?
As a published artist/cartoonist, you couldn't fake it. For everything you tried to fake, there might be a hundred people who knew what the object was really supposed to look like and they would write to tell you so! As one book put it (emphasis in original):
“Making such a file is a time-consuming job, but you will be surprised at how much you will learn from this activity and what a marvelous timesaver it will become for you. In addition to being an excellent source of information, your file will be a rich source of picture ideas. You should start one as soon as you can, and you must always be adding to it. It will be one of your most valuable assets as a working artist.”
Have you ever kept a file of reference drawings?
Benefits and Dangers
Plus, I might add, compiling a swipe file could be a lot of fun! You learned a lot about the world around you by so doing – how things look, what things are made of, and the various hierarchies that all man-made and natural objects fall into.
You learned a little bit about how science and technology and human society and the natural world are organized. You learned how different artists have interpreted these things over the years. Really, creating a swipe file honed your powers of observation and forced you to look at the world in a more organized fashion.
Just as important as knowing what a swipe file was is knowing what it was not. It was not an invitation to copy or “steal” other artists’ work. This is called plagiarism and it can get you into big trouble! The swipe file, despite it's name, should only have been used for information, inspiration and reference.
Experienced artists know that even using a photograph in creating an original drawing can get you into trouble! (Using a number of photos of the same subject may be all right, as long as any individual photo isn't recognizable in your artwork.)
The Swipe File Begins
I started compiling my swipe file when I was about ten or eleven years old. A school that I attended had a collection of old magazines that the students were allowed to clip from, so this made a good starting point for my collection. Since some of the magazines were already quite old to begin with, my collection got a good head start, and since I continued adding to it over the years, it eventually covered a goodly time span.
I also cut out a large number of what are known as "single panels" or “gag cartoons" from old magazines. These are something like comic strips but they usually present a complete joke or funny concept with a single image and caption.
Since some of the magazines I clipped from included such venerable publications as Look and The Saturday Evening Post during what was still the heyday of the single panel cartoon, I got examples from a wide range of notable cartoonists (including Charles Addams, creator of “The Addams Family”).
After a while, my pile of clippings started to become rather unwieldy, however, so it became necessary to start organizing them into folders. I had folders for animals, buildings, costumes, entertainers, faces and expressions, families, insects and monsters, kids, machines, men and women, money, objects, outdoor scenes, sports, transportation and offbeat drawing styles.
Swipe File Essentials
Of course, there had to be a "miscellaneous" folder for things that didn't fit into any of the other categories. I also had a special set of folders for photographs, which included such things as grand pianos, tubas, dancers, puppeteers, acrobats, clowns, artists, cash registers, automobiles, offices, motorcycle drivers and much more.
Everything was originally stored in a cardboard box and, eventually, an inexpensive filing cabinet from a department store. At the height of my magazine clipping addiction, I couldn't pass by an old magazine without poring through it to see if it had something that was "swipe file worthy."
For those who wanted to take a shortcut, it was possible to create a sort of "instant swipe file" by saving an old Sears Roebuck or JCPenney catalog (back in the days when these firms still published the "big books").
If somebody still had such catalogs today, depending on the era, they could be a source of great hilarity, considering what we thought was fashionable back then, including the clothing styles (bell bottoms, anyone?), the hairstyles, the obsolete electronics and, of course, the toys (which can be a great source of nostalgia, as well).
The Swipe File Enters the Computer Age
These days, the computer and the Internet have rendered the artist’s swipe file, like so many other “old-school” ways of doing things, more or less obsolete.
A quick Google Image Search will pull up images of pretty much anything you can imagine, from an aardwolf to zoril (a skunk-like animal) a parbuckle, a mongoose, a lugger (a type of sailing ship) and whatever else you can imagine. You can also limit your search results to drawings or cartoons by adding either of those words to your search term.
In fact, Google Image Search is getting smarter over time, with the ability to identify more and more objects from photographs, whether these photos are captioned correctly or not. You can try it by uploading some of your own unlabeled images to Image Search; it’s kind of fun to see how well it does.
In addition to Google Images, there are massive clip art collections, all instantly searchable and of great variety. In the pre-computer era, such royalty free illustrations came in the form of printed books that you literally clipped out of (hence the term "clip art").
Later, they were packaged on floppy disks, then CD-ROMs, and then DVDs (I once bought a collection of 750,000 images on five DVDs). Nowadays, you can gain instant access and reprint rights online to literally millions of searchable images through a monthly fee.
Reconnecting with the Swipe File
Which kind of brings me back to my old swipe file. When my computer was in the shop, I had a chance to finally get my swipe file into some semblance of order once again. The stacks of clippings that I had planned to getting around to filing away “someday" were finally placed into their proper categories.
I had to do some weeding to get everything to fit, but I had a certain pride of accomplishment when the task was finished. And I was reminded of why I enjoyed compiling that file so much as a kid. There's a sense of accomplishment that comes from organizing and filing all those little bits of paper. It's a little like keeping a stamp collection.
Looking through all the different art styles also impressed me with the enormous amount of creativity that this file embodied, and it inspired me to start creating more of my own work.
But as I was sorting through this huge unfiled stack of clippings, I started to wonder just how long it had been since I last put any serious effort into organizing and maintaining my collection. By studying the dates on the various clippings, I was able to piece together the answer. Ironically, the file had started to fall into disarray at around the time I had purchased my first computer!
As far as my swipe file goes, however, I could never bring myself to get rid of it. It carries too much nostalgia for me, and the clippings are still interesting to look through. If anything, they become even more interesting and nostalgic as time goes on.
And they can remain a great source of inspiration.