Notes on The Wall Street Journal Hedcut from its Creator, Kevin Sprouls

Hedcut Portrait of Carl Reiner by Kevin Sprouls
Hedcut Portrait of Carl Reiner. © Copyright Kevin Sprouls, Used with permission.

From Sue Chastain:

Some time back, I published my answer to a reader's question about how to use graphics software to create a line drawing in the style of the famous Wall Street Journal "Hedcut" portraits. I learned a lot from that question, and discovered that the Wall Street Journal hedcuts have always been hand-drawn, and still are to this day. Kevin Sprouls, the creator of the Wall Street Journal Hedcut Portrait style, has written in to share some tips and notes about the process of creating this unique portrait style.

From Kevin Sprouls:

The distinct character of the wall street journal "hedcut" style that I created for the paper derives from the fact that they are hand-drawn. Each portrait has its own individual quality. I feel that filters applied to a photographic image will always come off looking somewhat cold and mechanical, though it wouldn't surprise me if one were to get halfway there by computer means.

When I was at the Journal, presiding over the creation of these portraits, I was once given a mission to go out to the local photoconversion house to see if we could discover a way to accomplish the "mass production" of these hedcuts. They were doing with camera work what the computer is doing today, using filters to prep images for the sharpest black and white newspaper reproduction. It was most interesting, especially the part of the facility's tour that was off-limits--- the corner where a well dressed man was painstakingly working with a very fine brush, making critical adjustments to the final product.

That was the real secret to their success: an actual human eye to bring it off. While at the Journal, I did produce a screen, of sorts, consisting merely of hand-placed dots, or stipple marks, but was never able to make it work properly. It took a long time to make, and that piece is presumably taking up space in the Journal's archives, long forgotten.

One of the tricks to printing these, we discovered early on, was to make sure the exposure settings for reproduction were for a very dark printed image. This ensures that the image holds up through the rigors of digital transmission and mass printing. The exposure is crucial. I advise my clients to scan art for printing at the highest resolution possible, using the line art (bitmap) format, and taking the threshold setting up to the 170 setting. You can even go further than this for added richness. For web use, I have discovered that, for some odd reason, the images come out best if scanned (at screen resolution, 72 dpi) at 400% of final size. Once image is scanned, it is reduced to 25%. Assuming the original scan is set to be "neutral" or a bit darker in tonality, the final touch is to adjust the brightness/contrast settings (under Image/Adjustments in Photoshop pull-down menu) to taste. But, always remember that uploading to the web always thins or pales an image, so one must compensate for that before uploading.

• Learn more from Kevin's blog: Sprouls Method — the Hedcut

About Kevin Sprouls:

Kevin Sprouls introduced the hallmark portrait style to the Wall Street Journal in 1979. Between 1979 and 1987, Kevin worked on staff for the paper, creating illustrations and training artists in the style. At the time of his departure from the daily activity of putting out the paper, he was Assistant Art Director in charge of the in-house artists, which numbered 4-5 staff artists, and 2-3 part-timers. He has been quite active in the freelance illustration sphere since then, contributing to advertising, publishing, editorial and corporate projects. His style is notable for its high level of detail and traditional, engraving-like effect.

Sprouls' work has been featured in the Smithsonian magazine, a web exhibit of the National Portrait Gallery, New Jersey magazine, and a major exhibit celebrating Columbus Day which was mounted in Grand Central Terminal, New York in 2005.

His pen is housed in the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Kevin Sprouls is married with 2 children, and lives in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.