Stamps are the best. They’re tiny, inexpensive, collectible bits of art. They’re historical documents, cultural artifacts, remnants of communications long (and not so long) past between real people.
I began collecting stamps as a kid and have collected them on and off for the couple decades since. I’m an illustrator and have filled my studio and house with all kinds of illustrated ephemera, but my book of stamps might be my favorite, most interesting collection.
These four stamps are some of my most cherished. Designed by Portuguese Modernist illustrator & designer Maria Keil (1914-2012), issued in 1962 to commemorate the International Pediatric Congress, I adore their simplicity and graphic boldness; their warm, genuine gestures and their juxtaposition of sketchy line and shape. These are images you might expect to find in the pages of a mid-20th century picture book.
Keil did, in fact, illustrate children’s books; a charming example from 1967, entitled The Book of Marianinha, is shown below. In addition to her illustration work, she was highly regarded as a painter, engraver, designer of textiles, mosaics (azulejo) and interiors, working on diverse projects throughout Portugal from the 1930s to only a year or so ago.
I collect stamps because I see it as an opportunity to discover the world’s heavyweights of illustration and design and to own little pieces of their creative legacies.
Many stamp collectors focus on a specific nation, geographic region, historical period or topic, amassing collections of Soviet-era military stamps, for instance; or stamps from the various British colonies; or Polar Expedition stamps; or stamps from the United Nations; or stamps commemorating the Olympic games; or stamps depicting dogs, ships, dinosaurs, flowers, maps, libraries, machines, food. I have some French Antarctic (TAAF) stamps that I really love, like this one, designed by French printmaker Pierre-Yves Tremois and issued in 1985.
My collection isn’t too cohesive. I’m an animal fanatic—always have been—so I used to collect animal stamps willy nilly. Now I simply seek out stamps whose illustration styles intrigue me. My book of stamps includes lots of issues commemorating fairy tales and folk costumes; promoting children’s literacy, health and well-being; saluting cartoons and comics; advocating for letter writing; paying homage to national architecture and native landscapes; and celebrating children’s books, their illustrators and authors. I like stamps that reproduce images from well-loved books—Great Britain’s Edward Lear “Death Centenary” stamps (1988) and Finland’s continuous commemoration of their national comic icon, Moomin, are examples (over a dozen Moomin designs by Tove Jansson have been issued by Finland’s Post since the late eighties. Below, a pair issued in 1994).
But I love stamps with original imagery even more, like the Portuguese and French Antarctic ones pictured above and the German pair, designed by Gohlert in 1958, shown below. A stamp designer must work within limited constraints to create an image that properly honors its subject. She or he designs within minute dimensions, works in vital typographic details, communicates in symbols or in as universally recognizable imagery as possible, finally creating an image that people will want to buy (and later collect) in its own right.
I still have many of the stamps I collected as a child; most are from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands and cover every topic imaginable. Many are still attached to envelope scraps my Oma (grandma), who corresponded with her German family regularly, saved for me. I rediscovered stamps in high school, when I began to take illustration seriously, and found what seemed to be an under-appreciated illustration goldmine. I found stamps in every possible illustration style—from the most traditional to the most expressive and cutting edge, reflecting the interests, priorities and visual languages of their times. When looking at dozens or even hundreds of stamps depicting a single topic over a period of time, you witness graphic styles develop and peter out. I look forward to sharing examples of this on this blog in the coming weeks and months.
Lots of folks think of stamp collecting as banal, tedious business. It certainly does require patience. In the process of searching for a particular issue, you can sort through hundreds, if not thousands, of duds. The digital age has streamlined this process, which used to mean attending stamp shows and spending hours sifting through phonebook-style catalogs and long cardboard boxes of individually-filed stamps (which are often organized by nation, date and catalog number, not topic). eBay and wiki sites like Catawiki allow you to narrow your search criteria and improve your chances of discovering a gem in a short period of time. I do attend stamp shows periodically but most of my acquisitions happen online. I have a pretty healthy collection but probably only spend around a hundred dollars a year to grow it.
I don’t consider myself a hardcore philatelist. I mostly feel out of my element at stamp shows (granted, I’m usually two to four decades younger than the majority of attendees). I don’t know all the stamp jargon; don’t care for the unusual, expensive misprints; don’t nerd out with other collectors. I don’t think I even know another collector. I am just an illustrator who collects illustrations printed on stamps. I like owning bits of illustration and cultural history and spending just fifty cents or a dollar or two to do it. (Each of these stamps were acquired for less than a dollar; they hearken from Andorra , Germany  and Bulgaria , respectively and are a few more of my favorites.)
So this is Stamp Drawer. A place where I collect stamps and drawings of stamps. And since I like drawing even more than stamp collecting, I thought it might be a fun exercise to create my own stamps and post them here too. I’m not trying to one-up the real stamp designers. Instead, I’d like to get other illustrators, artists and art appreciators interested in stamps; to have a platform to organize and share my collection with the world; and to have another project to create illustrations for in 2013.
One more thing. Now that digital communications have largely eclipsed their traditional counterparts, stamps could become a thing of the past. Many postal services are struggling to stay afloat. Some countries, like Sweden and Denmark, are issuing a text message service that allows citizens to pay for postage without actually affixing stamps to their mail. Man. The Scandinavians have designed some of my favorite stamps ever, like Sweden’s 2010 “Delicious” collection.
It could be that stamps will become another curiosity of communications history, like telegrams, switchboards and landline telephones. I hope not! I’ll continue to collect and share my collection with the small hope that some people who didn’t think stamps were cool before give them a second thought.