Cutaway of Constellation airplane by Frank Soltesz.

Technical illustrators are often asked to create cutaway drawings, which are renderings that have specific areas removed for the purpose of highlighting a desired product or function. I’ve always been fascinated with these works of art. They tap into our natural curiosity and our need to understand how things work. But to be honest, I think a lot of cutaway drawings suffer from a rigid, lifeless quality; a by-product of an often exclusive focus on excessively detailed mechanical information in the absence of human interaction. This can weaken the drawing’s ability to engage the viewer. Comprehension of the machine (or process) is replaced with more of a “wow that’s impressive because it’s so complicated” reaction. In these instances, a drawing’s communication goal can be compromised. 

I’m reminded of this conundrum when I look at the amazing industrial cutaways of illustrator Frank Soltesz, a prolific artist from the mid-20th century. What impresses me is not only how he captures an incredible amount of technical detail in his paintings, but how he contextualizes and humanizes his industrial processes by including subtle details; an old man with a cane crosses the street; the murky waters surrounding an exposed steam ship dimly reveal ocean life and divers; a couple carry groceries in a parking lot; a man opens a car door for his wife; a policeman chats on the street corner with a young woman.  

In so doing, Soltesz manages to include what amount to “micro-cutaways” of everyday, modern life. Besides the vintage, charming quality of his work, the effect of framing a potentially mundane process within a daily routine is to lend it a vibrancy that entertains, yet doesn’t distract from the communication goal. 

Here’s a link to some of his work published in the Saturday Evening Post between 1947–1951.

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