Arnold Skolnick, a graphic artist whose last-minute design for the poster promoting the 1969 Woodstock rock festival was one of the most indelible visual images of the era, died June 15 at a hospice in Amherst, Mass. He was 85.
Mr. Skolnick had worked on advertising campaigns and had designed movie titles, book jackets and corporate logos early in his career, but none of his prior work had the impact of the poster he created in four days in the summer of 1969.
A poster designed by another artist had been rejected because it showed a nude woman and didn’t leave room for the performers’ names. Mr. Skolnick got the emergency assignment after one of the Woodstock organizers saw a logo he designed for a hotel in the Virgin Islands.
Inspired by the paper constructions of Henri Matisse, Mr. Skolnick went to work, incorporating casual drawings he had made. He ultimately decided on a design with two primary elements — a bird standing on a guitar, balanced in the opposite corner by bold lettering describing the event.
“I was drawing catbirds all the time,” Mr. Skolnick told the Canadian news service CanWest in 2004. “I just took the razor blade and cut that catbird out of the sketchpad I was using. First, it sat on a flute. I was listening to jazz at the time, and I guess that’s why. But anyway, it sat on a flute for a day, and I finally ended up putting it on a guitar.”
At first, Mr. Skolnick tried a blue background before switching to a more vibrant red. He placed the white bird (often assumed to be a dove) in the upper left corner, standing on one leg on the neck of a guitar. A disembodied hand grips the guitar, which is depicted in green and blue and without strings.
Hand-cut orange and white paper lettering in the lower right corner announces “3 Days of Peace & Music.” (Mr. Skolnick’s signature appears below the letter M in “music.”) Early editions of the poster gave the location as Wallkill, N.Y., before it was changed White Lake, N.Y. In the end, the festival took place near Bethel, N.Y.
The poster described the festival as “An Aquarian Exposition” and contained a list of performers, the dates (Aug. 15-17), descriptions of food and crafts, and the price of admission. A three-day pass cost $18, but the event was so poorly organized that few people paid for tickets.
“They gave [the assignment] to me on Thursday,” Mr. Skolnick told the Stamford Advocate in 2010. “And I brought it by to them on Monday afternoon.”
The poster quickly came to symbolize not just the Woodstock festival but the ideals of a youth movement then at its height. At a time when much of the artwork associated with rock music had elaborate lettering and images meant to evoke the psychedelic spirit of the age, Mr. Skolnick’s design stood out in its simplicity: a bird representing peace, a guitar representing music.
“There are a million ways to approach something like that,” Mr. Skolnick said in 2019, “so you just pick one and see if it works.”
Although he had little interest in rock music — he preferred classical music and jazz — Mr. Skolnick had a backstage pass for the festival, which attracted more than 400,000 people.
“Pure chaos,” he told the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Massachusetts in 2019. “Cars were parked everywhere, for miles. People kept coming, people couldn’t get there on time.”
When he saw a weather forecast predicting rain, he decided to leave midway through the first day’s performances.
“It took me about an hour and a half to get my car out of the parking lot,” he recalled. “I had to push cars around and bang cars … The freeway was blocked. People were camped on the median for miles and miles.”
Arnold H. Skolnick was born Feb. 25, 1937, in Brooklyn. His father was a typesetter, and his mother did bookkeeping for an advertising agency.
Mr. Skolnick began drawing at an early age and attended New York’s old High School of Music & Art. He graduated from New York’s Pratt Institute in 1958 and later studied at the Art Students League of New York. He was an artist and designer for the Young & Rubicam advertising agency for several years before starting a freelance business.
The Woodstock poster was not Mr. Skolnick’s only memorable visual image. In 1971, he designed the book jacket for Ralph Nader’s “What to Do With Your Bad Car: An Action Manual for Lemon Owners.”
“I looked, and I said, ‘Just put a lemon on wheels!’” Mr. Skolnick told the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
He bought a lemon and a toy truck, removed the body of the truck, then put lemon in its place.
“I put it on my kitchen table and I shot it and I used that,” he recalled.
From the 1970s to the 2000s, Mr. Skolnick designed many art books, and he was a prolific painter in his own right, with numerous shows in galleries.
His marriages to Iris Jay and Cynthia Meyer ended in divorce. Survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Alex Skolnick of Dresher, Pa., and Peter Skolnick of Turners Falls, Mass.; a sister; and two grandchildren.
Original copies of Mr. Skolnick’s Woodstock poster now sell for thousands of dollars, and it has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His design has been copied and adapted countless times over the years. The bird he cut from his sketch pad in 1969 formed the basis of commemorative postage stamps commemorating Woodstock’s 30th and 50th anniversaries.
Mr. Skolnick received a one-time payment for the Woodstock assignment, but in the more than 50 years since then, he said he received less than $20 in residuals for the thousands of T-shirts, mugs and posters that have featured his design.
“There are no royalties,” he said. “Anybody in the rock-and-roll business knows you can’t get royalties from anybody. You’re lucky to get paid.”