I Only Like Stories with Pictures: Illustration is Back and It Never Left, 2013

[Originally published by the Feldman Gallery at the Pacific Northwest College of Art for the exhibition ‘Tear-Sheet’, curated by Mack McFarland]

The image has had a tough go of it. Photos and illustrations alike have been forever at the beck and call of their master, the text. Captions and placards are constantly sought to give meaning to each visualization. A few clever words turn a cat into a hamburger-fanatic. Non-representational paintings are neatly labeled and defined. Reader-submitted captions place a New Yorker cartoon in constant flux; the jokes are never too far off the mark, but the scene is seen as lacking. Today’s published visualizations firmly anchor themselves between their textual overlords and the viewing public, commanding attention, fighting for their proper recognition, and providing respite from the steady scan of left-to-right, top-to-bottom.

In journalism and published matter, the illustration works to hold its own as it writhes in a sea of words. The illustrator is equally awash in a forceful current of editors, writers, wordsmiths and project managers. While consistently gaining traction in our ADHD society of instant visual gratification, the moment of the illustrator is a fragile one. On one side, they provide the flash, color and striking content that today’s readers crave. Publications without pictures may be surreptitiously ditched for those containing infographics, cartoons, calligraphic headlines, and illustrated captions. But at what cost? Are these visuals simply eye fodder to make reading more fun? Do these illustrators toil away conceptually to create brilliantly simple (or complex) images that hold their own only to have the next issue filled with stylistic knockoffs that approach the aesthetic but evacuate all meaning?

The current moment of illustration is a mess of gray areas and tenuous self-identification. Today’s illustrators are scrambling every which way as they try to cater to the handmade and craft aesthetic in an increasingly digital and fast-paced world. They try to create a signature style, delivery or voice, but are fearful of being duplicated (by the lowest bidder) or being amalgamated into a group stylistic consciousness that pumps out more of the same. They want to be masters of their art, but are consistently called upon to deliver the goods in an ever-expanding list of sites, modes, and styles.

Going Back to Look Forward

There is a seeming paradox today regarding style and format. While there is an increased emphasis on web presence, digital portfolios and online publishing, there is an equally strong push toward traditional methods and the physical hand of the artist. Zoom in close so you can see the fibers in the paper more clearly on your smartphone. Speaking about the 30th American Illustration annual for The Atlantic, art director and author Steven Heller notes that works selected for that compendium of who’s-who in illustrating were, by and large, focused on handdrawn and handmade processes. A few digital works slipped by the jury and were published, but there seems to be a similar stigma in illustration as there has been in many artforms throughout the rise of digital media; what happens when the artist’s hand is replaced by the artist’s Wacom/mouse/iPad stylus?1

The real struggle, it would seem, comes from the discernment between “What is illustration?” and “What is graphic design?”. How do we separate the two? And, when and if we find a difference, why do we need such a clearcut separation? The digital mode is an easy place to start. A .psd file is easier to categorize as purely design than an ink drawing on bristol board (at face value at least). But if we come back again to the aforementioned paradox, bringing the physical into the digital/internet realm poses problems that really have yet to be sufficiently grappled with.

Does the distinction then come down to content? Is there a point at which illustration becomes too abstract or graphic design becomes too descriptive, or where the two are indiscernible? It would seem that the most probable answer stems from the constant search for logical labeling and categorization. In the end, what the maker makes is determined by its final use and its perception. A similar case of self-identification was discussed by artist and designer Charles Apple in an article by Adam Hochberg on the differences between journalists and designers working for newspapers; many designers that approached their job as journalists were happy with their work, while those that approached the job as illustrators working from an artistic background were not complacent with pumping out generalized content.2 Both are doing a very similar job, but have a very different set of personal goals that contribute to their output. In the case of the designer/illustrator distinction: are they there to produce structure and visual appeal, or are they there to illustrate and produce didactic imagery?

The Look of Genius

Surviving day-to-day as an artist, illustrator, designer or other visual content professional in our image-laden world and still saying something worthwhile is seriously tough. Everyone wants to create the next big thing and develop their own distinctive style while still holding down a job. To keep said job, one must work with project managers and clients that tell you what they’re looking for and what they want. Sure, if you’re a big name, they’ll come looking for you. But chances are, as one of many in a commercialized field, you’ll do your own thing on the side and stick to the higher-ups’ demands at work. It comes as no surprise then, that once a style is set and a certain look becomes popular, that clients/managers will want their creative teams to elaborate, copy and use what is en vogue. Heller, writing for Varoom, speaks on the dumbing down of intelligent illustration to its superficial components: “The superficial elements of conceptual illustration [are], in truth, easily appropriated. Surrealist and expressionist tropes […] gave the illustration of intellectual complexity even if the images were void of real content.”3 Why spend the time really thinking about the concepts behind your work when the end result is often interpreted the same by the viewing public? Throw a couple words on the page in a homogenic artistic manner and accompany them with a vectorized children’s drawing, a scientific diagram, or a completely abstract work-up of some pseudo-spiritual color map, and your portfolio has another entry. Want to be seen as trending and forward-thinking? Borrow a few aspects of a current style fad and repeat.

Josh Murr, writing in 2012 about the current mode of commercially driven work posited:

“Illustrators are using [publishers’ complacency with superficially conceptual work] to produce entirely style led pieces of work. Short comics in a child-like hand drawn style are in abundance and every single one seems to be the same. The books made up of pretty image after pretty image with a simple joke thrown in here and there – the simple style isn’t a gateway to let the strong narrative, or deeper meaning shine through. It is purely a single facet, a layer of prettiness printed nicely on lovely paper.”4

There is a clearly-labeled rabbit hole that new illustrators are falling down every day. Want to make money? Draw like this. Learn to letterpress. Troll Pinterest for the hippest shapes and color pairings. Soon their personal accomplishments and stylistic tendencies are Katamari-ed into a giant rolling ball of the same old same old.5 Personal work rarely survives as commercial work in this dystopian vision, and it seems that some illustrators are OK with that. It is, after all, a way to continue doing what they love (although maybe not in the way they wish they could). Others are not so complacent. The illustrators in Tear-Sheet push forward tirelessly, even when met with resistance (as seen in the numerous notes from editors and art directors). The key here, it would seem, is to strike a balance between personal accomplishment and commercial success. On a broader scale, the push and pull of life and work is a constant struggle for many. Professors let their research languish while they grade the umpteenth student essay. Screenwriters flip their thousandth burger while their manuscript becomes a cat’s new favorite toy. And illustrators meet deadlines while their personal projects are forgotten.

How depressing!

Expanding the Field

The hectic mode of the illustrator in popular media is nothing new. Daily papers have employed artists to liven up their texts for centuries (moreso since the advent of reproducible imagery via etching and presses). Even in the late 19th century, the success of newspaper artists was fixed to their ability to work quickly and in a manner that reproduced well.6 As the technology for printing advanced, so too did the call for more and more visuals to accompany news stories, editorials, articles and opinion pieces. The fast-paced publishing schedule has not decreased whatsoever. With the adoption of the 24-hour newsday and online publishing, illustrators must scramble to create imagery that is didactic, complementary and produced at rapid-fire.

Illustrators in the journalism field are not strict reporters, and they’re not journalistic photographers. They occupy an interstitial space in between that produces results similar to the photograph, but uses a method more akin to writing. The uncertainty of the illustrator’s position within the informative process is the key to a continued evolution of the artform. As a crossover mode of production, illustration can borrow from many areas while distancing itself from those rules and regulations that it finds distasteful, backward, or harmful. For people expected to pump out imagery at a quick, consistent pace, this multidisciplinary approach is vital.

Of course, changing tastes and improved production and display have allowed for an expansion in style and content, but this broadened horizon has a double edge. On one side the illustrator can work in a more personalized style. John Hersey and Vivienne Flesher take a more abstract approach; the former is more bold, graphic and sharp, while the latter works with brushy mixtures of line, shape and color. The more linear, traditional approach is typified (and expanded upon) by the work of Marcellus Hall, Ross Macdonald, and Joe Ciardiello; these artists approach their content through deft line work that is enhanced by their own trademark abstractions, color-fills and (sometimes) text. On the other side, with greater stylistic choices comes increased expectations. No longer can an illustrator stick to a style and only need to worry about what they will draw. Now they need to worry about how they will be asked to draw, paint, or collage. An illustrator is expected to know how to make work for infographics, headers, portraits, political cartoons, marginalia, and covers.

Reverse Reportage and Building on the Past

Before the onslaught of online journalism, blogging, and constantly changing and updating media content, publications had the time to send illustrators out on location to artfully document the world for print. Magazines like Punch, Holiday, and Life were all brimming with visual journalism. The work of illustrators like Ronald Searle capture mood, mystery, and expression while still being informative. However, instead of bemoaning the perceived loss of quality or yearning for the old days through retro techniques and styles, new modes need to be established that build on what came before while planting a seed for further growth in the future. Instead of only bringing the world into print through illustration, a method of reverse reportage should be practiced where illustration is taken out into everyday life. The constraints of the text and the page are old news.

No longer limited to pieces of paper (singular or bound in sequence), the illustration has entered into a conversation with site-specificity and context. Whereas the site has traditionally been a given in this particular artform for so long, it is with the expansion of that aspect that new life and change can be found. Speaking again about the 30th American Illustration annual, Heller quotes its art director, Nicholas Blechman: “Among the non-traditional mediums that can be seen in this annual are hotel rooms, parking garages, self-published fanzines, textiles, and toys.”7 There is already a push toward new venues and new formats.

Illustration isn’t dead or dying. It’s just undervalued, misused and everyone thinks they wouldn’t miss it. In 1884, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World was converted into a paper full of visuals. The newspaperman’s idea was to make a splash with these pictures and then to slowly dial it back, retaining just a fraction of the illustrations but (hopefully) all of the newly-obtained readers. However, as soon as the deletion process commenced, subscriptions plummeted. Not until the illustrations were re-instated did the readership rise again.8 Illustrated journalism was here to stay.

From a purely commercial point of view, illustration has a vital role in the production of today’s journalism and quality publications. It shows us what words alone cannot, and captures readers with color, shape, and style. From the creative end, the artform is one of relationships, narrative, and design. The interstitial space between the visual and the literary is a place where many things are expected quickly and judgments are made in equal measure. The trick now is to inspect the function as inseparable from the form and see what we can learn.

1. Steven Heller, “The State of American Illustration, Bound in a Book,” The Atlantic, February 23, 2012, accessed October 12, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/02/the-state-of-american-illustration-bound-in-a-book/253471/.
2. Adam Hochberg, “‘Journalist’ or ‘illustrator’? How self-identification affects designers’ job satisfaction,” Poynter, March 19, 2013, accessed October 12, 2013, http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/newsgathering-storytelling/visual-voice/207321/journalist-or-illustrator-how-self-identification-affects-job-satisfaction/.
3. Steven Heller, “Christoph Niemann: Force of Nature,” Varoom 1 (2005): 40-42.
4. Josh Murr, “What is the state of illustration today as compared to other practices, and what does this spell for its future,” Josh Murr: Writing and Research, May 17, 2012, accessed October 12, 2013, http://joshmurr.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/what-is-the-state-of-illustration-today-as-compared-to-other-practices-and-what-does-this-spell-for-its-future/.
5. Katamari Damacy was a game for Playstation 2 that revolved around rolling up objects into ever-growing balls of debris and then shooting them into space where they became stars. A cultural icon, to be sure.
6. Allan Forman, “Newspaper Art and Artists,” The Quarterly Illustrator 1:4 (Oct. - Dec., 1893): 313.
7.  Heller, The Atlantic.
8. Forman, 314-315.