A finger on the pulse of illustration
Because I am researching for the second edition of Becoming A Successful Illustrator I feel I have a finger on the pulse of contemporary illustration. Despite having several books and journals to my name and a sustained career in this area I think it’s simplistic to make absolute announcements about what illustration is as though it were a unified entity to be objectively understood. It’s not. There is no such thing as a typical illustrator either, nor a typical work methodology. That Illustration a constantly shifting practice that increasingly defies clear definition is yesterday’s news. Traditional formats still flourish: think children’s books and editorial illustrations for the Guardian supplement. It’s also now de-rigeur to think of interactive educational apps, virtual reality backdrops for fashion shoots that use gaming technology to create surreal worlds, such as Reed and Rader, painted ceramics, graphic novels, projections, and other public realm work, not as marginal activities but as being firmly established in the expanding repertoire of real practice for illustrators working professionally across the world.
The availability of software and cheap and sophisticated print technologies alongside ubiquitous and easy access to social media has empowered illustrators to curate their own professions. Almost without exception the many illustrators I have interviewed continue with personal work of some kind and see this as being essential for the ongoing nourishment of their work. This is relevant information for many OCA students who choose illustration because they enjoy image making and not specifically because they intend to pursue a professional career. This has always been a precariousness profession but there is a real shift of power that now positions illustrators alongside fine artists in taking control over their own projects and promoting their work through social media, exhibitions, combining an authorial approach to work and generating their own projects to either self publish or exhibit. There’s not always reliance on the traditional dynamic between a client and illustrator that defined typical practice.
The proliferation of etsy outlets and comic fairs and artists’ web shops selling everything from zines to tee shirts to tea cups has led to criticism of the profession in some academic circles as a cottage industry. My research directly defies that. lllustration continues to be a major economic force- a trip to Bologna book fair, Surtex surface pattern fair in New York, or Brand Licencing in Dubai (or Birmingham UK!) where business is the clear agenda is testimony to this. Big bucks pass hands. Don’t get too excited- rich illustrators seem to be in the minority (some children’s book giants whose books sell millions are in the millionaire bracket) but there are many who are making a living and many more with successful portfolio careers that include illustration.
Illustration is also a cultural force. Globally image-makers are intelligently pushing the boundaries of the subject, some working with art directors and editors to respond to briefs with the skillfulness and intellectual power that has signified this area of visual communication for more than a century while others go it alone and self publish. Increasingly there is no distinction. Whilst the applications, formats and impetus for generating work may have changed the seriousness of intention has not for many illustrators. The work – winning awards from the Society of Illustrators in USA or the world Illustration awards hosted in the UK by the AOI recognises such projects within the commercial domain. The intellectual content of zines and graphic novels or aesthetic intelligence in limited edition prints, large scale paintings or paper sculptures of some of those I have interviewed needs no defence.
I confirm that illustration is rife with trends and stylistic fads but this doesn’t always denote unintelligent commissioning or a facile approach or attitude from the illustrator. There is a current flurry of interest in motion and it’s slightly unsteadying to see parts of images fluttering without purpose. Whilst this is maybe on trend some clients , such as The New Yorker, commissioning similar work for online issues, are beginning to push the parameters of what editorial illustration is and also differentiating between the visual product in print based and screen based formats. Rebecca Mock is a good example. This raises questions of how we perceive images differently across formats challenging how we interpret pictures alongside text, how their function changes when they can be interacted with.
Illustrators around the globe are constantly skilling up with software but there is no abandon of traditional crafts and activities of drawing, making and designing. Across a plethora of practice illustrators are making significant cultural contributions, influencing our visual perception and changing the way we think about the world. I can confidently say that today’s illustrators are pioneers (and that includes the Etsy shops and surf tee shirts.)
Jo Davies is an OCA tutor . She is a co-author of Making Great Illustration, Understanding Illustration and Becoming A Successful Illustrator all published by Bloomsbury and is a co- founder of Varoom magazine and academic research network. She also continues to illustrate.
Image Credits: Mark Smith