Illustration is booming again, after years when photography was more popular with art directors. Craig Grannell finds out why, and whether the trend is set to last.
Things were looking decidedly shaky for a while in the world of illustration. Photography took over from the drawn, painted or rendered image in advertising and editorial, leaving desperate illustrators fighting for scraps. As reported in these pages, however, illustration has recently undergone something of a resurgence. So much so that it's time to ask if what's happening today could eventually echo the heyday of printed artwork during the 60s and 70s.
"A feeling of desperation has been replaced by an optimistic outlook, in that the vogue for illustration isn't just a flash in the pan, and is here to stay as a viable alternative to the photographic image," argues illustrator, agent and author Lawrence Zeegen, observing that numerous large, corporate brands now regularly use illustration to differentiate themselves.
The reasons for the resurgence are complex, with several important factors converging at once. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the sheer number of styles continues to grow; and despite the near-ubiquity of technology available to artists, work that looks too obviously digital is on the out. An emphasis on hitting a more savvy, visually aware consumer means that art directors are keen to find individual and dynamic visuals that aren't overly polished and clinical. An increase in the volume of illustration work out there has not only meant that more artists are able to make money from their work, but that briefs are becoming less prescriptive, giving illustrators scope to be more creative and experimental.
The last decade has seen colleges increasingly taking a multidisciplinary approach, with students more often involved in project teams including designers, illustrators and photographers. As students graduate, the industry absorbs more people who are comfortable working alongside an illustrator, whatever the project. Indeed, it could be argued that many new graphic designers are frustrated illustrators and this is to an extent feeding the popularity of the varied and dynamic work that is now being commissioned.
Illustration is fashion-focused, like many areas of creativity. People always want to see something new, and their surprise and delight at novelty are increasingly transient. It's easy for illustrators to get sucked into micro-trends, drawing inspiration from all sorts of online image galleries yet creating work with no enduring impact. The smart money is currently on a move towards individuality, personality and concept - thinking more like an artist, rather than churning out what you think someone might like based on what's popular.
Australian illustrator Eamo Donnelly is an up-and-coming creative who admits that he almost slipped into the trap of developing styles for a purely commercial portfolio. Rather than focus on looks that may have won some easy commissions at the time, he decided to take a year out to work solely on non-commercial projects. The result is a unique style that is making his name. "It's a sort of ocker Aussie-manga style with a traditional slant towards vintage comics," he says. "It's a way of standing out as more of an artist than a commercial illustrator, and as a result things like exhibitions, book projects and artist collaborations come along."
Donnelly is not alone in veering towards the idea of taking on illustration as more of an artform than a commercial pursuit. This line of thinking is sometimes driven by a desire to be more creative, and some criticise those who follow it for being too precious when, after all, someone else is paying the bills. However, illustration work does have a growing value as an artistic commodity, both in terms of historical pieces and contemporary projects.
A recent Sotheby's auction featured a Norman Rockwell illustration on the cover. For the auction, a separate catalogue was published in order to separate and compile the dozens of illustration lots, providing biographies, photographs and collector's info. Was Sotheby's sending a message to the fine-art community, showing an acceptance of the value of classic illustration? Who knows, but when the likes of a Rockwell is on the front page of The New York Times as the star sale of a Sotheby's auction, art directors worldwide are reminded that illustration exists and that it's important. At the same time, it makes gallery owners more receptive to the idea of offering illustrators the chance to exhibit their work and display it to potential clients in a more creative setting.
Of all the self-promotion techniques that are possible - an online portfolio, working with an agent, regular mail-outs, coldcalling and merchandise - the gallery exhibition has to be the most exciting setting for an illustrator to show their work.
Preparing an exhibition is not only great promotion; it can also prove a boost to creativity. Seldon Hunt is a young US artist known for his highly elaborate digital pieces, created using Illustrator because of its capacity for immense detail, and the fact that the art can be expanded to extremely large sizes. His Antwerp solo exhibition, while partly a retrospective of his work for the music industry, also included personal compositions, some of which were created specifically for the show.
Hunt still falls under the label of illustrator, but his descriptions of his own work could have come straight out of the world of fine art: "abstract investigations into the complexity of a moment in digital rapture" and "visual imprints reflecting the paradox of how much of our pleasures now rely on digital devices that have become inexplicably second-nature in the last ten years."
Exhibitions provide a freedom that doesn't exist in the traditional illustrative space, where the meaning of the work needs to be made obvious very quickly. And, of course, working to the brief and to the deadline can force a piece out through fear and desperation, rather than the more considered methods of an artist with all the time they require.
Jo 'Miss Led' Henly is another illustrator whose work is making people take notice. She's not just dabbling in the UK art scene - she's used it to launch her career. After falling into teaching art, she realised she was inspiring others to do what she was frightened to do herself. Subsequent work involved online and offline exhibitions closer in concept to traditional art than illustration work. Everything was entirely self-initiated. This gave her the confidence to keep pushing her boundaries, thereby increasing the creativity and experimentation in her work. Inspired by poster pop, Pre-Raphaelite portraits, graffiti and art nouveau, her free-flowing, almost classic illustration style came about on its own. She is now regularly taking on editorial work as well as further opportunities in the art space.
When Secret Wars took their live drawing competition to the Designersblock festival in London last September, Henly emerged the winner. She says, "Being the only female ever to enter was enough for me, but after three exhausting hours over a 20x8-foot wall space, four rounds and four stories, I was victorious!"
The conceptual, artistic side of creativity is not the only field that illustrators are exploring. Graphic design is another huge area of crossover, with the two disciplines becoming blurred like never before. The freelance illustrator touting for work frequently has a 'Graphic Design' or 'Art Direction' tab to click on their online portfolio, and vice versa.
To observers like Zeegen, illustrators who take control and set off into graphic design are throwing the balance of power between picture-makers and commissioning art directors out of whack. Craig Atkinson is mixing a strong foundation in art and illustration with design aspirations, through his Caf Royal books and magazines. Doing so, he follows in the footsteps of the likes of Monorex, Jasper Goodall, Miles Donovan and Jo Ratcliffe, but with his own twist.
"Working across many areas has enhanced my career but that was never the intention," he says. "My intention is always to try new things, to learn and to make work that I like. I suppose by making more work you become more visible, which leads to more contacts and more commissions."
With creative freedom at an all-time high within the industry, and the explosion of illustrators making a living, it's no surprise that the invention and turnover of styles is more rapid than ever. Trends come and go quickly, and some commissioning editors warn that illustrators must be aware of what's 'out', to avoid creating work seen as dated rather than something likely to lead somewhere new.
Decorative swirls and repetitive patterns, largely comprising forms fashioned using vector graphics, is one style that was very popular but is now being avoided. Like its popular forebear - abstract 3D explosions of pixel chaos - vector art has had its day, mostly thanks to overexposure. Although the decorative has its place in specific circumstances, industry momentum is now towards conceptual, technique-based work. Handmade is being favoured rather than overtly digital, and clinical production values - at least in terms of output, if not the methods used to create illustrations.
It's not surprising that long-time illustrators welcome this trend. Gerald Scarfe believes that overtly digital output can be problematic. "When you start depicting the human body, it feels wrong, and even in the case of scenery it's never absolutely convincing," he says. "There's nothing better than touching the paper and drawing the figure, but then as an artist I would say that."
Younger creatives too are supporting the more human approach, even if their tools remain digital, unlike Scarfe's pen and inks. US-based Autumn Whitehurst, who fashions her intricate figure work entirely digitally, says, "As soon as I can relax the Wacom-trained muscle memory in my hand, I'm going to try introducing some traditional methods into the work for the sake of variety." She's noticed a strong interest in hand-drawn work recently, and thinks this is because we've become enamoured with things that are handmade: "It's a response to the clinical perfection of that streamlined aesthetic that has been so prevalent."
Other reasons also explain the surge in popularity of this hand-made aesthetic. There's an explicit desire to get more character into illustration, resulting in work that genuinely engages its audience on a conceptual and emotional level, rather than merely dazzling with eye-candy. With digital tools becoming endemic, the public is no longer impressed with visuals that have been pushed out quickly.
What is captivating people is artwork with craft and technique behind it - obvious painting and drawing skills make more of a connection. Zeegen reckons what we're seeing is just the beginning of a more open, honest return to the use of craft within illustration. "We've had a glut of Photoshop collages, followed by vector coolness, followed by pattern and over-embellishment, but now the field seems far wider. There is no house style - everything and anything goes! The difference, I hope, is that now the best work floats to the top and the rest sinks," he says.
Although style can be important in getting noticed, substance is crucial when creating successful work. Now that we're leaving a period in which too much illustration was devoid of any real essence, it's important that illustrators marry visual flair with ideas. Mat Wiggins, the freelance designer who commissions UK Esquire's illustrations, reckons ideas are the one place where an illustrator can really come into their own and make a difference. Despite the newfound emphasis on craft, a strong piece isn't necessarily about whether an illustrator is more technically gifted than someone else, but about the ideas they can generate and communicate. The best illustrators today, he argues, are those who do something effectively, turn it around quickly and get the idea right first time, saying a lot with a little.
Traditional-looking imagery is experiencing a definite revival, but those who work in other areas, such as vector output, needn't panic so long as they can clearly put their own imprint, personality, character and ideas into their work. Terry Brown is director emeritus of the Society of Illustrators in the US, and he argues against the idea that one style kills another in commercial art. "I don't believe scratch-board is dead," he says. "I don't believe big heads on little bodies is dead. If the artist is good, their work is going to get used. If you get right to the point with your picture - if you give the art director what they were looking for, and then some - medium doesn't matter, size doesn't matter and gender doesn't matter. If the image is good, you're there."
Such thinking is evident in a recent set of illustrations Wiggins commissioned for Esquire on people who influence how our world is run. Noma Bar, known for depicting famous figures by using just a few lines, colours and objects (a notable example being integrating the Conservative Party logo into a portrait of Baroness Thatcher, comprising her eye and nose), created vivid, engaging portrayals beyond mere caricature. These demonstrated what the people in the article were about much more effectively than any photograph. In one fell swoop, the set of images showed that a supposedly tired method - vector drawing - can still be relevant and engaging if the idea is strong enough, and that illustration can take things to a different place, enabling readers to connect with the content of an article. "Illustration really comes into its own when you do something you can't do with photographs," explains Wiggins.
It's not just glossy magazines that are again recognising the strengths of illustration. Many large brands have become hooked, including banks and telecoms companies. But for Ben Cox, founder of the London-based Central Illustration Agency, it was car companies that caused a watershed in the world of illustration.
"A few years ago, several automotive campaigns were suddenly illustrative rather than photographic," he recalls. "Car advertising, being such a sleek, form-heavy product, had always been the bastion of the photographer, but the more earthy side of multimedia illustration was having a good crack at it."
From that point on, illustration gained real momentum. And once larger companies were on board, others followed suit. The benefits of illustration again started to become apparent to decision-makers in all industries: from a production standpoint, it's often simple to manage illustration, since you're typically dealing with a single self-sufficient individual whose location is largely irrelevant; and the lack of a need to set up a photographic shoot means production costs are usually lower.
Once a medium is deemed successful, it has a real chance of becoming self-perpetuating. More illustration commissions have resulted in more illustrators able to make a living, which has created a larger resource for commissioning editors. As more clients take risks, agencies relax and become comfortable with looser briefs. According to Cox, many of today's valuable, high-risk campaigns arrive with only the vaguest visual ideas attached: "Artists are being given a greater level of intellectual responsibility to interpret briefs in an individual manner. And while some struggle with the notion of doing the art director's job, most revel in the creative freedom of taking ownership of the concept, producing a more engaging personal response, while also feeling like an intrinsic part of the creative team."
Regardless of how many illustrators widen their remit or stay entirely focused on one area of creativity, it's clear that the field is back to rude health, and an increasing and more varied amount of illustration work is thrown before the judgement of the public eye. So is illustration recapturing the success it enjoyed in the 60s and 70s?
Well, no. "It's not going to happen," says Brown. "You don't have the star art directors from the 60s who could walk down the hall and say to the editor, 'Get these words off my page - this is going to be a beautiful picture!' They're not going to risk their jobs for something like that. Plus, you have too many other outlets that are non-traditionally illustrative, who'll preclude the main media being all about illustration."
However, the experts we speak to believe that the miniboom the industry is enjoying should stick around - at least as long as outlets remain for creativity, beauty and hard-hitting illustrated concepts. The public is getting better at understanding what illustration does, and there's a hunger for varied imagery that engages the senses and embraces concepts more thoroughly and individually than the bulk of photographic output.
The only real threat to illustration comes from the fickle nature of fashion. Creativity moves in cycles, and people always get sick of things, given enough time. The newfound exposure illustration is enjoying could lead to its downfall. A new trend could arrive, capturing the imagination of consumers and clients.
However, illustrators can do things to ensure the ride lasts for as long as possible, as Wiggins concludes: "Keep coming up with good ideas, and always be aware of how and where illustrations are used. Also, try to come up with new ideas where illustration can be used and demonstrate that in your work. Good illustration is - and has always been - down to strong ideas that are well-executed, and if illustrators can do that, there shouldn't be any fear of work drying up."