Skip to main content

Digital illustration

Things weren't always this way. Before the digital revolution, life as an illustrator was fairly straightforward, or so it seemed - there was no Bill Gates, no Apple, no Photoshop, no Google, no internet, no email, no hassle. Looking back at life before the revolution, albeit through rose-tinted specs, the working day for your lone illustrator was a fairly simple affair. In fact, depending on just how far back you wish to peer, it's clear to see just how much has changed.

Back in the land-that-time-forgot, a common-or-garden commission for a freelance illustrator would come about with a phone call made by an art director to an illustrator's land-line - mobiles only came into everyday use just over a decade ago. If you were out of the studio when the call came, chances are you could miss the job - answer phones even 15 years ago were not the norm. The brief itself would have to be posted or collected - fax machines were huge, cumbersome and expensive items even just a decade and a half ago. How the freelance illustrator, just ten years ago, maintained a professional profile, informed clients of new work and displayed their portfolios has altered beyond recognition. Without websites and email, illustrators would utilise the humble postcard as their calling card to the creative world, designing, printing, addressing and posting hundreds of these mailshots on a regular basis.

With just that single postcard to judge an illustrator's capabilities by, art directors would take time out of their working day to view physical portfolios. Yes, they would actually look at real work in real time in the real world. Now, only six digits into the 21st century, those that commission illustration are able to view work in seconds, make creative decisions in minutes, have an illustrator briefed within hours and set the completion of the work with a deadline of a few days.

Gazing into the not-so-distant future back in 1992, John Warwicker, Creative Director of design collective Tomato, said without even a trace of irony: "I can envisage a time when we'll all need our own individual Macs." The working life, life-styles and the life-skills needed by today's 'creatives' have altered, adjusted and accelerated. The digital revolution would take no prisoners - it was clear, adapt or die!

From analogue to digital
Jason Ford, Royal College of Art Class of 89 MA graduate and Association of Illustrators award-winning illustrator, entered the industry with a purely traditional skill-set. Ford recalls his own transition into the digital. "My work had always been about trying to achieve a flat graphic/silkscreen feel to it," he explains. "I was trying to hide the brush-mark as much as I could." Moving from brush and paint to screen and mouse wasn't seamless though. "Numerous people kept telling me that I could achieve what I was doing with paint so much easier and much quicker using a computer, but of course I resisted this as long as possible," Ford recalls. "For me, back then, the digital world was a void of incomprehensible gibberish!"

Also stepping out of the Royal College of Art at the fag end of the 80s was textiles designer turned collage-artist turned illustrator/designer Paul Burgess, best known at the time for his seminal book jackets for Vintage Books. "When computers came along in the mid 90s," remembers Burgess, "we all hated them - we thought they were rubbish. However, we were all proved so wrong!"

Recognising that everything was about to change, Burgess set about embracing digital technology, but in his own punkinspired fashion. "I bought my first Mac and slowly started to get to grips with Photoshop, but trying to misuse it as much as possible," he admits. It was clear that some of those to enter the digital domain would do so on their own terms.

Entry to the digital world came at a price, though. "My first Mac cost nearly £3,000, crazy when you think about it now, and it was so very slow," offers Burgess. Buying and setting up a new Mac was just at the bottom of a new and radically steep learning curve - getting to grips with software, even if you could master the hardware, would be a challenge to those that have always worked manually. "I'm selftaught," admits Burgess, "with loads of help from mates who have begrudgingly shown me tips and tricks along the way."

Jason Ford confers with Burgess. "I've always had loads of help from studio buddies a lot further down the digital path than me," he ventures. "It always helps to share studio space with designers who understand all the technical stuff and can help out when an image disappears from your screen for no reason at all!"

An education in illustration
For a younger generation of illustrators and image-makers, the digital revolution started to seep in during their time at art school. Lucy Vigrass, one of the original Peepshow crew, came out of the University of Brighton in 98. "I think we had a one-day session in Photoshop," she recalls. "We all made pictures of ourselves looking like we had cling-film over our faces!" Keen to embrace new techniques and working methods, Vigrass learnt the hard way. "Most of my learning," she recalls, "came from people around me and working things out for myself. I think that you pick things up out of necessity and keeping up with shortcut one-upmanship."

Brett Ryder, emerging out of Central Saint Martins in the mid-90s, wasn't equipped any more ably than Vigrass was at Brighton at the time. "I learnt to use the computer at home," Ryder recalls. "The majority of people using the computer at college were the graphic design students so I didn't get the help I needed." As well as getting access to the right kind of teaching, just getting in front of the kit was problematic too. "Getting hold of a college computer was a miracle," Ryder recalls. "I'm sure that they have a few more now€¦!"

Ryder's work, now a unique blend of collage and hand- and digitally-rendered drawing and painting, wasn't, by his own admission, at the time going anywhere. "I was unhappy about the direction my work was taking," he admits. "I turned to the computer as I thought it could help solve the aesthetic problems I was encountering." Ryder now works regularly for clients across the globe, recently for The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, GQ magazine and O, The Oprah Magazine in the US, but his working methods have changed little in recent years. "It really is just the degree to which I draw or collage - my use of digital know-how fluctuates," Ryder explains.

A decade after graduation from Kingston University in 96, John McFaul, no stranger to the pages of Computer Arts and Computer Arts Projects, can revisit his past with a sense of humour mixed with a touch of nostalgia. "I'm mainly self-taught," he explains. "Graduating in the dark ages meant that computers were the tools 'of the designers' but because I've always been really influenced by design, far more so than illustration, it meant that these machines always held something of a distant intrigue," he adds. Knowing just how far he has come since his early beginnings, McFaul muses on an early project: "I remember the first job I did using Photoshop - terrible! I barely knew how to use any of the tools and I was ringing my 'designer' friends every five minutes with questions."

The digital generation
For those that have entered the creative industries - and more specifically the world of illustration, during the last five years or so - it would appear to them that everything has been digital for some considerable time. Advances in hardware and software have been almost immeasurable in recent years, and for a generation that has grown up with a PC in the bedroom, a mobile in their pocket and a playlist on their iPod, it is almost unthinkable that the technology has not been around for much over 15 years.

Steve Wilson, fresh from completing a unique event in the window of Oxford Street's Selfridges store, recalls his first foray into the digital world fresh out of art school in 2001. "I was commissioned to create eight thumbnail size illustrations for The Guide, the mag given away with The Guardian on a Saturday, and they were reproduced over a period of four weeks," he remembers. "I then didn't get another commission for another nine months so I spent the £360, earned from The Guardian, many times over during that period," he admits. "But since then I've worked for many clients including Virgin, Coca-Cola, MTV, Wallpaper and the BBC."

Self-taught, he is still learning. "I think I'm still only using a fraction of the software's capabilities," he explains. Working predominantly in Illustrator and Photoshop, he gets what he needs out of them, but, he admits, "There are still plenty of tools and options that I barely use. Occasionally I'll discover something new and within a few months I'm thinking 'how on Earth did I live without that!'."

"I consider myself part of the Digital Generation - we started making images using computers while at art school," explains Mr Bingo from his East London studio. "I've always been working digitally in a professional sense but, of course, my induction was quite some time before." Mr Bingo keenly recounts his proud past: "I was using Deluxe Paint III on the Commodore Amiga 500+ in the early 90s," he states. "I was making animations that simulated a few seconds of a scrolling shoot-'em-up or the occasional flying penis, you know the kind of thing€¦" We do?

Emily Alston, another fully paid-up member of the digital generation and fresh out of Liverpool John Moores University just two years ago, explains that the culture of her degree course actively encouraged digital working methods. "We had masterclasses at university, but as I had never really bracketed myself as an illustrator, I would leave my easel behind and follow the graphic designers into the IT suite," she explains.

Finding your own way
"When working digitally it's really important to find your own way of working with the technology," Alston advises. "Every illustrator and designer has the very same technology available to them, and if everyone uses the tools in the same way, nothing would ever stand out as different or original."

Paul Burgess, a generation apart from Alston but in absolute agreement with her, states his case: "I think it is very difficult now. Everyone has a computer, everyone has the same software and everyone thinks that they can stick a couple of butterflies onto a twiddly background and 'hey presto' they have an illustration. You don't have an illustration; you have decoration - there is a big difference!" Burgess, not shy of giving his opinions, continues: "Digital technology is very exciting, but only as exciting as the ideas you have inside your head."

"As with most professions," adds Jason Ford, drawing upon his extensive experience in the industry, "75 per cent of the illustration put out there is a dog's dinner, but the other 25 per cent keeps the standards as high as they should be." Steve Wilson is a little more positive, saying, "It is really all about trying to produce work that is distinctive and original, whatever that is, and work shouldn't be judged on the levels of technology involved in making it." Wilson has more to say on the subject: "I never understand people who are anti computers or pro computers. Who really cares how you get the results - it is only the final image that counts, regardless of how you got there." Burgess, though, demands the final word: "The idea is king. Once you have a strong idea, everything else just flows along behind it."

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

The Creative Bloq team is made up of a group of design fans, and has changed and evolved since Creative Bloq began back in 2012. The current website team consists of six full-time members of staff: Editor Kerrie Hughes, Deputy Editor Rosie Hilder, Deals Editor Beren Neale, Senior News Editor Daniel Piper, Digital Arts and Design Editor Ian Dean, and Staff Writer Amelia Bamsey, as well as a roster of freelancers from around the world. The 3D World and ImagineFX magazine teams also pitch in, ensuring that content from 3D World and ImagineFX is represented on Creative Bloq.