Illustration is in demand and everyone wants a piece of the action. How and why has this happened and is it here to stay? Lawrence Zeegen investigates.
What is it with contemporary illustration? It just won't follow form. Illustration was never meant to be this cool, this sought after, this in vogue. But it is. After a decade climbing the ranks following a period as underdog, illustration now sits as top dog.
Illustration has come a long way since the dark days of the last decade, when dusty illustrators gathered in dusty corners of unfashionable pubs during the mid-90s to bemoan the death of the industry, gripe about the lack of commissions and complain about their shoddy treatment at the hands of mercenary art directors with their diminishing respect for the craft of illustration. In 1995 illustration couldn't get arrested, and to call yourself an illustrator was career, creative and commercial suicide. Illustrators were the bottom rung, the short straw, left out in the cold and uninvited to the party.
Come the revolution
So what happened, where did it all go right? It's too easy to explain away the rise in popularity of the discipline with a couple of words - digital and revolution. Illustration had once been very popular, way before the rise of the machines. In fact, the original golden age of illustration had occurred during the 1970s. In the UK and US, illustrators were courted as the creative kings of design. To illustrate the cover of The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Radio Times was to be at the pinnacle of creative excellence, and Marshall Arisman, Brad Holland and Seymour Chwast in the US, and George Hardie, Ian Pollock and Brian Grimwood, in the UK, were the names on the tips of everyone's tongues.
It didn't last; it couldn't last. The digital revolution, before coming to the aid of the discipline and rescuing it from a seemingly never-ending downwards spiral, would be first in line to kill it off. We all know that 1984, and that Superbowl ad, would witness the launch of the Apple Mac, but what we didn't know at the time was exactly what the effect and the fallout would be on design. Early digital kit was aimed at a DTP market. The graphic designer, by his very nature, was less Luddite, more Early Adopter than the illustrator. Designers gleefully and wholeheartedly embraced the revolution. It was a key factor that financial investment in hardware, software and training could be taken up by design companies for their staff, while the solo illustrator couldn't get a foot on the ladder with start-up costs well over £10,000, and that's not even in today's money. Digitally, graphic design was off the starting blocks while illustration wasn't even in the stadium.
Graphic design took the lead and ran with it, blazing the digital trail. Typographers were the creative mavericks: font houses sprung up everywhere, books on type appeared on every bookshelf, everyone wanted to be Neville Brody, Erik Spiekermann or David Carson. When images were called for, photography reigned supreme. Photographers, as the only course of action, grabbed the work and the headlines, and stars were made of the coolest, most sought-after lens-men and women. Nick Knight, Rankin and Corrine Day snapped away, as a million other photographers swam in their slipstream. But when designers tired of the ever-demanding egos and clients balked at ever-increasing costs, it was time for a rethink. Design would have to look elsewhere for imagesâ€¦
Of course, it would be nice to think that illustration was waiting in the wings, ready to take centre stage, but it was still learning its lines and wasn't even ready for a dress rehearsal. Instead, designers themselves morphed into image-makers as a Photoshop frenzy took hold. They started layering image upon image in a desperate bid to find new ways of working. And for a while this digital designer-collage ticked all the right boxes: it looked new, was cheap to create and, despite saying zero and communicating zilch, was flavour of the month. After all, this was the designer decade.
The digital-wallpaper could only last so long, though, before the edges would start to peel. And illustration came out fighting! A new generation of maverick illustrators, taking little influence from the previous generation or from those that were teaching them, began to slowly emerge from art schools. Gathering momentum was a movement that refused to be pinned down: renegade image-makers tired of illustration's reputation as the underdog started to drag the discipline out of obscurity and into popularity. Illustrators such as Ian Wright (who had shared a studio with Neville Brody), Andy Martin (who had quit his job as art editor at New Musical Express) and Simon Larbalestier (who'd created iconic images for The Pixies as photographer turned illustrator) led a new wave of contemporary illustratorsâ€¦ and this was just the start.
Taking to the screen
Within a few years, illustration was to go digital - but why the delay? What was it that finally persuaded illustration to leave the sketch book and take to the screen, and just why had it taken so long? There's no one easy answer, but a range of reasons.
The first and most obvious is that hardware and software prices had begun to fall dramatically, allowing digital experimentation from the solo illustrator. The rapid explosion of the internet and, with it, the sudden take-up of email communication, brought new interest in the computer from illustrators that had avoided it thus far. For some, their introduction was as simple as scanning and emailing traditional artwork. However, the overriding key factor that led to the digital illustration boom at the fag-end of the last century was simply down to the age of the new wave. Yes, those with youth on their side, these new kids on the block, were taking to the kit like ducks out of water. Fearless about embracing change and unafraid to experiment, here was a generation that understood which buttons to push and was going to push them all and few more besides.
Having grown up with a computer in the classroom and another in the bedroom, this was a new generation weaned on programming their parents' VCR, resetting the Mega Drive and fine-tuning the sat-TV. Rolling up their sleeves and immersing themselves in all things digital was a no-brainer - just a logical progression.
With technology finally within the grasp of a growing number of digital artists, a renaissance for illustration was on the cards. Gone were the days when artwork could take days to create - finally, illustrators could work faster than photographers and could deliver results in seconds.
Carl Rush, creative director at Crush, could see the potential for illustration straight away. "The 1980s and 90s were dominated by photography," he recalls, "but illustration is a much more immediate discipline and can convey a message in much more detail than a photograph." Rush adds enthusiastically: "Illustration can be fantastical, unbelievable and extra-ordinary."
Over at Time Out magazine, Nick Booth, the magazine's art director, agrees. "Emotion is big business these days," he states. "An illustration can convey an emotion in a way that a photograph never can. Be it happy or sad, abstract or super-real, illustrators inspire people and help them understand messages on a very personal level."
Digital technology, now fully mastered, had given over creative time and space to the illustration new wave, and with this freedom so came the reinvention of the discipline. With greater access to a wider range of tools, illustrators recognised that they could now compete with designers as well as photographers. Illustration, having once inhabited the uncomfortable no-man's land between fine art and design that was never truly accepted by the art establishment (too commercial) nor the design industry (too arty), was now demanding to be acknowledged. Illustrators were in a perfect position to capitalise on their own unique ability to create a visual signature, a personal visual language, just as a fine artist would, and yet exploit it to communicate complex ideas and meanings within a commercial arena, just as designers, art directors and clients required.
Nick Booth, previously employed at Sleaze Nation magazine, then at Vogue, before moving to head up the art department at Time Out, has always understood the relevance of commissioning illustration and what it can bring to a project. "An idea can enjoy complete freedom when illustrated," he states. "It suits the way that creatives think today - it plays on our emotions and allows ideas to really growâ€¦"
Emily Alston, a graduate of Liverpool John Moores University BA (Hons) Graphic Arts course, explains her decision to work in illustration rather than graphic design. "As with most creative careers, I think it's not really a case of you choosing to pursue it; it chooses you. I think that all people working within the arts have a strong creative sensibility that lies within them," she acknowledges. "I guess the decision you make is in just how you choose to express itâ€¦" she adds.
Bored of borders
Adrian Johnson, a paid-up member of Black Convoy, regular contributor to The Guardian and currently head-down-hard-at-work on an advertising campaign for Robinsons Barley Water, believes that illustration has now found a status that was missing previously. "I really believe that illustration has lost its 'barge trips, cups of tea and Radio 4' image," he reasons. "It's now considered integral to design, whereas in days of yore it was either 'illustration' (drawing, painting, printmaking) or 'design'. In the last few years the barriers between the creative disciplines have either become blurred or, in many cases, have started to disappear," he adds.
As borders between disciplines have eroded, illustrators have marched out to stake new claims in new territories. Rather than wait patiently for the ring of the phone or the ping of the email app, illustration has gone out to forge new markets and create new projects. The discipline has escaped any traditional preconceptions, has broken free from its shackles, and today's new wave now work across all manner of disciplines. The range of potential applications for illustration continues to expand. Advertising channels have diversified - from print and TV to online and viral - while the publishing industry heads in an increasingly global direction with new markets still opening up. Think about the landscape for commercial illustration right now: designer toys and figures, fashion and textiles and animation. There's also a growing subsection of the new wave that will simply not wait for markets to materialise but has actively sought its own: self-publishing fanzines and mags; launching own-label products, such as T-shirts, badges and stickers; and promoting self-initiated, self-directed one-off and/or limited edition artworks, through the organisation of exhibitions and events as well as through online portfolios and stores.
Illustration today isn't the flash-in-the-pan that some cynics have gravely suggested, but equally it can't remain the Jumpin' Jack Flash of communication design - it needs to continue to evolve and mutate. The evolution of illustration is fundamental to the continued success of the discipline. Art schools must never pander to industry and commercial real-world demands, but concentrate on creating free-thinking and expressive mavericks. Those illustrators, fresh out of the box and new to the game, must never regurgitate their heroes, but snap at the heels of those that trod before. Of course, art directors, designers and those that commission illustration have a part to play, a responsibility - they must step out of the comfort zone and be the first to commission the next Jasper Goodall, the next Paul Davis, the next Black Convoy.
But ultimately the buck stops with illustration; it must be illustration itself that takes responsibility for advancing illustration. As Karl Marx never said, "Illustrators of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chainsâ€¦"