Computer Arts Projects (Issue 132) - A Decade of Illustration

A Decade of Illustration – Lawrence Zeegen

Once in freefall, now a freeform discipline: Lawrence Zeegen reviews a decade of radical change that saw the rebirth of illustration in the digital era...

It has been one heck of a decade for illustration. And that’s certainly no over-blown, over-statement. To those industry creatives that straddle the so-last-century and noughties divide, it is visibly clear how much ground illustration has covered, and conquered, since 2000AD.

Within a decade the discipline of illustration has undergone a massive rejuvenation and reinvention – from cottage industry to creative industry; a new breed of practitioners with new working methodologies and new ideologies for contemporary illustration practice dragged an outmoded and outdated analogue craft into a brave new 21st C digital world.

In charting the fall and rise, the near death experience and radical rebirth, of illustration from the mid-90s to Y2K it is evident that renegade innovators were at the heart of instigating genuine and challenging change. And then at the dawn of the 21st century and merely moments away from the final nail being hammered into the coffin of a dying art form, a new breed of practitioners kicked-back, kicked ass and kick-started a new wave of illustration that would determine and define the discipline’s future and defy those ready to perform it’s last rites.

As for the tipping point in illustration’s destiny – was there a moment in time when the planets were in alignment, when technology and ideology were in perfect harmony? Probably not, but both certainly had a role to play. The changing fortunes for illustration came about through a series of seemingly unrelated moments; the point had arrived when new generation digital practitioners ran with, rather than ran away from, technology having grown up with the computer in the playroom, classroom and bedroom they embraced challenges and change and saw the possibilities for pushing new parameters rather than being tied down by traditions.

This moment in time was to coincide with the democratization of the digital – kit, both hardware and software, was available to buy from out-of-town warehouses at rock-bottom prices at around the same time that the internet arrived, albeit via 56k dialup, into studios up and down the land; for the first time allowing information and communication to be shared across the planet. Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village, a term he first coined in 1962, was finally a reality.

Ian Wright, a rare example of an ever-evolving illustrator to have continually practiced across three decades, cites the major development for the discipline as the Internet – ‘it has allowed self-publishing and digital viewing in a way unheard of before,’ he states. And Anthony Burrill, no amateur himself, agrees: ‘the biggest advance this decade for me has been the Internet and instant access to everything all of the time. It means I use it constantly for image research and looking for inspiration’ Burrill adds.

Yet aside from a small minority to jump the analogue/digital divide, as Wright and Burrill so visually and visibly achieved, the future of the discipline was to rest with, and be wrestled by, a new generation. And the outlet for their first forays into reshaping the future – The Face; a fashion, music and style magazine originally launched back in 1980 with illustration content provided by a young Ian Wright. Constantly reinventing itself, some twenty years later the publication was to offer illustration a much-needed blank canvas. By 2000 and under the creative guidance of Graham Rounthwaite, himself a successful illustrator-turned-art director, the likes of Jasper Goodall, Miles Donovan at Peepshow and Austin at NEW were given carte blanche to explore new illustrative opportunities within the pages of the publication.

‘I don’t think I’d be the artist I am today if I hadn’t worked with Graham,’ cites Goodall, ‘he was a great art director who knew the value of letting artists do their own thing, we kind of came together at a time when what I was doing creatively totally fitted with what he wanted for the magazine, so he pretty much left me to it with almost zero amendments for three or four years. The Face was the bible of cool,’ continues Goodall, ‘and that was the best place for me to be in terms of media industry perception – it got me a lot of work.’

Adrian Johnson, much applauded for his work for clients that include The Independent, The Guardian, Robinsons, Stussy and the list goes on, agrees with Goodall – ‘The Face helped illustration break free of the shackles of the Radio Times and ES magazine covers that is was synonymous with – illustration became ‘cool’. It is now everywhere, from the printed page to the white walls of Berlin galleries and from the Milan catwalk to the world-wide-web,’ Johnson argues, ‘illustration fought long and hard to be viewed as an equal to graphic design, but the blurring of the boundaries has given the discipline the shot it needed – credibility’.

If it was The Face that began to give illustration the confidence boost it so desperately required at the start of the decade, then it was to be the collective strut and last-gang-in-town mentality of a small number of collectives emerging from the shadows – Big Orange, Neasden Control Centre, Peepshow and Black Convoy, that would drive the discipline further forward and expand the remit of the illustrator. Peepshow’s influence, since formation following graduation from the University of Brighton in 2000, should not be underestimated; having constantly stood at the forefront of evolving illustration practice and, just as crucially, reshaping the media industry comprehension of the role of the illustrator. Peepshow continue to break down barriers and preconceptions - ‘We work extensively within art direction, advertorial and editorial illustration, moving image, fashion and textile design and set design,’ explains Miles Donovan, and it is at the crossroads of these areas that new practices continue to emerge.

Naked ambition and raw desire to succeed saw John McFaul; a founding member of collective Black Convoy split to set up McFaul, his own fully-fledged design/illustration agency with an international client base – ‘illustrator became illustrators, became art and design agency, and a bumbling creative mess became a tight business with a sense of purpose and more than a little swagger,’ he admits, but with a portfolio that includes large-scale projects for Carhartt, Nokia, Haviannas and John Lennon Airport he can be forgiven for a touch of arrogance. ‘I’m smiling from breakfast to beers, can there be a better job on the planet?’ he asks.

Michael Gillette, illustrator to the Beastie Boys, Levi’s and James Bond (to hastily name a few from his ever-expanding client list) thinks not. From Gillette’s studio in San Francisco, having relocated from London at the start of the decade, he explains his own take on the developments seen since the end of the last century - ‘It’s clear that we have had an explosion of illustrative creativity in the past 10 years, in all different directions and across many different media – I believe that the breadth is enough to ensure that illustration will remain a very viable creative solution and not a fad’ he states, ‘I believe that the digital realm has put designers and illustrators back on the same page/screen so developments will continue in a positive and dynamic fashion.’

So what and where next? Ambitious for the discipline, Holly Wales champions the new role of the illustrator, but certainly isn’t letting recent progress stand in the way of further transformations – ‘I would like to see much more collaboration, a huge embrace of technology and illustrators behaving more like art directors on bigger projects,’ Wales states. Others are beginning to see the future for illustrators as animators – ‘As magazines increasingly go online,’ believes Jasper Goodall, ‘so the opportunities for non-static illustration increases’ and Adrian Johnson is in agreement –‘It appears, and I say this with some regret, that the printed page has had it’s day, yet the possibilities for illustration online are astonishing. Illustrators will have to get their heads round animation, as illustration comes alive!’

Changes in technology and ideology have certainly transformed and continue to transform contemporary illustration practice – and it is in a far healthier and more ambitious frame of mind than a decade ago with emerging practitioners keen to continue to push at the blurred edges of existing boundaries. Rose Blake, a recent graduate of Kingston University’s BA (Hons) Illustration and Animation course and now in her first year of study on MA Communication Art and Design at the RCA, admits to only having been 13 years old in 2000, yet captures the spirit of today’s young mavericks – ‘I’ve learnt that you have to be human, and put that into your work,’ she states, ‘I make work about stuff that really means something to me – I basically like honest work, I think.’ Antony Burrill, despite having been around the block a few times, agrees whole-heartedly with Blake – ‘Tread your own path,’ he advises, ‘be aware of everything that’s going on, but find your own voice.’ And Ian Wright, from his studio in NYC and with a career spanning three decades, offers sage advice for the newcomer – ‘the future is always uncertain, yet look at it as a positive challenge and above all, stick to it and keep the faith!’

//Boxout 01//
Illustration as Art Form - Jim Stoten
‘There is certainly much more variety in terms of techniques and how work is being produced currently,’ states Jim Stoten whose breakthrough project was an album sleeve for Gomez. ‘There appears to be much more experimentation with different mediums and formats and illustrators are increasingly creating their own products,’ he notes, ‘and with this there has been increased respect for illustration as an art-form.’

//Boxout 02//
Technological changes - Spencer Wilson
‘The biggest development has to be the continuing power of the computer,’ states Peepshow’s Spencer Wilson, ‘and with that; the increased functionality of the software, enabling me to develop my work with the control I demand.’ Wilson admits the personal transformation of working processed from ‘vague doodles on paper to composing images directly into the computer’ has seen him ‘essentially, grow into a commercial artist.’

//Boxout 03//
Method in the madness – Austin at NEW
‘Starting out at the beginnings of the Apple Macintosh revolution meant that I was schooled,’ admits Austin, in both traditional analogue and developing digital technologies – it meant that I have always been more focused on the process of drawing / thinking / discovery and even now my media of choice are a combination of gouache and poster paints, pencils, recycled papers, large-scale water colour pads and a photocopier…’

//Boxout 04//
McFaulisms – John McFaul
‘The world owes the creative nothing. Talent counts for little these days. Anything is possible. Educate yourself. Hone your craft. Something old isn’t interesting. Trends are trends. What goes around; comes around. Influences have influences. Think. Think more. Do. Don’t just talk about it. Tell everyone what you about to do. Do it. Tell everyone that you did it.’

//Q&A – Vault 49//
Vault 49 fled South-East London for Lower East Side Manhattan earlier in the decade to work for stateside clients that have included Pepsi, Levi’s and Flaunt, a luxury independent fashion magazine published 10 times a year and distributed in 32 countries.

Flaunt – how, where and why?

Back in 2003 Flaunt was well known to us for it’s unfettered, beautiful cover design and artistic freedom. Prior to our move from London to New York, we approached Flaunt and asked if we could design their cover, with the intention of creating some great art and increasing our profile in the US. As a result we rewarded Flaunt with one of our most iconic designs of the decade. The actual composition of this design took us only 30 minutes or so, but there was plenty of R&D along the way to get us to that stage.

Your working methods; the combination of hand-drawn, collaged, photographic, typographic sum up the Vault 49 approach - how did you arrive at this way of working?

This was a real mish-mash of both original and found raw elements, collaged together then combined with crafted vector typography. We spent a bit of time researching at the library and old bookstores scouring for antique print reference, then we played around with some inks and a straw, and raided our not insubstantial bug collection for a few creepy treats. This classic Vault49 mish-mash approach came about from our collaborative nature and lack of individual egos… when everyone is contributing to designs and working without arrogance, there is a better chance of creating some fresh and innovative.

And what were your tools of trade at the time?

Our materials in 2003 don’t vary wildly from our tools of the trade in 2009, and that’s because anything and everything has always been fair game for us. The Flaunt cover includes pencil, crayon, ink, photography, scans, screen print textures, vector line-work, bitmap artwork…

In essence - how would you describe the Vault 49 approach to the decade?

We’ve always tried to be hard to define, and have never been afraid to fail. Understanding and implementing this ethos into our studio has been the basis of our creative innovation and integrity. WGSN said we revolutionized vector art in the last decade, but I think across the board we’ve pushed the boundaries of whatever we’ve applied ourselves to, and that’s largely because we haven’t been afraid to try. High standards and genuine craftsmanship have always been more important to us than house styles.

//Talking Heads//

01 Hamish Makgill, Creative Director, StudioMakgill
We have seen a trend for illustrators in engaging far more physical processes. The advances and excitement that the digital revolution bought us has settled down, but left many illustrators divorced from craft based techniques. Traditional print methods have been revived in both illustration and graphic design, but now we are seeing artists take this further and I think the ideas and ambitions for new and underused processes are going to continue to expand…

02 Tom Burns, Freelance Illustrator
Static or animated images will require clearly communicated images, whatever the processes and techniques utilized. Personally I can only see more and more collaborative work being created with a greater emphasis on the role of illustrator as designer and art director to explore new directions. And more within the discipline will be comfortable exhibiting their work on the walls of galleries, there is certainly increasing recognition that this is a collectable art form…

03 Tim Vyner, Global Reportage Illustrator
I can now work from anywhere in the world for anyone in the world and as a reportage artist, the world has certainly become a smaller and more accessible place so illustration has a role to play in recording cultural, social and political events as they happen – reportage illustration can now contribute to the cultural heritage or our lives in a unique way. It is important perceptions shift and people see illustration as less ephemeral…

04 Miles Donovan, Head Honcho and Illustrator, Peepshow
Who knows where we will be in another 10 years or what work we’ll be making, that’s what so exciting about illustration. In terms of the role of the commissioner – I think we’ll see a move away from magazines and newspapers into more online environments. We’ve just picked up a commission for the New York Times to create an animation for an online version of the newspaper – essentially a moving illustration and this could well be the future…

05 Helen Rush, Illustrators’ Agent, AgencyRush
The enjoyable thing for me is that illustration is forever changing - boundaries are pushed, and possibilities are infinite. There are two ways in which the discipline may develop - the way illustration can be created, and the way in which we experience illustration. With technological developments - interactive illustrations and animated ads, the future certainly looks exciting! We're always searching for the 'new' – at the very heart of creativity is innovation…

06 Michael Gillette, Illustrator
Physical print is definitely on the ebb and the classic outlets for illustration seem inevitably on the wane. How satisfying will it be to have your book cover image on a Sony Reader or a Kindle? The record industry has relegated music graphics to 27k sized postage stamp irrelevance and that just ain’t rock ‘n’ roll to me, personally I replace crummy album sleeves on iTunes with images of my own choosing…

07 Holly Blake, Illustrator
I think that illustration will take on the form of a huge castle built out of cake and we’ll eagerly follow a trail of crumbs to get there, except that we’ll all be too fat to get through the doors when we get there… Personally I’m always searching out clever-thinkers, aesthetics and places in the world where people think differently – I want to live in them and challenge the way that I think…

08 Paul Burgess, Illustrator and Educator
For the future’s sake, we should be agents of change, learn to question things and never be boring. Look outside your own practice for inspiration. Let us try and find something we believe in, other than fashion, style, pattern and endless butterflies. There is currently a return to more intimate and hand made pieces. In the future illustration will have to be more than just decoration. What it should be is exciting, questioning, contemporary and relevant.

09 Rose Blake, Illustrator
You have to try and stay ahead of trends or just decide not to think about them, as they change so quickly. I’m really aware of current trends at the moment and I really don’t like them – loads of triangles and flat computer colour, or the folksy pencil drawings of boats and old huts and animals with human features talking about love – better avoid trends and create honest work. Get ideas from talking to people and more importantly listening…