Computer Arts (Issue 174) - The Illustration Revival

Computer Arts 0174
Illustration Now!

Illustration/2010 is finally getting the respect it deserves; Lawrence Zeegen investigates an increasingly independent medium that is setting the scene and calling the shots…

In 2010 illustration continues to resist categorization. Once positioned in the no-man’s land between graphic design and fine art, dodging scuds and shells from both sides – illustration is now a discipline heroically standing its own ground. Confidently, and consistently, standing apart – today’s new professional practitioners are ignoring barriers, borders and battle-lines and doing just what they do best – setting new agendas, setting themselves apart and setting up as the true mavericks of tomorrow’s contemporary visual communication design scene.

By sidestepping stereotyping, casting typecasting aside and redefining their own roles and responsibilities - here is a fresh generation of illustrators that seize the opportunity to shape their own destiny. No longer content to be purely commercially-driven, commission-led, reactive practitioners - here are proactive professionals doing so much more that patiently awaiting the ping of an incoming email or the ring of an incoming call – the most motivated movers and shakers are making it happen on their own terms. And while they are at it – they are redefining the role of the illustrator.

Faced with a complex set of tasks – 21st C illustrators strive to combine personal expression with pictorial representation to convey complex ideas and messages to communicate, persuade, inform, educate and entertain with clarity, vision and style. One of the most direct forms of visual communication, illustration has become increasingly diverse – constantly crisscrossing boundaries and disciplines – as today’s practitioners make images for print, for screen, for galleries, for architectural spaces, for apparel. Illustration is on the street, in stores, in the home; it appears on book jackets, in magazines, on flyers, ‘zines and posters, on CD and record sleeves, on mobiles, on TV, on the web… the list goes on.

But way before print and digital technology; before man had even developed written language, the drawn image played a crucial role in aiding communication between people; helping us to make sense of our world – to allow us to record, describe, and communicate the intricacies of life. And in some ways, little has changed – today’s illustrators reflect and comment upon, interpret and reinterpret our world, and their own worlds too, of course.

From illustration’s beginnings as a commercial art, created for a client to fulfill a task or brief, the discipline has moved into a unique new space - somewhere between satisfying a service and exploring personal expression. Illustration in 2010 may continue to shine a mirror on society, but freed from the constraints of working entirely for the commissioner and now utilizing more entrepreneurial methods illustration practice has come of age.

The smart money was always on illustration rising up and breaking free from the shackles of entirely commercially driven projects. A more entrepreneurial spirit has come about, in part due to the fact that digital hardware and software has come down so dramatically in price, coupled with fast speed broadband / wi-fi combos becoming standard issue; enabling the creation and production, distribution and promotion of images so readily that contemporary illustration has emerged from the shadows to kick-start new self-initiated projects, publications and associated publicity. Equally responsible for the rise in fortune, but far less recognized perhaps, has been the input and impact of a new breed of art and design school educators – pushing out graduates into a competitive marketplace fuelled with the vision to succeed self-sufficiently.

Alex Spiro and Sam Arthur run Nobrow. Following a first degree reading History at Oxford, Alex graduated Central St Martins with a 1st class honours degree in Illustration, before teaming up in 2008 with Sam, no slouch either with 10 years experience as a director of short films, commercials and pop promos – all drawing-generated, to start their own independent publishing unit. The aim for Nobrow refreshingly straightforward - simply showcasing the very best talent in illustration and graphic arts. ‘Both of us were passionate about illustration and drawing,’ enthuses Spiro, ‘and were keen to provide a platform for it that focused on craft and skill as well as an understanding of print production and an appreciation of the book as an art form in itself.’

So, how easy was it to move from a simple idea to actually setting up and running a small publishing company – ‘We started Nobrow with a screen printing set up and a small budget for the first issue,’ Spiro continues, Nobrow Issue 1: Gods and Monsters contained the work of 24 hand-picked talented individuals from across the globe, all invited to contribute images based on the title theme. Printed in two spot colours on heavy paper in an oversized format it was printed in an edition of just 3000. ‘We work closely with locally based printers wherever possible so that we can be involved in the process from start to finish,’ adds Alex, ‘we always try to achieve finished products that are not only filled with great work, but are also art objects, to be coveted, collected and cherished.’ Following the success of an ever-growing number of publications, Nobrow have moved into signed and numbered small-run prints through Nobrow Small Press – all prints are extremely limited, just 100 of each made available.

Across countries, continents and from another corner of the planet is Eduardo Recife – a Brazilian-born and based experimental illustrator and typographer. His online ‘playground for personal works’ Misprinted Type first emerged back in 1998 and quickly gathered a cult following. ‘I’ve always drawn since I was little,’ offers Recife, ‘and at some point I got fascinated with type so I started to work with typefaces, making collages as a way to apply my fonts’ – all available to download from his site. Recife describes Misprinted Type as a place ‘where I put my ideas together, either in the form of a simple text, a collage, a drawing or a typeface – everything on the site are my personal projects – there is no client, no brief, nothing…’ he smiles, ‘call it design, illustration, art or a waste of time but for me it is a therapy, a hobby and makes me happy.’ And it is much more besides, acting as a portfolio site that attracts attention – Recife has recently been invited to participate in an exhibition of fax art, Fax Ex-Machina, at the KK Outlet on Hoxton Square in east London.

Another creative breaking out of the confines of traditional illustration is Kyle Bean; a recent graduate of the University of Brighton’s well established and highly regarded Illustration course. Bean moves seamlessly from illustration to animation and into model-making - ‘Lego and Air-fix models were a huge aspect of my childhood,’ admits Bean, ‘as well as making things, I also took things apart – even today I’m very influenced by the way things work.’ Bean’s creative urges to make things move kicked in at a young age too – ‘I made very basic stop-frame animations using a webcam to create a short film with my Lego models – my 3D creations came to life,’ he marvels, ‘I was so amazed by the results.’

Today Bean makes 3D illustrations for the New York Times and has made in-store displays for Hermes and Liberty. Not pausing long enough to fully consider his next move he remains motivated by every project, whatever the medium – ‘I’ve just written and designed my first pop-book – Guide for the Unlucky, for a US publisher’ he states excitedly, ‘I suppose I fit into this current wave of craft, that seems to be very much a zeitgeist of our time and I do constantly ask myself when it might end – but craft has always been around, as a human touch in design.’

Dividing one’s time between commercial and self-initiated projects takes nerves of steel – turning down freelance paid work for the relative insecurity of working on ideas, themes and projects that may never see the light of day isn’t easy. Merijn Hos, a graduate from the Utrecht School of Visual Arts from 2004, splits his projects 50-50 – half his time on commercial illustrations and the other half on independent publishing projects and exhibitions. ‘The self-set work helps me to find and experience new directions and philosophies in my work,’ ’ Hos explains, ‘that I can in future use when working on commercial projects’ – a perfect trade-off.

Owen Gildersleeve, of the collective Evening Tweed, started out wanting to work as either a fine artist or a photographer – ‘I really enjoyed the freedom of the two art forms and for some time my work was greatly inspired by both – it wasn’t until I studied graphic design and illustration that I could see how to bring together both of these interests in my work.’ Now constantly experimenting with new materials and forms Gildersleeve has been putting together an impressive client list that includes Tate, the New York Times, and The Guardian with a body of work strong on hand-crafted techniques that has attracted many admirers – Gildersleeve joins Evening Tweed at the Pick Me Up exhibition at Somerset House, London this spring.

Breaking down preconceptions may have been a long time coming – but today’s illustrators are finally receiving respect and recognition for their territory-defying approach; proving that illustration/2010 and beyond no longer need justify an existence someplace between fine art and graphic design. Illustration can call the shots – it is its own boss, at last.

//Boxout 01//
James Dawe – Connections with Collage
James Dawe is a busy guy – he’s just finished installing a large wall collage for the Museum of Small Things, an exhibition at Selfridges, as well as completing another collage cover illustration for The Guardian’s The Guide and is hard at work on a new exhibition piece – Tapestry of Dalston, appropriate as Dawe is not another too-cool-for-school shipped-in resident but actually locally born and bred in the neighborhood.

How did Dawe find a route into his John Heartfield and Rochenko inspired collage technique? ‘While doing an internship at Village Green I worked on posters for Fabric, the nightclub, it was the art direction by Love in the early noughties,’ adds Dawe, ‘for the Fabric posters, that I believe was largely responsible for the resurgence in collage – particularly symmetrical compositions.’

And what does Dawe believe the future holds for contemporary illustration? ‘The scene is really competitive and healthy – now the recession is officially over the large advertising clients are being more daring again and commissioning a variety of illustration again,’ he states. ‘Independent publishers continue to pop up with new ‘zines,’ advises Dawe, ‘and they are continually encouraging the exploration of traditional more craft-focused working methods,’ he adds.

//Boxout 02//
2010 MTV: Hidden World Style Guide
The Gild recently commissioned, through AgencyRush, Emily Forgot and Pomme Chan to evolve and create artworks for the 2010 MTV: Hidden World Style Guide. The guide is a resource tool for licensees to build their own branded apparel and accessories with a view to creating a new international female fashion brand.

The over-arching story; Hidden Worlds included Antennae – an electric vision of the future, illustrated by Emily Forgot and Alternate Universe – about taking a closer look and finding beauty in the overlooked, illustrated by Pomme Chan. Helen Rush at AgencyRush explains ‘Emily and Pomme were perfectly paired with their sub-themes – they were both fully immersed in the project – a brilliant brief, expertly art-directed by The Guild, that helped push and evolve their styles to stunning effect.’ A unique challenge for the two illustrators was to produce modular images, that no matter how they might be put together or re-purposed by the licensees they work in visually striking ways – a tough brief indeed.

//Boxout 03//
Ones to Watch…
Charlie Duck
Charlie Duck is interested in the relationships between narratives, the viewer and himself as an artist. ‘I aim to produce works that engage with the viewer,’ he explains, ‘encouraging them to find their own connections and meanings behind my drawings.’ Duck understands the balance of self-set and client-set projects – ‘I enjoy the pressures of commercial work and the excitement of the initial brief - though, I do take the most pleasure from the freedom to explore my own practice’ Watch this space.

Tom Burns
An MA Illustration graduate from Kingston University, Tom Burns takes influences from Robert Rauschenburg – the US Pop Artist, but brings a visual sensitivity to his image-making through digital working methods that have started to win him some high profile commissions for clients that include the British Heart Foundation and Poder magazine in the US.

Merijn Hos
The main characteristics of the work of Merijn Hos are, at first glimpse, the long-legged figures in high-heel shoes with big hairdos and freckles, lots of colour and abstract psychedelic landscapes, but when it comes to the content it is darker than one might first expect – Hos makes images that deal with life, death and ghosts…

Owen Gildersleeve
For Minale Design Strategy’s calendar image for the month of November Owen Gildersleeve recreated their logo with a visual solution that consisted of 300 handcrafted paper leaves – ‘quite a struggle in the timescale given’ he admits – ‘I was very happy when it all came together.’ Gildersleeve tackles each and every project as they come – though it is his ideas that primarily lead his choice and use of materials.

Kyle Bean
‘I’m quite critical of my own work,’ admits Kyle Bean, ‘I want to make sure that everything I create has a strong message and isn’t just aesthetically pleasing.’ Bean’s model-making skills and ideas-led approach was of interest to Blink Art, a division of Blink, who took him on initially to assist directors on commercials and are now finding him work model-making and creating shop displays – but all concept driven.


Full page image – Eduardo Recife, based in Brazil, balances personal self-initiated projects that encompass his passion for self-expression through the use of collage and typography.

01 – This cover for The Guardian newspaper’s The Guide typifies the approach that James Dawe takes to his image-making – bold John Heartfield and Rodchenko inspired collage treatment but with a contemporary visual and conceptual twist.

02 – Nobrow’s own Alex Spiro created this slightly surreal and rather macabre image for Nobrow 2 – a collection of images and work that simply fit the Nobrow philosophy that brings together a collections of passions for illustration, drawing, print and the art of the book as an object.

03 – Nobrow publish the work of other illustrators and artists – Abecederia by BlexBolox is the visual story of a settlement founded in Kataogonia in 1963 to assist victims of destructive meteorite strike. This graphic novella had previously been printed in German and French.

04 – Boy Tangle Eyes Nature is the large-scale opening image created by James Dawe for the entrance of an exhibition – The Museum of Small Things, at London’s Selfridges. Dawe’s creative solution was to ‘create an entanglement of nature and science – the idea that they’d been caught in a vacuum.’

05 – Eduardo Recife moves seamlessly from self-initiated into commercial projects – this image was created in his studio in Brazil before being enlarged to fill an entire wall at Urban Golf in Kensington, London.

06 – Kingdoms 03 is just one a of series of drawings that Charlie Duck has been creating in recent years – ‘I’m inspired predominantly by film and literature,’ he explains, ‘specifically the methods employed to evoke feeling or atmosphere.’

07 – Kyle Bean turned his model-making skills to making this 3-dimensional representation of the famous London store Liberty entirely from Hermes packaging for an in-store display. Keeping his remit open Bean divides his time between illustration, model making and animation.

08 – For Poder magazine in the US, Tom Burns created this Robert Rauschenburg – inspired image for a feature entitled ‘Rebuilding Haiti’ - looking at progress made in the country since the devastating earthquake.

09 – Merijn Hos created this image for The Guardian – typical of his illustrative aesthetic, Hos makes images that include his own characters – ‘big hairdo and freckles – lots of colours and abstract psychedelic landscapes’.

10 – Emily Forgot’s approach to the 2010 MTV: Hidden World Style Guide project brief – Antennae was to combine fashion-led images with natural forms and architectural shapes along with elements of technology to create a fusion of future-facing graphically arresting components.

11 – Alternate Universe, finding beauty in the often over-looked, was the inspiration and the starting point for Pomme Chan’s approach when creating this set of modular images – the ladybird, mushrooms and plant-life all had to have the potential to co-exist, despite being created individually.

12 – Created to promote ‘The Fresher’ a new guide for students produced by The Guardian, Owen GIldersleeve, of Evening Tweed, set about making this illustrative approach by predominantly crafting the image from cut paper and card, adding a few 3D elements to give the promo some depth.