Varoom - How to be an Illustrator
AOI, July 2008

How to be an illustrator – Darrel Rees (Laurence King)
Book Reviewer - Lawrence Zeegen

Let me make it clear from the outset; there are a few facts I really should divulge before inviting you to read this review. Like trying to find an unbiased jury, locating an impartial reviewer (with no axe to grind) is a pretty tough call. Of course, I jumped at the chance, when offered an opportunity to review How to be an illustrator, by Darrel Rees, picking up the book with a mixture of excitement, intrepidation and downright intrigue… was I disappointed with the publication? Heck no – I enjoyed every moment, but back to those crucial upfront admissions first.

Darrel Rees, top man at Heart, is an old accomplice of mine; we stomped the same back streets of Hoxton in the early 90s, when the area was more rickets and scurvy than the latté and panini of today. He and I shared studio space at Big Orange before embarking upon the adventure that was setting up a truly contemporary illustration agency together. We parted company a few years in and Rees took the agency from small back room to major concern with offices in both London and New York – no mean feat. So I know the author – no big deal, the world of illustration is relatively small, I hear you say. Well, I know the publisher too, in fact my next two books are to be published by Laurence King, so I might not wish to upset that particular apple cart either… but as I have no axe to grind, all is well.

How to be an illustrator promises to give the budding wanna-be professional a head start and head’s up on the highs and lows of breaking into and maintaining a career in illustration. Sounds familiar, in fact sounds a lot like a book called The Fundamentals of Illustration, published in 2005 by AVA, - begging the question; is there space in a crowded marketplace for another book of this ilk? But less of that and more of this, hey, no axe to grind, I promise.

How to be an Illustrator sounds too like How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul too, but that’s probably no accident – both books are from the same publisher and follow a very similar format – plenty to read, little to look at but packed with opinion and advice. I can’t help thinking that there is a missed trick here; the implication is that illustrators don’t concern themselves when losing their souls – is it a given that your soul is sold down the river with your first commission, perhaps?

Rees writes up a very personal journey, charting his own route from naďve out-of-town Bath undergraduate, via finger-on-the-pulse RCA postgraduate, and on to urban illustration expert – he enjoys the walk down Memory Lane, as I did too, but it did leave me wondering how useful most readers might find such navel-gazing. Yes, there was a recession, illustration was in deep depression, we used couriers instead of computers and the landscape was radically different from today’s energised and enthusiastic emporium of illustration, but one gets the feeling that illustration at the end of the last century is being viewed through rose-tinted specs.

The relationship, as described in this book, between those that commission (art directors and designers) and those that are commissioned (illustrators) seems sadly stuck in a vacuum. It depicts a time when illustrators were expected to be subservient, grateful even, for the opportunity to undertake a commission, that Holy Grail and be-all-and-end-all of freelance illustration. These days so much has changed – illustrators now control their own destiny in ways that were simply unthinkable merely a decade ago. The digital revolution has revitalised the discipline, not just in ways and means of making, storing and sending work, but also in bringing communication between illustrators to more than just a moan in a pub over a beer.

Illustrators are collaborating globally: setting up collectives, businesses and working directly with end-users in ever-increasing numbers. Illustrators are working as designers as well as with designers; there has been a return to the notion of the graphic artist with aligned studio set-up and small companies are springing up all over - think Vault 49, think McFaul, think Maki, Gluekit, Kapitza, Phunk, eBoy, Peepshow – global groups of renegades that don’t get a look in to How to be an illustrator, as sadly we only meet solo practitioners.

This book will satisfy those with eyes fixed firmly on the rear view mirror; a book setting out an agenda and a vision for the future of the discipline How to be an illustrator is not – but another useful guide to safe working practices, rather than radical alternative to the mainstream, it most certainly is.