2005-03-08 Essays on Illustration

Realism

"The temptation to take the precious things we have apart to see how they work must be resisted for they never fit together again." Billy Bragg, Must I Paint You a Picture song lyrics.

I have been thinking a lot about the craft of illustration lately. Why i love it so, why I work the way i do, how my approach differs from others and why. Trends, cycles, what it all means. In fact, I've been thinking about little else these days. For your vast delight and edification, I'm ignoring the sage advice of Billy Bragg up there (the quote), dismantling it all piece by piece and thought I'd share some of what's in my head with you.

On the weekend, I picked up a book on Norman Rockwell and I've been pouring over the pages studiously. One of the great masters from the very tail end of the Golden Age of Illustration, his work has a warm, wonderful, cozy and timeless quality and yet it speaks volumes to the age in which he lived (rising to prominence in the 1920's and continuing until his last commission in 1972). His work is rife with the small details of daily life... each is like a little time capsule. How people dressed, the uniforms, the signage, the kitchen gadgets, the motor cars. And it suddenly struck me that modern illustration is almost the anti-thesis of the illustration of Norman Rockwell's time.

Surely there are illustrators who still work realistically, although at the moment, I'm at a loss to think of any. Indeed, when I was in art school, working realistically was almost frowned upon. I'm sure it varies from school to school, depending on the curriculum philosophy, the teaching staff and the market, but in general there has been a gentle revolt against realism and a movement toward work that is highly conceptual, technologically oriented. Oh, we were educated in how to do it, yes. Realism is not hard to achieve, really, it just takes a lot of time and patience and requires a lot of reliance on source materials (mainly photos or models). In fact, I would bet that almost any illustrator you can name (particularly those with formal art education) can create photo-realistic work and has in the past. That's one of the things that you tend to forget... behind even the most stylistic artist is usually solid drawing skills. I remember being struck by that most of all when viewing a rare exhibit of Picasso's early work a few years ago. They were tremendous drawings of Greek statues rendered with real Renaissance flair and draftsmanship. Looking at the fractured figures he's famous for, you would never guess that he could draw like that.

As a kid, that's what I always struggled to achieve... realistic images. That's what impressed my classmates. That's what brought them to circle around my desk, ohhing and ahhing. And in truth, I enjoy drawing realistically. It allows an opportunity to really focus on structure and observation. And technique... technique is what creates the visual interest. For example, this portrait of Leonard Cohen I did (an assignment) would be really dull if it weren't for the texture i used to create his craggy visage:



But realism has fallen out of favour. I've been thinking about why that is exactly. Certainly, the dominance of photography and television must have a lot to do with it. Why hire an illustrator to painstakingly render an exact replica of that Maytag washing machine or Sharp calculator when you can just snap a photo? Or hire someone to snap it for you?

Sopped as we are in media spun images... the gas station I go to now has televisions installed in the pumps, commercials flicking as you fill your tank... we don't need an illustrator to tell us what the movie star or public figure of the day looks like. We've already been bombarded with images of them, from every conceivable angle in every conceivable light.

Now, illustration must tell us more (or mayhaps less?). It must tell the story differently, in a way we haven't seen before and won't see in a photograph. It must have a hook, a gimmick if you will. It must stand out.

(to be continued...)


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