Affairs of the art

A growing number of exponents of ’intelligent illustration’ are engaged in the practice of ’promoting visual literacy’. Emily Pacey explores this trend, looking at illustrators who are using their craft playfully to convey ideas and messages

’This is not illustration for the sake of illustration,’ says Noma Bar, one of a growing number of exponents of what he calls ’intelligent illustration’. Aesthetically, Bar follows in the modern tradition of Paul Rand and James Joyce, but ramps up the conceptual content to create images containing ’an idea or message and a very stripped-down style’. He says, ’I feel like a solo singer with just a guitar and no other backing instruments.’

Bar’s first piece published in the UK was for a 2004 cover of Time Out’s Time In section, illustrating a TV programme on new discoveries about William Shakespeare. A minimal portrait of the Bard features a question mark for his nose and eye – a visual pun implying mysteries answered in the programme, but also ’the biggest question in the world – “to be or not to be?”’, says Bar.

Popular with art editors on political and cultural publications, the conceptual style stands out strongly from other current illustration styles, including retro 1950s pastiche, 1960s-inspired psychedelia and 1970s tendrilled wistfulness. In contrast, Bar’s bold and simple style seems timeless and the heavily conceptual element means that Bar’s style defies categorisations. He says, ’Some see this work as graphic design, some as illustration, some as art.’

Illustrator Patrick George believes that his and Bar’s styles are closest to graphic design. ’I see it as an extension of graphic design. If you are just using flat graphics, you can really push the idea or the concept,’ he says. The style can also be fast to execute. ’I was working on my drawings on the commuter train up to London and this style was the quickest and easiest way to work,’ he adds. ’The style has a lot in common with pictograms.’ He has worked for clients including GQ and Dell, and sees the approach as appropriate for corporate work, ’because it is not gimmicky or faddy and it puts across an idea’. Bar’s corporate client list includes Coca-Cola and IBM – whose Paul Rand-designed 1981 Eye, Bee, M identity implies a commitment to conceptual work.

Milan-based illustrator Alessandro Gottardo, also known as Shout, who is preparing for his first solo show at Los Angeles’ Known Gallery, says, ’The client needs to talk to customers and to reach as many people as possible using a simple style that showcases a concept.’ He cites Banksy as an influence, ’He uses a lot of irony in his work, which manages to reach everyone universally.’ Gottardo finds that the biggest challenge lies in ’finding an idea that is original, yet understandable to everyone’.

Unsurprisingly, given the amount of thought that goes into each picture, most time is spent on concept development. Says Bar, ’I go across the road to the café and spend the first six hours of the day thinking about the idea and developing my conceptual vocabulary, and just brainstorming.’ Gottardo says, ’My style is very simple, but the first stage is very complicated.’

Patrick George likes to be known by both names in his illustration alias, which is also the name of his publishing company. He has published several books of his work, including one of children’s nursery rhymes and two on collective nouns, including A Filth of Starlings and A Drove of Bullocks. ’They illustrated themselves because they are so playful, containing two ideas that blend to make a third,’ he says.

Gottardo believes that if there is any application for which ’intelligent illustration’ does not work it is young children’s books. Or at least, he finds that this is true for himself. ’I don’t know why I find it so hard, but I think it is because when I try to say something through my images, I make the mistake of trying to talk with the children on their level. Colleagues tell me that you don’t have to think about the children, you just have to say what you want and they will understand you.’

Patrick George agrees to an extent, but finds the conceptual style applicable to children’s books. ’Children have no preconceptions and will look at things as they are. They can be very literal, but they are also detail-driven. It makes it more challenging as so many pictures are so literal: if the story tells of a rabbit going up some stairs, there will be a watercolour of a rabbit going up some stairs,’ he says, seeing this as a lost opportunity. ’You could create a more rewarding image that adds something else to the text.’

Using images to convey ideas seems to elevate illustration from decoration to a higher cause, which Patrick George describes as ’promoting visual literacy’. He adds that for the trend to gather pace, those interested in purveying conceptual illustration should ’make their initial selection for the clients’, rather than offering a range of solutions that includes more conventional – and therefore safer – narrative or decorative illustrations.

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