Illustration has had a turbulent ride in recent years. One or two star names have enjoyed moments in the spotlight, adopted by brands looking for the graphic magic that only a good illustrator can supply. But even illustration’s staunchest advocates have to concede that the craft is less influential than it once was. It has been driven out of many of its traditional habitats by photography, and relegated to mere decoration by short-sighted clients who find its emotive waywardness – the very thing that makes illustration so wonderful – too risky to use in commercial publishing.
This does not mean, however, that illustration is any less innovative. It’s just that most of the best stuff is happening away from mainstream publishing. Derek Brazell is an illustrator who also works for the Association of Illustrators as publications and membership co-ordinator. Brazell is in no doubt over illustration’s current importance in key areas. ‘It’s essential for tapping into the youth market. It plays a major part in the ever-expanding licensing business, creating the characters that generate income for many businesses,’ he says.
Brazell sees opportunities for illustrators to encroach on territory normally the preserve of graphic designers. ‘There has certainly been an uptake of illustrators’ hand-drawn type across publishing and advertising,’ he observes, citing E4, with its illustrative-style idents, as a point in case.
Marc Valli is co-founder of Magma, the three-store chain of shops that sells design books, toys, T-shirts and DVDs. He has the sharp eye of a successful retailer and is quick to spot a trend. He points to the German publisher Die Gestalten Verlag as a consistent producer of good illustration books. He also praises Angus Hyland’s latest book, The Picture Book, as ‘quite exceptional’. Published by Laurence King, the book offers a compendium of contemporary illustration compiled by Pentagram Design partner Hyland.
Illustrator Andy Martin, with his pointed style brimful of cultural nods and winks, was an early pioneer of the Apple Macintosh in illustration and now makes his own idiosyncratic illustrative-led films. His most recent clients include The Guardian, New York magazine, Financial Times and New Scientist. Despite this established presence, Martin still experiences the full gamut of client responses. ‘Some publishers just want nice colours and the idea becomes secondary,’ he comments. ‘Others miss the notion that a strong graphic image can add to the overall theme of a feature without merely becoming a rebus of the text. But some give me a free hand, recognising that I’ve honed my craft over a long period,’ he explains.
Intriguingly, like a growing number of illustrators, Martin is not hanging around waiting for the phone to ring with his next commission. Instead, he is finding ways to self-generate work. He has just published his first book, Ideas Have Legs, an engaging collaboration with the poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan. Martin interprets the poetry and prose of McMillan visually, using a range of media such as digital illustration, photography and painting.
But just how realistic is it for illustrators to become their own clients? Valli at Magma thinks it is becoming increasingly feasible. ‘Probably the most interesting and best-selling illustration projects we have had in the past few years have been self-published books, such as the excellent comic strips by illustrators Tom Gauld, Simone Lia and James Jarvis,’ he says.
Jarvis is a revealing case with his small, self-published comic strips giving birth to an entire alternative industry. Jarvis and his accomplice Russell Waterman, founder of fashion house Silas, have jointly developed toys, T-shirts and games to complement the comic strips. ‘They are now working on a feature film, and it all started with a little stapled comic strip,’ says Valli.
Brazell is equally enthusiastic. He mentions Otto Dettmer, Katherina Manolessou and Andy Smith as interesting practitioners engaged in self-publishing. And there’s an additional benefit, as he points out: ‘Publishing your own work is actually a very effective promotional tool.’
For illustrators engaged in straightforward commissions he sounds a note of caution. ‘The Association of Illustrators is increasingly seeing bad contract and licensing practice, and the best way for illustrators to tackle this is to arm themselves with the proper information,’ he says. Brazell recommends joining a collective and cites the growing number of support groups, such as Gumbo and Peepshow. ‘Strength in numbers will help illustrators feel less isolated,’ he says.
Adrian Shaughnessy is consultant creative director for This Is Real Art and editor of Varoom magazine for the Association of Illustrators