Drawing conclusions

After some time spent in the wilderness, illustration is reclaiming its place alongside photography. Fay Sweet reports on some leading artists.

The art of the illustrator is being redrawn. After years being edged out of the frame by photography, a sprinkling of excellent new work is bringing illustration back into the picture.

Illustration and photography have always leapfrogged each other to win the affections of designers. For at least the past three years, photographers have been out in front of the field – after all, what is photography if not illustration? And because photographers have seized the opportunity to explore different approaches and have delved into the realms of digital manipulation, they have become skilled at producing striking imagery that readily lends itself to illustrative uses.

The world of illustration, meanwhile, appeared to languish, almost defeated, in the face of this competition. A number of designers admit they haven’t commissioned any illustrators for at least a year. “As far as I can remember we’ve used photography for just about everything,” says Justus Oehler at Pentagram. Others say they use a small stable of tried and trusted illustrators and haven’t considered looking for anyone new. “I enjoy working closely with illustrators, and when you have established a long-standing working relationship, it’s possible to ask the illustrator to bend their style to suit the job rather than set out to find someone completely new,” says Geoff Halpin at The Identica Partnership.

There are, though, a significant number of designers who have relished the chance to commission the latest talent.

Sid Madge of Palmer Madge nominates Jon Hamilton as the find of the year. They have just collaborated on a project for Central Trains. “Jon created an extraordinary map which appeared as the centre spread in a magazine,” says Madge. “It started as a huge model built in clay, embellished with bits of real objects like bicycle parts and signs. It looked like an enormous, slightly eccentric, model railway set. Then the whole lot was photographed using just a regular film-based camera before being scanned into the computer. This digital file was then manipulated on screen. It really was brilliant, very original.”

Hamilton was discovered through his agent Debut Art, which is a route often followed by Madge when looking for illustrators. “We’ve got all the books, Contact, Artworks and CIA, and we see illustrators with their portfolios about once a week,” he says.

Unusually, Palmer Madge also completes much of its own illustration work. “One of our designers, Peter Wiles, is really excellent at creating exactly what we want. A few years ago, it would have cost thousands of pounds and taken ages to make up some of this imagery – now it can be completed in just a couple of days at a fraction of the cost. We buy in photographic images and use those as the basis of our own illustrations which have been devised for clients such as Carrera and Iomega. In our experience, the days of line and wash are rapidly receding, and the boundaries are disappearing between photography and illustration,” he says.

Kathy Miller at Miller Sutherland says Tiffany Stemp gets her vote as a real find. At a time when illustrators have expanded their palette to embrace a whole range of materials and methods, Miller says there’s still nothing to beat excellent drawing skills. “Tiffany produces the most beautiful line drawing, and that’s something which is increasingly hard to find. We’ve worked together on a number of projects, including packaging for Waitrose aromatherapy bath oil, but the first work that really caught my attention was her drawings early on in projects for mood boards.”

Miller has no strict briefing rules: “The method of briefing really does depend on the job. In some cases, it is enough to ask an illustrator to reproduce the subject in a particular style. However, with Tiffany, I have tended to bring her in at the start of the job and allow her space and time to respond. She’s an excellent thinker, which may be partly due to her background in editorial work, where illustrators are given more encouragement to make an input and have ideas. I always keep a watch on magazines and look hard for the illustrator’s name – which is inevitably in tiny type hidden up the side of the page.”

Also keeping a close watch on illustrators working for editorial clients is Tracy Avison at The Partners. “They are often a lot more ideas-based than other illustrators and produce images with greater depth that have more to offer than just pretty pictures.” Avison’s nomination for a great new talent is Frazer Hudson. They are currently working on a brochure for an advertising agency. “Because the client deals in creativity and has a distinctive way of working, we felt it was important to find an illustrator who could take up ideas and develop them. Frazer’s work is a mixture of found imagery and line drawing, it’s really distinctive and quirky and witty – exactly right for the client,” she says.

In common with most designers, Avison’s form of briefing depends on the job. “In the case of this brochure, I worked closely with Frazer to make sure we were on track. The agency story is a complex one and I had to be sure the imagery wasn’t too quirky. I always like to see roughs as the work is in progress,” she says.

To find new illustrators, The Partners operates an organised system of filing cards that can be easily accessed for browsing. Portfolios are seen regularly and degree shows visited.

Finally, the last nomination goes to an established designer who is producing a new style of work. John Geary has been working with Bruce Duckworth of Turner Duckworth on packaging for Superdrug’s range of young women’s toiletries, Secret Weapon. “John was recommended to me by another designer who said he had a tremendous skill at producing beautiful little symbols. Because we were working with a very restricted space he seemed to be right for the job. He has produced quite brilliant symbols, drawn with tremendous elegance and flair. One is based on the warning sign used for flammable products that features a flame. We started with the idea of placing a devil in the flame and John took that away and developed it and came back with this fantastic series of cute devil characters. He hit the nail on the head.”

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