The New Illustration

I subscribe to The Atlantic, one of the oldest publications in the history of this country. It has thought-provoking articles written by really good journalists. And it has what might be labelled fair art accompanying those articles.

Other publications have good artwork as well, like The New York Times Magazine.

Tim Tomkinson created the image on the left for The Atlantic. It’s a more traditional style of illustration, requiring some actual draftsmanship. The artwork on the right, created by Ryan Snook for The New York Times Magazine, has a much different style.

What’s the difference? And why are they so different? And how do they affect the viewer?

Sure, Tomkinson’s piece accompanies an article about an actual person, Abigail Allwood, a scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, while Snook’s accompanies an article called “Crying at Movies”. But the art director at The Atlantic must’ve felt strongly about using an illustrator whose style was toward realism, whereas the person calling the shots at The New York Times Magazine probably said something like “anything goes”.

Weeks ago, I wrote about the decline of teaching actual drawing and illustration in art schools, which, when you think about it, doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. I mean, things like anatomy and perspective were taught alongside figure drawing when I was in art school. Those things weren’t absolutely necessary for painting disciplines, but they were for commercial illustration.

So I’m open to discussion about why drawing is no longer considered a necessary attribute when it comes to creating qualitative commercial illustration, although I have my own theory why that is.

You see it all the time these days, the newer styles: much more like expressionism than realism. Expressionism plays to emotional reaction. As history will tell us, expressionism in painting came about after the impressionist period in the last portion of the nineteenth century. Impressionists taught the world (or those who visited art galleries and went to art openings) a new way of seeing. And that way of seeing was with your inner eye—meaning your brain—and not so much with your logical, or outer, eye.

Expressionistic art was also done in a time of upheaval in the world: the breakdown of the gilded age of kings and queens, the revolutions in Europe, the world wars. If you’re at all a student of art history, you know of art imitating life. Broad brush strokes (often with a lot of contrast in color), faces with garish angularity, and almost primitive proportions were characteristic of the form.

Snook’s illustration is very cartoony. But you don’t have to look far to see some work done that is not quite so funny in depicting emotion, and much more emoting tension—even anger.

My theory of why this is all prominent now in publicized artwork is that we live in a very changing world. A global economy (with several nations having proprietary resources), tensions around the world (knowing that now many nations have nuclear capability), strong climate changes, immediate news on TV and the Internet. Twitter and Facebook promote reactive activity. Maybe I’m wrong. But something has spurred things along to where commercial illustration is now, to where it reflects all that noise.

There are other factors possible: younger generations have different ideas of seeing the world in art; and for everyone, using computer apps and plug-ins can easily take a photo and transform it into an illustration or even a painting, with textures and warping the perspective. Why would you need to actually draw it first? Is that why we no longer need to teach it?

Because when you think about it, how would you teach a student to think in expressionistic terms? Maybe to them, realism is just too superficial.

 

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2 thoughts on “The New Illustration

  1. Dan,

    Informative and provocative, as always.

    Perhaps a future column could address a fundamental question about the production of images:

    Can a computer-created illustration convey as much information, emotion, meaning as a hand-drawn one?

    If the answer is yes, why bother learning something that perhaps has gone the way of hieroglyphics?

    If the answer is no, then maybe a more spirited defense of teaching those skills is called for.

    I’m a writer, so I can only comment as a consumer. My sense, however, is that the brush is mightier than the mouse.

    But I leave it to you to offer the reasons why, if true.

    • I would answer “no” if I believed it to be true. The thing is, for the vast number of publications that use illustration, their articles are more for editorial and small news items, therefore not lengthy. I see the computer-based illustration used for the shorter pieces, the more traditional styles——like watercolor——used for the longer ones, such as a documentary piece or story. I’m sure there are several traditionally-based artists out there whose reps are scouting for the longer pieces. Those would pay the best, but are few and far between.

      As you might know, the planning going into a publication calls for space usage, for which editors must watch for how much is left for illustration. A small computer-based artwork, if it fills the bill for interpretation and coherence to the theme of the article, will always be the choice going forward. There’s way more stock illustration pieces to choose from here than going the route of custom artwork. And money spent is always a chief consideration.

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