Style is Gone

I’m from an era well before the advent of the computer. When I entered the “field” (as we used to call it), my portfolio had everything in it, at least everything that I wanted to do going forward. But twenty-or-so years later, the art and design business had transformed itself.

I first came into the business as a designer/illustrator. One of my mentors, a guy by the name of Fred Coe, had told me early on that my portfolio had too much in it, or not enough, depending on what art directors wanted to see. Half of the bag was illustration and half was design work, of which he told me to choose only one to promote. “They won’t know where to put you,” he said.

At first, I was lucky. I’d found a place in Cincinnati that hired me to do both disciplines. But a few years later when I moved to a bigger market—Chicago—I found I had to specialize. My design half was ignored while my illustration half was drawing the attention, and so I became a full-fledged illustrator.

Doing that work came easy for me, my style being photo-realistic. And because Chicago was—and still is—a big market in the ad business, my future looked bright as long as advertising illustration was paying my way. This was in the 1970s and 1980s, and newspapers and magazines became the showcase for my work as well as many friends and acquaintances who did similar work. With ad agencies galore and several independent art “studios” as sources, a freelance illustrator could make a lot of money.

What made it fun and interesting for all concerned was that each of us—the illustrators—had a different working style. We drew the line work differently from each other, we applied the paint or watercolor (with a brush and/or airbrush) differently from each other. Overall, we thought the art process through in our own unique way, and that thought process was what made the end results appear so different. Our work was as independently unique as much as each individual appeared standing before you. That’s what made the work so personal.

Then “progress” came along in the late stages of that latter decade. Computers were making inroads into the business, and catalogs for stock illustration began to appear. Because it all seemed to happen within a few years, ad agencies were letting art directors go. Illustrators weren’t getting the assignments as before and soon photographers were suffering the same plight. Type houses started disappearing. Stock photography was showing up. The business was changing, and it was changing rapidly. I bought up cameras and lights and a bunch of stands and booms, making my own backdrops. I needed to diversify, reinvent myself.

With commercial illustration vanishing, I found getting back into design work difficult. My contacts knew me as an illustrator, not as one who could actually do design work. But that’s another story.

When Macs made the biggest splash with system 7.1 around 1994, I bought into it. I learned Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, QuarkXpress, and a few other applications quickly to bring myself up to snuff. I found the medium to be a great tool for processing artwork. What I did not like, however—and still don’t—was creating artwork with it. It isn’t natural.

I find it confining. The art one can do on a computer screen looks and feels mechanical, like drawing with a compass and plastic drawing aids like Alvin templates, drafting tools from an earlier age. Painter, a Corel application, tries hard to make painting as natural and fluid as it can on the screen, but falls way short. The only real advantage one can say about creating illustrations on computer is the undo feature.

What the computer did was homogenize the entire advertising industry. Since individualized illustration and much of photography were sitting in virtual purgatory, the rest of the designed imagery was being done by young “graphic designers” (then a new term) who were schooled in a new mindset of using the computer, not as a tool, but as a machine that everything was created with, like a food processor that already had all the ingredients and recipes in it. This new method of designing directly on the monitor, from scratch, was foreign to anyone like myself. These new graphic designers did not use pencil and paper—ever—to even visualize potential layouts (thumbnails) of magazine pages or of ads for products. The very thought process was short circuited.

And why would these young souls bother to actually design something? They already had templates to follow for that. And worse, this homogenization was extending across the industry. Specializing in one area—like the rest of my breed—was now a bad thing. You were expected to become adept at everything, including website design and HTML. This automaton mentality feeds the “team” process that exists everywhere, and now all members of that are interchangeable—and replaceable.

The end result of all this is the total abandonment of style. And one large elephantine reason to perpetuate this new process of non-thinking is speed. Do it quickly. Get it done now. If you take too long to actually design something new, you’re on the outs. They have templates for everything. And they have budgets for everything, too. I once lost a freelance assignment doing logos for a generic soft drink. They wanted twenty designs in two days. After three hours, the art director saw my process of initial designs on paper and handed the assignment to another, younger person, telling me I was too slow and that “there are templates you could’ve used.”

How is that different? Where is the style, the individuality? It’s gone. Everything is standardized. You take a photo of something (top left) and there are filters to change it into artwork (top right). With so many plugins and filters and morphs, a sameness in everything prevails. Even in the movies, the animated 3D cartoon you take your children (or grandchildren) to see looks the same as the next, because the software the studios use is the same.

I’ll stay with what I do as far as illustration goes. It’s watercolor. It’s natural. And it’s only me doing it.

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Stylization and Primitive Artwork: What’s the Difference?

Above are two examples of illustration we see these days. One is an example of stylized artwork, the other an example of primitive artwork.

First, let’s turn the clock back to, say, 1985. The artwork on the left would be regarded as stylized. It would’ve worked back then as a serio-comic solution to a depiction of “Eve”, and would’ve been accepted as having been done by a professional artist. The artwork on the right wouldn’t have been accepted for print at all.

Now let’s vault ahead to present day. The artwork at left is still viable as a professionally done piece of artwork, but the one on the right is also acceptable as having been done by a professional. Why is that? What changed?

You tell me.

Stylization has been recognized in illustration for many decades as a way to add whimsy to otherwise realistic drawing. The proportions in stylized artwork are exaggerated to a point where everything—such as features on a face, or hands and feet on a figure— still has recognizability and familiarity of the basic forms of, in this particular case, anatomy. Stylization has uniformity of style: the curves and lines of all the forms look and feel natural to the characterization of the total figure.

On the other hand, primitive art has no such cohesive properties. All of the above descriptive issues are missing in primitive art. The artwork at right looks and feels as if it were done by a 5-year-old. And yet, readers, it was used in a recent issue of a well-known publication, The New York Times Magazine.

Stylization in illustration requires an understanding of basic forms in nature, man-made objects, and yes—anatomy. Anatomy of all creatures, animals, birds, and humans. That basic structure is what makes stylization possible, what makes the departure from that basic anatomy work.

Jazz musicians, even rock musicians, understand that improvisation—stylization in their discipline—has to have the basic form, the basic structure of melody in any tune or song, in order for it to exist. That basic melody is underlying everything they do, maintaining a cohesive unifying theme.

So it is with stylization in artwork, in illustration. And yet, here we are, watching primitive artwork, as done by what are now referred to as “professionals”, get published in reputable publications.

I don’t know when the departure from realism or stylization to primitive artwork began to take place in print. Using childlike depictions of people in serious thought-provoking articles is baffling to me, to people with any intellect. Children don’t read these articles, nor would they comprehend their meanings.

We celebrate—as a society—accomplishment in any discipline, be it playing a musical instrument well, cultivating a beautiful garden, making a delicious meal. We don’t reward clumsy or awkward endeavors. But here we have a well-known national publication using—and paying for—crude artwork.

That example at right does not reflect—to any degree—a professional’s hand in its creation. And yet by using it in a magazine like The New York Times, the publishers were actually celebrating its primitive appearance—its crudeness—as being a style.

And that, readers, is the real difference. Because, whether it was done by a “professional” or a 5-year-old, it doesn’t matter. It looks like it was done by a 5-year-old, and a 5-year-old doesn’t know what style is.

Does The New York Times Magazine know?

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(I recently wrote to the president of a well-known art and design school, to ask if anatomy and realistic figure drawing were being taught at that school. It’s been several days since I sent that email and I have a strong feeling I won’t get a response.)

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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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