The New Illustration

(This article originally ran in May of this past year. Dan Blanchette is taking December off. New articles will appear in January 2019.)

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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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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