Monday, 16 May 2011

Illustration – Today and Tomorrow

I found this article in Computer Arts Magazine explaining current trends and the bright future of illustration. It's really long so to read the rest follow this link.

Illustration is booming again, after years when photography was more popular with art directors. Craig Grannell finds out why, and whether the trend is set to last

Things were looking decidedly shaky for a while in the world of illustration. Photography took over from the drawn, painted or rendered image in advertising and editorial, leaving desperate illustrators fighting for scraps. As reported in these pages, however, illustration has recently undergone something of a resurgence. So much so that it’s time to ask if what’s happening today could eventually echo the heyday of printed artwork during the 60s and 70s.

“A feeling of desperation has been replaced by an optimistic outlook, in that the vogue for illustration isn’t just a flash in the pan, and is here to stay as a viable alternative to the photographic image,” argues illustrator, agent and author Lawrence Zeegen, observing that numerous large, corporate brands now regularly use illustration to differentiate themselves.

The reasons for the resurgence are complex, with several important factors converging at once. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the sheer number of styles continues to grow; and despite the near-ubiquity of technology available to artists, work that looks too obviously digital is on the out. An emphasis on hitting a more savvy, visually aware consumer means that art directors are keen to find individual and dynamic visuals that aren’t overly polished and clinical. An increase in the volume of illustration work out there has not only meant that more artists are able to make money from their work, but that briefs are becoming less prescriptive, giving illustrators scope to be more creative and experimental.

The last decade has seen colleges increasingly taking a multidisciplinary approach, with students more often involved in project teams including designers, illustrators and photographers. As students graduate, the industry absorbs more people who are comfortable working alongside an illustrator, whatever the project. Indeed, it could be argued that many new graphic designers are frustrated illustrators and this is to an extent feeding the popularity of the varied and dynamic work that is now being commissioned.

Illustration is fashion-focused, like many areas of creativity. People always want to see something new, and their surprise and delight at novelty are increasingly transient. It’s easy for illustrators to get sucked into micro-trends, drawing inspiration from all sorts of online image galleries yet creating work with no enduring impact. The smart money is currently on a move towards individuality, personality and concept – thinking more like an artist, rather than churning out what you think someone might like based on what’s popular.

Australian illustrator Eamo Donnelly is an up-and-coming creative who admits that he almost slipped into the trap of developing styles for a purely commercial portfolio. Rather than focus on looks that may have won some easy commissions at the time, he decided to take a year out to work solely on non-commercial projects. The result is a unique style that is making his name. “It’s a sort of ocker Aussie-manga style with a traditional slant towards vintage comics,” he says. “It’s a way of standing out as more of an artist than a commercial illustrator, and as a result things like exhibitions, book projects and artist collaborations come along.”

Donnelly is not alone in veering towards the idea of taking on illustration as more of an artform than a commercial pursuit. This line of thinking is sometimes driven by a desire to be more creative, and some criticise those who follow it for being too precious when, after all, someone else is paying the bills. However, illustration work does have a growing value as an artistic commodity, both in terms of historical pieces and contemporary projects.
A recent Sotheby’s auction featured a Norman Rockwell illustration on the cover. For the auction, a separate catalogue was published in order to separate and compile the dozens of illustration lots, providing biographies, photographs and collector’s info. Was Sotheby’s sending a message to the fine-art community, showing an acceptance of the value of classic illustration? Who knows, but when the likes of a Rockwell is on the front page of The New York Times as the star sale of a Sotheby’s auction, art directors worldwide are reminded that illustration exists and that it’s important. At the same time, it makes gallery owners more receptive to the idea of offering illustrators the chance to exhibit their work and display it to potential clients in a more creative setting.

Of all the self-promotion techniques that are possible – an online portfolio, working with an agent, regular mail-outs, coldcalling and merchandise – the gallery exhibition has to be the most exciting setting for an illustrator to show their work.

Preparing an exhibition is not only great promotion; it can also prove a boost to creativity. Seldon Hunt is a young US artist known for his highly elaborate digital pieces, created using Illustrator because of its capacity for immense detail, and the fact that the art can be expanded to extremely large sizes. His Antwerp solo exhibition, while partly a retrospective of his work for the music industry, also included personal compositions, some of which were created specifically for the show.

Hunt still falls under the label of illustrator, but his descriptions of his own work could have come straight out of the world of fine art: “abstract investigations into the complexity of a moment in digital rapture” and “visual imprints reflecting the paradox of how much of our pleasures now rely on digital devices that have become inexplicably second-nature in the last ten years.”

Jo ‘Miss Led’ Henly is another illustrator whose work is making people take notice. She’s not just dabbling in the UK art scene – she’s used it to launch her career. After falling into teaching art, she realised she was inspiring others to do what she was frightened to do herself. Subsequent work involved online and offline exhibitions closer in concept to traditional art than illustration work. Everything was entirely self-initiated. This gave her the confidence to keep pushing her boundaries, thereby increasing the creativity and experimentation in her work. Inspired by poster pop, Pre-Raphaelite portraits, graffiti and art nouveau, her free-flowing, almost classic illustration style came about on its own. She is now regularly taking on editorial work as well as further opportunities in the art space.

When Secret Wars took their live drawing competition to the Designersblock festival in London last September, Henly emerged the winner. She says, “Being the only female ever to enter was enough for me, but after three exhausting hours over a 20x8-foot wall space, four rounds and four stories, I was victorious!”
The conceptual, artistic side of creativity is not the only field that illustrators are exploring. Graphic design is another huge area of crossover, with the two disciplines becoming blurred like never before. The freelance illustrator touting for work frequently has a ‘Graphic Design’ or ‘Art Direction’ tab to click on their online portfolio, and vice versa.

To observers like Zeegen, illustrators who take control and set off into graphic design are throwing the balance of power between picture-makers and commissioning art directors out of whack. Craig Atkinson is mixing a strong foundation in art and illustration with design aspirations, through his CafĂ© Royal books and magazines. Doing so, he follows in the footsteps of the likes of Monorex, Jasper Goodall, Miles Donovan and Jo Ratcliffe, but with his own twist.

“Working across many areas has enhanced my career but that was never the intention,” he says. “My intention is always to try new things, to learn and to make work that I like. I suppose by making more work you become more visible, which leads to more contacts and more commissions.”

With creative freedom at an all-time high within the industry, and the explosion of illustrators making a living, it’s no surprise that the invention and turnover of styles is more rapid than ever. Trends come and go quickly, and some commissioning editors warn that illustrators must be aware of what’s ‘out’, to avoid creating work seen as dated rather than something likely to lead somewhere new.

Decorative swirls and repetitive patterns, largely comprising forms fashioned using vector graphics, is one style that was very popular but is now being avoided. Like its popular forebear – abstract 3D explosions of pixel chaos – vector art has had its day, mostly thanks to overexposure. Although the decorative has its place in specific circumstances, industry momentum is now towards conceptual, technique-based work. Handmade is being favoured rather than overtly digital, and clinical production values – at least in terms of output, if not the methods used to create illustrations.

It’s not surprising that long-time illustrators welcome this trend. Gerald Scarfe believes that overtly digital output can be problematic. “When you start depicting the human body, it feels wrong, and even in the case of scenery it’s never absolutely convincing,” he says. “There’s nothing better than touching the paper and drawing the figure, but then as an artist I would say that.”

Younger creatives too are supporting the more human approach, even if their tools remain digital, unlike Scarfe’s pen and inks. US-based Autumn Whitehurst, who fashions her intricate figure work entirely digitally, says, “As soon as I can relax the Wacom-trained muscle memory in my hand, I’m going to try introducing some traditional methods into the work for the sake of variety.” She’s noticed a strong interest in hand-drawn work recently, and thinks this is because we’ve become enamoured with things that are handmade: “It’s a response to the clinical perfection of that streamlined aesthetic that has been so prevalent.”

Other reasons also explain the surge in popularity of this hand-made aesthetic. There’s an explicit desire to get more character into illustration, resulting in work that genuinely engages its audience on a conceptual and emotional level, rather than merely dazzling with eye-candy. With digital tools becoming endemic, the public is no longer impressed with visuals that have been pushed out quickly.

What is captivating people is artwork with craft and technique behind it - obvious painting and drawing skills make more of a connection. Zeegen reckons what we’re seeing is just the beginning of a more open, honest return to the use of craft within illustration. “We’ve had a glut of Photoshop collages, followed by vector coolness, followed by pattern and over-embellishment, but now the field seems far wider. There is no house style - everything and anything goes! The difference, I hope, is that now the best work floats to the top and the rest sinks,” he says.

Although style can be important in getting noticed, substance is crucial when creating successful work. Now that we’re leaving a period in which too much illustration was devoid of any real essence, it’s important that illustrators marry visual flair with ideas. Mat Wiggins, the freelance designer who commissions UK Esquire’s illustrations, reckons ideas are the one place where an illustrator can really come into their own and make a difference. Despite the newfound emphasis on craft, a strong piece isn’t necessarily about whether an illustrator is more technically gifted than someone else, but about the ideas they can generate and communicate. The best illustrators today, he argues, are those who do something effectively, turn it around quickly and get the idea right first time, saying a lot with a little.

Traditional-looking imagery is experiencing a definite revival, but those who work in other areas, such as vector output, needn’t panic so long as they can clearly put their own imprint, personality, character and ideas into their work.Terry Brown is director emeritus of the Society of Illustrators in the US, and he argues against the idea that one style kills another in commercial art. “I don’t believe scratch-board is dead,” he says. “I don’t believe big heads on little bodies is dead. If the artist is good, their work is going to get used. If you get right to the point with your picture – if you give the art director what they were looking for, and then some – medium doesn’t matter, size doesn’t matter and gender doesn’t matter. If the image is good, you’re there.”


I found this article really interesting.....there's a lot more scope for illustrators than I realised. Yes times are hard, but it's all down to how hard you work on promoting yourself and getting your name out there and making sure your staying original and true to yourself that will determine your success. 

On a personal note, I feel I'm at a stage to start stylizing my work so there's more consistency and originality, the perfect marriage for me would be a digital and hand drawn fusion.

I Wish I'd Done This

Monsterism Island Mural by Pete Fowler 


Because of my love for character design I can really relate to this piece and say it’s one I really wish I’d done.

Monsterism Island is the brainchild of Welsh Illustrator Pete Fowler in which he has built and entire world around the characters he’s created. His monster creations all live on Monster Island, which he explains “represents an island on earth that’s yet to be discovered due to some strange atmospheric pressures.” Each character has its own elaborate back-story, specific traits and levels of “Monsterism”. These characters are a reoccurring theme in Fowlers work and have been developed into a range of toys, cartoons and music.

2009 the Idea Generation Gallery in Chance Street, London showed an exhibition entitled “Monsters Inked”. The idea of this exhibition was to give illustrators the chance to let their imaginations run wild. There were over 100 monster images on show giving the viewer a chance to experience the illustrator’s processes from roughs to finished pieces.

The above image was featured in this exhibition and spans a massive 800 square foot of wall. Despite its size the image was installed in just one day using a new product called “Wallapeel”. This new product is just like wallpaper with the added value that it can be easily removed without leaving any marks on the wall. This also benefits the gallery who can remove the installation on their own once the exhibition has finished.

Fowlers mural uses a brilliant combination of bright colours, repeating pattern and amusing characters, these elements combine in a vector illustration and give the piece a 70’s psychedelic look. His influences come from Japanese art, folklore, myth and psychadelia, these influences can be seen as a theme running throughout this piece.

There’s a character in the middle rising from the ground, complete with handle bar moustache and pink flowers sprouting from his beard, he looks like he’s meant to be the god of nature as his hair forms into tree branches. Resting on his arms and head are strange tree like people who stare blankly with their tiny eyes and seem to have a connection to the larger figure, perhaps these creatures symbolize ancient legend and folklore. The mural is full of quirky characters like this.

Behind the central characters two blue sea monsters rise from the water with shaggy haircuts baring their teeth, sinister owl type creatures in the top corners seem to loom over the scene as if they are guarding their territory. So much detail has gone into this piece and each time I look at it I see something new. I really like the two volcano’s at the back who’s eyes weep out lava tears and the tiny winged skulls coming out of the mouths of the two giant skeletal figures.

There seems to be a musical theme running through this piece, the characters on the cliff edges play their electric instruments and the characters in the foreground are seen walking along playing their enchanting folk music. Fowler has strong links to music having created most of the album artwork for Welsh rock band ”Super Furry Animals” where he introduced his monster world. He has also created an album to correspond with the Monsterism series entitled “The Music Of Monsterism Island”. The music on this album also has a 70’s vibe going on using the characters from his world to form a rock band. The music reminded me a bit of “The Doors” instrumental sets with its trippy keyboard melodies and rock guitar riffs. The great thing about Fowlers work is the way he’s created this style into a complete brand with a massive potential for merchandising by doing what he loves best, creating monsters.

There’s a lot I can learn from this image and the way Fowler works. I love the sense of freedom that went into this piece and that it is solely the creation of Fowlers imagination. I like the way he has carefully considered what material to produce it in allowing the gallery the freedom to remove it with ease.  I hope to be able to produce work in the future that is of the same level of professionalism and allow myself the freedom to create characters in my own time that capture viewer’s imaginations and have the same level of appeal. Ultimately I want to be producing work that looks visually striking and at the same time leaves people asking questions. 

Saturday, 7 May 2011


This years been a really good year for me in terms of progression of technique, style and professionalism. I tried out some new things on various projects some turned out well others not so well.

At the beginning of the year I struggled with the execution of my finished pieces and one great piece of advice I was given at the time was, try to keep consistency throughout my work. At the time I was wrestling with a lot of different styles and ways of doing things, which showed through my work in a mixture of confusion and made my work look sloppy.

The biggest turning point for me was the Dialogue Ignites Change brief. I bought an amazing book by Jurgen Wolff  “Creativity Now” and it’s really helped me get the best out of my ideas when approaching a new project. There’s lots of great advice in there, but one that’s stuck with me is to write down every idea. I had a tendency to not include an idea if I thought it was stupid, but have learnt to embrace all my ideas and get them down onto paper as quickly as I can. I think by doing things this way has helped me to come up with some interesting concepts.

One final piece of advice, which recently came from Tom Gauld was "try to make work, which would appeal to you even if you hadn't made it". In Critical Studies we've learnt the importance of critiquing other peoples work and also how to do the same with our own. Its all very well getting opinions from other people, but it's also good practice to take a step back from things and ask myself "would it still appeal to me if I hadn't done it".

Wolff, Jurgen; 2009, Creativity Now!, Ashford Colour Press Ltd, Gosport, UK

Rushmore Continued

Since the last posting about the 8x8 project a lot has happened. Jo gave me some good feedback on how I could improve my two images so I've done a few changes. Yesterday we met with Gary and the guy from MMU to show our images and explain our thoughts behind them. The meeting went well and we must wait until Tuesday to find out who's images will be selected. I will include the outcome next week so watch this space.

Rushmore Final....Well Almost!

I've just finished my two illustrations for the Rushmore story and I'm really happy with how they've turned out after Photoshopping the final elements together. I decided to do both in watercolour so they look the same when printed. It's been a while since I painted anything in the traditional sense so the process took me a lot longer than usual. I still have some effects to apply to the picnic scene to make it look more weathered but thought I'd post what I've done so far.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Email From Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld's illustrations have fascinated me for a while now. He uses elements of dry wit, and intricate cross hatching techniques that make his work really appealing to me.

I recently emailed Tom a few questions and here is his response.

1. How did you first get into illustration?
I studied illustration at Edinburgh college of art and the royal college of art and graduated in 2001. I made a portfolio, got a few names of art directors from tutors and from looking in magazines and on websites. Then I started cold calling them and asking if I could come in with my folio. Everyone I met I'd ask if they knew anyone else I should see. After quite a few months I started ti get a slow stream of work which became enough to live on.

2. How did your style develop?
I'd say that my style has simplified a bit and Ive probably developed a wider range of things I can draw well and learned to use colour. But I haven't made any major changes.

3. Where do you get inspiration from when coming up with ideas for your work?
I take inspiration from things I see in my life, on tv, films, Internet and books. I come up with specific ideas just by sitting, doodling and thinking.

4. Do you have a working method when starting an illustration?
I draw in sketchbooks and on loose paper, getting various ideas down quite quickly. I never start on a finished drawing till I have a good concept/idea which works as a simple sketch.

5. Your work is very intricate in terms of mark making have you always drawn this way?
Vaguely. I got particularly into crosshatching when I discovered the work of Edward Gorey in about 1996.

6. When your not illustrating what do you like doing?
Reading, cooking, Lego with my children.

7. Do you have a favourite illustrator at the moment?
I like lots of illustrators. I've been looking at jochen gerner quite a lot recently.

8. Is there one piece of your work that you're most proud of?
I've just finished a 96 page graphic novel and I am proud to have got it finished.

9. Your sketchbook work looks amazing, how important is it for you to keep a sketchbook ?
I've got really into my sketchbook in the last 5or so years, I like that it keeps a bit of a record of my ideas, even the ones I don't pursue at the time I have them. When I'm stuck I flick through my old sketchbooks to harvest unused ideas.

10. Lastly, what advice would you give to an aspiring illustrator?
Just try to make work which would appeal to you even if you hadn't made it.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Tom Bancroft Replies

(Above artwork by Tom Bancroft)

Tom Bancroft is an accomplished character designer and animator. He worked for Disney feature animation for 12 years working on films such as "Beauty and the Beast", "Lilo and Stitch" and "Mulan" to name just a few. Tom went on to found his own company "Funny Pages Productions" with good friend Rob Corley. The company has provided illustration, character design and artistic animation development for many major children's entertainment companies.

I bought Tom's book "Creating Characters with Personality" (published by Watson-Guptill Publications, 2006) to help me with the Disney brief. The book is crammed full of great tips and advice for getting the most out of your characters designs and also has some great assignments to practice on.

Anyway, I recently emailed Tom some character design related questions and he very kindly replied.

1. How did you first get into designing characters?
When I went to California Institute of the Arts, I had my first Character design class (taught by Mike Giamo) and fell in love with it. I already loved drawing characters (from the newspapers, comic books, etc.) but this was the first time I was pushing myself to design my own- and make them better.

2. What inspires you when coming up with ideas for your work?
Other people’s artwork. I think all artists are fans of art first and foremost. The internet is an eternal well-spring of artwork. Its a bit like American Idol though, you really have to dig through some bad stuff to find the good stuff sometimes.

3. Do you have a working method when starting a project?
Sort of. It’s nothing groundbreaking though. Time is always of the essence, so I jump into my list of what I need to learn BEFORE I start drawing. Read the script or bio of the character, research whatever animal or character type or style that is being requested (usually on the internet), print out as much reference that I could gather so I can have it in front of me, then start sketching away. From that point, its straight forward and all design challenges. Always different. Step 1 is the most important. Know what and how to draw what you are designing.

4. I read you worked at Disney for 12 years. Was this your dream job and what was your first day like?
Yes, it was my dream job, though I didn’t know I was dreaming it. I thought I wanted to be a comic strip cartoonist when I was young, then I thought I might be a comic book artist. Animation was last. I discovered it just after high school, then really got sucked into it. I wanted to tell stories with characters and that’s always been my goal. The first day at Disney was exciting. I was with my twin brother, Tony, and we had both been chosen as two of many interns for Walt Disney Feature animation in Burbank, Ca. All of us were students and everyone was so excited to be there. Sharing that moment with strangers that soon became your good friends was even better. We took a tour of the Disney studios that first day and knowing that we were going to be getting to know all these people was great!

5. When your not sketching and drawing what stuff do you like doing?
Just be with my family. We don’t do a whole lot, but I have 4 girls and the older two are cheerleaders so we got to a lot of high school and Middle school football games! I just watch the cheerleaders; my wife is the big football fan.

6. Are you working on any exciting projects at the moment?
I’m not sure “exciting” is the right word, but the most recent project that I have been very involved in is the website My partner, Rob Corley, and I are co-art directors on the project and have been working full time with them for the last two years. I’ve illustrated about 20 children’s books, designed many characters, created some animation, and tons of other random things for the avatars and rooms you can decorate. Its an educational website for Preschool and Kindergarten age kids.

7. How long has Funny Pages Productions been going and what would be a typical working day for you?
We’ve been going for about 7 years now in Tennessee and I did it solo for about a year before that in Florida. That’s quite awhile for a start up company, much less an art studio. A typical day doesn’t really exist but the general version is: an hour of more of emails in the morning going over artwork from outside artists we are working with or just emailing clients, getting reference for whatever art project I’m doing that day, (hopefully) 4-6 hours of drawing to get the jobs done, and an hour or so at the end of the day to do scanning and whatever Photoshop work that needs to be done to send off the work to the client (via email usually). Coffee is in there around 3 to 4:00.

8. Is there one project you are most proud of?
Probably the film Mulan, and more specifically, the character “Mushu” which I designed and for which I was Supervising Animator. Some scenes I can look back at and I cringe (of Mushu and other characters) but for the most part, I am still happy with most of my work on him. I worked hard on that film, and that hard work still shows, I think. “Least proud of’ is easier to think of, but I won’t mention it.

9. How important is a sketch book to you and how often do you refer back to it?
For most of my career, I’ve been terrible at keeping a sketchbook. I’ve never really been comfortable drawing in them because I tend to draw large and I feel “confined” in the space of the sketchbook. That said, about two years ago, I started keeping sketchbooks for the first time in my life. Regularily, I sketch in them- though not every day like some do. I’m still not great at it, but I can say I’ve actually filled up a couple and I’m on my third one. I’ve never been able to say that til recently. What is MOST important is that you draw everyday. I CAN claim that, so don’t throw anything at me, okay?

10. What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
One of the first things you learn at Disney is: “Don’t fall in love with your drawings”. Which means a few things. To me, it meant I shouldn’t commit to drawing too tight too soon for fear that I would “stay with a drawing” for too long even though it wasn’t working. I should throw it out and start over, but it’s too “pretty” and detailed to throw away at some point. Secondly, it means that even if a (finished) drawing is great, if it doesn’t suit the animation or the story, throw it out. It puts you in the thought process that just drawing nice isn’t the goal but having a goal to your drawing is what matters.

11. Last but not least, what advice would you give to an aspiring illustrator/designer?
As I mentioned above, draw every day. So many beginning artists contact me and ask how to break into a given studio or job in art but they aren’t asking the right questions. Its not what tool you use, not who you know (well, maybe a little), or how nicely put together your portfolio is. The answer is in your ability. If you can draw well you WILL get hired. That’s the answer: you.

Check out more of Tom Bancroft's work on his blog or Deviant Art Page and for more information on Funny Pages Productions visit their website