The Fundamentals of Illustration
As we slowly iron out details for the next Malta Illustration Annual, I’m moving on with my literature review that is part of the larger research project that is the Malta Community of Illustrators.
The next book on my to-read list was the third edition of ‘The Fundamentals of Illustration’ by Lawrence Zeegen. Really and truly, this book is for budding illustrators who would like general information about the subject of illustration and tips about being a working illustrator. Aside from that though, it makes various valid points about illustration as a discipline in the age of digital and in a time where everyone is relentlessly searching for authenticity.
“Truly accepted by neither the art establishment nor the design industry, illustration has battled on regardless. Frequently derided as whimsical by artists and as arty by designers, illustration has found itself existing in a no-man’s land between the two.”
As with many writings about illustration, Zeegen starts off by pondering and questioning whether illustration lies in fine arts, or graphic design. This is something I experience daily in my lecturing. We don’t have an illustration course, which to me has always felt strange given that we have a course in fine arts. It is common knowledge that one cannot find a job easily in the world of fine art, and yet an illustrator, especially when equipped with digital software knowledge, can more easily find work both in the design industry as well as in the arts.
Although Illustration degree courses are found abroad, they are still not as numerous as graphic design and fine art courses. This is something that Zeegen also makes note of. In the first couple of pages, Zeegen insists that illustration is an essential important art form because it “serves as a reservoir of our social and cultural history”. He emphasises that “illustration is therefore a significant and enduring artform” and is a subject in its own right.
Zeegen then moves on to try and find the exact moment when illustration had its latest revival.
“In the UK, The Face magazine, then recognised internationally as ‘the style bible,’ employed an illustrator as an art director and the look and feel of the magazine changed almost overnight.”
Suddenly, according to Zeegen, it was cool to hire illustrators. This was around the early naughties, when many of us where still on deviantArt trying to find ourselves and figuring out what it is we are doing and what it is we want to do. The main difference in this revival as opposed to others in the past, is of course the digital medium.
“This new breed felt empowered rather than hindered — digital natives rather than digital immigrants”
I felt this quote represents my story as an illustrator perfectly. I used graphic tablets very early in my career. It has clearly shaped my style as an illustrator. And here, Zeegen delves into the importance of the digital medium at this day and age. He explains that we are now equipped with tools that help us create “complex, layered, multifaceted images” that clearly challenge the “humble pencil”.
“However, without the power to control the pencil or stylus, the illustrator may be as powerless as the designer that has failed to control typography.”
Despite the importance of traditional drawing tools and traditional drawing education, Zeegen sees the digital medium as a means of “empowerment” and he attributes it directly to the rebirth of illustration.
As often happens, Zeegen follows up the discussion on digital by reflecting on our generation’s constant hunger for authenticity. He explains that because we are so immersed in the digital medium in our everyday life, it is natural for us to want authenticity in the everyday, from our choice of brewed coffee to artisan foods.
“-it is no accident of fate that a new generation of illustrators looks towards the handmade and real — more and more new illustrators seek to combine ‘real’ and authentic skills with the digital.”
Here Zeegen starts looking into particular illustration sectors, giving us a summary about each one and helpfully providing interviews with key figures within each particular sector. There were several crucial bits of information throughout this section of the book. A particular quote that I found valuable was when Zeegen mentions that illustration, unlike certain other disciples, has the “power to capture a personality, a point of view”. He explains that this is often why nowadays illustration tends to be the medium of choice in the promotion of products.
“It can encapsulate a mood or a moment, and can tell a story to give a product history, depth and meaning.”
On the subject of documentation, Zeegen mentions the importance of constantly looking and recording. He sees this as an essential part of the illustrator lifestyle. He points out the “sixth sense” that one must develop as an illustrator, that of constantly observing, collecting, and collating reference materials.
“Taking risks is a necessary aspect of creative thinking as well as image-making itself. The future of an illustrator’s career and the future of the discipline rest on constantly moving forward and exploring new avenues of thinking.”
This quote was also striking to me, not that I didn’t know the importance of taking risks in the creative industry. Primarily it struck me because one of the topics I want to write about in my paper is the persisting topic of nostalgia in Maltese illustration. Maltese illustrators are very much preoccupied with documenting what they are losing, predominantly a constantly evolving landscape, disappearing architecture and I suppose a general way of life.
Running parallel to this movement though, I’m noticing a more ‘present’ kind of illustrator in the local illustration network. Illustrators that are younger than myself, who don’t know illustration without digital, illustrators who are into NFTs, who are more business-minded, less emotionally attached to anything traditional. Is this going to be the future of illustration or is there an in-between? Can these kind of illustrators and the ones more intent on documentation, coexist and perhaps collaborate in the creation of a new local movement?
Once again all questions I might or might not be able to answer in my paper. It always seems as though the more you read, the more questions arise and I suppose that’s a good thing.