Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Commercial Images: An Evolutionary Scheme


A while back we had a roundabout discussion about the term illustration and its limitations. Bob Flynn and Jaleen Grove both pushed back a little against my impatience with the term, and the supposed tyranny of the word which I decried.

I have been thinking about the traditions of illustration and cartooning a great deal, in part because, as I have noted, that discussions of same have tended to be more biographical than analytic. And by thinking about the derivation of the term, the field of activity as conventionally defined and especially the values that illustrators consistently bring to their work, it has occurred to me that Bob and Jaleen were correct. It is what it is. Illustration, I am coming to recognize, must be seen as a fundamentally interpretive art, much like theatrical direction. The text or message or content or data does precede the making of the picture. Yes, there are gray areas, but in the main there is little evidence to defeat the position that illustration is occupied with reportage, explication and re-presentation. It's typically didactic.

Frustrated by the lack of a larger narrative in which to locate genres, careers, and achievements, I have been working on visualizations of the development of commerical images. This week I have blundered into print with one such attempt: Commercial Images: An Evolutionary Scheme, a two-page infographic that occupies a central spread in the new Modern Graphic History Library catalogue, out this week. It posits two basic strands in commercial image history: illustration and cartooning, increasingly intermingled but distinct.

The graphic runs across the top of this post. I will be eager to field queries, objections, etc. It's a jpeg, so will break down a little when you magnify it. If you want a pdf, contact me and I will email you one. Content copyright DB Dowd, 2007; design by Mike Costelloe; art direction by Sarah Phares.

6 comments:

Jaleen Grove said...

Hi - good to see this conversation continues.... yes, I argued that we might not want to be so hasty about discarding the term "illustration". I stand by that, for now.

One thing I didn't take up for that original post (but ought to have, as I discussed the topic in my thesis last year), that is recurring in this post, is your proposition that illustration works on pre-existing ideas, usually in some kind of text. Although I note you indicate in the original post that any notion of illustrators being therefore "dumb" is silly, I'm concerned you might be inadvertently emphasizing the supposed passivity of the illustrator nonetheless.

I suspect the gray areas are more norm than exception. So often the concept that gets presented in illustration was/is worked out by the illustrator in collaboration with the client. Occasionally the client is having such a problem describing what they want or mean (because they haven't thought it through entirely yet themselves - in fact, often can't, which is why they sought an illustrator), that it is only when the illustrator starts throwing out sketches - "You mean like this?" - and the client goes "Yes! Only, can it be a little more, I dunno, funky?" - "Oh you mean like this?" - "Oh, I didn't think of that! That's way better!" - and so on - that the idea actually is fully born.

But even when the illustrator isn't the lead creative, the illustrator still thinks of the visual to express the idea, which is a deeply theoretical act. It doesn't matter how explicit the instructions are to the illustrator - it's still up to the illustrator to guess at a solution, which is a creative and theoretical act - a theory of what the client is asking for, and of what will suit the project. The illustrator is as much an author as the writer, creative director, designer, whoever.

So for me, it doesn't make sense that you call illustration "interpretive" (yes!) but then say the message/content PRECEDES it - how can it? It is not a message or content until it takes the final form as an illustration (data and text might really actually precede... there's a nuance for us; I don't think we can treat all four terms as synonymous).

And so.... this leads me to qualify the idea that illustration is occupied with reportage, explication, didacticism, etc. If all illustration is indeed interpretive, then all illustration is creative and theoretical and even personal, and therefore it cannot help but be _expressive_ as well as didactic. And it is the expressive aspect that drives stylistic and aesthetic qualities, which I would suggest illustration is ALSO occupied with, equally; qualities that, while they help the didacticism, actually operate in excess of the message too.

Think of how we ogle the beauty of 18th century anatomical illustration, for instance, which is quite gruesome and about as information-mandated as it gets, but some artist and printmaker and hand-colourer went to extreme lengths to also make it unnecessarily luscious in execution. I think there is a large scope for seeing the expressive in didactically-intended illustration... eg, I would say that an image that connotes poker-faced neutrality is showing an expression too, rather than lack of it. Your chart, for instance, has its own aesthetic predecessors that have contributed to its visual appeal, and reflects the taste of the creators.

The chart is useful for getting a cognitive grip on all the branches of the field, but I worry that it obscures the crossovers and blurs that you acknowledge. For instance, it implies that informational graphics are incommensurate with comics. How can we show the expressive qualities of the illustration-branch, and the didacticism of the caricature-branch? Perhaps the limitation is in the medium of 2d vector graphics... how about moving this to a 3d sculpture in Maya or somesuch, so links can be made between all parts, and so links can be shown in gradations of weak to strong?

You're doing cool stuff. Thanks for the opportunity to participate.

Bob Flynn said...

Ha! Well, "illustration" serves my purposes anyway. I don't think I've thought long enough about it to have any problem with the word. And I don't personally feel any less being an illustrator (or a cartoonist), because I don't question the intellectual rigor that it takes.

Cool pseudo-scientific diagram. I often wonder how the 2D art has such a presence in our culture, when we live in a 3D world (judging from the branching at the beginning of the chart). Probably because 2D is easier to replicate---but will that continue to be the norm?

Bob Flynn said...

Oh, and by the way...congrats! Looks like Drawn! picked you up again.

mahendra singh said...

Very interesting & informative blog, please continue. I would like to point out that illustration has changed significantly in last decades … there was a time within living memory when most book/editorial illo work had a bravura-performance attitude, that the text was respected with an interpretive image which was itself an artistic performance with technical sophistication. Very often the quality of the draftsmanship was itself integral to the work and most ADs and even sophisticated readers appreciated the excellence of a good drawing complementing the text.

This idea of draftsmanship (and how to appreciate it) seems outré now … perhaps an avenue for your researches? So many illos today resemble schematics.

Cheryl Hoffman said...

Hi, I'm glad you're addressing this topic.

My experience with direction for illustration work is that it's half and half. About half the jobs come with specific instruction and the other half come wide open for me to offer a solution.

Anyway, I have a couple questions for everyone.

Before I ask, I get that the end product in this diagram is a 'commercial image'. And, you've backed it out from there; the evolution in your diagram pre-supposes the 'commerce' part.

To begin, I've run into trouble trying to define my own work. I found that some people are not happy with liberal use of the term 'Art' as with a capital A. So, I generally try to stay clear of that word. Yet, I'm wondering if there is a place in your diagram for non-commercial images. What is that ground between Art and commercial art?

Here are three scenarios:

First, what do you call a drawing created initially for personal expression, which is later licensed for use on products? Can it qualify as an illustration if no one gave me direction or text? If I call myself an illustrator, is it an illustration?

Did it only become 'commercial art' after the purchase?

Can it be called illustration if it simply reflects my own experience or is that folk art?

Secondly, what do you call an image that isn't meant to carry the word Art but, isn't purchased for commercial use either? What if it was created by a commercial artist, with commercial use intended, but is never sold?

It doesn't look good on a wall because it looks to commercial. If it looks commercial, is it?

Finally, what if an image evolves over time? What if the end result no longer reflects a pre-existing idea, not even the artist's, but it is ultimately purchased and used because it looks pretty on a product? The idea conveyed then is, in the end, 'buy me'. Is it then transformed into 'surface design'?

Is it not qualified to be called illustration in this situation?

Is it improperly labeled? Should it be called 'artwork', 'image', 'design' or 'graphic'?

Basically, is it ever the process, the intent or the end use that defines it? Can the creator declare the type of image or is their intent irrelevant?

Maybe these scenarios are two specific for use in this diagram but I was disappointed to see them left out. Maybe someone else has some thoughts.

Thank you.
Cheryl

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