where have all the book illustrators gone? get some glasses!

I’m supposed to be cleaning house in preparation for my parents’ annual visit, but I couldn’t help getting involved in this morning’s fascinating conversation surrounding this article in The Independent by Melanie McDonagh:

Perhaps the conversation is more interesting than the article, which was published way back in January and has gone around several times, as Greenaway short-listed illustrator Viviane Schwarz, Gary Northfield, Philip Reeve and Woodrow Phoenix pointed out on Twitter. But if the article’s resurfacing and doing what Samantha Brick just did for The Daily Mail, making people look and respond to an article that’s almost spoof… but people aren’t quite sure if it is… well, why not? To keep people talking about illustration isn’t a bad thing. But to make it sound like there isn’t any talent in Britain… ha ha, it must be a spoof, or a near-spoof. April Fools!

The article points to the old writer-illustrator pairings of yore, and asks why that kind of collaboration doesn’t happen any more: Why don’t contemporary novels have illustrations as standard? Why are illustrators corralled into children’s fiction? McDonagh spoke with Dan Franklin at Jonathan Cape, who explained why he thought it wasn’t common practice:

“I think a) it’s fashion”, he says trenchantly. “And b) there aren’t that many great illustrators. It’s rare you can come across someone who can draw. Even when you’re looking for someone to do book jackets, it’s hard to find someone who can draw the human figure – it seems to be unfashionable now.”

Intriguingly, in the same article, Quentin Blake points out that perhaps drawings of human figures aren’t always what’s needed to illustrate today’s novels, that there’s room for doing other interesting things.

And I’d agree, I think that stating British illustrators have failed because they can’t all draw the human figure well is too narrow a viewpoint. If people are trying to make pictures that look realistic, and doing it badly, that’s one thing. Everyone’s seen arms that stick out at unpleasant angles or thighs that don’t have properly drawn muscle structure. But what if that’s not what you’re trying to do?

It’s not all about the figure

For a long time, I was doing life drawing and trying to draw children very realistically. Even when I did draw them well, I wasn’t pleased with the results, they didn’t fill some sort of pictorial inner craving I had. I had an epiphany moment when I discovered the work of female artists in Nepal, who don’t use traditional perspective at all.

Images from mithilapainting.org

Instead they play with shapes, colour and pattern, and are happy to suggest human forms, but not draw them in a Western ‘proper’ sense.

Once I’d realised this is actually something I like, I started to see it in Western work, such as that by Dave McKee, which very much influenced the work of Satoshi Kitamura and quite possibly Mini Grey.

They use very wonky perspectives, and they’re more interested in creating an interesting page than making things look ‘real’. But it works, it works very well. Oliver Jeffers and Sara Fanelli are illustrators who draws people, but they’re more interested in shape and colour than photo-realism. And Fanelli’s book jackets for both children and adults are amazing and vibrant.

Jonny Hannah makes lovely pictures with his hand-drawn typography, and the figures, if there are any, are mostly just a bit of decoration. Again, it works, very well.

Here’s one of my early college pieces, just as I was twigging that maybe I didn’t always have to draw elbows and perfect hands:

I’m not saying we should get rid of figures in illustration, life drawing is a hugely important tool to have in the tool box, to have the option of drawing realistically, and know when you’re breaking the rules. Don’t be fooled by the scribbly way that David Tazzyman draws in his Mr Gum books, it’s obvious to anyone who’s illustrated that he knows his figure drawing.

And as Viviane Schwarz sometimes comments on her blog, it’s important that people experiment by working with decent materials; no, that pound-shop watercolour brush and dried paint tin may not let you discover the medium’s full potential. And yes, older period-style illustration still has its place, we can have lots of things for different tastes (see David Wyatt‘s illustrations for Larklight for an example of beautiful Victorian-style illustraton drawn quite recently).

But I’m just saying, it’s worth opening our minds to the potential of other visual elements making illustrations amazing.

Big-name illustrators

Referring to illustrated books for adults, one of Britain’s top talents, Rob Davis, said on Facebook that ‘They only tend to sell if it’s a big name doing them, someone like Berni Wrightson or Ralph Steadman.’ And we can howl and rant about the unfairness of that, but actually, what would happen if we just went with it? Why don’t we build up more big names? I know that Audrey Niffenegger started out as a printmaker, making picture books for adults. When she couldn’t get them published, she realised she had to make a name for herself by writing a picture-less novel. So she did, and it was a best-seller – The Time Traveler’s Wife – and now she’s getting her picture books published. And that is AWESOME. Not many of us can do that, but she did it, and it’s worth applauding.

Which brings up another point, when someone does something well, it’s in all our best interests to celebrate that, not rip them down. We as illustrators need to be careful: there’s this mean streak in Britain that doesn’t like to see other people succeed. Which only hurts us; what we really need to do is push each other to become great, so our great illustrators CAN make these books. And understand that just because someone else has made great books, that doesn’t reflect badly on us; it actually gives us a better platform to get our own work published. So basically, we need to be trying to build each other up to dizzying heights, and revel in that, not trying to keep each other humble. (We’re already kept humble by being poor, we don’t need extra help with that!) Being positive about the good stuff that’s out there is what will make Britain really shine and get all our work seen by the world.

And we can’t be lazy, we need to keep pushing ourselves so we have good work to show. But I know so many people who are almost killing themselves for the love of their craft, they work night and day, so I don’t think laziness is a problem.

Working the circuit

Of course, there are LOADS of brilliant illustrators in Britain. I’ve discovered so many, just in the comics and small press scene, and that’s only some of them. The problem is that there are so many illustrators out there that it’s tricky for art directors and editors to sift through them all and find the best ones. So they tend to rely on a fairly small pool of ones they’ve worked with before. Which is understandable: they’re busy people, often work a lot more than 9-5 hours, have families and don’t want to spend their evenings and weekends traveling around to exhibitions, small press fairs and degree shows. But they do like a drink from time to time, and it’s often at book parties where they meet an illustrator, get on well with them, get their card or booklet and say, ‘ooh, that’s a lovely image’. When they’ve sobered up the next morning, they might pull out the card and look up that illustrator’s website and call them in. So this means that if you smell bad, don’t live near publishers, have poor social skills, or don’t have a website, it’s very hard to get your work published by other people, even if you’re very talented.

The other challenge is that we’re not actually paid for this extra networking time. If we work the equivalent of 9-5 as an illustrator, the amount of money we get paid for advances will hardly support us. That means it’s very hard to do the job and raise children (I realised early on that I personally couldn’t do both), or basically even have other interests. And illustration needs to feed off of stuff we do outside of illustration – travel, hobbies, relationships – so it’s really not a career for the faint-hearted, and we can’t expect to get much sleep.

Image from an early blog post about a publisher Christmas party

I love my job, but I do get very tired. I’m glad I did a degree first in something other than illustration (Russian lit), it gave me much more material to work with when I did start working as an illustrator.

Small press explosion

So how do people get their work seen by editors? One of the champions of the small-press scene, Oli Smith, commented on Facecbook that selling self-published comics at small press fairs isn’t enough to pick up the interest of larger publishers. And I’d agree with that, it’s rare to see art directors and agents at small press fairs. (Although I do occasionally spot some of the really cutting-edge ones, and they don’t generally make themselves known to everyone.) Here’s what I said to Oli: I guess I think that the small press and small press fairs are the incentive we need to MAKE the stuff. Having a deadline of a fair can be enough to get someone from having good ideas to actually making something printed. And once we have the beautiful printed things, we then have good materials for self-promotion. It’s not enough just to make postcards and have images on a website, I think. We need to be making whole little books. Partly because it teaches us how to make more books, and make them better, and partly because it shows publishers that we can do it. But there’s something wonderful about having a group of people all pressing to get it done by the same deadline, and getting the chance to look at each other’s work and get feedback. I think it makes work happen that wouldn’t exist otherwise. That’s what I love about the indie comics scene; lots of people getting off their backsides and actually producing stuff, and figuring out how to sell it, not just trying to get editors to look at websites full of art they did ages ago, back at college. People need to be constantly making things, and deadlines and community spirit totally help with that.

Philippa Rice at MCM Expo; Oliver Lambden at Leeds Thought Bubble

I only learned how to get my work seen by publishers by mixing with other creators first: people at British SCBWI, Camberwell art college, The AOI‘s Business Start-up classes, reviewing books and events for Nikki Gamble’s Write Away website, being involved in this LiveJournal community. But I wouldn’t have had much to show the publishers if I hadn’t been inspired to make lots of little books by people making their own books and comics at the London Artists Book Fair, the Alternative Press Fair, and the UK Web & MIni Comix Thing (which has since had the reins taken up by Comica’s Comiket). And seeing other creators post things on LiveJournal that they had created made me see that all you need is a photocopier and a stapler to make books. It’s hugely encouraging to see publishers such as Blank Slate, NoBrow, The Phoenix Comic, SelfMadeHero and Sweatdrop Studios giving indie creators the chance to make beautiful books. (Our Nelson book was just a bunch of comics friends getting together and saying, ‘Let’s do it!’ And bookshops were happy to go along and stock it; the first print run sold out almost immediately.)

Even kids can do this

I find this a very inspiring thing to tell children; there needn’t be a gap between wanting to make books and having their books published. They can start making them now, and photocopy them and ta-dah, there’s a stack of books.

Sample from Hypercomics workshop

There’s no reason these books can’t sell or, for starters, at least make good presents for family and friends. Here’s a recent New York Times article on just that subject:

Kids can keep making these little books, which will eventually become a stock of excellent promotional pieces, better than business cards. (Note: it’s still important to have some sort of website or blog link mentioned somewhere on the book; as soon as you can get a blog, the better. Your parents or teacher should even be able to help set you up with a simple blog, something like Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger, LiveJournal, lots more.) We don’t do kids a service when we just make them think they need to go to art college and then they’ll be able to make books. Art colleges are so underfunded that there’s not all that much teaching time, the courses tend to be rather self-directed. So people might as well start self-directing themselves before they get to college. To anyone, I’d recommend studying something else you really love. Perhaps you’re mad about history, like Kate Beaton, who draws brilliant history comics:

Then there’s Garen Ewing, who’s an expert on the Afghan War. You can always count on his Rainbow Orchid clothing to be well researched. Are you into a certain kind of music? Jonny Hannah loves jazz, and Hot Jazz Special came right out of that.

Keep drawing while you’re studying, make books, but learn about something else. Then when you’ve had some time to reflect, you can do a degree or another kind of course at art college, if you think it will suit you. You’ll be much better equipped to get the most out of the course and know what questions you want to ask.

Okay, enough from me! I’m not saying I’m an expert or anything, I’m just telling you what I’ve seen. If I can boil it down to three things, it’s this:
1. The future for British illustration is bright
2. Let’s make it so; make a fuss about the good stuff, don’t waste your time ripping apart the bad stuff
3. Keep making awesome stuff, all the time
4. Be generous: help other people make stuff, too!

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