A Closer Look at… Illustration

It is sometimes necessary to defend illustration as a legitimate art form against the nay-sayers. Champions of conservative and traditional art forms occasionally need reminding of illustration’s established status as the universal language of the world. Before text we had images, even if those images were half formed scrawls across the walls of caves in Lascaux.

Illustration has developed explosively since then. Even with the rise of literacy in the 18th century, the satire of cartoonist William Hogarth was as effective as that of the poets Jonathan Swift or Alexander Pope., and far more accessible. Austerity and Invention, the current exhibition at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, shows how the work of William Heath Robinson and others moved the genre forward and is an interesting point of comparison for the illustration of today.

If for nothing else illustration should be lauded for its role in our formative years. It’s so important because often it constitutes most of a narrative for children before they are literate. Famous Author-Illustrator double acts tower over the nations collective consciousness; think Road Dahl and Quentin Blake for instance.

When researching material to fuel this column I found myself flicking through ‘The Melancholy death of Oyster Boy’, a book of illustrated poetry by Tim Burton, given to me by a friend. His illustrations carry the signature flavor that mark out his films; that equal measure of the endearing and unnerving. Burton draws sexual encounters with kitchen appliances and a boy with nails in his eyes unsuccessfully putting up a Christmas tree. It occurred to me that illustrators can commit transgressions which others, such as photographers for instance, would never be forgiven. Black ink forms the parameters within which to safely explore the eerie, grotesque and macabre as well as the comic and satirical.

While fine art has always struggled with the everyday Joe in terms of accessibility, illustration has become the inescapable, indeed indispensable art form of the moment, thriving in both its digital and hand rendered forms.

It seems that for illustrators the Holy Grail is consistency and simplicity. Single lines can speak as eloquently as whole pages and the development of a style is the key to gaining recognition. Once a signature style has been created it stands out to viewers, unmistakable. Perhaps that is why I find myself, against my will, clocking Jacqueline Wilson books on the shelves of Waterstones (Thanks Nick Sharratt). Its not unlike a graffiti tag and is fired by the same primordial instinct that makes dogs wee on trees.

Illustration has a longstanding relationship with animation but it is its recent marriage with graphic design that has boosted its PR among students. More and more often illustration forms a tripartite with music and clothing. Increasingly we are seeing brands like the Leeds based Gold Hands Collective. In addition to frequently posting ‘scribbles’ for fans on their facebook page they run a clubnight and a t-shirt company. It will be interesting to see how illustration develops even further in the future.


Author: Kelechi Atulomah

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