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Whatever Happened To Illustration?

For my birthday last month, my parents bought me a copy of the 1920s volume in Taschen’s sumptuous All American Ads series. Paging through this hefty book, I’m amazed at all the gorgeous color illustration and hand-lettered typography that was utilized on a regular basis back then. Probably 90% of the ads collected use the power of art to sell their wares — and not just in an insignificant way, either. Tellingly, the art in these ads was rarely credited or signed. While it would have been a nice (but impossible) gesture for Taschen to have tracked down the artists names, I appreciate their efforts anyway. Two of the artists I do know are Coles Phillips and JC Leyendecker. Both specialized in impossibly elegant renderings of stylishly dressed figures — Phillips for the women, and Leyendecker for the men.

While I’m on the same track, do check out the American Art Archives. I could spend days perusing the cool old art there. It makes me long for the time when illustration was a true calling and not merely a sideline for fine artists.

7 Thoughts on “Whatever Happened To Illustration?

  1. Mass Bradley on November 29, 2005 at 6:58 pm said:

    Matt–Many Thanks for turning me on toi the American Art Archives site–lots of visual juiciness to mine for screensavers!
    And you betcha the folks at Taschen are the ginchiest– I’ve got their 40’s and 50’s books, and have spent too many lazy Sunday afternoons mooning over them.
    (Sounds like you’ve got pretty ginchy folks to buy you items of such meta-coolaciousness–my parents bought me a Dilbert 16-month calendar and a Home depot gift certicate for propane. Cutting edge, man…)

  2. Matt

    I’m about to state the obvious, but many things have changed since the 1920s. It’s not a cliche’ to say that life was slower back then and folks appreciated the more subtle, artistic things in life.

    Today, pop magazine and book illustrators have to compete with cellphone gadgets, Podcasts, handheld DVD players, GameBoy thingies, TV, TiVo, HD-TV, cable, satellite radio, etc

    In a lot of cases, the modern illustrator has to strip things down to the lowest common denominator in order to grab a viewer’s attention for more than a split-second

    Instead of producing subtle images, the modern illustrator must embrace the primitive or grotesque (what I call “Ren and Stimpy-isms”) and more-often-than-not draw in a violent or just plain “dumb” style. One of the few modern illustrators to succeed in this style is Gary Panter, whose work is so fractured and weird and unique that it’s instantly recognizable…and not dumb at all.

    Also, computers and advances in photography and print (Photoshop, etc)
    have made classic illustration styles archaic…unless of course, the illustrator is being ironic and intentionally “retro” by lifting from past styles (which is much too common)

    I have a few classically-trained illustrator friends (people who can draw with a pencil and eraser) and all of them have had to learn HTML and Photoshop in order to compete. Drawing alone doesn’t cut it these days.

    I’ve got the 60s and 70s editions of the All-American Ads series…great stuff.
    The Dian Hanson “History of Men’s Magazines” series would also make swell Christmas presents


  3. Even more telling is flipping through the actual magazines from the period. It is the rare photograph that appears on those pages. Most wonderful are the (often, double full-page) illustrations that accompany fiction. Some of the best American artwork, indeed. Small wonder that such surviving original artwork (including that done for covers of pulp magazines and books) now fetches such big dollars at auction.

  4. what a cool book! i hope there’ll be a smaller version for the icon series. the size of those larger ones always seem rather unwieldy to me.

  5. Kurt, I hope you didn’t think that my post was all bitter nostalgia for a time none of us experienced. There are a lot of contemporary illustrators whose work I love and admire – Panter, Gary Baseman, Brian Cronin, Mark Ryden, Caleb Brown, J Otto Seibold (strange that they’re all men). And they all work, to varying degrees, in that simple, primitive style. Your observation that today’s illustrators have to do a ‘lowest common demoninator’ thing to survive is completely true.

    Interestingly, I can’t think of a single great illustrator that has emerged in the last 10 years or so. Must be the scourge of Photoshop.

    PS I also have the ’70s volume and it’s a hoot. Completely different from the ’20s one.

  6. Illustration is getting a harder and harder sell for art directors in publishing. The market doesn’t want “art” anymore, photography is just more “instant”. When I worked at The Atlantic we were using less and less and stopped using it completely on covers because the magazine’s owner didn’t like illustration, it didn’t fit in with the more hard-edge, newsy style he wanted the mag to have.

    This lot are all brilliant and none of them work in that Panter/Baseman style…

    Istvan Banyai
    Jason Schneider
    Marc Rosenthal
    Jack Unruh
    Olivier Kugler
    Steve Brodner
    Tomer Hanuka

  7. I am furiously trying to find an illustrator for a hotel project in Portland, Oregon. Illustrator should be able to capture a mod 60’s feel. Love any leads.

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