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Archive for February, 2012

February 17th, 2012

think editorial illustration


My family can’t remember what I do, but they know it’s not pictures. (Andy Baker)

Editorial illustration, illustration accompaniing articles in magazines and newspapers is a distinctive visual tradition that came into being at the end of the 19th century. It has become a fundamental aspect of the job of illustration, and it is often bread-and-butter work for most professional illustrator (Zeegen, 2005). But the editorial publishing industry is in flux, until recently it was the printed edition that determined the production processes, but recently through economical necessity, digitisation and consequent developments of the field of communication plus the changed appreciation of the consumer, the online edition has become the dominant driver (Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2010). It is forcing a different model of the editorial medium to come forward and questions the suitability of existing formats of visual representation. How does this impact the principle conditions for editorial illustration, such as the bond between image and text, the illustration as the singular still image and the production process and values?  Are the demands and possibilities of the online domain forging a new kind of visualisation or do we see a progression of an established tradition?  A tradition based on founding qualities that set editorial illustration apart from any other visualising medium and makes it a fundamental part of the editorial domain.

Four qualities

Through my research into early editorial illustration (Beegan, 2008; Benjamin1936; Hutt, 1973, Reed, Ruskin 1872; 1997; Sinnema, 1998), qualities specific and structural to the handmade image came to the forefront. Though by no means conclusive, it felt important to present four of these qualities to expert-practitioners in the field and test their potential validity, for ultimately it is with their understanding of the present day practice that the progression of illustration is shaped. The qualities were, to translate, to materialise, to reflect and to engage and presented in the workshop with the following definitions:

To translate: the ability to bring the essence of the story, its concept, but also values and intent, all beyond the text, into pictures that the reader can understand.

To materialise: the ability to use material and style to give meaning and presence, not just within the picture, but by using and exploiting the technologies that are dictated by the carrier, be it newsprint or pixels.

To reflect: the ability for the audience to see their values, their codes reflected in the image in their magazine, and at the same the illustration as a reflection of the ideas of the illustrator and publisher.

To engage: to ability of impact, to get the reader involved, into the story, the idea, the publication, starting with the image itself.


On Friday the 18th of November 2011, as part of the Royal College of Art conference The Edge of our Thinking participants from the field of editorial illustration, illustrators, commissioners, educator and postgraduate students from the Royal College of Art and M.A.Camberwell, were asked to critically reflect on these four founding qualities. In the workshop Think-editorial-Illustration,  through a guided process of critical questions and interaction, four groups focussed each on one quality. With this particular quality in mind they questioned the specific position illustration has within editorial publishing and present developments.

A summary

To translate: Language and potential[1]

The discussion around illustration as the vehicle of visual translation soon became a discussion based on a shared strong belief in the power of the illustration bridging cultures and spoken languages. The ability to project the lateral (SG) and work according to rules not determined by logic but emotion and association (JA) all supported this belief. But the frustration felt over the diminishing possibilities for illustrators was summarised in one sentence. The art director knows the language, but not the potential (JD). It was agreed that it has become increasingly difficult to create exciting and quality illustrations within what appears to be an ailing and disengaged editorial market.

At the moment it seems a new generation of illustrators no longer seek these commissions as a format. They have retreated into their own private interests and into aesthetics, back to the surface...(RL) But perhaps the surface is not all just aesthetics, it is where the entire publication comes together and this is where it can convey it’s idea. The illustrator is there to translate the ideas to its dedicated audience, not just through content but through form and style. As one of the participants pointed out: a young generation in China recognises the language of illustration as part of their voice (FW).

Online media brings new possibilities, perhaps not yet as a creative platform, but as a network and distribution systems to create small, low cost, authorial publications that is able to reach new audiences.

To reflect:  Shared space[2]

In the discussion around the role of reflection centred around two thoughts. On the one hand how the illustration on the page mirrors the values of those who present; the illustrator, art director and the publisher and or those who behold, the spectator. On the other hand there is the idea of the illustration as a contemplative space, which slows down and holds the reader to deeper explore the content of both illustration and text. In the printed environment these reflective functions are understood, but is the illustration still able to be reflective in the data driven and fast moving space of the online interface?

The diversity of interpretations around reflection as a concept possibly signified the duality of the role of illustration itself. Some saw the illustration reflecting the illustrators ideas, with the communication brief only a startingpoint and the art director overseeing the production. Here the personal process is the focus, the position of the illustrator more autonomous and the outcome, the published image, an opportunity to step back and reflect. But others acknowledges the deep infuence of the art director, where the collaboration, the constraints and creativity are all tools to create a mediating visual. But what became clear is that reflective qualities of the illustration are tied to the relationship it has with its context, the artefact and its moment in time. When this bond gets broken, as is easily done in online publishing, the illustration becomes something else, it becomes just another picture.

To materialise: The material experience[3]

Illustration that is a strong idea, it exists on another level than the material thing itself.(GB) You would think that with this statement agreed upon, the discussion around the material aspect of illustration would be short. But though the importance of material as the carrier of meaning is criticized, it plays a huge role in the identity of the illustrator and the creation process. Depending on who speaks online publishing is threatening a way of making and thinking or is an open invitation to work and think with an interpretation of the material.

As part given, part personal choice, the material leads the illustrator in the physical act of making and the creative mental journey. Beyond the finished artwork, the material quality of the reproduced result is what makes the experience of its creation complete. Though digitization has profoundly infiltrated the landscape of the editorial illustrator and the editorial media are moving towards online editions, which has a limiting effect on the creative opportunities for the illustrator the process and mindset of illustration is still towards the printed artifact. To create for screen would demand a very different approach, which is yet to become apparent in commissions and education, but also in the preferred approach of most illustrators. There isn’t really anything beyond print at the moment, just another version…(CA) Yet there is also the acknowledgment that online might be where the illustrator could claim back some lost inspiration and lost personal space.

To engage: Protest and print[4]

Engagement, the ability to grab the audience and deliver something thought provoking, whether through a personal socio-politically statement or through formal impact is understood as a core quality of the editorial illustration. Engagement brings the readers in and keeps them close. But in the discussion there was a certain despondency about the lack of engagement. The editorial illustration field seemed to be dominated by the desire to make charming decorative pictures and material play, rather than impactful messages driven by heartfelt ideas. Is it perhaps the love of the aesthetics that hold illustrators from speaking out?  Or is there no demand for more thought provoking illustrations and must illustrators create their own editorial opportunities?

The spaces that allow for thought provoking work with visual impact seemed to have vanished from the editorial publication, but editorial illustration is tied to the context of publication, after all it can only exist when commissioned (GG). Magazines have become more bland, risk averse (PBo).  Editorial publishing has to survive in a harsh economic reality and is cutting back and with a lack of expertise and experience with new digital illustration formats there is little opportunity in the emerging formats.

It is up to the illustrators to make and find new possibilities, which at the moment are mainly in the area of graphic novels and children’s picture books (FH). Where in the street illustration is gaining as the language of protest, illustrators are looking towards authorial areas for the expressions and publication of their ideas. Perhaps its time for the illustrator to start protesting.


All is not well with the present discipline of editorial illustration and this feeling was shared at all tables. Each group, from their own perspective, seem to point to two perhaps related, issues; the publishing industry going through a time of decline and young illustrators that turn their back on editorial illustration. The facts are clear, publication industry is shifting and the readers are moving elsewhere, online or perhaps no longer interested. Specially made content is expensive and commissioned illustrations are dropped in favour of the use of stock images[5]. Whatever commission is left is suffering from reduced production values and tightened deadlines. Coming from the 1980-ies, a time that gave rise to experimental and outspoken publications, with illustration very much part of its voice (SG, JD), today this is not particularly an inviting industry.

At the same time the rise of the authorial illustration, where the illustrator is both author and creator, proves that there is still a great desire for the language of illustration and print as its format, but no longer on the terms set by the industry. There was however a clear critique describing many of the publications as self indulgent and too highly aestheticized. Perhaps the collaboration with the art director, and his or her specific demands within the commission is more important than realised. At it’s very best, their direction, a thought provoking subject and set boundaries can nudge the illustrator outside the personal preoccupations and use these to push the responsive and the associative visual language into the unexpected.

New technologies and digital media can make publishing reach niche audiences without a forced profit-based model. Authorial illustration engaged with courant themes can make meaningful alignments with (online) platforms, formats and audiences and can prove to be the springboard for both online and print experiments. It can be the surface through which the voice of protest and youthful rebellion can present impact and resonance.

This workshop, presenting thoughts and ideas coming from practice strengthened my notion around the group of core qualities I presented.  It will fuel the continuation of research into the deeper the nessecity of the bond between image and text, the position of the art director and the dictating boundaries set by the publishing format.  They seem to be essential conditions for the qualities to drive the editorial illustration. An absence of these conditions or an imbalance between the qualties can turn a potential meaningful contribution into just a picture. And picturemakers we’re not.

A more detailed description of the workshop, outcomes and findings can be found in the attached pdf-booklet

Think editorial illustration-booklet


Barnhurst, K.G., 2000. Civic Picturing vs. Realist Photojournalism: The Regime of Illustrated News, 1856-1901. Design Issues, 16(1), pp.59-79.

Barthes, R., 1980. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography Reprint., Hill and Wang.

Barthes, R., 1964. Elements of Semiology, Hill and Wang.

Barthes, R., 1978. Image-Music-Text, Hill and Wang.

Beegan, G., 2008. The Mass image; A Social History of Photomechanical Reproduction in Victorian London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Benjamin, W., 1931. Little History of Photography.

Benjamin, W., 1923. the task of the translator. In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections.

Benjamin, W., 1936. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Berger, J., 1972. Ways of Seeing, Penguin Classics.

Gombrich, E.H., 1960. Art and Illusion, Princeton University Press.

Hutt, A., 1973. The Changing Newspaper-Typographic trends in Britain and America 1622-1972, London: Gordon Fraser.

Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2010. State of the News Media 2010. Available at: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1523/state-of-the-news-media-2010.

Pykett, L., 1989. Reading the Periodical Press: Text and Context. Victorian Periodicals Review, 22(3), pp.100-108.

Reed, D., 1997. Popular Magazine in Britain and the United States of America 1880-1960, University of Toronto Press.

Sinnema, P., 1998. Reproducing art and the devision of labour, representing the nation in the illustrated London news,, Ashgate Publishing.

Zeegen, L., 2005. The Fundamentals of Illustration, AVA Publishing SA.

[1] To translate- adiscussion between Judith Asher (JA), Rachel Lille (RL) Yves Francois (YF) Sophie Gibson(SG) Cynthia Merhej (CM), Fei Wang(FW), moderated by Jo Davies (JD).

[2] To reflect- a discussion between Andy Baker (AB), Chris Draper (CD), David Garcia (DG), Fuchsia Macaree (FM), Sophie Westerlind(SW) and  Alex Burnett (AB) moderated by Dan Fern (DF).

[3] To materialise- a discussion between, Gillian Blease (GB), Lee Ford (LF), Andrew Foster (AF), Jasmin Fung (JF), Ronit Mirsky (RM) and Babette Wagenvoort (BW), moderated by Catherine Anyango (CA).

[4] To engage-a discussion between Peter Brawne (PB), Paul Bowman (PBo), Joseph Pielichaty (JP), and Frazer Hudson (FH), moderated by Geoff Granfield (GG).

[5] Stock images are readily available photographs and illustrations, that can bought (and sold) though various image banks and agencies based on the purchase of particular copy rights licence which allows for use and reuse for commercial design purpose.