Illustrators must draw outside the lines to fulfil their creative urges

A lecturer in the subject urges his peers to escape the commercial straitjacket. Matthew Reisz writes

April 12, 2012

An academic expert has urged his fellow illustrators to eschew the formulaic commercial work that, he says, merely offers "a sense of being operated by someone else".

He also encourages them to steer clear of the academic courses that only feed the industry, and to seek success by developing their individual voices.

When Steve Braund started the Illustration: Authorial Practice MA at University College Falmouth a decade ago, he writes in a new book, the course was intended to "work against the tendency for [illustration] to become a repetitive commodity where the illustrator was presented with an already clearly defined concept".

His course's "authorial approach", by contrast, aimed to "nurture truly creative illustration by illustrators able to work on their own terms, often generating their own employment, in addition to working to commission".

To promote these ideals, the college also set up an annual Falmouth Illustration Forum, to bring together practitioners, and a graphic literature publisher, Atlantic Press.

This has now released The Authorial Illustrator: 10 Years of the Falmouth Illustration Forum, drawing on archived recordings of the discussions.

Separate chapters explore themes such as collaborative practice, storytelling, self-publishing, graphic novels and the uses of nonsensical and absurd illustration.

"The industry is slow to innovate and goes on producing the same things," says Mr Braund. "Much commercial illustration work is still very constrained and commodified, with children's books full of stereotypical cute characters with cute names, which stifles creativity.

"Some illustration courses have definitely been complicit in keeping that going, for example by getting students to imitate the styles of illustration manuals from a few years back."

Illustration, he argues, has been "too much under the cosh of industry, when we should work together as equals. Good illustration uses visual seduction to get a message across and shouldn't just look pretty like a sweet shop. We need to avoid the kind of work which gives us a sense of being operated by someone else."

Yet, although many challenges remain, Mr Braund believes we are witnessing some major changes. More and more illustrators, often assisted by new technologies, are now "redefining illustration on their own terms" and "taking their own initiatives to put their work out into the public domain to generate interest and potentially huge audiences", he argues.

A good case in point, he adds, is Graham Rawle, lecturer in sequential design/illustration at the University of Brighton, who "left college and set out to produce the kind of work he thought commerce wanted, but only achieved success when he started to do the work he wanted to do for himself", such as the long-running Lost Consonants series in The Guardian.

Mr Braund says that when he launched his MA with the explicit aim of encouraging illustrators to "take responsibility for the concepts in their work", it represented an idea that people were only just beginning to talk about.

However, he concludes, current trends indicate that "what we put our faith in then is now coming true".

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