Tuesday, 28 March 2006


(This is another post adapted from a previously published essay)

It's time to have a rant, strap yourselves in, I'm going to talk about PRIDE. Pride in my profession, pride in being an illustrator.

It strikes me that illustration isn't getting the kind of recognition it really deserves, especially in my country of birth the UK. Over in Blighty I hear horror tales of crumbling standards, plummeting fees and dastardly clients. One old illustrator friend has upped and left London as being too expensive. "Plasterers and plumbers can charge twice as much as I'm able to achieve in the UK" he says - and this is someone famous. Well known children's illustrators say to me "don't come back! There's no work, you're better off in Japan!"

Well things are not that rosy for illustration in Japan either, but at least artists are respected in this country. In the UK is it true that illustration is getting a bum deal nowadays?

In one sense illustration has always had a bum deal, whenever it's compared against "fine" art. In general it can be argued that Britain's creative heritage is built on a literary tradition, on the written word rather than the painted image. Illustration, which was born from this literary heritage, is one of the greatest cultural gifts the UK has to offer, yet all too often it's run down or dismissed.

Every time I go back to the UK I hear the never ending appeal of my father, who sums up the general attitude of the older generation when he says "this illustration lark is all very well I suppose, and we all have to earn a crust, but come on John, when are you going to do some proper pictures?" (i.e. a nice picturesque landscape he can hang on the wall). I suspect many illustrators in the UK have similar stories.

Alright, so this is my dad talking (bless his heart), not some art critic. But is the establishment any better? I'm reminded of the Arthur Rackham retrospective held at the Dulwich Gallery in London a couple of years ago. In the Foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Desmond Shawe-Taylor succinctly tells us "Arthur Rackham is probably more famous than any British artist of his generation; yet there has not been an exhibition devoted to his work in this country for thirty years. This may be because Rackham is regarded as a mere illustrator, a Jack of all Trades, or as childish taste; what is certain is that to some minds Rackham is 'not quite an artist'...".

Nevertheless the exhibition still had a disproportionately large section devoted to Rackham's unpublished and personal paintings, almost as if the organisers were paying lip service to those very "minds" that dismiss Rackham as a "mere illustrator". I wonder whether by showing a large number of his non-illustration works they hoped to make him somehow qualify as a "real" artist?

To top it all, if it's not bad enough having illustration being portrayed as somehow "inferior", illustrators themselves are guilty of denying their own profession! I remember years ago being at a talk given by Maurice Sendak, where in answer to my question regarding his illustration work he said he hated being called an "illustrator". Perhaps the connotations of the word were unsavoury? I know a London based illustrator who, when asked what he does for a living always tells people he's a "painter and decorator".

Why? What's WRONG with being an illustrator?

I'm an illustrator, and I love it, I truely do. I wouldn't want to do anything else in the world (my missus would probably say "couldn't" rather than "wouldn't", but there you go...). I regard myself and others of my ilk as practitioners of a rich heritage of pen and ink art dating back from before Hogarth. I'm proud of what I do, certainly it's nothing to hide!

Sure there are bad illustrators and unskilled wannabes in every country, as well as the cheesey, the crass and the blatant rip-off, but these shouldn't detract from the good stuff. Essentially this is a highly skilled and demanding profession, where talent should be encouraged, rewarded and praised. Using the analogy of the music business (which in some respects can be similar), in the same way that almost anyone can pick up a guitar and make a noise, but it takes some talent to create an anthem, with illustration anyone can draw a picture, but it takes skill and inspiration to reach out to people. You don't see many hailed like pop stars though do you!

I don't see evidence of illustration-bashing in Japan because the dividing lines between illustration and "fine art" are blurred and interchangeable. Some illustrators have even had museums devoted to their work. Most definately no-one is ashamed of calling themselves an illustrator.


butuki said...

*Giant sigh* One of the reasons I never really jumped in one hundred percent is due a lot to what you are talking about here. Back in college I opted, after two years apprenticing to a now-famous animator (this was just a few years before computer animation started to become noticed. Pixar was just getting started. I missed one of my biggest chances in my life when I gave up animation), to change to architecture, in great part from my own father's coaxing me to take up a REAL profession. I'm only now fully and joyfully realizing that I never really liked the profession of architecture and still love drawing and writing more than anything else.

Five years ago I did some illustration work for a Japanese canning company. When I finished my initial drawings the client took a look at the drawings and said, "Well, okay. How does ¥5 per drawing sound?"

Swearing doesn't really work in the Japanese environment, does it? Of course I didn't swear, but, oh, it would have felt SO nice!

John Nez said...

Great blog post!

Yeah, I can relate. What gets me is most people get really excited when they see my paintings on canvas... whereas I put 80% of my work into my illustrations.

The lowly illustrator. I can see why Maurice Sendak would rather be called a painter, an artist or a 'fantasist' than just an illustrator.

I linked up your blog to mine, by the way.


John Nez

tlc illustration said...

This is totally recognizable in the states as well. Only the 'elite' can produce 'real art'. Everyone, and their neighbor and their dog can illustrate... (and by the numbers of illustrators out there, there seems to be some surface truth to it, at least.)