Autumn 2007

From cliché to context

Illustration: A Theoretical and Contextual Perspective

By Alan Male
Ava Academia, £24.95

The problem with annuals is that, claiming to showcase the best, they are necessarily highly selective and barely hint at the true state of the art. Most of the examples of illustration shown in the first of these two books are market driven, conforming to the ultra-conservative mindset of those corporate clients to whom the capacity to risk is either a mystery or an anathema. The blind leading the bland. However, read on, as the third title is a mind-spring for anyone interested in illustration. So much more than the advanced guide to the practice of illustration and its myriad possibilities that its author claims it to be, it offers a rich, assured and comprehensive counter to the sloppy, retrogressive tendencies of the first two tomes.

In his hyperventilating introduction to Big Book of Fashion Illustration: A Sourcebook of Contemporary Illustration, Martin Dawber claims that the stereotypical fashion illustration – ‘the elongated, nine-head-length norm’, has finally been obliterated by today’s crop of so-called ‘fashion artists’. Unfortunately his own text is flanked with vacuous examples of the same.

The innovation that is promised within this ‘invaluable bible’ is illusory. Instead we find a plethora of lazy (that is, bad), drawings. Most of them, I strongly suspect, traced from stock art books, brought into Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, to be enhanced or forced into glaringly obvious contexts. Blocks of flat pastels, motifs from previous decades and obligatory cityscapes or meaningless walls of swirling decorative patterns dominate. Figures are slack or chisel-jawed, excruciatingly thin – of course – and they all slouch, a lot.

Like its introduction, everything in this book is impossibly stretched. As innovative and as radical as riding upstairs on a bus without a ticket! In only one respect does this book live up to its title – it is big. Use it as a doorstop as it won’t improve your life in any other way.

Illustration Book Pro 01, another brick of a book, is only marginally better: ‘150 of the hottest illustrators in Japan today’ unveil ‘1000 cool illustrations’ that are in many ways remarkably similar to those in Big Book of Fashion Illustration. There are the ubiquitous bug-eyed cuties moping around in a myriad of la-la lands, nods to manga and some highly polished, go-fast Photoshop workouts signifying little other than technical virtuosity. Most could easily be mistaken for fashion illustrations.

More worrying is the almost total absence of works that evoke their cultural origins. Nearly all vestiges of Japanese sensibility have been subsumed by an overtly Western approach and look. Where this collection does succeed is in showing works that display a return, or a move forward, to the drawn and the painted, to the handcrafted. These alone suggest a genuine striving for the distinctly individual voice.

Mercifully, Alan Male’s thoughtfully written and densely illustrated Illustration: A Theoretical and Contextual Perspective, delivers exactly what it promises. Aimed primarily at advanced students of the subject, Male eschews the intricacies of technical processes and the murky concerns of commercial and business practice, concentrating instead on ‘the measure of contextual operation’ that is necessary for a thorough understanding of the subject. Emphasis is on the acquisition and utilisation of the breadth of intellectual skills, social, cultural and contextual, required of a contemporary illustrator. The analysis of these and the visual languages needed to express ideas are examined alongside the historical and cultural legacies that have shaped the practice of illustration up to the present.

Within five well-planned, distinct and richly illustrated sections, Male’s book guides the reader from the initial acceptance and understanding of a brief, through the uses of ‘visual intelligence’ and stylistic approaches to a myriad of potential outcomes and uses. It covers every genre of illustration – editorial, book and music, reportage, technical, medical and natural history, children’s books, comics and ‘graphic novels’ – and its uses in corporate, advertising, packaging and point of display, through to various ‘authorial’ projects. Numerous, predominantly figurative case studies examine the unfolding potential of each.

This, a much-needed first, is a thoroughly comprehensive guide to the art of illustration in all its manifestations. An illustrator for more than 30 years and course leader of the BA (Hons) Illustration course at University College Falmouth, Male is an authority on his subject. Writing with suitable zeal and dedication, he provides an inestimable and absorbing overview of the practice of illustration.

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