Teaching Illustration: An Approach

For me, the most satisfying experience in the classroom is the look of awakening on the face of a student. Since my classes feature critiques that last from three to five hours, one might assume I’m talking about students actually staying awake, but I’m not. I’m referring to their awakening to possibilities. Whether during an explanation by me, after a suggestion from a fellow student, or even during mid-question by the student herself, the student’s “lights go on” before my very eyes as she comes to realize she is not at an artistic or conceptual dead end, but rather, at the beginning of a new direction with vast possibilities. I can see her expression change, and in the following weeks, see her work change. 


Changing perceptions is one of the first steps. My classes are designed to challenge the assumptions of my students and to expand their understanding of the subject, their work, and the possibilities for everyone in the room. Illustration is a subject that has plenty of assumptions to challenge, and from day one, the class works together to create a new definition of illustration. More and more, I realize that defining illustration well, and inclusively, is of utmost importance for my students.


In my classes, Illustration is defined as a communication art, in the truest sense. And while Illustration is not successful if it doesn’t communicate, it’s not valuable if it isn’t artful. Within the boundaries of even the most restrictive commercial assignment lies the opportunity for personal expression through style and substance. I believe this fundamental philosophy has been passed down from the “Father of American Illustration,” Howard Pyle, to his student Harvey Dunn, to his student Harve Stein (the founder of RISD’s Illustration Department), to his student Tom Sgouros, to his students (including me). While the modern world tends to separate fine art from the applied arts, we weave them together. Illustration’s personal communication is more valuable than ever—the alternative to recycled, bland “stock” imagery.


Putting definitions into practice comes next. The actual work of the class is the solving of visual communication problems with artwork, and the reflective critiques that follow. My assignments are a combination of visual communication exercises and projects culled from the professional world. They are carefully chosen to provide challenging and creative opportunities, and they are sequenced to help students build useful skills, knowledge and experience.
My assignments and critiques are built around my belief that great teaching is about asking the best questions and inspiring students to find their own best answers. Great questions help students make self-discoveries through their work. Great questions open eyes and challenge assumptions in critiques. Training students to question is crucial as well.


Fostering an atmosphere that facilitates questioning (as well as learning, searching and discovery) is another important aspect of teaching. My classes are known for having clear goals, relevant and lively discussions, and an atmosphere where honest, empathetic criticism is exchanged. I am not afraid to repeat myself, and I appreciate the value of humor as a vehicle to draw students into long discussions and pointed critiques. Students always know what we are doing and why it is relevant. They are made aware of my high standards and my belief that both hard work and hard play are essential for success.


Broadening the students’ scope of knowledge is an important part of every class. To this end, I support my courses with image lectures, readings, guest artists, the schools’ galleries, library and Internet sites such as delicious.com, where I post hundreds of bookmarked links. Directing students to information beyond the assignments provides context, inspiration and an expanded view. It also inspires them to become lifelong learners.


My wealth of experience as an illustrator and an artist is a resource too, but the class is not about me. It’s about the students. Each student is encouraged to search for his or her own voice while aiming to communicate with wisely-chosen concepts. Although much time is spent discussing the history of illustration and contemporary professional standards and trends, students are encouraged to consider themselves definers of illustration’s future.


And finally, there is the business of the business of illustration. While deadlines, content obligations, size restrictions, conceptual clarity and audience concerns are not a natural fit for personal artistic ambition, the greatest illustrators learn to overcome these obstacles, and create work of great distinction. Artists such as Caravaggio confronted such issues in their commissioned work, too. After all, while the profession of “illustrator” is relatively new, illustrating as an artistic act is not new. Much can be learned by examining more closely the conditions under which many historic artists created their narrative works. 


It could be said that I teach students how to turn their personal artwork into visual communication, and how to turn their visual communication into artwork.


As a teacher, I witness the struggle and frustration of students trying to make their mark, while also making their point. Students face their limitations on a daily basis, and I know very well how difficult it can be to make artistic visual communication. That is why helping students make breakthroughs is very satisfying. I understand how classes can provide building blocks in the form of experiences, knowledge, and critiques that help students step up to the next level. Creating courses and classrooms that facilitate student growth is my passion. I feel I’ve succeeded when students ultimately create work beyond their previous capabilities. Witnessing the awakening is the ultimate satisfaction; it’s the moment of learning. 


Illustrations by Honore Daumier

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