Visuality is the Currency of the 21st Century

Recently, I was participant in ICON7:The Illustration Conference held in Providence, Rhode Island. Four days of information, inspiration and instruction left me dizzy with knowledge which I’ve been sorting out for further posts.

A number of themes were repeated often at ICON. The expansion of illustration, as well as the profound change in illustration as a practice, was made abundantly clear from a variety of directions. John Hendrix, this years ICON President, introduced the themes well in his concise Opening Address to the conference. I share his talk here, as he published it on his blog, by popular demand.


President’s Address

  ICON7  Providence, RI  2012

by John Hendrix

Illustrators, let me ask you this, when you are at a party, and someone asks you: “So, what do you do for a living?” What do you say? 

“I’m a freelance artist.”
actual translation: He’s unemployed.
or you say,

“I make drawings for newspapers and magazines.” 
actual translation: She’s an editorial cartoonist.
or you try,

“I’m a commercial artist.” 
actual translation: He’s in advertising. 
or what about,

“I make picture books for children.” 
actual translation: She went to art school, now she’s a Kindergarden teacher.
or maybe,

“I make graphic images for the web and print.” 
actual translation: He’s into porn.
or if you say

“I’m a contract creative employee that is hired to make conceptual and narrative images on an irregular basis for a flat fee based on the  circulation of the publication coupled with the general size the image will cover in the magazine that somehow add visual metaphor to the theory presented in the text that I’m assigned, subject, of course, to approval by an art director and/or editor.” 
actual translation: Look for someone else to talk to, NOW. 
and if you say:

“I’m an illustrator.”

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Norman Rockwell, or painting while smoking a pipe. But, illustration is more than that today. So, sometimes our culture seems to misunderstand our job, and we, the illustrators, can’t seem to find a way to accurately summarize its importance, and the only word we really have for it conjures cliched images from the good ol’ days.

So, what is illustration?

So, what exactly, is illustration?

Let me come back to that.

I teach illustration at Washington University in St. Louis, and in recent years, we’ve seen a growing number of students in art school choose to study illustration and design over the studio arts. I’ve talk to other educators and this is happening in art schools all across the country. Why is that?

Clearly it isn’t because the studio arts have no value, because they do. But, I 
believe students are drawn to our field because illustrators and designers are tangible contributors.  The vast visual tapestry of our culture is being defined by graphic image makers, and incoming students encounter those things in their actual lives, and they really want to participate. 

My colleague D.B. Dowd, who spoke at ICON6, said it this way:
“Visuality is the currency of the 21st Century.” 

Said another way, with the number of screens and surfaces in our lives multiplying by the day, the need for images is growing exponentially.

In fact, despite our occasional queasiness with the word illustration, it doesn’t take much work to find examples of image makers shaping our cultural experience… from magazine covers, to comics, to storybooks and movies.

Do NOT let people tell you that this stuff is pop-culture, this IS our culture.

We shouldn’t define ourselves by our method of payment and where our work is seen anymore… but by what it is doing. The old distinctions of the discipline don’t describe us anymore. What I’m saying is that thecategory isn’t as important is it’s role.

So, what is illustration?
Illustration is NOT just images… Illustration is storytelling.
Illustration is NOT a media or a style, Illustration is communication.
We are saying something to our world.

The theme for this weekend, is Drawn Together.  Over the next three days, you’re 
going hear from some people you know, and many you don’t – and much of our conversation will be about what we are saying and who we are together.

It is time for illustrators to stop thinking of themselves as Han Solo, bragging about how fast their ship did the Kessel Runbut embrace being a contributor to the Rebel Alliance. (He was much happier after he let go of the idol of his solitude, by the way.) 

I want to challenge us to stop seeing every other person in this room and in our field, as competition- and to embrace the collaborative nature of illustration.

Even when drawn by a single artist, Illustration is inherently collaborative.

It takes disparate elements, text and image and does not make a jumbled frankenstein, but a new thing- a whole that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. What I love about illustration is this stark humility- it is willing to subvert itself to deliver it’s content.

Look at these images: Do you see merely media or technique? No. You see a beloved character, a rich story, a concept, an idea.

Illustrators should define themselves by their 
communication and collaboration with their culture.
Be proud of that. You are a contributor.

Jillian Tamaki, who you will hear from later in this conference, put it this way on her blog:

The payoff is so exciting, you’re not just a consumer of culture anymore, you’re a contributor. Illustration at its best, injects a bit of beauty and insight into a visual landscape that is so often vapid, crass, and garish. Illustration is powerful precisely because it is commercial. …Most people could probably describe to you their favorite comic or cartoon or album cover or picture book from childhood, regardless of whether or not they are creative. 

Let’s abandon seeing illustration as an artistic discipline- and see if for what it is: A powerful, profound, and unpretentious shaper of our visual lives. 

Personally, I don’t just work as an illustrator because I believe in it as an industry with a viable and vibrant business model (which it is by the way), I believe in illustration because I believe in the power of images.

Drawn images have the power to shape a young imagination.

Drawn images have the power to show us what we don’t want to see.

Drawn images have the power to put a face on an epic story.

Drawn images can bring comfort in the midst of disbelief. 

Drawn images have the power to shape our very history.

To think of yourselves as anything less than a lethal cultural chisel is to undermine your role, not as a “commercial artist,” but as an artist.  You are all artists. Embrace it.

I’m so glad you’re here this weekend. Join me, … lets draw something together.



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