Sign of the Illustration Apocalypse?

October 26th, 2006 | Posted in General

It seems like ever since I was in art school, the rumors of the death of commercial illustration as a career and a viable market have been numerous and unending. They still are. Organizations like the Illustrators Partnership and the Graphic Artists Guild have been rallying against various issues that have adversely affected the ability of illustrators to make a living and/or have hurt the illustration market in general. Some things are inevitable and beyond anyone’s control, and some are being thrust upon illustrators and their market… and some are us shooting ourselves in the foot.

Even as early as 20 years ago, when I was going to art school, there was very little to suggest that the personal computer would become the major competitor of commissioned illustration it is today. “Photoillustrations”, or photographs manipulated and combined in PhotoShop or similar programs, have become inexpensive alternatives to hand done illustration. Many major publishing houses have an in-house art departments that PhotoShop up images that previously needed the services of an illustrator to accomplish. Such images are easier and cheaper to produce, and often don’t require the pesky ability to actually be able to draw. That’s not to say that Photoillustration can’t be done very well with loads of talent behind it, but it can also be done fairly convincingly without those things. Illustrators can’t stop the advance of the digital age, we have to roll with it.

Things like the Orphan Works legislation I’ve discussed here before and other copyright reforms can also impact the illustration market, for good or ill. For years copyright law has been overwhelmingly in favor of creators… but that might all be changing soon.

Then you have the “shooting ourselves in the foot” thing. These come in the form of stockhouses and collections of images sold royaty free. Stockhouses are large collections of images, the copyrights for which where purchased in bulk by enterprising ‘agents’ who then offer them for reuse to buyers of images for dirt cheap. Illustrators have been complaining about the practice for years, but who is to blame? The illustrators that sell the copyrights to their images for quick bucks, that’s who.

This link is a sign of what is going on all too often. Seymour Chwast is a well respected illustrator and designer, a contemporary of Edward Sorel and Milton Glaser. I can almost guarantee you would recognize his work if you saw some of it. Here he is selling 500 of his images as stock… royalty free for peanuts. It’s hard to rally against this kind of thing when well respected illustrators sometimes have no problem doing something like this. Of course “do not judge lest ye be judged yourself”. If someone offered me six figures or so for the eternal copyrights to a bunch of pieces of art moldering in plastic bins in my basement, I suppose I cannot say with certainty I would dismiss them out of hand. I’d like to think I would.

Personally, I think rumors of the death of illustration are greatly exaggerated. Just like any form of art, or any kind of business, illustrators need to evolve with the times. 50 years ago illustrators were able to make a living doing product illustration for advertising. Today there is virtually no market for that kind of thing, so the illustrator who refuses to do anything but market themselves and do product illustration are refusing to evolve and will go the way of the dinosaur. Illustrators today who bemoan those who use the computer and refuse to embrace it will also struggle in the future as more and more publications wonder what to do with a painting on a piece of Strathmore board when they are expecting a CMYK TIFF file sent to them via email or FTP. You have to keep up with the times… or they will pass you by.

Here’s an interesting article on Graphic Design vs. Illustration today. I got the original link from the blog of fellow Minnesotan illustrator Cedric Hohnstadt.

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