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Celebrating Illustration, Design, Cartoon and Comic Art of the Mid-20th Century

Are you a "Drawsigner" ?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Some of you may already know that I teach in the Graphic Design program at Mohawk College here in Hamilton, ON.



Recently our faculty hosted an Advisory Council meeting with members of the various industries for which we train our students. Industry partners who attended were from print and web media, design and advertising, and the packaging and printing industries. It was an enlightening experience. I was encouraged to hear all around the table that our industry partners, when planning to hire a recently graduated graphic designer, looked for one particular skill: the ability to draw. Imagine that.

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Designers who draw... its not a new concept. While researching my recent posts on Ben Shahn, and how he influenced mid-century illustration by incorporating elements of graphic design into his work, I stumbled across a very interesting post at the Design Observer blog. Written by Adrian Shaughnessy in 2006 and entitled "Graphic Design vs. Illustration," it raises some thought-provoking points that are just as relevant today as they have been for some years now. I strongly encourage you to read that post and all the comments that follow it. What I took away from that discussion can be summed up by my friend Von Glitchka, who commented on Adrian Shaughnessy's article, and with whom I corresponded in preparation for this post.

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In our correspondence, Von wrote, "I'm of the opinion that the fundamental problem with the illustration community is it seems to not be willing to admit it falls under the larger banner of "Graphic Design." There are many designers who are also good illustrators and leverage both to make a living. I fall into that camp. But I have a lot of purely illustrator friends who get stuck in a 20 year old mentality when it comes to illustration, of which "One style fits all" is the chief one. That applied in the past decades but is simply outmoded in today's marketplace. Don't get me wrong I love working in a few signature styles I have but if I held to them alone, making a living would be very, very difficult. And when illustration in it's purest sense is not knocking on the door, I do design oriented work."

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So is the era of the 'pure illustrator' over? Hardly.

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There's probably more opportunity to illustrate today than at any other time in history... just not so much in the public eye. Most 'pure illustrators' today work behind the scenes, creating concept art in support of larger project like movies, animation, video games etc. rather than having their work incorporated into magazine and newspaper articles and print advertising campaigns. That's not to say there aren't still many illustrators doing artwork that gets seen by the public. But, for the vast majority of them, its just not as prominent or lucrative a career as it had been during most of the last century. In fact, the circumstances under which many illustrators find themselves working today can be downright demoralizing, as described in this jaw-dropping anecdote recounted on drawger.com by legendary illustrator Bill Mayer.

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Gary Taxalli, in a comment on that Bill Mayer post, writes, "We're all feeling the decline of print commissions within the industry. There is little control we have beyond continuing to produce the best work we can and maintain professionalism. As a result of this, we achieve something that is far above and beyond more important than anything else, and that is self respect and peer respect. Without that, we have nothing. All the medals and sexy, cool jobs we have under our belts are meaningless if our peers think of us someone who would work for low fees."

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For illustrators who find themselves without work and/or poorly paid for their work, and unwilling or unable to become part of the concept art industry, what's the solution? I return to Von Glitchka's note and the many pearls of wisdom it contains. Von wrote:

"Many designers (young AD and CD's specifically) simply don't know how to work with illustrators because illustrators in many respects don't do a good job of marketing themselves or explaining how to make the process easy for a designer. This is why you're seeing a lot of creatives approaching illustratives needs on their own, one reason why the naive style is so popular right now. Starbucks on a corporate level encourages their designers to do this, and it's established now as part of their brand equity. Some naive is good, other naive even within Starbucks product line is just bad illustration with a thin veneer of class."

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"To answer your statement about dying out directly: The vast majority of designers can draw worth crap. But since they are creative, and like to create, most will try to do what they need - and this is possible with some but not most. I see the problem as illustrators not communicating and accepting their place within the industry well as the source for that type of gloomy outlook. There is more opportunity now as an illustrator to do all kinds of things than there ever has been in the history of our industry. They just need to leave behind the old school modus operandi and embrace the change. If they want to do art shows, fine, but don't assume most ADs and CDs will understand how they can work with you if you're not marketing yourself in an appropriate way to them."

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So what's my conclusion? I return to the top of this post where I described how employers from all areas of the graphic arts industries told us at Mohawk that they want to hire designers who can draw. Maybe illustrators need to remember that design is at the heart of every picture they make - and embrace the idea that, because they understanding how to design and how to draw they actually have the opportunity to lead the graphic arts back to the place Adrian Shaughnessy described in his Design Observer article:

"There was a time when graphic design and illustration were indivisible. Many of the great designers of the 20th century were also illustrators and moved effortlessly between image-making and typographic functionalism. Traditionally, most designers viewed illustration with reverence; many even regarded it as inherently superior to design. And with good reason: design was about the anonymous conveying of messages, while illustration was frequently about vivid displays of personal authorship."

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Maybe its time for the 'pure' illustrator to embrace a trend that began long ago with people like Ben Shahn, George Giusti and yes, even the artist whose work I chose to 'illustrate' today's post: Al Parker. In 2007 Barbara Bradley wrote a post about Al Parker for me where she said, "What a fascinating combination he was, a superb graphic designer and draftsman all in one." That, my 'pure' illustrator friends, is what i think we should all aspire to.

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I'd love to hear your opinion on this. How are you finding today's marketplace? Are you succeeding as a 'pure' illustrator or are you, as my friend Von Glitchka calls himself, a 'drawsigner' ?

George Giusti: "Art is art."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Take a look at the image below... what do you see? Illustration? Graphic design? Fine art? All three?


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To its creator, George Giusti, it was simply art. Giusti disdained the labeling of work as either commercial or fine art. "Art is art," said George Giusti, whatever its expressed intention.

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George Giusti was born in 1908 in Milan, Italy of a Swiss father and an Italian mother. He studied art at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts with the intention of becoming a painter... but upon graduating he was offered a position at a Milanese ad agency, and found the work to his liking. He stayed for three years doing graphic design and illustration. Giusti then moved to - first one, then another - Swiss advertising and design firms before opening his own studio in Z├╝rich, which he operated for seven years.

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In 1938 Giusti came to America...

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... where he immediately received several excellent commissions, convincing him to stay. The artist's design-inspired brand of realism quickly became popular with advertising, book and editorial clients.

Below: Award of Distinctive Merit, NY Art Directors Club, 1946

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Below: Award of Distinctive Merit, NY Art Directors Club, 1953

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Giusti is perhaps best remembered for his many covers for Fortune...

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... and Holiday magazines.

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He was also a sculptor and an architect. He built his home in Connecticut from Weathering steel and glass, with only man-made materials throughout. Steel and other types of metal fascinated Giusti.

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Many of his drawings and painting were of metal objects...

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... or incorporated photographs of metal sculptures he had built.

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For a time he actually crafted metal caricatures of famous people like Pope Paul VI, Richard Nixon, Mao Tse-tung, Edward Heath, Golda Meir and Mick Jagger.

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There's no denying that George Giusti had a unique way of looking at the world - and that he invited us, as viewers, to share in his distinctive interpretation of reality.

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That interpretation was aptly described in 40 Illustrators and How They Work as a "more than photographic reality."

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The article continues, "the artist who thinks of reality in terms of photographic naturalism loses the edge that a skillful artist has on the camera."

"The artist who subordinates design to exactitude is no more than a glorified retoucher."

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I've been thinking a lot about illustration, art and design... where its been and where its going...

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... and I'm becoming increasingly convinced that artists like George Giusti had it right. At a time when illustration (especially illustration that was largely within the realm of "photographic naturalism") was about to be displaced by actual photography as the default choice for the majority of commercial art assignments, artists who shared Giusti's philosophy of interpreting reality through design-based picture-making not only survived - but thrived.

Half a century later, this is more true than ever. If you want to be successful as a creative today, you can't narrowcast yourself. What do you think?

* Thanks to Sandi Vincent for allowing me to use her "Modern Packaging" scan in today's post. The two Time magazine covers are from the Time Cover Archive.

* There is an extensive George Giusti biography here. There's a nice collection of Giusti's book cover designs here.

From Ben Shahn to Bob Peak - and Beyond. What's the Connection?

Friday, July 08, 2011

I'll try to explain next week.

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But feel free to comment if you do (or don't) see where I'm going with this.



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Ben Shahn 'Gets Real'... Do You?

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

I want to explore the subject of Ben Shahn's work further, but on Monday I deliberately interjected the story of Norman Rockwell's 'Four Freedoms' because I wanted to draw attention to a couple of interesting points that were related in that anecdote:

One; that the officer in charge of commissioning posters for the Office of War Information rejected Rockwell's proposal because he was "an illustrator" and the department had decided to use only fine artists, "real artists", for their poster assignments during WWII.

Two; that in the opinion of Saturday Evening Post editor Ben Hibbs, Norman Rockwell had created "great art" in the making of 'Freedom of Speech' and 'Freedom of Worship' - although Hibbs felt Rockwell would disagree because "he has always modelled himself an 'illustrator' with no pretensions of fine art."

The "pretensions of fine art"... "real artists"...

How the world perceives fine art vs. illustration and how artists perceive themselves in their capacity as visual communicators continues to frustrate and fascinate me.

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Based on the excellent, thought-provoking discussion that transpired on the last Ben Shahn post (and which I hope will continue on this one) many people, like the officer at the War Information department, have too narrow a definition of fine art and illustration and their relative merits.

It strikes me that most people don't 'get' what "real art" is or who "real artists" are. It strikes me that many people seem to have some pretty unrealistic expectations of both art and artists and the relative merit and quality of their work.

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I remain unsure if Ben Shahn considered himself a fine artist or an illustrator - despite all I've read by and about him - or, quite frankly, if it would even have mattered to Shahn.

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I do know that he considered himself a realist (no doubt Norman Rockwell considered himself one as well) and that realism was a 'trending topic' in both fine art and illustration during the mid-20th century.

The January 1953 issue of Art Director & Studio News offered both an observation and a prediction about trends in commercial art at that time...

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... a trend toward realism.

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Further on in that same issue, a survey of industry professionals in major art markets across America confirmed the editors' opinions...

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Illustration was becoming increasingly realistic.

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Later that same year Ben Shahn wrote an article in Look magazine wherein he challenged the accepted definition of what qualifies as "realism."

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As requested by one reader, here is that article in its entirety. I think it conclusively describes Shahn's position on the subject of realism.

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To summarize I'll quote Bill Koeb from the previous Ben Shahn post's comment section: "Before there were lenses, and long before there were cameras, what was considered "real" was very different. Realism is what you draw, not how you draw."

The following year, in Life magazine, Shahn's work was the subject of a major multi-page, full-colour article. If there was any doubt that Ben Shahn was a driving force in American art at that time, the glowing description of Shahn stature in both the Look and Life magazine articles should put them to rest.

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I find it particularly amusing that Shahn's work is described as "too photographically realistic"!

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Readers who participated in last week's discussion on Ben Shahn shared so many interesting perspectives. Here are a few more that came to me via personal emails -- and then a few thoughts of my own...

Anita Virgil, whom I quoted in last week's Ben Shahn post sent this note:

"What a fantastic writeup on Ben Shahn you give your readers! But I must address those Doubting Thomases out there who would denigrate or question Shahn’s different approach to expressing emotion via design and utter simplicity, I refer them to his own words from his classic, The Shape of Content, (Vintage Book, 1957) -- a must for every artistic individual to absorb."

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"They appear in his section “On Nonconformity” p. 88:"

“But it seems to be less obvious somehow that to create anything at all in any field, and especially anything of outstanding worth, requires nonconformity, or a want of satisfaction with things as they are. The creative person -- the nonconformist — may be in profound disagreement with the present way of things, or he may simply wish to add his views, to render a personal account of matters.”

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Contrasting that viewpoint, Tom Watson sent the following:

"Your Ben Shahn post fired up an interesting and varied viewpoint on his influence and the '50s, '60s illustration scene. It was quite controversial even when I was in art school. Ben Shahn was either loved and embraced or hated and scorned. I think his simplicity of composition and unusual point of view in these examples are worthy of the influence they generated, but some of his stuff was too crude and primitive looking for my personal taste in illustration technique. IMO there needed to be and was a separation between fine arts and illustration, even though they began spilling over into each other's territory. Illustration required some restriction and control in order to communicate to all targeted viewers."

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At least one commenter from last week would counter Tom's assertions by saying that Shahn was many things - but he was not an illustrator - therefore he was not bound by the implied standards of professional conduct expected of the commercial artist. Personally, I reject the notion that Shahn was not an illustrator (and if he was, so what?).

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As a visual communicator, the illustrator's job is to use his creativity to solve a client's communications challenges. That process often means undertaking work where one's own creativity takes a back seat to the client's needs and wishes. Although I'm sure Ben Shahn was selective about many of the assignments he chose to work on, he was not above doing work that asked little more of him creatively than his distinctive style.

This ad for Fortune magazine's subscription page, for instance...

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... or this article about business trends in paperback publishing...

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... or this DPS ad for the State of Israel, all of which really asked nothing more of Shahn than to decorate the page with appropriate illustrations in his distinctive style.

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Shahn's work appeared regularly in trade publication ads for the '50s graphic arts service, Jobs Unlimited, suggesting his relationship with the graphic arts community - the commercial art community - was a sincere one.*

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Just a few examples of how Ben Shahn was perfectly willing to provide professional service for payment as a journeyman illustrator and, in so doing, he demonstrated a realistic attitude about his role as a visual communicator (as well as his own brand of stylistic 'realism').

Its a complex subject - and as with so many other aspects of art and picture-making, one that's hard to quantify or to draw definitive conclusions about.

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Personally, I believe Ben Shahn 'got' real... the question remains, do you?

* Thanks to Heritage Auctions for the use of the first two scans in today's post.

* Ben Shahn was posthumously inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 1994.
 

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