The State of Art at the Cusp of the Millennium
From the prehistoric drawings discovered in the Lascaux caves to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to whimsical cartoons in our local newspapers, images have always been mankind's most evocative and immediate expression of creativity, as well as the quickest way to get your point across.
Illustration—art, to use a loftier title—was the fastest, most emotional way of communication, ably assisted by Gutenberg's moveable type, until it was shouldered aside by that upstart new technology, photography, in the last century. And what a change that ushered in.
Many artists of the time complained that it would put them out of business, for how could they illustrate with photographic likeness? The impressionists used this perceived misfortune to create a new definition of art. Looking back, we see that the birth of impressionism nurtured an outpouring of creativity that redefined the worlds of literature, music and dance.
Photography, of course, is a wonderful medium, and nothing beats it for showing real, tangible objects. It is no surprise that it quickly became the advertising community's medium of choice. It's a wonderful substitute for an actual product sample. Take food, for example. Nothing starts your mouth watering like an exquisite shot of your favorite meal. This is one of photography's greatest strengths, along with its ability to faithfully record history.
When it comes to communicating abstract ideas or concepts, however, nothing aspires to the level of illustration. Personally, I prefer illustration to gallery art; I think it's much more clever and difficult to do well. No visual medium can extract visions from within the human mind like a paintbrush (or cursor) in the hands of a talented artist. I've seen many tortured attempts to use photography—usually computer manipulated—to portray abstract visions, but few manage to pull it off convincingly, and their efforts appear contrived.
With illustration, this forced look is eliminated, and it seems that increasing numbers of people in advertising and communications are taking advantage of this strength. I notice more advertisements that feature conceptual illustration; even television commercials are employing it to great effect.
Choosing your tools
There has been a bit of a reaction to the amount of photography we see day in and day out, and this has benefited illustration. I'm not against photography; I love photography, and we sell a lot of exquisite stock photography through our Graphistock subsidiary.
My point is that it makes sense to choose your tools based on their strengths, the strengths that best convey your ideas. Many art directors, graphic designers and marketing people have come to understand that one of the fastest and most effective ways to give a unique look to their communications—be it for a product, service or organization—is by using illustration. Apart from simply looking good, most illustration is highly individual, and so it's easier and faster (therefore, less expensive) to create a unique identity—advertising's fundamental purpose.
With photography, it's much harder to identify the imprint of individual photographers, thus, the branding effect is generally a longer process. Of course, with the advent of computers, it's now possible to create highly conceptual images using photographic elements. However, if not executed with finesse, the results may appear contrived.
Perhaps this will improve over time. In the meantime, I'm convinced that, even allowing for any "retro" sentimental reaction to photography, illustration will continue to be the new millennium's medium of choice for communicating abstract and conceptual ideas, because it is a product of the artist's mind and doesn't depend on technology; if the artist can envision it, it can be illustrated.
The artist and the computer
While the 19th century gave us photography, the 20th century bestowed on us the updated version of the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." For better or for worse, the computer has made our times interesting, indeed, and it will continue to reshape our world to a degree that we can only begin to imagine.
At Stock Illustration Source (SIS), we work with more than 1,400 illustrators, and I'd guess that only a third have embraced the computer—or are in the process of doing so—to create their illustrations. It's a phenomenon that's turning the illustration community on its head.
Young, hip, computer-literate illustrators, like Teofilo Olivieri, David Weisman, Otto Steininger, and others, are trailblazing new styles and approaches, while successful established artists like Dave Cutler, James Yang and José Ortega are reinventing themselves digitally, with much of their new computer-generated work indistinguishable from their traditional counterparts.
But there will always be a number of artists who, I'm sure, will be happy to let computers pass them by. James Endicott, whose exquisitely crafted illustrations would be difficult to digitally improve upon, is one. Another is Guy Billout, one of the world's most gifted illustrators. Guy told me that he purchased a computer several years ago and has yet to open the box.
This more traditional approach to creating illustrations should continue to counterbalance the techno look of much of today's digital work.
Over the long term, after the infatuation with the computer has run its course, the pendulum will swing back to the creativity and concepts of individual images, no matter what is used to produce them.
In the short term, there is the "democracy meets art" phenomenon, whereby computer-literate people don't necessarily possess artistic talent but are able to produce passably crafted images using sophisticated illustration software. This trend, I believe, is merely a bump in the road; professional communications will continue to demand professional talent.
Presently, there are 160 million people logged on to the Internet; by 2003, there will be 500 million. And the $50 billion sales racked up on the Internet in 1998 will zoom to $1.6 trillion by 2003. Another statistic: 10,000 new sites are added to the Internet each day!
Obviously, image creation, illustration, photography and computer imaging will be enormously affected by the Internet, and it will become the primary means for finding and purchasing images. Transparencies will be replaced by digital files. High-resolution images will be delivered by way of the Internet, in seconds rather than the minutes—or hours—needed today.
The demand for print—still the most convenient, intuitive and, let's face it, enjoyable medium—will continue to grow, with the probable exception of newspapers that are vulnerable to the Internet's on-demand news offerings.
Printed matter should gradually undergo a shift from a means of imparting
information (as with newspapers, newsletters, bulletins, etc.) to a more recreational medium (books, special-interest magazines, catalogs and brochures). The use of images and illustration, photographic or digitally created, will reach staggering proportions, numbers that most of us in this transitional generation can't envision.
Being 20-something helps. The younger generation is up to its neck in the future, and to them the new way of doing things is the traditional way. The cost of communicating, of being connected, will continue to fall, and this will sustain the headlong rush toward globalization, with more individuals and small companies discovering that there are markets beyond their own "neighborhood," and it's relatively inexpensive to reach them. This phenomenon will make it easier for foreigners to market their talents in the U.S. The other side of the coin is that it will also be easier for Americans to promote themselves abroad. And they should.
Finally, one of the most significant trends I see is that highly talented people who know how to promote their talent will be more in demand, more richly rewarded, in the coming millennium than in the past, and this will be at the expense of those who are less gifted.
Marie-Christine Matter is the president of Images.com, New York City, the holding company for Stock Illustration Source (SIS) and Graphistock Collection.