On Illustration

In this exclusive extract from his new book, leading illustrator Andrzej Klimowski reflects on the history of his craft, its essentially ephemeral nature and the qualities needed to produce great work…

Illustration lies somewhere between graphic design and painting. Its context is graphic design. An illustrator’s work will find its way on to a newspaper page, into a magazine, a book, a poster, on a webpage or a television screen. It will accompany text, illuminate it, comment on it, punctuate or counterpoint it. Its function can be reflective, provocative or decorative. It enlivens visual communication.

What it shares with painting is the desire for selfexpression. It expands the imagination. Prior to the 19th century painting was illustration. In Europe it served the church. A largely illiterate society was able to follow the teachings of the Bible through the spoken word augmented by imagery found in churches and cathedrals. Scenes from the Bible were depicted in frescoes, icons, mosaics and stained glass windows. In the Baroque period, painting became the instrument of the Counter Reformation. The opulent, often ecstatic imagery was a force that endeavoured to hold the Catholic Church together as it underwent a legitimate criticism from Protestantism which in turn placed emphasis on the word. The interiors of Protestant houses of worship were whitewashed; the focus was on the pulpit, not the altar and ceilings heavily decorated with portentous frescoes and statues.

The emphasis on the visual continued to recede during the Enlightenment. Painting was eventually liberated from its illustrational role through the popularisation of print and the invention of photography. Photography was now seen as the most accurate medium for depicting reality. During the Victorian period engravings based on photographic references were the most widely used form of illustration. Popular novels by authors such as Charles Dickens were serialised in weekly magazines; each episode would be accompanied by a large illustration. The golden age of illustration had begun.

Artists such as Gustave Dore and Honore Daumier in France and Aubrey Beardsley in England were celebrated. Their work was closely associated with writers and poets such as Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire himself held the illustrator in greater esteem than the painter. In his essay The Painter of Modern Life he praised the illustrator for being a man of the world, broad-minded and sensitive to the workings of modern life. The artist/painter by contrast, was more limited, tied to his palette and easel, living a secluded, bourgeois existence.

According to Baudelaire, the illustrator was at the centre of contemporary life, recording the behavioural patterns of different social classes, their fashions and gestures, the elegant boulevards and arcades with their shops and the slums of the poor and underprivileged. Baudelaire focused his attention on an illustrator who he referred to as Monsieur G, a man whose work regularly appeared in the leading Parisian magazines and journals. G did not limit his work to illustrating urban life but depicted military campaigns and the Crimean War for The Illustrated London News. Baudelaire admired the humility of this illustrator who rarely signed his work, at best leaving his initials in the corner of some of his compositions.

Even today many illustrators hold on to their anonymity. Often the public are well acquainted with illustrations they see in newspapers, on book covers and posters, but rarely are they able to identify the illustrator. This lies in sharp contrast to the celebrity status of fine artists.

Spontaneity comes with practice

People are aware of how much work goes into writing a novel. The writer is seen clocking in the hours, thumping out thousands of words every day on a keyboard. There is all the research to be made; the author investigates his subject from all possible angles: historical, social, political, psychological, topological, etc. All this is followed by many rewrites; many drafts are made before the chronology, dramatic build-up and rhythm are seen to work and the book ready to go to print and transport the reader into a new reality.

The same is true of music. Anyone who has taken piano lessons will be able to appreciate the complexities of composition and interpretation. Only continual practice will enable a musician to render a piece of music beautiful and expressive, hitting the emotions in a spirit envisioned by the composer. The public is also appreciative of the painter or sculptor who struggles with materials that are often difficult to control when shaping a new form, one that strikes us by its originality.

Is it the same with illustration? Perhaps not, because by its nature illustration has a short life, an ephemeral existence. It is subservient to a pre-existing subject, which is often literary. An illustration accompanies another form: the written article,
a book, a play, film or piece of advertising. The time within which an illustrator is given to respond to a message or subject is short. It’s dramatically referred to as a ‘deadline’.

Yet the speedy response to interpreting asubject is part of the quality and value of a good illustration. It should look spontaneous, fresh and vital. This is where its vibrancy and intelligence lies. And this, perhaps, is what the audience does not see nor fully appreciate. They may think that the illustrator’s dexterity is a preordained talent. This is a misunderstanding. Spontaneity, dexterity and intelligence come with practice, just like the musician continually playing and practicing on his instrument. The musician also needs a good composer and an illustrator’s art can only flourish when there is an intelligent and visionary client.

Born in 1949 in London, Andrzej Klimowski studied painting at St Martins School of Art, London and poster design at Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. He is currently senior tutor in illustration at the Royal College of Art. His work includes short films, illustrations and books, including Lo sguardo deviato (The deflected gaze), and most recently, Horace Dorlan. His work has recently been subject of a retrospective at the National Theatre in London. This extract is taken from Klimowski’s newly published book, On Illustration (Oberon Books, 2011), oberonbooks.com

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