April 4th, 2012

where have all the book illustrators gone? get some glasses!

I'm supposed to be cleaning house in preparation for my parents' annual visit, but I couldn't help getting involved in this morning's fascinating conversation surrounding this article in The Independent by Melanie McDonagh:

Perhaps the conversation is more interesting than the article, which was published way back in January and has gone around several times, as Greenaway short-listed illustrator Viviane Schwarz, Gary Northfield, Philip Reeve and Woodrow Phoenix pointed out on Twitter. But if the article's resurfacing and doing what Samantha Brick just did for The Daily Mail, making people look and respond to an article that's almost spoof... but people aren't quite sure if it is... well, why not? To keep people talking about illustration isn't a bad thing. But to make it sound like there isn't any talent in Britain... ha ha, it must be a spoof, or a near-spoof. April Fools!

The article points to the old writer-illustrator pairings of yore, and asks why that kind of collaboration doesn't happen any more: Why don't contemporary novels have illustrations as standard? Why are illustrators corralled into children's fiction? McDonagh spoke with Dan Franklin at Jonathan Cape, who explained why he thought it wasn't common practice:

"I think a) it's fashion", he says trenchantly. "And b) there aren't that many great illustrators. It's rare you can come across someone who can draw. Even when you're looking for someone to do book jackets, it's hard to find someone who can draw the human figure – it seems to be unfashionable now."

Intriguingly, in the same article, Quentin Blake points out that perhaps drawings of human figures aren't always what's needed to illustrate today's novels, that there's room for doing other interesting things.

And I'd agree, I think that stating British illustrators have failed because they can't all draw the human figure well is too narrow a viewpoint. If people are trying to make pictures that look realistic, and doing it badly, that's one thing. Everyone's seen arms that stick out at unpleasant angles or thighs that don't have properly drawn muscle structure. But what if that's not what you're trying to do?

It's not all about the figure

For a long time, I was doing life drawing and trying to draw children very realistically. Even when I did draw them well, I wasn't pleased with the results, they didn't fill some sort of pictorial inner craving I had. I had an epiphany moment when I discovered the work of female artists in Nepal, who don't use traditional perspective at all.

Images from mithilapainting.org

Instead they play with shapes, colour and pattern, and are happy to suggest human forms, but not draw them in a Western 'proper' sense.
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