The State of American Illustration, Bound in a Book

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The new edition of an annual graphic-arts compendium hints at a renaissance in the medium.

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American Illustration

Anyone who isn't an illustrator, art director or simply a fan of illustration probably hasn't run across American Illustration, a behemoth tome that has been published annually for 30 years. The latest edition underscores the fact that ostensibly ephemeral images, published to illuminate specific texts in books, magazines, and newspapers, have for centuries encouraged the reading experience. Illustrations have had as much emotional consequence as some venerated canvases, and as social or political commentary some illustrations have even shaped mass perception.

New digital magazines (like the one you are now reading) do not seem to value illustration as much as the old print venues (though The Atlantic historically has been a showcase for innovative illustration). Yet with such a critical mass of beautifully conceived, smartly executed, and skillfully printed work, the current American Illustration annual suggests an illustration renaissance may be in the offing. If not, then it is a vivid reminder that there are a lot of talented illustrators looking for work.

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American Illustration began 30 years ago as an insurrection against the then-conservative Society of Illustrators exhibition and annual publication, which advocated a more stodgy Rockwellian/Saturday Evening Post-ian romantic, representational style (it has since change radically for the better). The founders of American Illustration (including me) sought to celebrate a new wave of expressionistic, art brut, and conceptual approaches surfacing at that time. It became a mission—indeed a crusade—to change the definition of how illustration functioned: from slavishly complementing to independently supplementing an author's words.

"Among the mediums that can be seen in this annual are hotel rooms, parking garages, fanzines, textiles, and toys."

Unlike the Society of Illustrators, which has long occupied a stately building with a gallery, library, museum, bar, and meeting rooms, the book itself was American Illustration's only real estate. The intent was to be generous with that acreage, so it reproduced only one image per page, as opposed to two or more squashed together like graves at Calvary Cemetery, a practice that was common in most graphic-arts annuals. This gave the artwork the integrity it deserved, and distinguished it as something more valuable than mere drawing for hire.

There was minor overlap in the beginning between what or who was included in American Illustration and the Society of Illustrators annuals. The former was edgy the latter was not. Eventually that changed. And for the past 20 years or so, the two publications have shared many of the same entrants. In fact, the difference between the two annuals is format, not content. But this year, the American Illustration annual has a renewed vigor. The imagery by new and old artists appears to jump off the pages, and each picture has a kind of energy that I've found lacking over the past few years.

What makes this edition of American Illustration different from all others? Editorial director Mark Heflin and art director Nicholas Blechman focused on a unifying theme: "Sketch to Finish." Unlike with previous editions, Blechman and designer Naomi Mizusaki decided to print the book on uncoated paper, thus replacing the slickness of the magazines where the work first appeared with the tactility of sketchbooks. The vellum jacket is a sketch of the finished cover art underneath, and the endpapers show different ideas submitted by Olimpia Zagnolli for the cover.

The front and back pages reproduce actual pages from a sketchbook, full of doodles. "I wanted to cover the book in drawing," Blechman says. "Where previous annuals had clean type and whitespace, I wanted pencil marks, smudges, and scribbles."

Just as tablets like the iPad simulate the very books they threaten to kill off by animating a page turning and mimicking the color of paper on screen, Blechman says "we similarly simulate a book, subversively reproducing a sketchbook inside the actual book."

The illustrations selected for the annual that are hand printed or drawn apparently fared better with the jury than those drawn on the computer. Blechman notes there is more emphasis on seeing the hand of the artist, including brush strokes, ink marks, rough backgrounds, prevail. The lo-fi silk screen print aesthetic continues, and there are also some unusual entries, what Blechman calls "category-defying combinations of photography and illustration." A few graphic designers infiltrated the ranks as well (Paul Sahre, Jennifer Daniel, Timothy Goodman).

Many have argued, what with easy means of animating and filming, that conventional illustration is in a lull edging near extinction. American Illustration says otherwise. "On the one hand, traditional showcases for illustration are shrinking as magazines fold and budgets shrink," Blechman says. "On the other hand, new outlets are emerging: Among the non-traditional mediums that can be seen in this annual are hotel rooms, parking garages, self-published fanzines, textiles, and toys." In other words, illustration is more than just ephemeral pictures on paper.

American Illustration once was the ultimate who's-who in illustration. Now, with blogs, websites and e-blasts at their disposal, illustrators no longer depend upon annuals to get their work seen. This may sound the death knell of illustration annuals. "Yet with over 7,000 submissions from around the world I think this annual is still representative of the industry," Blechman says. "Though no single book can do justice to the ever expanding field of illustration, American Illustration remains, in my opinion, the gold standard."

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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