ICON Reax, Part 2: Is Animation the Future of Illustration?

© Brianna Harden

Here’s the second half of my report on ICON 6, the illustration conference held in Pasadena, California, from July 14th to the 17th. This installment continues the feedback I’ve gotten about the “Future of Publishing” keynote panel discussion. There were a couple of issues that provoked a wide variety of strong emotions: are art directors responsible for the declining job market? Is illustrator an outdated word? And why should illustrators become animators?

Included below are additional reactions from audience members as well as comments from Scholastic magazine’s David Saylor, who addressed the matter during his “A Life in Publishing from Hugo Cabaret to Harry Potter” presentation.

And finally, Jim Heimann, the sole illustrator on the panel and whose remarks were largely responsible for a great deal of the subsequent tumult, expands upon his original talk.

Thanks to Brianna Harden, who’s shared two of the diary pages she drew during ICON. You’ll find those directly above and at the bottom of this column. She’s also provided her summary of events directly below.

And if you’re interested in the full dialogue, videos of this session and other ICON events can be viewed at the Escape from Illustration Island site.

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© Brianna Harden

Brianna Harden
Student and illustrator

The conference started off fearlessly with the question on every illustrator’s mind – what is the future of publishing, and how does motion graphics fit into it? Wyatt Mitchell, Creative Director of Wired, and Jeremy Clark, Senior Experience Design Manager at Adobe, presented impressive material regarding their new and groundbreaking methods of taking print and translating it for the digital world. They showed how one article, and subsequently one image, transformed from the printed page to the web-browser page to the interactive hand-held tablet. Their angle was that instead of replacing illustrators in this new progressive form of media, they were in effect tripling the amount of work that illustrators could be used for.

The presentation was very polished and optimistic, with Kelly Doe of the New York Times and Jim Heimann of Taschen also reflecting similar positive sentiments. Every speaker seemed to emphasize the overall importance of thinking ahead of the curve – which seemed to imply tablet-based technology – and thinking of how to best to showcase this technology – which seemed to imply motion graphics. Illustration won’t be obsolete, they said, and nor will print. New ways of communication will be developed for the new world of publishing.

When it came time for Q&A, many illustrators in the audience did not seem to be quite so easily placated. Many expressed frustration at what the speakers described as added potential. Three times the opportunity means three times the amount of work, and are art directors willing to respect the subsequent increase in price that we all should be requesting? Moreover, a price point really hasn’t been established yet – as one attendee pointed out, a great deal of motion work is being done by studios full of young graphic artists that turn the work out quickly and relatively inexpensively. Many were wondering how they could compete.

As the conference progressed, the issue continued to present itself in various ways. Jason Holley produced a series of video clips for the short breaks between presenters. Their production was comparatively analog – the “motion” pieces involved cut-out paintings puppeteered with mouths and arms attached to unfolded paperclips, that moved along with Jason’s delightful and imaginative voice acting. These low-fi clips seemed to generate more laughter, excitement, and buzz out of the audience than all of the presenters’ motion pieces combined. To me, this was wonderful encouragement for all of us – no matter the means of execution, the concept and the artist’s spirit are what really matter in the end.

I saw both sides of the issue and was conflicted after the opening keynote, but by the end of the third day of the conference, I felt as if I’d come to peace with the issue. So it seems to me that while technology is changing the way that print will exist, this will only force us to continue doing what we do best, which is to create. Whether it means learning the new programs ourselves, using our own illustrations and working with motion houses, or going back to our analog roots, it seems that this world is not exclusive to anyone. Perhaps it might involve opening our minds and thinking ahead, but hopefully it can bring out something wonderful in all of us that we never realized we had.

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© Sara Kahn

Sara Kahn
Fine art painter, illustrator

Two of the speakers pointed out that the most important thing to do for the future is to stay flexible and open-minded.

I think just as when photography was invented and freed painting from its representational role, web media will change the role of the book in our lives.
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Lynda Weinman
co-founder of lynda.com

Art directors are not responsible for the shortage of editorial illustration jobs: the poor economy and shifting sands of publishing are. There are more publishing options than ever for visual designers, but getting paid is a lot more sketchy. Book, magazine, and music pubs have chosen to be threatened by digital distribution rather than to embrace its exponential potential. In the new world order, places like iTunes, stock houses, and Etsy are the new publishers, providing a bigger audience and payday than analog counterparts.

The uproar around the suggestion that animation could be part of an illustrator’s opportunity really surprised me. I don’t think that the issue is around “forcing” illustrators to become animators; it is simply a logical extension of where someone with drawing and visual thinking skills could branch. Print and paper are not dead, but the explosion of screens enables all types of new communications that would better serve designers – and publishers – to embrace than dismiss.

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© Sonia Kretschmar

Sonia Kretschmar
illustrator
As an illustrator who has studied animation, and who has always tried to create works with layers of meaning, I find the prospect of animated illustration to be quite an exciting one; much like hypertext, I could imagine “hyperimages” could be utilized to communicate aspects of a story not immediately accessible when viewing a still image.

However, as raised at the session, budgeting for such work would need to be addressed; Illustrators are already providing scanning services, usually for no extra cost. It would be unfortunate if the extra production costs of animation were expected to be absorbed by the illustrator as well.

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© Sayeh Behnam

Sayeh Behnam
mixed media and visual artist

I believe everyone agreed that the future, in general, is moving toward a web and Internet publishing – paperless – path. But I don’t think this will affect illustration.

Why? Illustration is all about adding another perspective to any given problem. It may just need some changes in preparation, such as how it’s presented in the screen medium, with its new specifications. So we shouldn’t panic about this path.

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David Saylor
VP, Creative Director, Trade Publishing: Scholastic Inc

The “Great Transformation” topic feels nearly impossible to tackle while we’re in the thick of transformation. I think we were shown more of a “this is how things are right now” view. So while everyone on the panel gave a valiant attempt to see into the future, the discussion probably got off track in one rather jarring way, which I felt I had to respond to the next day, when I spoke about my career in children’s publishing.

There was much discussion that the future of illustration in publishing meant animation, or “making your pictures move.” With the transition to digital publishing, somehow it was felt that moving images are a necessary gimmick to attract attention to content. Illustrations that don’t move were therefore labeled “static” so that “static illustration” became a negative, to describe all non-moving artwork.

My feeling is that the future of illustration in publishing isn’t about animation, which is certainly not new in any case. It’s sort of like saying the future of art is photography – as was said with the advent of photographs – or that the future of photography is film. Simply animating or giving motion to artwork doesn’t necessarily enhance it.

Further, I would hate to see the power and clarity of an artist’s work being turned into a passive experience, one that gives us all the answers. Movement doesn’t necessarily enrich artwork, and I feel strongly that gratuitous movement often cheapens an image. The power of artwork is what the viewer brings to it. With our gaze we animate the artwork, give it meaning. And that’s partly the wonder of art. Artists who want to make their artwork move will hopefully become animators, but that’s another skill and another art form in its own right.

So my advice to artists who work on single images is to make the best images they possibly can, and not feel compelled to animate their artwork simply because we have digital devices where moving imagery can be incorporated into the content.

The future of publishing is certainly in flux, and therefore many discussions and panels about the future are laced with anxiety – sometimes without even being aware of it. Anxiety sometimes makes us lose sight of the basics. The truth, as I see it, is that artwork is a necessary and valued part of our world. Artists offer us their vision of the world and we will always crave that vision. How that vision is delivered may change: we’re obviously in the midst of a major transformation with ink and paper publishing. How artists, writers, and publishers will continue to make a living as the digital age overtakes traditional publishing has yet to be worked out, but the artist is here to stay. The power of “static art” has survived since cave paintings, and it isn’t disappearing now.

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© Jim Heiman

Jim Heimann
Executive Editor, Taschen America

The future of publication is a revealing subject and one that is hard to predict, given the fast pace of changing technology.

ICON’s panel discussion presented some interesting perspectives, and also some great examples of exactly where we are headed.

For the most most part, speakers focused on what is familiar to them. But I felt I needed to address “the illustrator” – and not necessarily Taschen and my own personal experience – and how he or she fits in to this publishing future. Mind you, even though my job title for the past decade has been executive editor, for over thirty years I was a practicing illustrator and designer. And I continue to teach illustrators, so I know of what I speak. Much of what I know these days comes from illustrator and designer friends, fellow faculty, and agents. More and more, however, it is my students and former students who know what’s happening, and I lean on them heavily.

My emphasis on converting 2D illustration to something that moves is based on what I see in the marketplace. I was not advocating that artists drop their brushes and rush to learn Flash and abandon their 2D art, but rather to consider and embrace where art is being bought. It’s a no-brainer to see advertisers utilizing the internet as their now-primary source for reaching a target audience.

This has gradually been going on for the last 20 years. Print is not dead. And it will not be in the foreseeable future. But, it is a mix of those things I was offering, “Adding one more thing to your palette.” As the marketplace moves further to a web-based model, editorial commissions will include more motion based art. Period.

The question then is, “Why would you want to negate a revenue-generating opportunity when clearly, adding this element to your career is a move forward, and follows what is inevitable? And yes, perhaps this is not a path you want to follow, for whatever reason. That’s your choice. And you can always hire someone to do the motion work; just know enough to be able to guide them through the process.

One way or the other, the writing is on the wall. I see this as an exciting creative opportunity. One only has to imagine an iPad version of The New Yorker and watching the cover move. Kelly Doe of the New York Times demonstrated this in her presentation.

Should you be paid more for having to provide for this animated feature? You better believe it. But that has yet to be determined. Will subscribers pay more for this? Pricing is a whole other can of worms that needs to be addressed in a separate conversation, but does need addressing.

© Jim Heimann

Which leads us to business. Let’s face it, creative people, on the whole, do not want to deal with business. Wrong side of the brain.

But again, if you look at the more successful visual artists, be they fine artists, photographers, designers, or “illustrators,” the more successful ones know how to do business. When I divided the visual artist’s work into three sections – Creative, Business, and Marketing – I wasn’t being facetious. Really, if you look at your career and you are spending more time “on the board“ than doing business, you are shortchanging yourself.

Again, you can hire financial advisors and accountants – they’re going to take more of your income – but there are so many programs to guide through some of the more mundane parts of business that this aspect should not eat that much of your time. How many of us have avoided price negotiating, and even writing up an invoice? And then there is following up an invoice. This is all business and can drag you down and eat your time unless you get efficient and fluid with the process.

Not good at negotiating? Take a class. Practice. The more important part of business is marketing: getting yourself to market and letting people know who you are.

Easy? No. Time consuming? Yes. This involves everything from sending out samples of your work to having a blog, to going to gallery openings and conferences. It’s entering contests and visiting a peer in another city. And meetings. It’s having a lunch, taking a class to improve an aspect of your creative life, surfing web sites, researching clients, traveling, etc., etc. Thirty to fifty percent. And the kingpin to this self marketing is… networking!

I didn’t have to time to talk about this during the panel discussion but networking is critical to what you do. This again applies to all creative people. Some were doing this at the conference. Virtually every successful student I have taught in the past 30 years has this part of the their career solidly under their belt.

Again, is this hard for some people? Unequivocally, yes. Some are better than others. But if approaching people – cold calls – is tough for you, look for a class that can improve those skills, or practice being familiar with approaching people. Avail yourself of opportunities to interact with you peers. Make contact with an art director or someone else you admire or have read about. Networking leads to jobs and opportunities. It is the quickest way to move forward in your career.

© Jim Heimann

And as for “illustrator” versus “visual artist:” titles are important.

The elephant in the room has always been the perception that illustrators are lesser creatures than fine artists, graphic designers, and other creative talent. Much of this attitude, as we are well aware, comes from the fact that much of what illustrators do is commissioned work. Rather than get into a dialogue about fine art versus design versus commercial art , what I was proposing by fazing out the term illustrator – a 20th century term as I described it – was to start calling illustrators by what they do these days. They create visual art for many purposes. The title “illustrator” then becomes moot and puts all in equal standing.

Just as an art director can create a film or design a store, so can an “illustrator.” The 21st century for artists is turning out to be less about specific labels and more about the work they create. Is Phillipe Starck an architect, graphic designer, product designer, illustrator, or what?

I consider myself a visual artist. I can pretty much do whatever I want to do with the skill set I developed in college and honed for 30 years in commercial art world. In the ‘80s I was an anomaly because I was a graphic designer, illustrator, fine artist, author, book packager, writer, and did whatever else came down the pike. Mostly because it was challenging and I couldn’t turn down something that looked like a great opportunity.

I was also a self-starter. That’s how the publishing end of my career took off. Often I was criticized as being a jack of all trades and master of none. Water off a duck’s back. Every opportunity opened new horizons, and some decent bucks every once in a while.

What I was doing then became commonplace by the end of the ‘90s as markets dried up – music industry – and illustrators found new outlets for their work – limited edition prints, books, toys, clothes: you name it – and redefined what an illustrator is. This is when the word illustrator – for me – became one dimensional and limiting and sooo 20th century. What was a rarity 20 years ago is now commonplace, and hence worthy of name change.

© Jim Heimann

One of the most exciting aspects of being a visual artist – with a background in traditional illustration – these days is that there are few closed doors. An example:

Jessica, a former student of mine, was an illustration major seven years ago. She emphasized an entertainment minor. Upon graduation, she was hired by a company that designs elaborate fountains: water features. We have all seen these. Through this work she was connected with a mega-development in Las Vegas. She was courted by the developer – because she was “creative” and was willing to do whatever it took to self educate herself to accommodate this new job – to be a project manager for the complex.

She took the job. Among her duties were to create signage, organize, negotiate, and work with fine artists – Frank Stella, Dennis Hopper, Julian Schnabel among others – for the Aria Hotel art program, and more.

Did she have a background in this? No. But she did have a visual artists skill set and the desire to do to something exciting, new, and challenging. She worked with teams of designers, architects, and engineers. She has moved on within the organization into management – completely different from what she was doing – and foresees many amazing opportunities, both in Las Vegas and Asia, on various creative platforms.

This, an illustration major. She is only one of many who grasp what the future is and are ready for the ride.

The world is your oyster. You can do whatever you want.

Go out and do it.

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Mark Heflin; Martha Rich. Photos by Michael Dooley.

Brian Rea, Paul Rogers; Kim Witczak, Stuart D'Rozario; Dave Peterson. Photos by Michael Dooley.

John Jay Cabuay; Bil Donovan; Melinda Beck. Photos by Michael Dooley.

Gary Taxali; Rod Hunt; D.B. Dowd. Photos by Michael Dooley.

Arem Duplessis; Wayne White; Todd Oldham. Photos by Michael Dooley.

Craig Yoe; Brian Rea, Paul Rogers with piñata avatars; Peter Arkle, Matt Kindt, Mike Cho, photographer. Photos by Michael Dooley.

Sally Morrow; SooJin Buzelli; Daniel Drennan; Jesus Barraza. Photos by Michael Dooley.

Posing for Post-Its: ICON volunteers Ping Zhu and Christine Wu; Mark Todd, bookstore co-chair, with his children's book; Michael Fleishman, the other bookstore chair, holds his "Drawing Inspiration" book while two contributors, Martin French and Steve Simpson, decide who's illo got better positioning. Photos by Michael Dooley.

© Brianna Harden

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9 COMMENTS

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  4. A big shout out to David Saylor for this thoughtful summary of his thoughts. I know I wasn’t the only one to breathe a sigh of relief when he spoke. With the statement “With our gaze we animate the artwork, give it meaning,” he speaks to the missing discussion of cultural values. If illustrators are to get an upgrade and become “creatives” or “visual thinkers” or some other more highbrow term then they might also think about what is behind the trends of the day in terms of long term societal effects and whether they want to participate, or perhaps even more creatively, protest. We may get the corner office in our mind, but are we adding anything of value to the culture? Do we have power, or are we simply enablers of a system in which behind every “trend” is a corporate profit motive?

    Jim Heimann’s talk struck such a raw nerve not just because of its content (who can argue with the nirvanic ideal of “opportunity”?) but because of its tone: capitulate (animate) or die. The new proposed lifecycle of the Illustrator (I’ll use the old term for now) would seem to be: absorb television and motion graphics and learn to text between age 1 and 10, master animation between 10 and 15, create games and other video content until age 25 then go into the T-shirt and App business. Get fabulously rich from Etsy or showing your latest lines of shower curtains and Santa Kleenex holders at Surtex and retire to paint watercolors at 40. When we are urged to be relentlessly entrepreneurial I’m afraid I just see landfill.

    What is sustainable about any of this? I certainly don’t have an answer, but I’d love to see another level of thought about what it means when we all buy into the imperative and get a new kindle/ iphone/ipad/cellphone/wacom pad every year and focus our creative careers on feeding the electronic device(s). Saylor makes a very important point about passivity. The visual culture of speed and motion creates a hunger for more….speed and motion. The ability for people to even sit still and absorb a still image or type on paper is being challenged. (In working with highschoolers and young adults I have experienced the low-affect stare of disengagement, the digital withdrawal and the fidgeting, which are a huge impediment to learning.)

    “Innovation” is defined as playing along with the marketplace and feeding it. Questioning the trend is seen as hopeless, and quaint. But guess what, you can grow more trees. Books last for centuries. They don’t require the mining of cobalt, or include lead, selenium, arsenic, cadmium and the many other toxic elements in the average cellphone (ie. App-holder.) Trust me, the drive behind Apple’s new fabulous products is not just hip creativity –a new version of everything will be out five minutes after the old and we will have to buy it to read yesterday’s news.

    It seems to me the greater innovation is ask artists and creatives to really inquire into what they are being asked to do and take responsibility for their part in it. Perhaps launch a global “Just say yes to Print” campaign. Support the analog mediums, create letterpress, encourage the contemplative impulse wherever we see it. It doesn’t mean we should turn down new electronic opportunities, but it does mean we should support a conversation and an inquiry into the bigger issues and stand up for what is truly of value in still media and print.

  5. Some great insights. I was reminded that I often view static images on my screen, because I love good illustration and sites like Drawn and FFFFound are great places to see new stuff. One potential for new delivery methods for illustration: zooming in! Illustrations might include detail that would be lost in small format reproductions in books.

  6. As motion creeps into illustration, I think we need a new term other than “motion graphics” to describe the service we will provide. Something to differentiate us from all the animated text, 3D abstractions, CG video effects and character animation you’ll find lumped under the term “motion graphics”.

    Motion Illustration?

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