The Daily Heller: Bill Russell is Journalistic Illustration’s Fan and Chronicler

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Bill Russell, a Canadian expat, prides his work as an illustrative reporter. He has been been an illustrator for over 40 years and much of his work centers on sketching from life and chronicaling others who’ve done the same. After graduating from Parsons School of Design in 1976, he moved back to Toronto to begin his career. Five years later, he relocated to New York City, where he lived until he moved to the San Francisco Bay area in the early 1990s.

Throughout his career, he’s specialized in creating narrative and concept-based illustrations using the scratchboard medium, in both analog and digital forms. All told, his work has been featured in books, magazines, newspapers and advertising. Today he talks about drawing, journalism and legacy.

“The Bay Folk Sketchbook,” San Francisco Chronicle (Bill Russell)

When did you start to chronicle various illustrators and journals of illustration?
I’ve always been an illustration and reportage enthusiast. I was fortunate at Parsons to be in Murray Tinkleman’s first History of Illustration class. I also had two extraordinary teachers, Tom Allen and John Gundlefinger, who showed their reportage projects for Fortune and Sports Illustrated. That left a lasting impression on me. 

Now I honor (posthumously) some of the great reportage artists of the past on my Substack.

“Deep Sea Diver,” scratchboard illustration (Bill Russell)

How did you develop such a deep dive passion for illustration and legacy?
I taught illustration at California College of the Arts in San Francisco when Dugald Stermer ran the program. I encouraged my students to integrate written narratives into what they drew in their sketchbooks. I wanted them to use all their creative capabilities for storytelling.

You’ll often find me in used bookstores in the cities and towns I visit, scouring for books and monographs of illustrators and visual journalists.

In my later stage of life, legacy is a preoccupation.

“Sick and Dying: Cholera Lines, Thai-Burma Railway,” 1943. Malnourished and imprisoned soldiers stand around bamboo stretchers lying on the ground, each containing the corpse of a cholera victim tightly wrapped and bound in a cloth at the Changi Prison Camp. Source: Imperial War Museums

There have been a fair number of illustration “historians,” and recent waves of books on the subject. What do you believe you’ve added to the stew? What has been missing from the existing coverage?
I don’t consider myself a historian as much as a fan. When I discovered Nick Meglin‘s book On-the-Spot Drawing (Watson-Guptill, 1969) I saw the importance, necessity, and viability of reportage drawing. Your own article on sketchbooks from PRINT magazine in 1976 was an inspiration, as were other writings of yours.

When Substack appeared a year ago, I finally saw a publishing platform that would work for me. First I wrote a few histories for Gabi Campanario, founder of Urban Sketchers, but I realized quickly I had more to say. I also owned the domain, so I had a place to point it.

I took inspiration from the photojournalism in Robert Frank’s The Americans. There is an essential humanity and newsworthiness in his work. I knew there were illustrators who also produce compelling and informed narratives. 

What do you bring through your writing that pushes the field of illustration history and documentation further along?
My writing is not academic. I realized I was an artist who could write and bring an illustrator’s sensibility to this subject. 

I’m passionate about shedding light on some of the undiscovered and under-represented artists in the culture. I hoped that by acknowledging them, I would inspire others that follow.

“Abu Simbel,” 1874. Drawing by Amelia B. Edwards

Do you feel that illustration as journalism is undervalued or under-represented in the histories? And if so, why?
I think so. I worked for seven years as a staff artist at the San Francisco Chronicle. I was in the trenches, always pitching stories to the editors. Many didn’t get or appreciate my approach to illustrated narratives … not “journalistic” or “too subjective,” they would say. Though I did find opportunities on the Op-Ed page of the paper, including illustrating a piece on the first gay marriages at San Francisco City Hall, and covering my own U.S. citizenship process. My weekly panel, the “Bay Folk Sketchbook,” featuring over 75 people and the work they do, was very popular. I continue to do my own personal reportage projects.

“Louis Pasteur in the Photo Lab,” scratchboard illustration (Bill Russell)

There are various ways of addressing illustration—art, ephemera, reportage, fantasy and satire among them. What are your preferred methods, and why?
Illustration work is graphic and inspired by historical styles, like German Expressionism and Social Realism. But it is in many ways the antithesis of sketchbook journalism. Reportage means getting out of the studio and working in situ. You look for people to tell a story, by asking questions and listening to the answers. It’s an experiential process, involving engagement and empathy. The artists I write about reaffirm that.

From my observation and practice, there appears not to be a decline in illustration, as many people fear. But there is also a lot of redundancy, owing in large part to digital tools. How do you feel about this statement?
I don’t necessarily mourn the decline of traditional print since the shift to new online platforms and social media offers exciting new avenues for publishing. I wish it were more tangible. Content is being consumed broadly, not deeply. While these technologies have made it easier than ever to express oneself, it’s the prevalence of “quick reads” that concerns me. People had more time for long-form journalism and the proclivity to study an image.

My only fine old whine would be that with digital tools predominating, it brings less good drawing.

“The Bay Folk Sketchbook,” San Francisco Chronicle (Bill Russells)

What is your goal in writing the history of illustration? 
The “Histories of Reportage” essays I write are my small contributions to the legacy of illustration and visual journalism. Writing and researching are fun for me, and I earn a small income from my paid subscribers. Maybe I’ll compile them into a book and do some lecturing. 

Which reportage artists are you particularly impressed by?

Some of the more moving reportage artists I write about are:

Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, who drew people dying from starvation, malaria and other diseases in the Bengal Famine of 1943.

Chiura Obata, who landed in San Francisco just in time to chronicle the 1906 earthquake. In 1942 he drew during his time in a Japanese internment camp.

Amelia B. Edwards, who traveled up the Nile in 1865 to draw at Abu Simbel. Later she would share her story of how antiquities were being exploited, and the need for preservation. 

Drawing from “Stranger at the Gates: A Summer in Mississippi,” 1966, Easton Studio Press © 1966
Tracy Sugarman

In 1964 Tracy Sugarman made drawings as one of the “Freedom Summer” volunteers that challenged America’s apartheid rule in Mississippi.

As a Special Artist in the Union’s Army, Alfred R. Waud‘s depiction of bloody Pickett’s Charge in 1863 is thought to be the only visual accounting published in newspapers of the time.

Are you an archeologist, digging up the tombs of the forgotten?
Nice metaphor, Steve. Perhaps I am. As I get older (and wiser), I see the need for bringing history forward and sharing some of the meaningful approaches to art (and life) others have made.