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Illustrators have their own problems

Updated: May 13, 2020

Illustrators are a bit of a mystery to most everyday folks, even to some artists. People are not sure what we do, how and why we do it. We are looked upon with some amount of disdain by fine artists, somewhat as a pain in the keister by publishers, and a force to be reckoned with by the graphic design community.

So, let’s take a peek inside an illustrator's world. Come along for the ride. [Now, that makes me (and every illustrator reading this) want to draw a picture of people riding on a big paint brush or pencil and inserting it right here. That’s an illustrator for you.] Take a moment and let me tell you more about this illustration world. You might be surprised and might learn something about the crazy people in this little world called “illustration.”

Note: This is a basic explanation designed to help people who are not familiar with the world of illustration and publishing to get a glimpse of something that most know little about. If you are an artist, better yet an illustrator, please bear with me, but feel free to share this with your uneducated sphere of influence.

Let’s look first at what an illustrator’s job really is. The basic premise of illustration is really simple. The illustration is a piece of art that’s sole purpose is to tell a story. Nearly 100% of the time this illustration is used alongside some copy. (Copy is the term used for text in a publication. Every time you read a printed or digital piece, you are reading the copy. In this context it might do better to refer to it as “text” or “the text.”) The illustrator's job is to support the text. He/she has been tasked to retell the text visually but in a way that under-grids it’s purpose and supplies missing details. It embellishes and also explains.

You see illustration every where. A few years ago a national news paper called USA today broke ground when they began to forego tradition and publish a newspaper heavy with illustration. From the weather, to graphics that sat alongside stories showing spread of disease or the amount of shoppers on Christmas Day, to courtroom style illustrations. These added illustrations told a more explicit story. Pick up nearly any magazine and you will see illustrations in them and in brochures and on the local television news. Of course, children’s literature is dependent and enhanced by them. We have come to understand how illustrations make the story so much bigger, so much clearer and so much more entertaining.

Illustrators are usually hired to help support a story. Much like a photograph in a news story or video on the local news, illustrations provide clarity, details and ambiance to the text/story. Often the illustration will fill in the blanks left by the text. For example: the author might tell a story of a little girl reading a book in the grass. The author may not tell us what the girl is wearing, where the grass is (in a park, in a back yard, in a marijuana greenhouse … too far? Sorry!) what time of day it is, or even how the little girl is positioned. The illustrator must work with the author or the publisher to decide how to express the story visually. What color is her dress, what color is the grass, what is the environment, and much more, all too much to be expressed by a small amount of text, but all expressed by an illustration.

There are often conflicts when the illustrator feels that the story is describing a thing one way and the author or publisher sees it differently. An illustrator is always going to approach a text from a visual perspective. The author may have a particular picture in their mind of what the text is expressing. The illustrator might feel that this mental picture is too vague or confining. An illustrator can feel that his/her creativity is stifled by an author or publisher who refuses to allow one the freedom to express the story as one sees it. These conflicts have to be resolved or a different illustrator may be chosen. Many times compromise brings about the best of both concepts.

For clarification: the illustrator may never work directly with the author. For example, when a manuscript for a story is submitted to a publishing company, the publisher may choose to hire the illustrator. This is done because a publisher may have access to hundreds of illustrators, know their different styles and feel they are a better judge of what their customers will purchase. This choice of illustrators and styles may not be favorable to the author but the publisher is the one taking the risk by investing resources into publishing the work, marketing, distributing the work and paying the author and illustrator involved.

When a client chooses an illustrator, this is usually done by looking first at the style of the illustrator. An illustrator that produces simple colorful illustrations of basic shapes for babies and toddlers, will usually have a style that would not work for a dark, violent graphic novel (or comic book.) An artist who creates beautiful illustrations for wildlife might struggle inventing creatures that are purple and green striped and come form the planet Snortnik. Each illustrator is usually known for a specific style or look. They usually will try to market themselves to clients who are looking for those artists with specific tendencies in style. That is not to say that there are no illustrators that can work equally well in several styles but most illustrators are most comfortable in a specific realm. These styles might not only have to do with the way the artist draws or paints … etc., but also with how the work is presented, the mediums used, the compositions employed and the thought process of the artist.

In the art world there is a rift with “fine artists” and illustrators. One reason is that fine artists tend to think illustrators have given up their right to have creative freedom. (A very precious aspect in fine art.) They feel that illustrators are selling their creativity as any other commodity without respect to its creative value, and in turn, cheapening art. The illustrator is touted to be lowering his creative standards by selling his work cheaply and by allowing other people to have a say in that creative process. As one put it, illustrators are “prostituting” their work. Fine artists often say that illustrators are only interested in financial gain and have forgotten why it is important to create art. The response from illustrators is usually something like, “But, at least we will eat.”

Illustrators are usually people who fall into a couple of categories, in general. There are illustrators who love to draw, paint, print … etc., but don’t want to go through the channels, hassles and disappointments of hanging their art on a gallery wall, while having no guarantees of making a profit. Thus illustration is a good, money-making, opportunity for their talents, for creative outlet, and for getting their work before the public eyes. It is the best of both worlds.

Then, there are illustrators that thrive on the challenge of putting medium on a substrate and bringing a story to life. They love creating worlds and characters that can only exist from the creation of their hand. They often love the personalities they create and make some kind of connection with them. Some illustrators feel that they themselves have become part of this story they have created. (Illustrators can be in both categories.)

Illustration is a tough life. There are thousands of talented illustrators all around the world. Many of them fit the term “poor starving artist.” Many work full-time jobs and illustrate for extra cash, creative outlets, and often, in hopes of making illustration their full-time source of income. The field is tough, though, and like pro-sports, acting, and many other careers in the humanities, people are waiting in long lines when there is work available. Illustrators wait for lucrative opportunities with big publishers, big clients developing long-term projects and even for opportunities in the entertainment/movie industry. They all are looking for a coveted situation where they will get a lot of work, over a long period of time, and it will pay them well for what they love to do.

Almost any illustrator will tell you of how little their time is worth to most clients. They will tell you of quoting jobs that barely paid for their materials and little to nothing for their time. They can tell you of countless hours burning the midnight oil trying to meet a deadline. Nearly all of them would tell you, though, that they continue doing it because they are driven by their desire to create and their love to illustrate.

One side note: It is difficult for some to understand the depth of the creative process. It is more than pushing a pencil or brush in a moment of time. As art is being made the artist often falls deep into the work becoming euphoric, forgetting about time and what is happening in the world around them. There is a flow of energy that pulses through the artist that is comparable to the high of a drug. We enter a state where we are driven to perfection and commanded to completion. Creation is without equal in experience. It takes us into a moment and forever calls us back to that place. It never lets us rest, constantly beckoning us to something new, something more, to a place where we have not been. And in the end, we feel accomplished, like a great exhale, we stand back and, even we, marvel at what came from within us. The dessert for us is when others marvel with us. The greatest compliment for illustrators, is most likely when someone puts value on what we do. Someone that gives us money for what we have made not only sustains our lives, but invests in the value we place on ourselves. The illustrator cannot live, has little will to create, without for the viewers. Our value is increased exponentially to know our work has been seen, more so, that it impacted.

Illustration can tell you a story of great complexity in a simple glance. Illustration is the epitome of the meaning of “a picture paints a thousand words.” No one sits down to find great joy in reading the dictionary. We toil through its pages looking for that moment of understanding. But, when we find an illustration there, we know so much more about those few words in the definition. Illustration makes the word. It defines how we see a word. The world cannot live without the illustrator and hopefully will never want to.

We always tell you a better and truer story.

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