Interviews on the Critical Framework of Illustration in Education

Abstract

This paper compares approaches to and philosophies of illustration pedagogy. The primary form of research is interviews with different illustration educators across the United States and Canada from a variety of higher learning institutions, both at the graduate and undergraduate level. Books written about illustration and art education supplement this research. Twenty-three illustration educators were asked ten to twelve questions, including inquiries into their personal education and illustration backgrounds, their methods of illustration education, and their opinions about the field of teaching illustration. From this research, I determined which illustration education practices and courses are widely taught and which are more unique to certain professors and schools. This paper compares and contrasts these practices in order to describe the integral components of an illustration education and promote further discussion in the field of illustration.

“There are no rules, only tools.” -Glenn V. Vilppu

I. Introduction

“One thing illustration has always lacked, compared to graphic design, is a strong critical framework by which to assess it. Design magazines have tended to treat it as an adjunct of design rather than a fully-fledged discipline in its own right. Apart from Steven Heller, who patrols a wider territory than either illustration or design alone, one would be hard pressed to name a single highly active writer, an expert, primarily identified with illustration as a subject.”[1]

II. Research Methods

In order to investigate these questions, I contacted twenty-three educators in the field of illustration who currently teach at fourteen different universities and colleges as well as non-university programs in the US and Canada. I strove to create a list of educators to interview that were established professional illustrators with impressive client lists and peer recognition.

III. Literature Review

In order to find the first illustration textbook, we need not look further than one of the greatest influences on illustration, Andrew Loomis, who in 1947 penned the comprehensive volume “Creative Illustration.”[3] Loomis was a prolific writer in the fields of art and illustration, also writing books on figure drawing, portraiture, and painting, such as “Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth,” “Drawing the Head and Hands,” and “The Eye of the Painter,” among others. In “Creative Illustration,” Loomis asserts that good drawing skills in an illustrator are already assumed as a necessity for working in the field. A good illustration is not based on drawing alone, but must contain personal interpretation in order to accomplish something, be it selling a product, illuminating a manuscript, or setting an emotionally evocative tone or feeling. In this book, Loomis breaks apart the fundamentals of illustration not for the purpose of teaching basic drawing skills, as many of his other books teach, but for the purpose of using these skills to let the drawing communicate.

IV. Illustration Educators Speak

A. The Role of the History in Illustration Education

In order to understand their innovative and constantly evolving field, illustration students must be aware of the current illustration being recognized and published. Because illustration is a communication art in an age where information is growing exponentially and whose trends are continuously evolving, the best resource for students is the work that is currently being developed. Just as a student producing research in physics or psychology needs to be versed in the current trends in his or her field, a student producing illustration needs to be also. Nevertheless, current trends do not eliminate the need for a firm understanding of their evolution and history.

B. Educational Backgrounds & the Responsibilities of Educators

Illustration is an emerging field of study, albeit a well-established practice with a rich history, with the first collegiate illustration programs, besides scientific and medical illustration, emerging within the last half of the twentieth century. Because of this, many of the illustrators who are now educating in the field do not have an academic illustration background themselves, and their knowledge comes solely and directly from their experience in the field. As Thomas Allen writes in his essay “A Moving Target,” in the book “Education of the Illustrator,” “[Robert Weaver, Robert Andrew Parker, and I] were hired because we were successful freelance illustrators for major magazines, record companies, and corporations, and not because we knew how to teach illustration. The fact is, not one of us took a course in illustration — only drawing, painting, and printmaking. We taught from our own limited experience and from who we were — no syllabi, no curriculum. If the truth were known, we didn’t teach at all.”[18] From the illustrators that I interviewed who did not have backgrounds in illustration, many had backgrounds in graphic design, photography, commercial art, or fine art, although some also came from multidisciplinary fields, such as Natalie Ascencios’ background in History and Cultural Studies and Jean-Christian Knaff’s master’s degree in Linguistics. Knaff believes this makes sense as “illustration is about visual language.” He goes on to say, “These two are very close, actually. Common grounds are composition, grammar, placement, story telling, narrative, meaning, metaphors, etc.” However, a number of illustrators I interviewed were emerging as the first generation of illustration educators to have come from a formal illustration background.

C. Essential Components of an Illustration Education & Teaching Methods

A critical question in the interview process was to determine the essential components of an illustration education. Many of the interviewees mentioned developing strong drawing skills, including figure drawing and painting from life. In the book “Education of an Illustrator,” Marshall Arisman states that “Drawing is an activity that demands practice to realize its full potential… The process of drawing can unlock the entire creative process for an artist.”[20] Marcos Chin, for instance, who began his education at the University of Toronto in fine arts and then transferred to the Ontario College of Art and Design, stated, “I left university because it was too theoretical for me, 70% was theory based. I was a really good essay writer, but there was not enough time in the studio. A lot of the work was too cerebral, and I was not mature enough yet to know how to concept art. I didn’t have story I wanted to tell, and went to school to study art to improve my techniques. I have a solid technical foundation, but didn’t get that in fine art. When I moved to OCAD and started to specialize, I learned how to paint and draw and the techniques, taught proportions and perspective, the academics of drawing, how to create to the drawing of a figure, how to create a mark or a line that describes how you feel about what you’re drawing. I had a great color class. I had been mostly working in black, whites and grays, and didn’t know how to use it. In illustration I learned that.” Whitney Sherman describes that strong drawing for illustration reaches beyond traditional instruction in realism, “There are questions as to what constitutes “good drawing.” Is it an exuberance of marks? Is that idea clear? That the marks purvey a mood or sensitivity? Or is drawing representing accurately? It’s just a matter of where the heart is. It’s whether you’re creating a language with your marks.” Murray Tinkelman agrees with this statement: “What is good draftsmanship? A person’s vision or concept.”

D. Frequent Student Problems

Although these methods may provide a framework for illustration students, I also asked my interviewees where students most encounter problems in their illustration curriculum. Many instructors stated that students have trouble completing the “vital preliminary work” (Scott Anderson) necessary to prepare a well-done and well-thought out illustration. Chris Payne agrees with this issue: “As a friend of mine states, “They all want to ice the cake before they bake it.”” Frances Jetter is of the same opinion, saying that it’s “important to come up with several ideas and have each one branch out to form even more aspects of looking at the problem.” Alice Carter attributes some of these procrastination issues to “insecurities, which are resolved as students become more skilled at their craft.”

E. Technology & Education

The World Wide Web, along with digital illustration technology, has changed the way illustration is currently taught. A number of the educators I interviewed taught at the Illustration Academy, including Anita Kunz, who described the transition of the program being taught entirely on-line:

F. Textbooks

Because many illustrators agree on some number of essential components of an illustration education, I wanted to know if they used written resources in order to frame the content of their educational practices. Many of the educators had an essential list of recommended, but not required books, essentially a “reading list” that a student should complete at some point in their illustration career. Marcos Chin states that while most of his teaching derives from dialogue with other teachers, he does bring into his classroom books from a variety of fields, including typography, fashion, and industrial design, in order to access disciplines outside of illustration. Greg Spalenka also integrates a “show and tell” of books and websites into his classes. As previously established that illustration is a field that promotes the individual growth of students, Chris Payne aids this by requiring students to come up with their own essential reading lists.

Addendum

In creating this paper, I have had to edit down many well-thought out interviews and profound answers. For the benefit of my readers, I have included my notes from each interview I conducted in their entirety. Please note that interviews conducted over the phone were not recorded and the text may therefore contain minor errors. I have striven to correct as many of these errors as possible by contacting the persons who were contacted via phone to verify a transcript of the content of the interview. Note that not all interviewees answered or were asked all twelve interview questions, but the questions were edited for relevancy. Both through this paper and through further exploration of the textual resources suggested by these educators, I hope to see an expansion of published material, both in print and on the Internet, regarding the field of illustration.

Supplementary Material: Complete Interviews

Scott Anderson — Westmont College and the Illustration Academy

Scott Anderson (via e-mail)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

Natalie Ascencios (via e-mail)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

I teach people ways of seeing today and to think critically about the history of the visual arts and how it relates to their development as an artist.

Steven Brodner (via phone)

Where do you teach?

Marc Burckhardt (via e-mail)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

SooJin Buzelli (via phone)

2) Were you a full-time illustrator before you started teaching and, if so, why did you choose to commit time to teaching?

Alice (Bunny) Carter (via e-mail)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

Doug Chayka (via e-mail)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

Marcos Chin (via phone)

2) Were you a full-time illustrator before you started teaching and, if so, why did you choose to commit time to teaching?

Fernanda Cohen (via e-mail)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

Frances Jetter (via phone)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

Jean-Christian Knaff (via e-mail)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

Anita Kunz (via in-person interview)

I knew that you taught at the illustration Academy, where else have you taught?

I’ve taught over the years at different places. I’ve taught 6 weeks workshops at my old school, which is the Ontario College of Art and Design Master independent degree program at Syracuse.

What are your thoughts on online teaching and the impact of technology on illustration education?

Ted & Betsy Lewin (via e-mail)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

Melanie Reim (via e-mail)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

Whitney Sherman (via phone)

3) Do you have an educational background in illustration, and, if not, what was your educational background? What was the impact of your education on your career?

John Thompson (via e-mail)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

Murray Tinkelman (via phone)

Education Online:

Robert Meganck (via e-mail)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

I love it — students keep me charged.

2) Were you a full-time illustrator before you started teaching and, if so, why did you choose to commit time to teaching?

I was a full time designer/illustrator. I was working in Detroit, MI and tried to unionize Graphic Designers. When I failed at forming a union, I chose to move on the Graduate School — after grad school, teaching seemed to offer a steady gig.

3) Do you have an educational background in illustration, and, if not, what was your educational background? What was the impact of your education on your career?

I have an Associates Degree in Commercial Art, A BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration, and an MFA in design.

4) What do you believe the essential components or classes of a well-rounded and complete illustration education are? How important is having an illustration history class?

I believe students need to be well-rounded. Courses need to include: drawing (lots of it), design, typography, digital work, photography, web design, painting, business, as well as general education courses.

Yes, of course, students need to understand the history of illustration, history of design, and the history of art. Not as separate courses, but as a collective — showing how all are related, and related to history in general.

5) Do you find that students have trouble with particular aspects of illustration?

Of course — we only have 120 credit to prepare them for a career in a field that is changing rapidly. Most students do not get enough drawing/painting/illustration work. We can only begin to educate them — they need to continue the educational process after they graduate.

6) What teaching methods do you find to be the most effective?

My professional experience. I work and publishing illustrations daily. I think I understand the marketplace. I bring this experience to the classroom. I’ve often said that, “I can work without teaching, but I cannot teach without working.”

7) What are the roles and responsibilities of an illustration educator? How much, if any, should your personal biases and preferences reflect in your classes?

Personal biases should not enter the classroom. Although, no matter how hard you try — they will. Educators need to be as objective as possible, and try to encourage a personal voice to emerge in each student.

8) Do you use required texts in your classes, and, if so, what are they?

Yes, but only in the Design classes. This semester I am using “Typography, Form and Communication” by Carter, Day and Meggs in my typography class; “Seeing is Believing” by Asa Berger in my basic design class. Next semester I will be using “Color” by Mary Pat Fisher and Paul Zelanski to teach Color Theory.

9) Should there be more textbooks about the process of learning illustration? Why do you think there aren’t more of them?

Yes. There should be more — currently I am unaware of any good ones, because those that know something about illustration, don’t want/or have the time to write about illustration.

10) Has computer and internet technology, including on-line classes, if applicable, impacted the content or delivery of your teaching, and, if so, how?

Currently all of our classes are taught on site. We are looking into the possibility of offering on-line classes.

11) Do you think graduate level illustration study should involve more formal classes or should be focus on independent study?

On independent study with a serious seminar component.

12) Give an example of a significant or profound “teaching moment” in your experience as an educator.

When I was asked to teach a Digital Drawing class — I was reluctant — I loved to paint and could find no advantage to working digitally. This proved to be a misperception, as I currently do everything digitally.

Chris Payne (via e-mail)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

Jeffrey Smith (via e-mail)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

Greg Spalenka (via e-mail)

1) In one sentence, what is your philosophy about teaching illustration?

Caroline Walmsley (via e-mail)

I hope the following will go some way to answering your question. It may be useful for you to note is that AVA did not specifically set out to plug what we perceived as gaps within the illustration education book market, but a broader gap in educational titles that we believed existed across the spectrum of the applied visual arts. When our business was founded a few years ago we wanted to rethink the concept of the ‘textbook’ for pre-undergraduate and undergraduate students. This is an audience that is visually literate, technically sophisticated and acutely aware of good design and presentation. In our endeavor to create twenty-first-century textbooks for twenty-first-century students, AVA Academia’s titles are specifically crafted to respond to these qualities. It seemed to us that academic books about the applied visual arts should themselves be both well designed and well written, something that had previously appeared to be an either/or option for many publishers.

Bibliography

Allen, Thomas. “A Moving Target.” In The Education of an Illustrator, edited by Steven Heller and Marshall Arisman. New York: Allworth Press, 2000.

--

--

Illustrator : Associate Professor of Art : ATLien @catamooreart catherineamoore.com

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store