What Is An Illustrator Anyway?

Finding The Right Name For What I Actually Do

I have an uncomfortable relationship with the term “illustration” as a description of what I do. Similarly, when I compare myself to other artists who also call themselves illustrators, I see very different conceptualizations of what we think that means. Of course, today, we are all quite comfortable with loose definitions, especially in the art world, where its own subjective nature is really the only objective thing we can say about it.

Can you paint caricatures of political personalities as a form of social commentary? You are an illustrator. Do you create graphic visual metaphors using stylized shapes and solid blocks of colours? You, too, are an illustrator. Do you glue macaroni noodles on construction paper to “draw” cats? You get to be an illustrator too. Do you make bleep bloop sounds on a synthesizer and turn them into dots on a screen? Illustrator.

At least in the realm of commercial art, it used to be that illustration was more or less representational drawing or painting in service of advertising. The art of Norman Rockwell comes to mind.

In terms of kids’ picture books, I suppose there has always been more openness to experimentation and whimsy. I think of Alice and Martin Provensen, who were active within the same period as Rockwell.

However, whether an illustrator specialized in picture books for children or in commercial art, there was a common foundation of essential artistic training, and herein skilled well above average. Although illustrators made a living by their commercial art styles, they had more classical artistic skills in drawing and painting. I speculate that most illustrators of the mid-1900s were as comfortable in a life drawing studio as they were in making camera-ready mechanicals for a client.

Beyond foundational artistic skill, another commonality among traditional illustrators seems to be in an overall representational approach. Whether depicting bunnies wearing boots or a family saying grace at the Thanksgiving table, illustrators expressed things that were immediately recognizable.

When I think of the general idea of “illustration”, I still think of these more traditional types (stereotypes?). I get the sense that many others conceptualize illustration in the same way. When I flip through illustration directories and annuals, when I view certain illustration-related classes online, when I attend illustration conferences—at every corner, I find that a great deal of people tend to think of illustration more or less as a commercialized form of drawing and painting.

So how would I describe what I do if it’s not simply a more commercialized form of drawing and painting? Well, first of all, it’s really dumbed down from anything realistic (and I don’t mean this disparagingly). In my work I constantly strive to distill complex realities in a more simplified, symbolic form. Dumbing down is part of my art. Apart from having a unique style with particular mannerisms and consistent stylistic elements and colour, I am building up my own visual vocabulary. I want to have a set of stylized symbols that I can assemble together to create different pictures, which are simultaneously unique to me and universally readable. It’s sort of like how different lettering or font styles can still spell words everybody understands. It’s also like how simple abstract shapes like T H I S can create an imaginary sound in your head and a physical one through your mouth. The people I illustrate are highly stylized but undeniably people. My sausage fingered flipper hands are still clearly hands. But I am not drawing in the traditional sense, and I’m certainly not painting. There is really no better word than illustration to describe my art.

Granted, I often favour the term commercial art because what I do is an art (a fitting together of things toward a purpose) that exists for almost no other reason than commerce (I don’t make my art unless someone is paying me). In fact, commercial art is more accurate than illustration. But just like I strive for a simplifed vocabulary, using forms that inaccurately (but approximately) represent reality, I must settle on a term like illustration, which, for all anybody else cares, is close enough. I care deeply about how what I do is distinct from the common understanding of illustration, but if I am going to find a place in the market, I need to communicate how what I do is similar to it. What I do is most similar to illustration, and people understand that more than a more general and less popular term like commercial art.

In 2018, I attended the ICON illustration conference, held that year in Detroit. In addition to attending, I also taught a workshop, held in a classroom at the College for Creative Studies. Walking through its halls, I saw what real illustrators in the making must look like. It was summer, so there were no students or teachers around, but class projects were on display along the walls. I was blown away by the sheer artistic skill in these drawings and paintings. I went to art school myself, but compared to what I saw at CCS, mine was a daycare. At my alma mater, (no names) there was such a marked emphasis on concept, and such a disdain for skilled craft (even in the Division of Craft), that you’d be hard pressed to find 10 people from the entire student body who could draw Tippy the Turtle.

Of course, I include myself in this cohort. I too am a graduate of the instutition that was, in concept, a college of art and design*. The experience of walking through the halls of CCS felt like a moment of being put in my place.

The walls could talk, and they said, “These are real artists. You are a hack.” If ever there was a time to self-diagnose with imposter syndrome, this was it.

Of course, my conceptual snobbery came to my defence: “Although these students will become great technicians, they may or may not be able to translate their skills to the real world.”

I was humbled and amazed in the midst of what seemed to be school that actually embraced and manifested artistic mastery, but then I had to let that become a contest between two sides—and then defensively declare myself the true victor.

Please bear with me. I know this is ridiculous, but I am human. Humans love a good dichotomy. We naturally draw lines between us and them. We compare and contrast, for better and for worse. When I hold my defensive response under more scrutiny, of course, I can see how silly it is. My initial reaction, of pitting my art against the art of others, is just my way of asking what is it, really that I do? Where does it fit in? Where do I belong? What can I call myself? What is my identity? Who am I?

Ultimately, I have decided to call myself an illustrator. It’s admittedly inaccurate, but I need to call myself something that signals to others what I do. None of us ever fully live up to our titles. On the same token, our titles never fully live up to what we do and are. We have to settle for common terms, because that’s how society works. We agree that terms mean a certain thing, however imperfectly they describe the reality of any individual experience. I’m okay with that.

It actually turns out I’m not alone, and illustration today truly does have quite permeable boundaries. It is not limited to the narrower, more traditional understanding of this art form. This post was initially inspired by something I read in History of Illustration:

“In the 1990s and 2000s, illustration expanded beyond print to include digital tools and environments, and Postmodernist thinking encouraged the crossing of social and technological boundaries to create new forms in which experimentation trumped representation. A significant outcome was that the pro-photography outlook that had dominated art direction of the 1970s and ’80s gave way to a new pro-illustration era in the ’90s, one that favoued comingling traditional, digital, and web-based media. This gave makers greater license to move beyond traditionally recreated illustration as it was understood at the time.” (Doyle et. al., 2018)

Here, the author explains how illustration opened up to a much wider definition following the digital revolution of the 1990s and early 2000s. Ever since I started illustrating, I struggled with the title of illustrator. As a designer by training, I’ve often joked that, to designers I am an illustrator, and to illustrators I’m a designer. I have often seen myself somewhere in between, and sometimes out side of, both of these disciplines. It is never comfortable to feel outside of a definition or category. When I call myself an illustrator to the public, be that on my website, in my classes on Skillshare, or to my audiences on YouTube and Instagram (and here for that matter!), I always wonder what the more traditionally-minded think. My imposter syndrome kicks right in to tell me I don’t qualify. By more traditional standards I probably don’t. But reading Doyle’s account of how the very definition of illustration has changed in recent years gives me a stronger sense of how what I does in fact fit in. It all makes sense: of course what I do is illustration. Illustration, like art in general, has many faces and many uses. At the same time, I wonder if our culture is still clinging to older ideas of what illustration is, and if this is why I find it hard to commit to the title of illustrator myself.

Anyway, like I said, I’m happy to bear the title of illustrator. It’s been working just fine so far. Some might say that labels don’t matter, but I disagree. It’s important to know what we do and what to call it, so we can sell it to others as our craft. I had a teacher that used to say, “If you can think it, you can do it.” I have a corollary to offer: “If you can name it, you can sell it.”

*I don’t mean to be overly disparaging of my alma mater. At the end of the day, your education is what you make of it. And for all its perceived flaws, I came out of my post-secondary education with invaluable experience and confidence as a designer and artist, and for that I grateful. To be sure, most of my teachers were fantastic and really instrumental in opening me up to a world of ideas. A few became as mentors to me. Art school is a place of possibility, and the more open minded and industrious you are (as I was as a student), the more possibilities become realities.

Illustrator. Creatively Empowering Teacher/Speaker. Represented by Making Pictures/UK & Dot Array/USA. Top Teacher on @skillshare. www.tomfroese.com/links

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