Amelia’s Magazine | Fifty Years of Illustration: an interview with coauthor Lawrence Zeegen

The definitive Fifty Years of Illustration by Lawrence Zeegen and Caroline Roberts was published by Laurence King late last year. This beautiful volume charts contemporary illustration’s rich history, starting with the rampant idealism of the 1960s, moving onto the bleak realism of the 1970s, the over-blown consumerism of the 1980s and the digital explosion of the 1990s, followed by the increasing diversification of illustration that represents the discipline in the early twenty-first century.

The book explores the contexts in which the discipline has operated and looks historically, sociologically, politically and culturally at the key factors at play across each decade, whilst artworks by key illustrators bring the decade to life. Contemporary illustration’s impact and influence on design and popular culture are investigated through introductory essays and profiles of leading practitioners, illustrated with examples of their finest work.’

Lawrence Zeegen is currently Dean of the School of Design at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, where he leads pre-degree, undergraduate and postgraduate courses and research in animation, book arts, branding and identity, illustration, interface and interaction design, graphic communication design, spatial design and typographic design. In this in depth interview he tells us more the process of making this must have book.

Why did you decide to concentrate on the last 50 years of illustration in this book?
My book Fifty Years of Illustration charts the birth of contemporary illustration at the start of the 1960s to the present day. The sixties was the moment in time when illustrators first had an opportunity to create work away from the restrictions of the commercial client – underground publications sprang up as the counterculture evolved in San Francisco on the West Coast of the US and in London, whilst in New York studios such as Push Pin began to create and publish work that was more expressive and experimental than had previously been seen.

Contemporary illustration was born in the sixties and the discipline has undergone massive flux and a huge transformation during the five decades the book charts. From the energy and idealism of the sixties, the dreamlike escapism and contrasting bleak realism of the seventies, the over-blown consumerism and ‘greed-is-good’ ambitions of the eighties to the digital explosion of the nineties and the increasing diversification of illustration during the early 21st century, Fifty Years of Illustration explores the discipline through the key factors historically, sociologically, politically and culturally that determined each decade.

On a personal note, I turned 50 last year so the book covers illustration’s recent history aligned to my own development too. I’ve been working as an illustrator for 30 years, teaching illustration as an educator for 25 years and writing about illustration for 10 years so the book became a natural extension of my own interests in the subject.

How did you pick the artists to represent each era?
That’s a good question – it started some years ago with conversations, often over a glass or two of red wine, with Professor John Lord at University of Brighton and with others including Professor George Hardie and Ian Wright. Ultimately though the final long list was one I discussed with the publishers, of course, and with Caroline Roberts, who worked on the book with me. Caroline pointed me in the direction of a few illustrators I hadn’t considered and also helped to source a few from the 1960s and 1970s that weren’t easy to locate.

One consideration, not really visible to the reader, is a few restrictions placed on a project like this for a couple of very valid reasons – the publishers have co-publishers in mind from a variety of other countries so were keen that illustrators from these countries were represented in the book and the other issue that cropped up a few times was the cost in reproducing some of the images. Most illustrators allowed us to reproduce their work without a fee but a few, mainly those from a few decades ago and no longer alive, were represented by picture libraries and agencies and these charged for the rights to reproduce the works; fair enough, of course, but the picture budget was soon eaten up.

There will be those illustrators that weren’t included in the book that my fellow illustrators and academics will think should have been selected and there will, inevitably, be those illustrators that I have chosen that some will wonder what warranted their inclusion – ultimately, it really did come down to personal choice. I had a list for each decade in a notebook that I carried around for a couple of years and would update from time-to-time, scribbling down names and crossing out others. It is a personal selection and most definitely not the list to end all lists – there are a few illustrators that I’d have loved to include but in having to make a tight selection it just wasn’t possible to include everyone. I’ll be interested to see from the most recent decades, which illustrators stand the test of time – and would still make the grade when I revise the book for the 2nd edition in a few years time…

Do you have any personal favourites, and if so who are they and why?
Of course, it is impossible not to have a few favourites, even though the entire selection has been made up of my choices and ended up being quite subjective really. I guess I have favourites that span each decade. Having been born to young parents in the mid sixties I grew up to the soundtrack of the Beatles, so Klaus Voormann’s cover for Revolver still resonates very strongly for me. I met him recently and he is such a great guy and supremely talented – we’re talking about how to best celebrate the fifty years since Revolver was released next year.

Another favourite from the 1960s has to be Milton Glaser’s portrait of Dylan that ran as a poster inserted into the Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits album released in 1967. Glaser is another hero I was fortunate enough to meet recently, this time in New York, and I asked him if the urban myth I had heard was true – did he hide the letters to spell out the word in E L V I S in Dylan’s hair, his response? ‘Yeah, I heard that too.’ He gave nothing away, and why should the guy that created one of the most iconic pieces of branding ever – I ♥ NY feel he has to confirm or deny rumours?

From the 1970s I would have to say my favourite images in the book are either Guy Peellaert’s gatefold album sleeve illustration of David Bowie for Diamond Dogs or perhaps Philip Castle’s poster for Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, although George Hardie’s images have always been at the top of any of my lists too. From the 1980s Ivan Chermayeff’s graphic images at pretty unbeatable – yet another hero I was fortunate enough to meet last year, and Patrick Nagel’s rather cool expressionless models, as featured on Duran Duran’s Rio, have always been pretty special. Andrzej Klimowski was my tutor at the Royal College of Art at the end of the eighties, as was Dan Fern, and they both created some very iconic and influential work during that period.

More recently, during the 1990s, I have always liked the work of Andy Martin and John Hersey – both leading lights of the early digital era, and think illustrators Kam Tang, Brett Ryder and Kate Gibb are rather fantastic. Of the bunch, though, it would have to be MariscalCobi, his character for the Barcelona ’92 Olympics, was simply brilliantly envisaged and Mariscal himself is a character to behold, I met Mariscal at a lecture he gave at Central Saint Martins a few years ago and he knocked me out and again last year at a conference in Toronto I witnessed him entertain a crowd of 2000+ with a magnificently surreal talk and performance.

Bang up to date and through the 2000s and 2010s I would have to say that Jasper Goodall, Marion Deuchars, Airside, Antony Burril, Patrick Thomas, Jason Ford, Roderick Mills, Peepshow, Paul Davis, Adrian Johnson and Ian Wright are all firm favourites, but then I would say that – they’ll all old friends.

In your own artistic practice what era or style of illustration has been the biggest influence?
I can’t say that other illustrators have really ever influenced my own work – I have admired many but not drawn direct lines or references into my illustration practice, and that’s perhaps why I feel drawn (excuse the pun) to write about the subject. I have written seven or eight books on illustration featuring the work of thousands of illustrators but think I find my inspiration in the work of untrained jobbing graphic artists of yesteryear – I love old clip art, tattoo art, rubber stamp graphics and the images that once adorned the back pages of cheap magazines and comics.

If I had to name the artists that have inspired me – Patrick Caulfield, Warhol, Kurt Schwitters, Julian Opie would be up there but the list goes on, and I think I’ve been just as inspired by music, TV, literature, film and popular culture generally. I grew up listening to the Clash, reading Colin Maccinnes, watching Tomorrow’s World and dancing to soul music – these have all been as a big an influence on my work as any artist I think.

How long did it take to put this book together?
A good question and if I’m honest – far too long! I originally had the idea over a decade ago but I couldn’t get a publisher interested. Illustration was very much out of favour during the 1990s and it wasn’t until I had written a few other books on contemporary illustration that sold pretty well and illustration itself had come in from the cold, that I managed to persuade a publisher it would be a good idea.

How-to-do illustration books and how-to-work-in illustration books are ten-a-penny nowadays but ten years ago this wasn’t so, and this is what publishers wanted – and I was happy to oblige, of course. Getting a book published on the history of illustration, however, was more of a challenge. It was tricky for a few reasons – publishers weren’t sure that an audience for this type of book existed, but I was convinced that student and professional illustrators, and designers, would be interested. The other reason – books such as Fifty Years of Illustration can be a nightmare to publish is the sheer volume of images that require usage clearance and the coordination and communication with so many illustrators can be daunting and seemingly never-ending.

I have to say that Laurence King Publishing were behind the project from the start and were very supportive – they were also very patient too. It was the publishers that suggested to me that we bring in Caroline to share some of the workload, a good idea. I decided on the structure of the book, made the decisions on the list of illustrators – who should be in to represent each decade, and I wrote the introductory essay and each of the chapter essays and Caroline worked on the profiles – it was a fairly easy process once I’d established the illustrators but certainly the project as a whole was very time-consuming. Books such as this one are very labour intensive, and I had to fit it around the rest of my work. I’m the Dean of the School of Design at London College of Communication and that’s a pretty demanding role – I have 2000 students across a multitude of undergraduate and postgraduate design courses within my remit and even with research as an aspect of my role as the Professor of Illustration for University of the Arts London writing is only an element of what I do.

Who designed the cover and why did you choose them? (do you feel their style represents the ‘now’ and if so why?)
The cover was always going to be tricky, and we did commission a very internationally known illustrator to create a bespoke cover image and then waited about six months before it was delivered. And it wasn’t right. We, myself and Angus Hyland the Pentagram partner and Creative Director at Laurence King, then decided to ask Jeff Fisher. I knew I wanted a cover that was made up of hand rendered letterforms – with the book packed with illustration it was never going to work to have an illustration on the cover. Jeff did, I think, a magnificent job – the cover fits the book, feels right and has enough gravitas, without being formal or stuffy, to present the subject as both readable and approachable. I always wanted the book to appeal to a wider audience than simply illustrators and designers, and I think it has achieved that and a great cover helps a book increase interest.

What in particular determined inclusion for the artists representing The New Wave, who are working today?
Presenting a new wave of artists is always going to be challenging – it is the biggest section of the book and it is about the here and now, or at least those working that have made most impact onto the illustration scene, as I see it, from the beginning of the 2000s to the present day. I would argue that Jasper Goodall was one of a small elite that had a huge influence across design for his approach to fashion illustration, that Shepard Fairey, whilst a street artist rather than an illustrator, contributed hugely to putting the first black man into the White House with his illustrated poster campaign supporting Obama and that Airside, Marion Deuchars and Alex Trochut, to name but a few, also brought illustration to new audiences because of the appeal, accessibility and the visible platforms for their work.

What are the biggest challenges facing an illustrator working today?
Where to start? Illustrators have it all and yet have nothing at all too. You want great flexibility in your working life, want to work where and when you want then illustration may well be the right career choice for you. But it really isn’t that simple – illustration is a tough industry to break into, tougher still to maintain a presence in and even if you are flavour of the month, and who says it will last any longer, you will still find it hard to call the shots. Illustrators are guns-for-hire and style is king – when you’re style is in vogue you can do no wrong, but when its been seen and done and the art directors, designers and those who commission have moved on, if you’ve not moved on too – then the phone stops ringing and emails stop pinging through. It can be a tough, and brutal existence and can be totally dictated by demand – unless you’re smart enough to have other outlets for your illustration work, of course. For those illustrators that create their own prints, products and paraphernalia there can be life after the commercial commissions, but making a genuine living from this is increasingly difficult I think. There is a reason that most working illustrators are under the age of thirty.

At the risk of sounding far too negative though, I do think that working as an illustrator is great fun; I spent 10 years working out of a studio in Hoxton, Big Orange, that a gang of us set up upon graduation from the Royal College of Art in 1989 and enjoyed every minute of the experience – the studio is still in existence today but with not a single founding member still present, and I guess that does say something of how important younger illustrators constantly coming onto the scene is.

At the back of the book you state that there is still a lot left to do to record the impact of illustration on art, design and society – why do you think this is the case?
Because illustration has, until now, been treated as a subsection of graphic design, as a footnote in graphic design’s rich history. I believe that there is a vital history that needs to be documented – that illustration has played a major part in defining the 20th and now the 21st centuries and is an aspect of our visual culture that hasn’t been consdiered seriously enough. The first visual communication between humans, before written language, was most likely scratched or drawn in the sand of dirt by a finger or a stick – this wasn’t cave art; it was illustration. Illustration was the earliest form of graphic communication – we encourage young kids to draw, to express themselves through illustration but yet we don’t take the discipline seriously enough, we don’t reflect on how illustration shapes, entertains and informs us. I hope that Fifty Years of Illustration is just one chapter in the recording of illustration’s great history and that others recognize the value of the subject. I’m not done on the subject myself, that’s for sure, I have other opinions, views and ideas about the discipline and will be writing, lecturing and presenting on illustration for a few more years yet, but this is call-to-arms for others to join me in celebrating, and berating illustration (because not everything is perfect) – we have to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of the discipline and to a wider audience too.

Who do you hope will read this book and why would you recommend it?
As I’ve said really – art and design students and design and illustration professionals as well, but I really hope too that this book is picked up, looked at and read by those with an interest in the subject. Illustration is the ‘people’s art’ so I hope that people will see something of interest in the book – from the children’s illustrated book they loved reading or being read to at bedtime to the record they loved as a teenager, with artwork they stared at for hours whilst listening to the music, illustration has had an impact into our lives in so many ways and is a fascinating subject to read about and look into.

On a personal level why do you love illustration so much?
I grew up with it, from my first love of illustration through the Ladybird books of my childhood, to the 7-inch single sleeves of my teenage years and life as an art student I always came back to the illustrated image as a means of visual communication. I like being around illustrators too – I like their sense of the world, their desire to tell stories and communicate and the incredible skills many illustrators demonstrate through their work. I also like that illustration is accessible and everyday – you don’t need to go to a gallery to see illustration – pick up a book or newspaper, you don’t need to ‘understand’ illustration – it isn’t complex, it is what it is.

You have said you should “feed your brain, feed your eyes, feed your soul” – where do you go to do this?
Anywhere and everywhere – personally, I read newspapers and magazines, I was once a magazine fiend and every copy of The Face ever published for example, I see movies, I listen to music, I trawl the internet – all the same stuff we all do.

I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot and wherever I am in the world I bring back ideas, references, research – last year I took photographs and inspiration from trips to South Korea, Turkey, Italy, Canada, USA, Hong Kong, China… it is hard not to draw influences from such fascinating places.

I meet many people too, in my line of work, and much of my thinking comes from conversations and meetings with great students, great academics and great practitioners – I am a great believer in surrounding oneself with smart people that challenge you to think smarter, work harder and keep you focused on doing great work – whether it be an illustration, a lecture on illustration, an article or book on illustration. And I am also a great believer in having an opinion, a point of view, and getting it out there.

Buy Fifty Years of Illustration here.

Categories ,Adrian Johnson, ,airside, ,Alex Trochut, ,Andy Martin, ,Antony Burril, ,Big Orange, ,Bob Dylan, ,Brett Ryder, ,Caroline Roberts, ,Clockwork Orange, ,Cobi, ,David Bowie, ,Fifty Years of Illustration, ,George Hardie, ,Guy Peellaert, ,Ian Wright, ,Ivan Chermayeff, ,Jason Ford, ,Jasper Goodall, ,Jeff Fisher, ,John Hersey, ,Julian Opie, ,Kam Tang, ,Kate Gibb, ,Klaus Voormann, ,Kurt Schwitters, ,Laurence King, ,Lawrence Zeegen, ,London College of Communication, ,Marion Deuchars, ,Mariscal, ,Milton Glaser, ,Patrick Caulfield, ,Patrick Nagel, ,Patrick Thomas, ,Paul Davis, ,Peepshow, ,Philip Castle, ,Professor George Hardie, ,Professor John Lord, ,Professor of Illustration, ,Revolver, ,Roderick Mills, ,Royal College of Art, ,The Face, ,University of Brighton, ,University of the Arts London, ,Warhol

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