illustration: a contemporary introduction

Por Carolina Arán

Illustration has been one of the greatest cultural revolutions of recent centuries. Since its birth in the 15th century with the printing press, this discipline has, like none, led to visual creation leaving museums and incunables, to reach a much more global audience. It’s in the 19th century, with the development of new printing techniques such as lithography, when illustration lives its first golden age, turning the illustrator into the creator who conquers territories and shakes past history. Since then this discipline has only grown, spreading through different means such as advertising, literature, science or press. The illustrator has become a witness and a reflection of the spirit and visual language of his time, making visible the cultural flow of each moment in the mass communication of our current society.

According to the Royal Spanish Academy, an illustration is “a stamp, engraving or drawing that adorns or documents a book”. To clarify the term, not without confusion and controversy for many, we could update this definition by saying that an illustration is a visual representation made to be reproduced, on physical or digital medium, regardless of the technique with which the original work was executed. Thus, the illustration is simply a set of arts at the service of a function, and the illustrator a combination of artist and technician who, just as he works in applied arts, can decontextualize his work and take it to exhibition to be appreciated as an artwork.

After centuries of growth, the picture of the current illustration is diverse and exciting; expressive, ingenious, eclectic and very prolific. Influenced by all previous artistic movements and with a wide range of technical and technological possibilities in his favour, the illustrator has grown specializing and working in such different media as advertising, fashion, graphic humor, publishing or video- game. His work has been diversified and enriched with multiple creative facets such as plastic arts, urban art, product design or digital creation for audiovisual media.

The giant that is today the illustration is more alive than ever, and he shows himself as a herald without borders of the different artistic tendencies and movements of our time. We can’t talk about Neo-pop, Minimalism, Lowbrow, or Superflat without mentioning Keith Haring, Yakoi Kusama, Gary Baseman or Takashi Murakami, multifaceted creators whose illustrations have left the mark of their time, nurturing theirselves with different disciplines and generating both eclectic and personal styles. The current scene offers an innumerable list of names and techniques that spearheads in the process of turning the illustration into one of the main forms of communication in our day. Names such as the American Mark Ryden, whose works in pencil and oil painting have laid the foundations of pop surrealism to the point of sacralization, or the Japanese Hayao Miyazaki, director and producer of animation cinema, illustrator, animator, and cofounder of the famous Studio Ghibli, one of the most renowned animation studios in today’s world. Multidisciplinary creators like Brian Despain, whose fantastic paintings, sculptures and digital creations have conquered the video-game industry, or the German Michael Kutsche, notorious illustrator and designer of characters for cinema, combining traditional and digital media. At present, new generations and new languages continue emerging, such as that of the Russian designer and animator Alexandra Zutto, that of the Spanish María Herreros, illustrator of traditional techniques and one of the current references, or that of James Jean, Taiwanese-American illustrator and mural painter, well known in the comic industry today. An international landscape of authors with their own distinctive style, whose works we can find in both commercial commissions and art galleries, and that go hand in hand with a wide range of means, techniques, personalities and discourses.

In the 21st century we can say that the work of the illustrator has become an essential vehicle for personal and corporate communication, which surrounds us everywhere and through all means. Thanks to the new resources, materials and techniques, and a global imagination, restless and overflowing, illustration lives a brilliant heyday in our times and makes us all witnesses and participants of its new and promising golden age.