Jillian Tamaki

Illustration in Practice

Jun 13th, 2011

Over on Twitter, @walrusmagazine asked readers to take photos of their new Summer Reading issue. Above, a few contributions (used with permission!).

One of the most thrilling things about the most recent TCAF was seeing the poster I designed tacked around Toronto, where for a few weeks it was part of peoples’ workplaces, commutes, and daily routines. While it’s always cool to see your work printed, it is even more exciting to see it in an even-larger context: the world!

When I teach, I’m often struck about how jaded students seem to be about Illustration, often by 3rd year. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism? A response to the classic “embittered illustration instructor” syndrome? Perhaps it’s a scapegoat: that if that student fails to find success as an illustrator, she “didn’t really want to be an illustrator anyway”. Perhaps it’s legitimate anxiety about the economic feasibility and the creative constraints of being a working, practicing illustrator. Whatever it is, the jadedness is very exasperating and strange to me. Lots of things that are worth doing require sacrifice, confidence, and a little healthy self-delusion. But to me, the payoff is so exciting: you’re not just a consumer of culture anymore, you’re a contributor. Illustration, at its best, injects a bit of beauty and insight into a visual landscape that is often so vapid, crass, and garish.

When I was living in Edmonton in 2004, I started seeing extremely lo-fi silkscreened band posters around town. I’d rip them down and hang them up in my apartment (now THAT is effective advertising!). The simple beauty and attention to detail was so sublime. It made life in the city a bit better every time I found a new poster quietly affixed to a telephone pole. It was a little thing, but life is kind of made up of a lot of little things, isn’t it? (I later found out they were made by Raymond Biesinger, who has since gone on to much illustration success himself.)

Illustration is powerful precisely because it is commercial. People interact with it in a way that is very distinct from other art forms and to me, that’s the upside, not the downside. Illustration is for the masses, but that doesn’t mean the masses deserve crap. Most people could probably describe to you their favourite comic or cartoon or album cover or picturebook from childhood, regardless of whether or not they are “creative”. The things people encounter in their daily lives are not inconsequential and they have an impact. Perhaps those jaded students can think back and remember the things that enticed them to pick up their paintbrushes and pencil-crayons in the first place.