Jillian Tamaki
 

On Drawing and Illustration and the Difference Between the Two

Nov 8th, 2012


I’ve been teaching illustration for about 5 years now. I feel really lucky to have seen some of the students I taught/met during my first couple years at Parsons go on to become professional creative people themselves (Katie, Anna, Zack, Roxie, Hannah.)

The vast majority have not.

For my current class, a senior portfolio class in the Illustration Dept. of the School of Visual Arts, I require my students to build an online portfolio website for their final project. It’s the only group critique we have in the 2nd semester. I visited some of those sites this week and noticed that most haven’t been updated since that day of the final critique last spring.

Why? Why put all that time and money and effort into 4 years of college if you’re not even going to make a run at being a professional illustrator? I suppose there are myriad reasons… the main one being that I just don’t think most human beings find the freelance life to be all that amiable. Talent is important and so very lovely when you have it, but I’ve found it often doesn’t correlate to any real-world post-graduation success. A persistent attitude is just as important.

I actually think that most people don’t realize or think about the difference between Drawing and Illustration. They think they’re the same. They’re not. Drawing is an act, whereas Illustration (as I define it) is a profession. Illustration *can* involve drawing (it can expand beyond drawing too, obviously), but it’s actually the act of thinking and problem solving. I think I’ve mentioned this before but Tim O’Brien once said something to the effect that the sketch-phase of a project IS the Illustration… I couldn’t agree more, despite my work being incredibly different from Tim O’Brien’s.

I wish this delineation between drawing and illustration was made more clear earlier on to young art students. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe illustration is more than a just a “style” and that most students enter such schools with hopes of eventually making their living being an illustrator. For this reason, I try to structure my class around real-life projects, prompts, feedback, and processes. (It’s also the way I myself was trained.) I do recognize that illustration programs are not quite the “trade schools” they used to be, and that they can be fulfilling experiences unto themselves. But again, I think most students enter with reasonable expectations that they will be exposed to realistic representations of Illustration as a JOB.

Illustration is about fitting your conceptual and aesthetic style to a problem. There is a “solving” aspect to it. I find students either revel in this aspect or absolutely hate it. It can represent a brainteasing challenge or be completely oppressive, depending on your point of view. If you want to become a professional illustrator, it helps to be the former. Sometimes you will feel more like the latter! But mostly you need to be open to collaboration and working within constraints. The joy of illustration is striking the delicate balance of solving the problem with artistry.

No real conclusions or grand(er) pronouncements than that. Just something I’ve been thinking about lately…