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5 Illustration Trends for 2017

By Terry Hemphill

To get a fix on what’s happening now (and next) in the world of illustration—what styles are becoming popular, what’s changing in the industry and the technology, which skills to add to your quiver, and more—we checked in with top illustrators, educators, and artist representatives, and we asked them what they’re seeing.

1. VIBRANT, FLUID COLOR

Color can express an instant, direct visual message. Perhaps no one understands the power of color better than Danish designer Maria Grønlund, whose keen eye and tremendous passion for color are so evident in her art and her brand as a designer. Grønlund is particularly intrigued with a recent color trend she sees in the art of “young illustrators who are working at an advanced level with colors and gradients that are neon bright but also soft, almost opalescent. The colors are part of the motif and play such a significant role in the art.”

Juliette Oberndorfer (Behance, Instagram) is a conceptual artist, background designer, and illustrator living in Vancouver, Canada. Her vibrant, glowing colors and use of stark contrast—as in this work, The Red Waterfall—create an air of mystery and wonder in her work.

illustration by Tianhua Mao, of figures on horseback
Colourscapes illustration by Maria Groenlund
Geometric City illustration by Mohamed Samir

Tianhua Mao (Instagram) is an illustrator from China now based in New York. This editorial illustration for PLANSPONSOR magazine (left) showcases her use of neon color and glowing gradients.

Maria Grønlund (Behance, Instagram) is a visual artist living in Lystrup, Denmark. Her sensitive approach to color (and her experimental approach to Adobe Illustrator CC) is seen throughout her work, which includes logo design, branding, and digital art. This image (center) is from her series Colourscapes.

Mohamed Samir (Behance, Twitter) is a designer from Egypt currently working for BBDO in Dubai. His self-initiated series Geometric Abstractions combines calligraphy, geometry, and beautifully rendered color gradients.

2. DEPTH AND DRAMA

Jon Cockley is a co-founder of Handsome Frank, a London-based illustration agency. “Over the past two to three years, there was a real hunger for a kind of clean vector artwork," says Cockley. "Now we are seeing a move away from those clean lines and more interest in texture, depth, and use of light and shadow. Clients often use ‘vector’ as a byword for an illustration style, not a file format.”

Cockley credits improved technology as being partly responsible for the increasing popularity of this style: the latest phones and tablets have the power to show and animate more complexity on a smaller screen.

Tom Haugomat (Instagram) is an illustrator based in Paris. His illustrations have an atmospheric, cinematic quality (Haugomat is represented by Handsome Frank). (Shown here: Tower Bridge (left) and Malibu.)

Thomas Danthony (Instagram) is a French artist based in London. His work is characterized by a clever use of light, bold compositions, and a dose of mystery (Danthony is represented by Handsome Frank).

3. MOTION AND ANIMATION

Educators have to understand which skills will make their graduates successful when they leave school. Rick Lovell, illustration chair at SCAD, didn’t hesitate when asked what’s most important now: “Motion is number one. If today’s young illustrators don’t know how to make their work move, they are doomed,” he says. "Not necessarily full-featured animation, but a solid understanding of what an animation studio needs regarding an asset for animation. SCAD redesigned its illustration curriculum to address this need.”

Whitney Sherman, director of the MFA in illustration practice at MICA, agrees about the growing importance of motion, noting that, “illustrations that have movement allow for the narrative to be experienced longer, almost to movie trailer drama.”

Lovell points to the work of Richard Borge, “who is doing some amazing work. It’s a soup of 3D modeling, 2D illustration, stop motion, digital animation, and compositing. It’s gorgeous and smart. Traditional editorial illustrators like Melinda Beck are doing great motion work now that is concept driven, not just informational. She recently did an animated piece called Regression Analysis, for the Harvard Business Review, that’s really wonderful.”

Melinda Beck (Instagram) is an Emmy-nominated illustrator, animator, and graphic designer based in Brooklyn, New York. She creates in a wide variety of styles for a range of media and applications. (Click on the first image [of the figure with an umbrella] to watch Regression Analysis, created for Harvard Business Review. Illustrator: Melinda Beck; creative director: James de Vries; animator: Jeff Chuang.)

Richard Borge (Instagram) is an illustrator and animator based in Brooklyn, New York, who works primarily on editorial and corporate/advertising illustration and animation/motion design. He also teaches Adobe After Effects at both Pratt Institute and School of Visual Arts. (Click on the second image to watch Borge’s portfolio reel.)

4. PHOTO-COLLAGE ILLUSTRATION

Nate Kitch (Instagram) is a freelance Illustrator living in Winchester, U.K. Nate works with mix of pattern, collage, mark-making, photos, and textures to create his editorial and advertising illustrations (Kitch is represented by Marlena Agency).

Illustrators whose work combines found imagery and traditional illustration in a conceptual, collage style are in high demand, according to Marlena Torzecka, president of Marlena Agency, an illustration and art agency in Princeton, New Jersey. “Time is so valuable now, there’s often only one or two days to produce a piece for publication, making it nearly impossible to send a photographer to do a shoot for a story,” says Torzecka. “For example, for an editorial illustration about a breaking political story, it might mean photographing several people together who may not even be in the same location. It's much easier to use existing photos to tell a new story.”

But collage also provides a wide-open playing field for illustrators to explore and mix ideas and concepts to produce images with a special power and appeal for the viewer.

Isabel Espanol is a freelance Illustrator based in Paris. Isabel creates conceptual art, covers, and posters for a range of clients—for example, Politico, for whom she created this illustration (Espanol is represented by Marlena Agency).

5. ILLUSTRATOR AS CREATIVE ENTREPRENEUR

Almost everyone we spoke to had a take on ways that social media, sharing work, and new platforms for self-publishing are changing the way illustrators work.

Historically, illustrators have always been freelancers and entrepreneurs; unlike graphic designers, they are rarely part of in-house creative teams. “Up to the later part of the 20th century, illustrators needed to have an established set of clients,” says Whitney Sherman. “Now we can create content and then publish and distribute it ourselves. We don’t need a magazine or book publisher. Illustrators can have an idea and capture that voice for themselves.” An early example from her students and faculty at MICA was To New Orleans with Love, a fundraising response to Hurricane Karina.

illustration of a snake by Von Glitschka

Von Glitschka (Instagram) is a designer, illustrator, educator, and creative hired gun, and he is the principal of Glitschka Studios, a multi-disciplinary design firm in the Pacific Northwest.

Illustrator Von Glitschka sees two activities in common among illustrators who find success using social media: “They create personal work on a regular basis, and they consistently share that work on social channels, says Glitschka. “It’s about improving averages. The people that hire look at the same curated services as everyone else, so you have to feed the ‘eye gate,’ as it were. When someone first takes notice, it kicks off word-of-mouth via social media.”

Leveraging social media is a given today, but the importance of different channels is changing. Instagram is one that’s ascending for illustrators. Whitney Sherman sees it being used more and more as an “appetizer” portfolio. “It’s picture-based but uses hashtags to add depth,” letting illustrators share their insights and perspectives to audiences actively searching for them.

Illustration trends come and go. As one style is introduced and becomes saturated, another visual look will swing back in counterpoint. But as Sherman so succinctly sums it up, “The way something looks is second to the idea. Any time someone hired me for a ‘look,’ they were looking at the wrong thing.”

One thing is certain: the field of illustration is constantly changing, and it’s important to experiment with new ways of creating imagery, not only to remain current but also to keep your work vital and in demand.