Looking Back to Look Forward: Illustration Styles of the Past 30 Years
Illustration is one of the most important forms of visual communication: it informs and observes, delights and decorates, instructs and inspires. From the first drawings man made in a cave, illustration has played a fundamental role both in telling stories and in sharing information—and it is as relevant as ever in helping us understand our modern world. Today’s artists create an astonishing variety of illustrations across a spectrum of styles and genres, informed by a rich history and extraordinary innovations in recent decades. In this article, we’ll explore some of the art and social movements that have influenced illustration over the past 30 years.
Fast forward to 2017, and the idea of an art movement is laughable. Everything from Stone Age cave paintings to the latest Postmodernist art has been tossed into the spin cycle of popular culture and consumerism. The first picture was uploaded to the Internet in 1992. Today, more than 80 million images are uploaded to Instagram alone each day. “There’s no more ‘flavor of the month,’” says designer and illustrator Von Glitschka, referring to a term he and another illustrator coined for work that would be popular with creative directors for a while and then fade. “That doesn’t happen now. Social media has changed that; the way an audience interacts with a ‘look’ takes place so quickly.”
Art Nouveau saw a major popular revival in the late 1960s, when it was reinterpreted in numerous rock concert posters and album covers; this distinctive psychedelic look has, in turn, influenced later generations of artists.
The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899 by Sigmund Freud, explored the relationship between dreams and reality and laid the foundation for the literary, intellectual, and artistic movement called Surrealism. The French writer, poet, and anti-Fascist André Breton, generally considered the founder of Surrealism, published the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924; it it, he defined surrealism as “pure psychic automatism.”
While the impact of Surrealist poets and writers was limited; the artists and painters associated with Surrealism had a significant impact on the visual arts and film. In their art, Surrealists liked to place objects not usually related to one another together, in ways that were playful and disturbing. Nature and people might be carefully presented in a true-to-life style but placed in a dreamlike landscape.
Surrealism’s impact on illustration, design, and visual communication has been distinct and wide-ranging. The movement pioneered new illustration techniques and showed how the world of dreams, symbols, and fantasy could be explored visually in ways that can provoke a universal response across many viewers.
Modernist art and the Modernism movement had a significant and far-reaching impact on illustration and design. Starting in around 1908 and lasting through the 1930s, Modernism included a series of distinct movements, including Constructivism, Surrealism, and the Bauhaus. These movements shared a rejection of historical styles, a minimalist design approach, and an original and experimental use of shapes, colors, lines, and layout.
“Constructivism, Bauhaus, and other formal, rigid, minimalist approaches to design and picture-making have lasted in various forms and can be seen in today’s illustrations,” says Richard Lovell, illustration chair at SCAD. “It’s a shape-driven aesthetic that plays well with digital media, and even motion media and animation.”
With roots in the Russian avant-garde, the Constructivist movement originated just before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Influenced by the abstract style, pure form, and energy of Cubism, Futurism, and Suprematism, Constructivist artists aimed to create a new visual language to free art, design, and architecture from conventional forms of representation. Constructivist artists created both political posters and commercial advertising, forever linking the style to political activism.
Strong geometry, flat color, simple shapes, extensive white space, and bold sans serif typography are hallmarks of Constructivist design. Photomontage provided a new illustration technique for the new age.
Constructivism continues to influence modern graphic design and illustration, as artists combine the visual vocabulary of Constructivism with their own voices and ideas.
In 1919, the architect Walter Gropius was made director of Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, combining two art schools into a single institution, and fine and applied arts into one curriculum. A Modernist approach to design education was developed; students were encouraged to experiment and find a design voice of their own.
The Bauhaus’s powerhouse faculty included the painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, Constructivist László Moholy-Nagy, first-student-then-teacher Herbert Bayer, and architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The school explored advanced ideas about architecture, color, and form, and experimented with printing, photography, and typography.
Its contributions to modern design transcend its short, 14-year life. The Bauhaus approach to design education is the foundation for design schools today, and the Bauhaus product design guiding principle of “necessities, not luxuries”—to produce quality items at affordable prices—is seen today in stores like Ikea and Muji.
Developing alongside Surrealism and Expressionism was Magic Realism. First named in 1924 by German art critic Franz Roh, it described a new form of realist painting that depicted everyday life as something familiar but at the same time as something strange or unnatural.
THE MEMPHIS GROUP
The Memphis Group was a collective of young furniture and product designers led by the acclaimed Italian industrial designer Ettore Sottsass. Launched in 1981, Memphis ruled the early 1980s design scene with its Postmodernist furniture and textiles. Vibrant and experimental, Memphis delighted in pattern, color, and bold geometry. In 1988, Sottsass dismantled the group, but while Memphis the group may no longer exist, its energy and irreverence have had a lasting impact on illustration and design, showing that it’s OK to ignore the constraints and established rules of design and explore the intersection of fun and functional.
LOWBROW AND POP SURREALISM
Initially an underground art movement in Los Angles, Lowbrow and Pop Surrealism art developed in the late 1970s outside of the traditional gallery and museum scene.
A political illustration is a picture that makes a point. It delivers a message. It might take a punch at a politician, reveal incompetence, or uncover deception. Political illustration uses caricature, humor, satire, and metaphor to produce true visual journalism that succinctly sums up complex political situations and challenges commonly held beliefs.
Accessing a rich history going back centuries, contemporary artists create political illustration work across a wide variety of artistic techniques, from simple pen and ink to finely crafted painterly styles.
By the early 1990s, the digital revolution in the creative industries was starting to get real. Before that time, “the discussion around digital design was as if computers were aliens marching into the studio, attempting to take over,” says Whitney Sherman. While the cost of hardware was dropping, the price of entry was still high, and the learning curve for the software was painfully steep. Graphic designers more eagerly embraced the new technology than illustrators, but it was a scary leap into the void for all.