Thursday, November 12, 2009

For What It's Worth No. 12

Getting out of town helps clear the mind, getting out of the country creates a whole new perspective. Trying to avoid jet lag before the lecture series, we opted to land in Paris instead of London. Our first day was spent getting used to a new language, one that I'd feverously studied but came up lacking during our entire trip. All I really needed to tell them that I spoke no French was Je suis un Americain, I am an American.

Later that day we ventured into Pere Lachaise which was two blocks from our hotel--as many of you know I have a dreaded fear of cemeteries but somehow Pere Lachaise was different; perhaps it was the time of day--the quality of light and the fall colors made the place look radiant. Maybe I would have had my old familiar feelings had it been a cold, dreary day. Whatever the reason I embraced it, it was similar to visiting a sculpture garden, the variety of gravestones, the typography, the ornamentation all lent an air of artiness to the place and one I could enjoy.

The next day was a step back in time with a visit to Palace de Versailles, it was huge! I pictured something a bit smaller, something like what I would soon experience in London, but the massiveness of the place was almost overwhelming. And the crowds of vistiors spent little time in the rooms, preferring to raise their cameras above their heads and snap photos. Thankfully, the gardens were less crowded and much less so at the Petit Tranon, the simplicity of this place was much appreciate after the extravagance of the palace.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Villa Savoye, the next day's excursion. Completed in 1929 it is a prime example of the architecture of Charles Édouard Jeanneret, aka Le Corbusier. The austerity of each room, the multiple views, the contrasting colors, the act of bringing the outdoors in makes it a home worth living in, though its tenants were very disappointed with the house and the workmanship--sometimes to be expected as the result of working with a genius.

Two ends of the spectrum, Louis XIV to Le Corbusier but both mad geniuses.

On to London via Eurostar, under the English Chanel which lasted only 20 minutes of the two and half hour trip from Gare du Nord to London's St Pancras. If they offered an cross Atlantic route I'd sign up. The trip was smooth, the food was what you used to get on the best airlines with service to match.

We tended to remain historic in our sightseeing, looking back at centuries past rather than searching out the contemporary scene. Our weekends were spent sightseeing, our weekdays conducting lectures on illustration at various colleges and art schools in and around London.

We also got to visit the offices of the Association of Illustrators in their shared loft space with Big Orange in East London. We met with Derek Brazell whom we have been in contact with for sometime and their new director, Ramón Blomfield who just celebrated his first full year this month. We talked about the difficulty and non-profitable aspects of newsstand distribution especially in the US and found we both share better interest in both Canada and the UK. Their house publication, Varoom, started off as their newsletter and my suspicion is that once they saw 3x3 they decided there must be a market for a magazine on illustration, several other publications have sprouted up since we started back in 2003, all with dismal results. A new one just launched this month in London.

I have long admired what the AOI is doing for illustration in the UK and feel they do a much better job than we're managing to do here in the States with our illustration organization which has a much longer history than the AOI. Why that's the case I'm not sure, but it does not bode well for illustration; we must all be doing more to increase the visibility and promote the viability of illustration.

Sometimes you have to get out of the country to see what you really are. Our visit uncovered the fact that 3x3 holds the only international student show as well as the only international professional show--something I hadn't really considered before. Being there pointed out just how insular each of our countries are. The fact that neither the AOI nor the Society of Illustrators actively invite international entries nor have international panels of judges pointed out our uniqueness and something we need to exploit as it gives our readers and our entrants a totally different "perspective" on what's happening in illustration.

Getting a first-hand look at the education of illustrators in the United Kingdom was one of the purposes of our trip; seeing the differences and similarities was helpful. What I noticed immediately was an intense sense of pride in each school, each went out of their way to explain why their school was the best in the country. Whether the claim was the largest, or the highest number of successful graduates or the star-quality roster of alumni, each school felt that they did it best.

In a number of the schools a student would get instruction from a single instructor for each level, others may interact with one or two more but I did not encounter anything like we have here in America with multiple instructors for each year. And their programs ran three years, not four. What I did notice was an emphasis on idea generation rather than style which I found refreshing. In America we seem too worried about developing a personal voice, sacrificing sound market-driven visual solutions in the process: Students may develop a voice but they often times have too little to say. I didn't find that in the UK, and from the class I sat in on the problems are not simplistic, they're quite involved requiring research before laying pen to pad. I wish our schools did more of that. But from what I learned their national government has put much more emphasis on practical knowledge and as a result those studying applied arts learn how to apply their craft though at times sacrificing experimentation in the process. There they can learn something from us Americans. No educational system is perfect, ideally it would be a mix of the two systems I've witnessed.

Being abroad also puts today's news into focus. What I also gathered is that the 24-hour news cycle has exploded the recession way beyond fact. While there was a downturn in the early part of the year, the illustrators I've spoken with, here and abroad, all say that they are busy, and some are busier than they've ever been. Which is really good news, for illustrators and for illustration. And it looked like the Christmas season was already in full swing judging by the crowded streets and stores.

Getting out of one's homeland points out differences but also similarities. Looking at the faces of the students in the crowded lecture hall was no different than here in the States. Bright, enthusiastic faces that will soon become the next generation of illustrators. General remarks about our talk were that it gave a more "American" approach to being an illustrator, the fact we stressed about illustration being a business, that it was important to be visible and the fact that using the correct marketing tools led to a successful illustration career were appreciated with more interaction from both students and faculty than we've received before. Though I did add two new sections to the talk since last speaking in the States, so it may not be a fair comparison. Whatever the response I'm glad we went, I'd like to thank all of the schools who invited me to speak, for their warm hospitality and welcoming spirit and I'd like to thank Sarah for the planning of the trip and keeping us on schedule.


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