Wednesday, June 22, 2011

For What It's Worth 30

It’s that time of year, student portfolio reviews and exhibits are hitting the city, it was my first look at the new crop of graduating illustrators. Two visits, one with the students whose university had rented a wonderful space in Tribeca and the second was at a less glamorous but highly organized event in midtown.

It’s always easier to review work in a gallery setting, it’s much harder, more time-consuming and delicate to sit down one-on-one across the table viewing that student’s work and especially when the turnout among the city’s art director and art buyer community failed to show up. That meant that every word spoken could be heard by folks on either side and up and down the line since there wasn’t that buzz of conversation that can easily cover up not-so-flattering remarks.

And you have to feel for the students, this is the book they expect to walk out and get a job with and it’s almost like you’d like to ask do you want me to sugarcoat it or tell you the truth. Too often academics sugarcoat critiques, too many times students leave university feeling incorrectly that they’re prepared for the real world. It was disheartening to see books filled with what a professor told them to put in and even when the piece was weak just to stretch out the book. Too many times there wasn’t a consistent voice, the views were scattered and struggling—not a good place to be on the eve of graduation. Too many times there were simply too many pieces in the book and not all of them well done.

Certainly there was talent in the room, but you had the feeling they only wanted to hear good news and it must have been embarrassing to know that their classmates were eavesdropping into a critique meant only for one. It was always good to hear that the pieces that did carry a singular voice were the more recent work—in one instance it had just been done last week. But it was disheartening that work that was older and less refined shared the same space. Not to say that there weren’t excellent books, out of the group of 40 there were four excellent books. By excellent I mean they didn’t look like student’s books, they looked like they had been out in the market a few years. The work was consistent, fresh, exciting—all you could ask for.

Critiques are tough, in my graphic design class at Parsons they weren’t always received well, there seemed to be an expectation that they were all going to get As without really earning one. And even more frustrating was the emphasis placed on grades, no one is going to ask a graphic designer or illustrator what their grade-average was. The proof of any education is what is in the portfolio, how good or mediocre it is has nothing to do with grades. In viewing work outside the classroom I always preface my critique by saying this is one person’s opinion and then give them how I look at work, what I’m looking for and what I see is missing. And then I tell them to not take my word for it but when they hear the same remark at least three different times from three different people then they should take action. Whether it’s moving a piece forward or eliminating it. Too often pieces stay in the book because a peer says they like it, or it’s a personal favorite. They fail to realize that art directors and art buyers view a book in a blink of an eye, that they won’t stop to read captions nor will the artist be there to explain themselves. The book stands or fails on its own.

Recently I was invited to judge the work of undergraduate and graduate graphic design students in San Francisco and while the work was at an extremely high level what was disappointing was any suggestion on where graphic design, illustration, photography or media arts were headed. University should be a time of exploration not only with techniques and subject matter but with what may lie beyond. Too many times we see a factory-approach were students are all well-trained in the basics but lack individuality. Certain coursework is required but is our education too short to allow for exploration? I think so. As a result we turn out way too many me-too’s in a world already overrun with those.

There needs to be a rethinking about how we train and educate artists and designers, the obvious default is for graduates to continue to pursue their careers through graduate programs, but is that really necessary? It’s good for the university but is it good for the artist? A master’s degree is no guarantee of excellence, it merely serves to allow artists and designers to educate others, and even that’s not always the case. And are these master degreed artists really prepared to lead an industry when they too have gone through the same process? Too often illustrators in particular gravitate towards teaching at too young an age without really being in an industry long enough to teach others how to survive. Naturally it’s a safe-haven providing steady income and benefits, but too often it becomes the blind leading the blind. And while they are dedicated to their field they lack true knowledge on either teaching methods or the skills that come from years of being an illustrator. In fact there are those who have abandoned the field of illustration and rely solely on educating students. In no other profession I know of would this happen, in fact the opposite is true; academics are required to keep up with their field of choice, to prepare papers, attend seminars and work steadily in their field. And the obvious result is what we see from today’s graduates, a similarity that does not bode well for our industry. Teachers have succumbed to the university’s approach to learning. Universities are too busy making sure students continue in their program even if they lack talent. The push in some schools is to make sure everyone graduates with acceptable portfolios. Their false hope is that one day soon they can boast of how well their alumni are doing. Yet isn’t the reason for education to go beyond the basics, shouldn’t it be to inspire greatness?

Another issue may lie with students themselves, a false belief that their degree will land them a good job in their field of choice. The mere fact of an undergraduate or graduate degree in no way impacts the ability to get a good job. Fortunately the work that is shown in a portfolio, online or otherwise, is the best indication on what kind of job you’ll get upon graduation.

Perhaps what we’re missing is the apprentice system of old. When you consider the work from the Greek and Roman era through the Renaissance to medieval times, artists and designers were taught on-the-job. Their apprenticeships started when they were much younger than any college graduate—Michelangelo was only thirteen when he began. Were they more impressionable at that early age? Or were their teachers simply better equipped to motivate students to greatness. Certainly it can be said that even they were also not interested in exploring the medium as much as turning out masterpieces but when you compare their output with what we see today, something is amiss. It is so rare to see a graduate’s portfolio that indeed inspires you yourself to do better work. Why is that? How can we all change that?


  1. Some really cogent observations... An apprentice system would be much more effective but how would it be implemented?

    I went to school in industrial design and we had a co-op program where we worked in actual design departments (and a lot of students get hired that way, still) but there are few companies that have illustration departments.

    There is not much of an illustration studio infrastructure anymore (if that it the right word) where you could be in an apprentice situation that I know of. (Except perhaps video games?)

    Another topic in addition to preparedness is many of these graduating students have a staggering amount of student loan debt.

  2. Disney was and probably still has an apprenticeship-based art department and as you mention probably games and toys would be another place. Here in New York I do know of illustrators who bring in students or recent graduates to work with them on projects. I think this is the way it could be done. Another example: Eddie Guy apprenticed with Jim McMullen after graduation before striking out on his own, so it is possible to do.

    A real apprenticeship situation like I'm speaking about would eliminate a college education, you would bring in high school graduates to work with established artists and illustrators. Radical perhaps but what we're doing now isn't producing the results we need.

  3. From my perspective (looking back) the rigorousness of art school failed miserably to reflect the rigorousness of making it as an illustrator. Most art schools are for profit and are increasingly owned by one large parent company (eg, Full Sail University, Art Institute). Share holders do not care about student success rates. The marketplace does not care about the aptitude or post graduation success of their students but on how many children can be shoved through a system designed to vacuum up as much cash as possible via exorbitant tuitions, that in no way reflect your earning potential post-graduation.

  4. This is an interesting discussion, I like the talk of apprenticeship. It's a time-honored and time-tested method, a shame that it's fallen by the wayside in our profession.

    I for one did not have the chance to study illustration, and often wish I had. I sometimes regret that I didn't have a solid, professional portfolio until some 6 years after graduation. It's easy for me to believe that, had I gone through and Illustration program, I could have saved myself those 6 'wasted' years, but I think that's a fallacy.

    I have seen some new illustrators in the last few years whose work really impressed me, and duly followed their work, only to discover one or two other artists from the same school and year doing incredibly similar work. It gave me pause, and I reconsidered my regrets about my education.

    After my BFA came several years of part-timing, getting little jobs where I could and learning my trade mistake by mistake while scrubbing dishes and chopping potatoes to pay my way. It took years before I had really started to get at the truth of my 'style' or my 'voice' and could put together a respectable book.

    The thing is, though it took so long to find, that's how I'm sure it's really mine. I don't know if I could have come out of an illustration program with the same result.

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