A Science Lover Defends the Value of Illustration

A Science Lover Defends the Value of Illustration

Although November 3-8th, has been Illustration Week in New York City, many New Yorkers don’t know this week exists. Don’t bother searching for it on the websites of the New York Times, The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine or the Village Voice because you’ll come up empty. The art directors of these periodicals routinely work with illustrators, right? In the proverbial capital of publishing, advertising, fashion and art, it’s shocking that illustration has a public relations problem. Even if you didn’t know the exact days for Fashion Week, chances are you would have read or heard some headline announcing its sacred arrival into Gotham.

Illustration is involved in the most intimate parts of your life. It’s on the surface of your favorite dress. It’s on thewalls of your dentist’s office. It helped your surgeon learn how to stitch that cut on your hand. It played a huge role in the movie you watched last night. It was in the science textbooks that taught you about photosynthesis. It’s there in your homes, enriching the pages of your children’s books. It’s on the pages of your favorite periodical, helping you instantly understand the absurdity of the latest political fight in Washington. How is it possible that an art form so pervasive in our culture is also so undervalued?

Do you know there is currently no comprehensive textbook devoted to the history of illustration? With the exception of Steven Heller’s books, the dearth of critical analysis about illustration has actually inspired a grass roots movement called the History of Illustration Project (HIP) that has brought together experts on illustration to develop a textbook. Why has illustration been relegated to a few chapters in collegiate fine arts textbooks? Why is it considered an insult to many fine artists if their work is described as illustrative? One common answer is that fine arts are more conceptually driven and illustration is too commercial.

Is it fair to disparage illustrators for doing commercial work when many top fine art intuitions and fine artists have corporate patrons? I agree there is a difference between commercial clients hiring an illustrator to create work following a strict set of their guidelines and a corporate client investing in the work of a fine artist. There is a difference in the scope of work. The fine artist has more creative freedom. However, to diminish the illustrator’s value because he’s working for “the man” is hypocritical. In the most influential sectors of the fine art world, it’s only “the man” who can afford to pay the premium prices for original art. Also, let’s stop reducing the work of illustrators to that of just advertising gigs. As I demonstrated earlier, illustrators are involved in many different industries.

The accusation that illustration is not as conceptually driven as the fine arts, may be the symptom of the illustration industry being bullied by the fine arts world for too long. An illustrator translating an author’s story, a scientific report, or the cultural nuances of a political debate into an easy-to-understand image is a casebook example of conceptual thinking. The fact that the illustrator is operating under more rigid guidelines than the fine artist does not lessen his or her intellectual acumen.

In an era in which art programs are being slashed while science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs are receiving a greater share of public funding, illustration could be the savior that art needs. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 16 percent of American high school seniors are interested in a STEM career. How could you get more American children interested in STEM? Use illustration. I grew up wanting to be an artist, but ended up earning a college degree in neuroscience. Ironically, it was my experience studying the sciences that taught me the importance of art.

As a child I loved drawing and watching nature documentaries, two activities that were unrelated in my head until I watched the animated film “The Lion King.” I remember I was so moved by artistry of the animals and the music that I actually cried during the opening scene. Suddenly, everything I read or saw on TV about ecosystems became real in my head. Then at the age of fifteen I watched a documentary about fractals found in nature. The gorgeous patterns radiating on the screen reminded me of fashion prints, jewelry and the medical illustrations of blood vessels in my mother’s nursing textbooks. It solidified the connection between the visual arts, math and biology.

When I struggled during my neuroscience courses in college, I took refuge in the gorgeous science illustrations lining my textbooks. When I felt like an outsider among my more linear-thinking classmates, I felt a sense of universal connection when I observed the beautiful patterns of cells under the microscope. When I chastised myself for being naïve enough to choose science over art, I calmed my nerves by creating bookmarks illustrated with vivid patterns inspired by biological structures. It was my love of illustration that kept me interested in science.

Years later, while working at various medical advertising agencies I learned about the professional field of science illustration. I discovered that even for a highly educated and highly skilled audience like physicians, a beautifully rendered illustration of a physiological process was always preferred over paragraphs of text. Further, it was my interest in science illustration that led me to take fine arts courses at local colleges and to start reading more about art history. I didn’t really start visiting art museums and galleries until my mid-twenties.

Most kids love to draw and look at illustrations, yet as they grow older they are told that art is frivolous. Next time you feel tempted to say that, ask your child to a illustrate a concept they learned in school and you’ll quickly learn the critical thinking skills involved in translating a story or concept into a visual. Fine artists, the next time you feel the need to dismiss the commercial elements of illustration, remember who is underwriting the institutions exhibiting your work and realize those “lowly” illustrators may inspire some child to advocate for the importance of the arts one day. Illustrators, it’s time to embrace and remind the public of the significant contributions you make to contemporary life.

If you know an illustrator, say thank you this week. They probably don’t hear it enough. When you’re done, head over to the Society of Illustrators to see the remaining illustration events happening in New York City.

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