The Illustration in Our New, New Visual Culture

10 November 2011


View looking down at the foldout pages of illustrators Milton Glaser and Jean Michel Folon’s The Conversation (1983).

Top View of The Conversation (1983), 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011

Top view of art book, 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011

Experiments in Night Photography

Night # One, 2011

Night # One, 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011

Night # Two, 2011

Night # Two, 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011


History demonstrates our affinity for drawing the world as we interpret it. Those human renderings (e.g., found on cave walls, animal horns and tusks, cloth, ceramics, petroglyphs, and paper) are threads that connect commentary about the complexity and simplicity of the human condition. We must immortalize our experiences through art.

We continue this longing to use our creativity and imagination to make permanent our society’s actions and behaviors–culturally, economically, politically, scientifically and socially. Our visually-intoxicated society is being lolled and seduced by images, and recently I’ve noticed an increase in the use of illustrations in the media that we read.

Since print became an invention that completely altered human communication, illustrations have enriched text and meaning. Its popularity has fluctuated. But now this human mark seems to be omnipresent, especially in magazines and newspapers. Even as the use of text increases with new iterations of digital technology, illustrations are being used in greater quantities, which is possibly the result of the visual culture that saturates our world.

Illustrators create a narrative, which spawns their individual style. While some weave image and text, others rely on the visual alone for the message. It depends on how they want to lure you into their story.

Sure there are gems that have always included the art of illustration in its pages (e.g., The New Yorker with its sumptuous cover art). But I’ve noticed there are greater numbers of illustrations where photographs and text once reigned. The New York Times is my steady study, but it is just the tip of the past tipping point. Examples from the Times: October 09, 2011, magazine section with cover and main article called Taken by Pirates by Jeffrey Gettleman and illustrated by Wesley Allsbrook (see,%202011%20Taken%20by%20Pirates&st=cse) or Christopher Niemann’s art from 2009 and last Sunday ( and

The diversity of illustrated art is so broad and narrow at the same time.  The artists are generalists and specialists who create an image, and the viewer can absorb it quickly or linger in the layers of meaning. The convergence of self-expression with the needs of popular media manifests itself through individual interpretation and reinterpretation.

Today’s illustrators can combine drawing skills, color and textural sensibilities with contemporary tools that produce memorable images. But others stay with traditional techniques that boosts the labor intensity to its apex.

Some of my favorite illustrated books preceded by their illustrator: Rockwell Kent (Moby Dick), Maurice Sendak (the Grimm fairy tale Dear Milli), Maira Kalman (The Principles of Uncertainty), Lauren Redniss  (Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout), and my favorite, favorite: Henri Matisse (Ulysses). Probably, the illustrator that prompts my affection is Milton Glaser whose studio I visited in New York City in the 1980s. I cherish his foldout art book The Conversation (1983), which he created with Jean Michel Folon (1934-2005). Glaser’s renderings of Claude Monet continue to make me smile.

It’s hard to find a comprehensive and current book about illustrators and illustrations as contributions to art history and the popular culture. So when I discovered the anthology Artist to artist, 23 Illustrators Talk to Children about Their Art (2007), I found a sumptuous reference. The book captivates the senses and holds them tight, giving the reader insight into each artist’s passion and triumphant talent. It’s just the right balance between art and text. Foldouts tell the illustrator’s personal story, which gives a sweeping view of the breath of their work. As I turn each page of this collection and absorb its content, I know that it is one that will be worn thin from use. The book twists my thoughts in a good way, letting me see the extraordinary produced by a survey of über artists.

The new, new popularity of illustration is a testament to these artists’ adaptability in a media-driven age. These visual communicators wave the ultimate interdisciplinary wand, incubating and maneuvering art and ideas that reaches beyond the edges of their creative tool boxes. The range of their image making is astounding. Just go online and peruse the Society of Illustrators website: you will be challenged to absorb the wealth of abilities. I am. Oh, and by happenstance, New York City is celebrating Illustration Week through November 13.

As the demand for our visual attention expands, the strength of an illustration can be a source of our focus or not. Fortunately, we have talented artists that capture our attention with their aesthetic, style and technique. Since I am a visual thinker, I’m ready for the profusion of that art.

Note: As always, I welcome comments about my photographs and writing.

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8 Responses to The Illustration in Our New, New Visual Culture

  1. I’ll join with the others in saying that I appreciate your abstract view of The Conversation.

    Steve Schwartzman

  2. Nancy says:

    One of the first, and my favorite, illustrators is N. C. Wyeth. As a child I loved the classics, especially Treasure Island! Also, The Society of Illustrators in NY is a great resource for and about illustrators:

  3. I too love that first image. Great perspective there, Sally. Wonderful. I like the other two images too. Very interesting and intriguing to my eye. And thanks for the information on illustrations. I’m a very visual person, so it’s great to hear that. Great post, Sally!

  4. Gracie says:

    Love the top view of the art book. Great perspective!

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