It’s cropped up at all the AOI events recently. How can so many illustration courses be allowed to spring up across the country? What’s the point of us training hundreds more would-be illustrators? Do we need them? We’re flooding the industry aren’t we?
As Head of Illustration on just such a course I ducked and exchanged guilty glances with a colleague from another new university during the "Is There a Future for Illustration" event and then began to wonder why some professional illustrators and educators seem so hostile to new courses in illustration.
I find it rather sad and symptomatic of the lack of regard and importance that we illustrators attach to our art, that there seem to be some people in the business who cannot imagine the value to students of studying illustration without the intention of earning their living exclusively and directly from it. I’m surprised that more are not flattered that what they do has stimulated so much interest and enthusiasm to inspire others to spend three years practising and studying the subject.
The recent boom in animation and digital imagery of all kinds, the enormously high standard in British children’s book illustration and the high profile of comic books, all make for a whole new generation of students well clued up on what illustration actually is. And they’re keen to find out about it and have a go themselves. Like it or not there are more students now in higher education than ever before and they want the freedom to choose what and where to study. In my day as an aspiring illustration student you had the choice of Brighton, Chelsea, Kingston, Middlesex and Norwich. Perhaps there was an option in Liverpool or Manchester? To me as a North Midlander the geography said it all, it was exclusive, something for the soft, civilised south.
Now, there are thousands more people across the country being given the chance (many of them later in life) to get a higher education. On a degree course they are provided with an education not a training, they are encouraged to question and to reflect on their work and the subject. A significant proportion of them have no intention of pursuing a freelance career.
Surprisingly there are extraordinarily ill informed views within the illustration and design world about what contemporary higher education is about. Gone are the days when we provided students with a desk, an angle poise lamp, a bit of advice and a project once a month. The good ones did well, the others sank without trace with little gained from their experience. There’s a lot more to it now.
Most institutions these days plan with regard to regional demand as well as the educational and vocational value to students of all ages. Courses or "programmes" come and go, are absorbed, restructured on a regular basis, part-time routes are available, mature students are encouraged, feedback is sought from students and.., the big difference, they pay.
Students have specific needs and expectations, they want the whole university experience. Mostly they are practical, realistic, they and their parents want to know how an illustration degree can be useful to them in the world outside. They can identify this because in addition to the obvious craft and skills based activities such as drawing, painting and IT, we are able to teach them about: problem solving, innovation, original thinking, collaboration, communication, developing a personal agenda, research, understanding text, project management, understanding audiences, historical and social issues, critical analysis, contextual and theoretical awareness. They learn that these are valuable experience and skills to have in any creative business.
The whole illustration industry needs to get in on this new approach to higher education and latch on to the new opportunities that it provides illustration because, as most of us are aware, something that goes with many of these new courses is a commitment to research and practice. Although initially slow off the mark, art and design courses have now. begun to exploit the research funding mechanisms available in higher education and this can do nothing but good, enriching both our identity and the source of material on British illustration as a subject and as a profession. There’s plenty of opportunity here for collaboration on exhibitions, conferences, fellowships, publications and the like. Anyone would agree who has seen Wendy Coates-Smith and Martin Salisbury’s excellent journal "Line" from Anglia Polytechnic University recently (with absorbing articles on Ronald Searle, Sue Coe, Edward Bawden and Walter Hoyle) and Robert Mason’s publication on illustration in the 1990’s "A Digital Dolly" published by Norwich School of Art and Design.
We couldn’t do better than follow the example of this country’s currently best known and best loved illustrator, Quentin Blake who, whilst he was teaching at the The Royal College of Art, went a long way towards lending gravitas and authority to the art of illustration by organising publications, workshops and exhibitions such as "25 Years of Illustration at the RCA", "The Artist as Reporter" and "Radical Illustration". Since then he has also been responsible in his role as children’s laureate, and through the media, for promoting and stimulating interest in illustration. If only there was more of this genuine and contributing interest in education at all levels from individuals in the professional world of illustration and I have to say, the design world, perhaps there might be the substantial national archive and gallery that there ought to be. We need to get together on these sorts of initiatives rather than see ourselves as competitors or rivals and then the sky’s the limit.
There’s a new wave of interest in illustration, it’s a rich and fascinating part of British visual culture, it extends beyond the boundaries of a job of work, so let’s have a genuine partnership and co-operation between the illustrators and the educators (after all many of us are involved in both) Let’s capitalise on this enthusiasm and opportunity, raise the profile and deepen the wealth of material on the art that we and our students are so passionate about.
Jane Stanton is head of Illustration at the University of Derby and a practising illustrator and artist