Celebrating the Art of Illustration

My dictionary defines 'illustration' as 'the action of clarifying or explaining and 'material used to clarify or explain.'  A pencil, pen or brush in the hands of a skilled artist can be used to create material in the form of illustrations that clarify and explain the nature of a person, place or thing: the nuanced shades of gray and black on white; the distinctive, dramatic, fluid lines of black ink on paper; or the full range of color values born of the artist's palette, from crimson and cadmium red, through ochres and umbers, cadmium orange and yellow, around and down to ultramarine, viridian and ivory black.     

In this country, illustrators have provided Americans with depictions of every aspect of our culture, the full range of the American experience.  You name it, they've drawn or painted it in magazines, newspapers, books, paperback covers, comic books, and on posters. 

Norman Rockwell is undoubtedly the best known American illustrator, if for no other reason than his monumental feat of painting Saturday Evening Post covers for thirty years.  If you're of a certain age you might recall the illustrations of  Howard Pyle, considered by many to be America's foremost illustrator. Quoting the 'bible' on this subject, Walt Reed's The Illustrator in America: 1860—2000,

'Pyle developed his compositions to present the picture in the strongest possible terms.  His pictures are fascinating to analyze.  No area of a picture is wasted; each makes its contribution, through placement, line, tone, or color, to the whole story.  Through the details, the viewers eye is purposely led toward the focal center.' 

Another grand master of American illustration was one of Pyle's students, N.C. Wyeth.  His style was as bold as his subject matter and his depictions of the medieval era immortalized knights in shining armor. 

The 'golden age' of American illustration covered, roughly, the period 1890—1960.  Illustration magazine, published quarterly, celebrates and documents the artists who inhabited that era.  This beautifully produced and lovingly edited periodical is a feast for the eyes and the imagination. While editor, publisher and designer Dan Zimmer presents some articles about the celebrated icons of that era, such as Frank Schoonover and Haddon Sundblom (creator, Coca—Cola Santa), most issues are devoted to less well—known but equally talented artists such as Robert Fawcett, Frank Frazetta and Reynold Brown. (I use the term 'less well—known' advisedly, since some readers will recognize one or more of these men.) Two issues have been devoted to a single artist deserving of that interest and focus:  Robert Peak and Bernie Fuchs.  And there are articles devoted to the men who illustrated those boxes containing our plastic models of ships and planes, such as John Steel, who happened to be a decorated Marine Corps veteran of WW2 and Korea. 

Illustration magazine was launched in 2001 by Dan Zimmer, who tells me that the idea for it was born when he was in high school.

'I was very interested in comic books, Norman Rockwell, old pulp magazines, and classic illustrators like Maxfield Parrish.  The Step—by—Step Graphics magazine profiled a number of old illustrators who I either never heard of before, or had only limited exposure to in the past.  I remember thinking at the time that it would be incredible if a whole magazine were devoted to such material.' 

After moving back to St. Louis, following art school classes at New York's Parson School of Design, Dan and a friend produced a heavy metal music fan magazine.  That experience laid the groundwork.  He then learned about magazine distribution, printing and all that he needed to know for launching his own publication. 

'The idea did not come to me as a bolt from the blue, it was just something that had always been there in my mind.  I didn't think of it as a startling new invention or anything, it was just something that filled a void.  Once I started the ball rolling, things started to fall into place. My goal is to document the history of a vanishing art form, which is commercial illustration.  Most of the history of these artists is unknown or unpublished.  In many cases, if I don't publish a story on a particular artist, chances are no one ever will.  I have given a lot of space to 'lesser artists' in an attempt to broaden our horizons.  The magazine tends to focus on biography more than rigorous academic examination and I think that's because we need to see more of the history of illustration before we can start examining it critically.'

Dan Zimmer addressed the illustration vs. art argument in his comments to me:

'A lot is often made of whether illustration is really 'art' or not.  I don't think there's a reason to debate the issue.  Illustration is a completely different kind of art, and can only be seen on its own terms.  Much as comics are their own medium, or fine art exists in its own world, I think illustration exists in a separate space.  It is no greater or lesser because of this.' 

Okay.  Let's go back to the dictionary for my opinion on this subject.  It defines 'artist' as 'one who creates works of art' and 'art' as

'the conscious production of or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty; specifically, the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium.' 

Therefore, illustration is, in my view, art, and that art is celebrated and preserved within the pages of Illustration.    

Each issue of Illustration might be thought of as a unique section in the gallery of commercial illustration. For those of you interested in experiencing a glimpse of the visual and imaginative pleasure each issue provides, go to the magazine's website and click on 'Archive' upper left.  You will then see a page of all its covers.  Click on a cover, note content information, scroll down, then click on 'View thumbnails of all pages' at bottom.  If I may be permitted an advertising line here, let me say — no, let me aver — that Illustration is much more than a mere magazine as you will see.  Enjoy.  

John B. Dwyer is a military historian.

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