the iconic original cover for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Books In one of those strange coincidences which happen, from time to time, in the week the Matisse art book exhibition opens at The Walker, I’ve been sent a review copy of Derek Brazell and Jo Davies’s Making Great Illustrations, a collection of interviews with contemporary artists working in similar fields. While it's still too early, with a couple of exceptions, to tell whether any of the illustrators featured will have the same cultural impact as Matisse, or to be fair would ever claim to be aspiring in that direction, it’s still useful to see how in some ways, sixty years later, the profession of creating art books and art for clients in the advertising and publishing industry hasn’t changed that much.

Like Matisse, these artists are very careful to make sure they’re able to pursue private projects even whilst they’re slaving away for commissioning clients and find some demarcation between the two (the few exceptions being those creating books and graphic novels where both impulses are intertwined like Matisse's own later work). They all have stories of working for clients who’re more interested in asserting control over the work rather than offering useful suggestions but similarly they’re all able to talk about clients who value their creative impulse understanding that they’re only able to produce their best work when left to use the brief as a starting point.

To my surprise there are loads of illustrators whose work I recognise. Emma Dibben is the key illustrator for Waitrose and her goache and ink drawings define their food range and its their distinctiveness which makes it my supermarket of choice. I’m gratified to know that she will refuse a job if she feels the food has been sourced unethically. Jeff Fisher produced the iconic original cover for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and he’s an example of an artist who’s become subtly pervasive across different subjects. Children’s illustrator Quentin Blake is perhaps the best known thanks to his work with Roald Dahl, and as he says, often his drawings are more introspective than the text.

On top of that, there are some real discoveries. Catalina Estrada’s fashion designs which smash together Japanese iconograohy with a Spanish sensibility are enthralling and utterly wearable and only make me curse once again the uniformity of male dress. In a similar tone, David Downton’s spare, abstract fashion illustrations have been employed when a client wants something different to a more typical photograph and is perhaps best known for his painting of Cate Blanchett which graced the fiftieth anniversary issue of VOGUE. Mairan Bantjes’s textual experiments have led to a table created to support Doctors Without Borders, a message urging donations laser-etched into the wood.

Illustrators should gain insight, empathy and a rich seam of passive advice within the deftly distilled thoughts of these artists. There is some repetition, but quite often the repetition in and of itself is interesting. Each interview includes a location note and almost every artist has moved from their birthplace, having had to go where the work was or now comfortable enough to be able to choose their place of work. There’s a sense of ambition on display here, that you have to make yourself noticed. Which I suppose is a lesson even those of us who’ve never been that visually creative can learn from.

Making Great Illustration by Derek Brazell and Jo Davie. AC Blacks. 2011. RRP: £35.00. ISBN: 978-1408124536. Review copy supplied.

[A blog by the authors covering the writing process is available here].

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