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Video and photography are experiencing the resurgence of a more primitive medium: illustration. As advertisers strive for an evermore impactful punch, we delve into the learnings of traditional methods. Our hyperreal industry pushes toward the new and innovative, but could these progressions be correlating with further abstractions from human truths?

The trouble with photography, for all its exceptional qualities, is that it can be rather prescriptive in nature. Sometimes, it can fail to do justice to the subject material. Contrast that with the ability of illustration to realise and express an idea or concept without boundaries, and it’s easy to see how it’s earned its special place in the field of communications. Take January 11th 2016 for example, the day David Bowie passed. One GIF surged across the internet, used by media outlets from the Daily Mail to Mashable and the Guardian to Buzzfeed. The GIF wasn’t created as a reaction to his death; Helen Green had in fact drawn the 29 portraits depicting the different personas throughout Bowie’s career a year earlier – but it brought his work to life in a way photography could not. Or take Jean Julien‘s Peace for Paris motif of 19th November, 2016, which was able to capture the sentiment of millions in a few simple strokes. But these are more than anecdotal examples: they are cultural milestones in the reinstatement of the medium as a primary communicator of relatable human truths. It is the simplicity and rawness of the methods that draws so many artists and creatives to empathise with illustrated forms.

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From cave paintings to Roman engravings, mark-making is a primitive extension of the human ability to communicate and record. History is punctuated by motifs which carry visual attributes that have mapped time for the last 50,000 years. This intrinsic value simply cannot be emulated by other forms of visual communication. Cleon Peterson‘s work (pictured above) celebrates the art form’s primitive nature, reverting to and drawing on its inspiration to confront what he sees as a crisis in what it means to be an individual in the modern world.

“We are seeing a crisis of what it means to be an individual right now on a global scale, and that is what the work speaks to.”
– Cleon Peterson

As addressed in The Synopticon: Creative Bulletin Issue Ten, the toil of being an individual networked in a mass symbiotic web is heavily at play in Peterson’s work. The human mark offers a solution: the raw expression is what’s capable of representing the self, and also communicate to the wider network and provide connections – and this is what makes the medium so compelling.

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Illustration can also embody the cumulation of other human art forms. Take Malika Favre‘s work (pictured above) which plays on themes learned from photography, creating cinematic mood and drama with lighting. Her compositional technique lends from Art’s old masters. The relationship between the two characters borrows from Shakespearean narrative devices. And for individualisation, Favre includes her own personal beauty spot motif. Such detail of concept in photography could only be achieved with computer aided manipulation – for example the most important detail of all: the padlock shadow on the character’s neck. But with the innate realism of the world, impact can be diminished. Favre’s piece was commissioned by The New York Times to accompany an article about the power struggles of rich New York women. A subject the image captures in a moment without victimising a particular stereotype or time period, purely the concept at hand.

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Mike Perry creates ‘popsurreal‘ illustrations (pictured above), n homage to the mediums’ roots. Pop culture and surrealism are two areas that couldn’t be more removed from the traditionalisms of art or its aforesaid primitive nature. Yet, Perry says, “I’m attempting to push the Pop Surreal aesthetic, but at the same time, go back to this world of historical art by celebrating the classic elements: the figure, the still life and the landscape.” Perry proves that even in its most crude and eccentric forms, illustration finds roots in visual culture. Perry is most famous for his intro sequence for Comedy Central’s Broad City, appropriately setting its disobedient, DIY tone.

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Quentin Jones demonstrates illustration’s ability to convey the immaterial with her work for innovative online magazine-style fashion and homeware retailer Semaine – see the Semaine Story. Jones’ interactions between illustrated works and motion are also reflected in her avant-garde productions, like this video with Miley Cyrus. She carries the sentiment, “it’s your brain, it can be whatever you want” throughout her work.

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And it is within this burgeoning trend environment that animation finds a new and arguably more important role. Masanobu Hiraoka’s work (pictured above) for example, shows the new dimensions motion can add to the illustrated form. But also the enhanced importance of sound design, in this case thanks to Aimar Molero, using ASMR inducing audio soundscaping to complete the experience.

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And so in a world where being distinctive is hard, where being individual is harder, and where communications have incredible challenges cutting through to their audiences, illustration, that simple mode of marking marks, offers fantastic latitude. The M&C Saatchi group made animation central to the successful PHE campaign Change4Life, and creative clients like East Midland Trains are using the medium to tell their brand story – see this recent campaign. In modern communication environments there has never been more need for penetrating creativity that is able to make that elemental, decisive impression. 

Conclusion: Illustration & animation are liberated, primal modes of communication. They reach parts that others cannot.

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