From Art Making to Art Thinking: New Paradigms for Illustration Education
By Bryn Barnard, Instructor, DP Visual Art and Theory of Knowledge, American International School of Kuwait
This article examines systemic, existential problems in the field of illustration education and explores potential solutions.
When I was an illustration student at Art Center in Pasadena, California, I lived with a group of other aspiring artists in a seedy apartment building in nearby Highland Park called the Golden Palm. My roommate was James Gurney. My neighbors were Paul Chadwick and Thomas Kinkade. Tom could do a dead-on impersonation of Art Center's beloved illustration chair, Philip Hayes. At our evening show-and-tells, one of us would proudly display a drawing or painting done in class that day and Tom would sadly shake his head. “Concept,” he'd drawl, “where's the caahn-cept?” The room would howl with laughter. We were at Art Center to learn skills: color theory, paint chemistry, brush technique, and mostly drawing, drawing, drawing the human figure. We wanted wrist mileage. Phil's mantra, that ideas were what mattered most, seemed hilarious.
Phil and Tom are both dead now, but their argument continues. Skill is crucial in the creation of an illustration, but a well-observed drawing is merely a well-observed drawing. A concise concept, a radiant idea communicated through those skills, is what gives an illustration transcendent power. Apparently, we were paying attention. Paul Chadwick went on to create Concrete, an insightful series of graphic novels about a thoughtful man trapped in a body of rock. James Gurney invented Dinotopia, hisbeautifully-realized world where dinosaurs and people live in harmony. Tom became the Painter of Light, whose Christian-inspired vision of a perfect world, made him, arguably, one of the most recognized - and controversial - branded artists of recent times.
A shrinking field
These days, opportunities for transcendent illustration are becoming fewer. Although the contribution of arts cultural goods and services to the US economy in 2011 has been estimated at $504 billion (NEA, 2014), illustration is a shrinking part of that pie. Illustration as a cultural and economic force has continued the decline that began with the invention of photography and accelerated with the ascendence of film and television (Glazer, 2003). Traditional opportunities in the field have become less due to recession, the shrinking of publishing, the increased use and reuse of stock imagery, the growth of piracy, smaller advertising budgets, the transition from traditional to digital media and the flattening of the cost of global digital communication, putting American illustrators in direct competition for commissions with artists from countries with much lower fees and living costs (Vormitagg, 2014; Giadinna, 2013).
As Milton Glazer (2003) remarked at ICON3 in Philadelphia:
“...all of us in the field of illustration are beginning to feel we’ve been struck in the head and have fallen into a coma and are waiting to wake up at a more generous time.”
In the eleven years since Glazer's pronouncement, if anything, things have gotten less generous. True, new opportunities have evolved in film, animation and video. Since 1985, animators from just one school, Cal Arts have accounted for 30 billion dollars in revenue for Hollywood (California Institute of the Arts, 2014). But these industries, too, are migrating to lower priced markets, like China, which is angling for an increasing share of the global animation market and aims to have three to five animation industrial parks in place by 2015 (China Briefing, 2012). Since 2003, over twenty US visual effects houses have closed (HollywoodEndingMovie, 2014). In 2013, one of the best, Rhythm&Hues, announced its bankruptcy only a few days before its pièce de résistance, Life of Pi, won the special effects Oscar (Giadinna, 2013). Five hundred special effects artists picketed the event to protest their contract conditions (Giadinna, 2013). In the documentary Life After Pi, one of R&H's senior visual effects advisors refers to himself as a “pixel gypsy,” living out of suitcases, moving from country to country chasing effects work, seeking better subsidized and lower-tax environments in Canada, the UK and the developing world (HollywoodEndingMovie, 2014). The company couldn't race to the bottom fast enough.
Despite these problems, the enthusiasm for illustration in academia has increased. NASAD, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design has gone from accrediting a handful of art programs in 1980, few of whom offered illustration, to a groaning roster of over 323 accredited members today, seventy-six of whom offer an illustration major (NASD, 2014). Illustration education, once a vocation taught by experts like Howard Pyle, with few academic credentials (Pitz, 1965), now has adopted the most tropes of the ivory tower. An MFA in illustration - an object of mockery by students at Art Center three decades ago when the first one there was offered - is now an academic degree available at fourteen NASAD-accredited colleges ( NASD, 2014). In the UK you can get a PhD in illustration (Anglia Ruskin, 2014). Illustration now even has an academic journal that uses the rarified jargon of International Art English, where ideas like relational aesthetics, dialogic aesthetics and connective aesthetics are discussed to evaluate the genre (Vormitagg 2014). And of course, illustration now has a bona fide academic conference: the ICON Education Symposium.
It doesn't add up
Those academic trappings don't come cheap. The price of an illustration education has exploded since 1978, sustained, even more than the rest of American higher education, with massive private college loans (Simon and Barry, 2013). As Noah Bradley has pointed out in his essay, Don't Go to Art School (2013), a four-year design education a Rhode Island School of Design tops out at $245,816, considerably more than an education at Harvard Law ($236,100) (Bradley, 2013). It is true that top illustrators can still earn impressive money. One anonymous respondent to a 3x3 magazine survey (3x3, 2011) of six-hundred self-selected illustrators stated an income at $980,000, which is good since an online debt repayment calculator recommends an annual income of $400,000 to pay off that RISD loan in ten years (Bradley, 2013). But, according to Forbes (Goudreau, 2012), which rates commercial art as one of the ten worst college majors, median income for new grads is around $32,000 and experienced grads only $49,000. The 3x3 survey average is a bit higher: $53,000 (3x3, 2011). Illustration education professionals who address this reality encourage illustrators to brand (Spalenka, 2014), to spam, to blog, to tweet, develop web traffic, buy ad space (Miller, 2011), and above all to persist as the competition – presumably neck-deep in art school debt - withers and falls away (Moeller, 2011). Imagine selling an engineering or computer science education this way.
Accumulating more skills and more degrees will not solve this problem. There simply aren't enough well-paying illustration jobs in the world to support the zombie apocalypse of deeply indebted graduates that American art schools continue to churn out. It is not ethically defensible to continue training them the way we do in the numbers we do.
This is, of course, part of a larger problem. In his essay, The End of Higher Education's Golden Age, NYU Professor Clay Shirky (2014) argues that the current model of higher education is bankrupt:
“As long as the income was incoming, we were happy to trade funding our institutions with our money (tuition and endowment) for funding it with other people’s money (loans and grants.) … The value of our core product—the Bachelor’s degree—has fallen in every year since 2000, while tuition continues to increase faster than inflation...If we can’t keep raising costs for students (we can’t) and if no one is coming to save us (they aren’t), then the only remaining way to help these students is to make a cheaper version of higher education for the new student majority.”
The atelier alternative
So, what's an illustration program to do? Well for one, look around. The United States is now in the midst an accelerating counter-revolution to Modernism in the form of the figurative revival and the academic atelier (Graves, 2007). Ateliers aren't accredited and don't offer degrees The Art Renewal Center, the web-based, self-appointed champion of traditional Western art values, has a list of over two hundred “ARC-approved” ateliers that teach nineteenth-century-style drawing and painting.
ARC is unapologetically reactionary (Ross, 2014), disparaging of modernity and dismissive of photography (Graves, 2007). ARC promotes the work of numerous “Living Masters” (including some well-known illustrators like Julie Bell) to spread the gospel of nineteenth century neoclassical aesthetics. Atelier training costs a fraction of an illustration education (about $30,000 or less for a two-year course) and for the best work there's a ready market of buyers (Graves, 2007). So one possible solution to illustration education's dilemma would be to return to the metier's vo-tech roots: double down on the skill side, cut fees, dump the BFA, MFA and PhD, and reemphasize the connections to nineteenth-century European academic painting. Setting up elite, highly competitive, low-cost, in-house ateliers within illustration departments for students interested not in an art degree but just rigorous academic training would be one way to capture a new, growing market.
STEM into STEAM
Another possibility, one with more potential risks but also potential for greater success for a larger group of artists, is for illustration education - at least part of illustration education - to reinvent itself as an engine of creative innovation. A growing bodyof knowledge is recognizing the importance of visual arts to innovation in other fields (Littman, 2013; Root-Bernstein, 2007; Shlain 1991). One outcome of this changing understanding of art is STEM into STEAM, championed by the Rhode Island School of Design (Lahey, 2014) and embraced by the National Association of Art Education (NAEA, 2014). STEM is the National Science Foundation's initiative to teach Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) as a core K-12 educational focus, with the goal of raising from the current paltry eight percent, the number of college undergrads who go into STEM fields (Lahey, 2014). STEAM seeks to inject art and design training into STEM (STEM + Art = STEAM), to encourage the integration of art and design into K-12 education and to encourage employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation (RISD, 2014). STEAM is an idea, not an organization. Several competing entities claim to be the voice of STEAM, including STEAM Education and STEAM.org. STEAM even has a Congressional Caucus (Steam Education, 2014).
STEAM case studies include The California College of the Arts' efforts to address solutions to climate change through participation at the 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa (the only art school in attendance); New York's Institute of Play, which seeks to redesign the principles of education around games; and RISD itself, which in 2011 collaborated with scientist-in-residence Marta Gomez-Chiarti to develop new methods of information dissemination (RISD, 2014). I suspect most current illustration programs do not have a scientist-in-residence.
There's push-back (Dunning, 2014), of course, since money for art means money someone else isn't getting. Vince Bertram, CEO of Project Lead The Way, which claims to be the leading voice for K-12 STEM education, suggests that STEM drives inventiveness in the arts, not the other way around, and that budget-pressed governments and school districts should focus on encouraging creativity within STEM disciplines (Bertram, 2014). But one has only to look at the famous case of the calligraphy course that future Apple co-founder Steve Jobs took at Reed College during his six-month stint there as an undergraduate to understand the profound affect art can have on a receptive student. Lloyd Reynolds taught the course. It was holistic and cross-disciplinary. It taught Jobs taste, and the seductive power of beauty, which he put to extraordinarily good use in the design of Apple products (Adams, 2011).
An educational idea conceptually related to STEAM is “artscience,” the brainchild of Harvard's David Edwards, which he describes as “the simultaneously imaginative and analytical process that underlies all creative thought” (The Artscience Prize, 2014). Artscience is a hybrid area that pairs artists and scientists, makes artists part of science teams and brings scientists into areas traditionally reserved for artists (Edwards, 2010). The Artscience Prize supports student projects at a dozen locations around the world. Three Artscience labs founded by Edwards are endeavoring to become centers for cultural innovation and experimentation (The Artscience Prize, 2014).
Whereas STEAM initiatives tend to emanate from the art and design world, the impetus for artscience projects come mostly from the science institutions. More than twenty medical schools, including Harvard, Yale, Rutgers, Cornell and Columbia already have developed art classes for medical students to train their ability to see and empathize (Jones and Peart, 2009; Finn, 2012; HMS, 2013; Livio 2013). Medical students who take the Harvard course, “Training the Eye,” make forty percent more clinical observations than untrained students, which can means fewer tests and thus, potentially huge financial savings ( HMS, 2013 and Naghshineh, 2008).
Art saves money. Cost-benefit analysts take note.
Individual artists are also using science to inform their work in profound ways. The Neukom Vivarium, an installation by artist Mark Dion, is one example of art science, a hi-tech greenhouse in Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park designed to keep alive a fallen western hemlock from which seedlings grow, a “nurse log.” Shades open and close, misters mist, drawer collections elaborate the biodiversity of the tree ecosystem. Experiencing the Vivarium, the viewer understands just how hard we have to work to do what nature does for free. This isn't illustration, but it is art that, like the best illustration, illuminates. (Otto, 2014)
Another artscientist is Anna Dumitriu. Supported by the Wellstone Trust, a science foundation, she crochets MRSA and staphylococcus into quilts, and felts tuberculosis bacteria (Medinart, 2014). Such pursuits may seem silly or outré to illustration educators, but bacterial art has a venerable pedigree. Alexander Fleming enjoyed playing in the lab and creating petri dish portraits and landscapes with a pin and a palette of multi-colored bacteria. In the process he discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin, one of the most important medical breakthroughs of the twentieth century.
Think like an artist
It is old news that art play is central to scientific innovation. In his book Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, medical doctor Leonard Slain (1991) suggests that human beings have a universal, evolving meta-consciousness that visionary artists are the first to channel and express in their art, years before the ideas develop rationally in science.
He links, for example the invention of the elliptical halo during the Quattrocentro to Newton's invention of the calculus a century later. Calculus, of course, was used to calculate, among other things, the path of ellipses, which we used to get Apollo 11 to the moon and back (Braeunig, 2009).
In their book, Sparks of Genius:The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People, Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein (2000) have shown how the Renaissance invention of anamorphosis - the projection and distortion of one dimension onto another, used to make maps, linear perspective and the angular distortions that have made a sidewalk chalk career for artist Kurt Wenner and his imitators (Wenner, 2011) - migrated into other fields. In surveying, anamorphosis enabled GaspardMonge to work out the principles of projective geometry, important to engineering and architecture. In the nineteenth century, biologist D'Arcy Thompson showed how the shapes of organisms evolve by anamorphic distortions. The motion picture industry uses anamorphosis in wide screen projection. The ripples continue to spread.
The Root-Bersteins make the point, repeatedly, that the kind of art thinking they endorse is not innate, but can be taught with the thirteen thinking tools in the title of their book: observing, imaging, abstracting, recognizing patterns, forming patterns, analogizing, body thinking, empathizing, dimensional thinking, modeling, playing, transforming and synthesizing. They are relying on precedent. The most famous scientist of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein, is renowned for hisgedankenexperiment, thought experiments, visualizing the perceptions of a passenger, for example, traveling on a train at the speed of light. Though you get the impression from some biographers that this was something Einstein invented along with his Theory of Relativity (Norton, 2013), in fact he was taught how to think this way at the Kanton Schule in Arrau, Switzerland (Root-Bernstein, 1991). Students learned to feel what it felt like to be inside a physical system. They learned to draw and create models. Nonverbal non-mathematical forms of thinking were at the center of their education. Einstein was an under-performer until he transferred to Kanton Schule. He used those visualization tools to upend our understanding of the way the universe operates (Root-Bernstein, 1991). He was a pretty good patent inspector, too.
Einstein imagined what it was like to be a photon. He played. In 1931 Alexander Calder, a sculptor who loved the circus and continually invented for fun, invented the mobile, a kind of perpetually moving hanging kinetic sculpture (Guggenheim, 2014). Years later art student Kenneth Snelson was studying with Bauhaus master Josef Albers and polymath Buckminster Fuller (Root-Bernstein, 1991). Snelson decided to play with Calder's mobile concept and Fuller's tetrahedral principle of stability. He ended up inventing tensegrity, a set of isolated components inside a net of compression, which is now being applied in architecture and understanding the structures of the body (Levin, 2006).
Mathematician Roger Penrose was inspired by the reality-bending work of artist M.C. Escher to play with geometric shapes. He invented the impossible triangle and the endless staircase, both of which Escher, returning the compliment, famously used in his art (Root-Bernstein, 1991). Fascinated by Escher's use of tessellations, Penrose went on to discover infinitely non-repeating tessellations - Penrose patterns - that were eventually discovered in nature (quasi-crystals) and more recently, in the Islamic patterns that were the original inspiration for Escher's art (Prange, 2009)
But as the National Endowment for the Arts learns every time funding is slashed, getting the public, politicians and educators to think of art as not just useful, but essential will take some doing (Scott, 2014). Fine art has spent more than a century making itself apart, ironic, incomprehensible, (Vormitagg, 2014) and as Oscar Wilde put it, useless.
From art making to art thinking
This is where illustration has an advantage. Unlike fine art, illustration has to be readable. It has to communicate. It has to sell an idea, a product, a story. That's the point. Illustrators play, but they play with purpose. Illustration education, with its focus on communication, visualization and story-telling, has the potential to take advantage of the STEM/STEAM art/science paradigm shift. Illustrators think transformatively: they take verbal ideas and change them into visual imagery, they learn to observe carefully, they learn to put themselves in the shoes of their characters, they visualize imaginary worlds, they imagine how an audience will perceive their work. Moreover, illustration training is, ipso facto, active, hands-on, inquiry-based learning, which a growing body of evidence has shown has definitive advantages over passive, lectured-based instruction (Bhatia, 2014). Students in STEM classes who engage in active learning remember more and get better grades ( Freeman, 2014). STEM can learn a lot from the way we teach illustrators.
I believe illustration education is well suited to transition from art making - creating pictures - to art thinking - visualizing ideas - and to partner with schools, universities and professional institutions to integrate visualization in all fields: math, english, social science, physical education and natural science. I'm talking about not just specialized art making in art class, but holistic art thinking in all classes. Today many K-12 schools have Literacy Coaches whose job is to help teachers improve writing skills. Illustration programs could train Imaging Coaches who would enable teachers to teach visualization, creative communication and guided creative play. At the K-12 level, such teachers would treat the development of picture-making skills with the same reverence in which we now hold writing. They could follow the lead of Misty Adoniou, a professor at the University of Canberra, who has shown how letting students draw their first draft of their essays instead of writing them makes for better writing, accelerated learning and better comprehension (Adoniou, 2013). At the post-secondary level, art thinking programs would teach higher-level visual skills to doctors, engineers, biochemists, physicists, military planners, politicians and climate scientists.
This is not just an exercise in saving illustration education from conceptual and financial implosion. One has only to take a cursory glance at the predictionist literature to know that we will need radical new ideas to confront a future of unprecedented environmental, political and social problems: rising sea levels, mega-droughts and famines, water-wars, environmental refugees on the move, novel epidemics, the cessation of ocean currents, even the destruction of the ozone layer (Dyer, 2011 and Ward, 2007). Business as usual, thinking as usual, illustration as usual, won't cut it. It may be grasping at straws to hope that art offers a solution, but at this point in the arc of civilization, we need our brightest, most unorthodox minds to take risks, make unorthodox connections, see with new eyes. Art thinking is one way to address what promises to be, as that Chinese curse puts it, “interesting times.”
A new approach
I’ve seen advantages of art thinking in my own career. Although, as far as I know, none of my illustrations have opened wormholes into new fields of research, my illustration career has predisposed me toward art-science teaming. I've done my share of children's books and bus ads and magazine portraits, but the science history-books I've written and illustrated have steeped me in the process of solving problems in the world. Dangerous Planet looks at the ripples of change natural disasters pulse across history. Outbreak considers the hard lessons epidemics have taught us about providing equitable access to healthcare for all human beings. The Genius of Islam explores the deep connections between the Islamic World and the West
My forays into the academic arena - a Fulbright fellowship, a Crane-Rogers fellowship, a consultancy at Universities Field Staff International - have shown me the importance of artsy non-linear thinking to come up with non-obvious solutions.
I now teach International Baccalaureate art at the American International School of Kuwait. It isn’t illustration training, nor a STEAM nor an artscience curriculum. But it suggests an approach. IB art mixes art history, art criticism and art making. Our students go on to study engineering, medicine, business, art and design. Colleague Angie Hani and I stress sophisticated art thinking as students devise a framework on which to build, over two years, twelve to eighteen artworks around a theme. In their Investigative Workbooks they research artists of influence, analyze artworks of inspiration, develop approaches to picture solving. Students work as much preparing and researching as they do executing the finished work. It's that preparation that helps them grow artistically and intellectually. The finished art is the frosting. An analogous process, of course, goes into every scientific, business, and policy advance.
My student Jane Sleiman, for example, explored the different facets of human isolation: the masks we wear, the lies we tell, the emotions we experience. Ferras al Habib's study of his mother's life was inspired by her unexpected death. His suite of artworks included a meditation on her smile; the stages of her forty-seven years of life as child, newlywed, mother and hospice patient; and finally a sarcophagus for the last piece of clothing in her closet. Farah Marafie's exploration of the media's impact on her self-image started with a sculpted head generated from a poll of her classmates' favorite features, evolved into a door of locks to keep the real her safe from inspection, and ended with a let-it-all-hang-out head-to-toe X-ray of her body displayed on a life size light-box. Will any of these students grow up to be part of that group of inventive minds who can save us from ourselves ? I hope so.
Art thinking may take some holistic re-imagining in illustration departments where the focus for the last decades has been training students to use an ever expanding, ever more specialized armamentarium of traditional and digital tools for an increasingly fragmented market. Art thinking is a new market with new clients with different needs. Art thinking will have to prove itself as an essential link to creativity and innovation, one of the links that can make the difference between success and failure in business, in national competition and in human survival.
But this is a market there for the taking, if only we have the courage to try.
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Biography and Experience
Bryn Barnard is the author and illustrator of Dangerous Planet: Natural Disasters That Changed History (Crown, 2003), Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History (Crown 2005), The Genius of Islam: How Muslims Made the Modern World (Knopf, 2011), and the forthcoming The New Ocean: The Fate of Life in a Changing Sea (Knopf). He studied studio art at the University of California, Berkeley and illustration at Art Center College of Design. He has been a faculty member in the Department of Art at the University of Delaware, Newark; the Department of Illustration at The University of the Arts, Philadelphia; the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester at Sea; and as a Fulbright fellow, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang. Currently, he teaches art at the American International School of Kuwait and is a frequent guest lecturer at international schools in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Solo exhibitions of his illustrations include shows at The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia and the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC.