The Born Illustrator originated as a talk  – which perhaps accounts for the rather odd punctuation. It was delivered to the Double Crown Club at one of their dinners in 1957.

This illustrated version was later published in Motif – A Journal of the Visual Arts no. I, November 1958. Another, slightly shorter, version was published under the title On the Illustrating of Books by The Private Libraries Association in its journal P.L.A. Quarterly (vol.I, no.3, July 1957 pp.26-30). The latter piece is printed in full at Appendix I of Brian Alderson’s Edward Ardizzone, a Bibliographic Commentary pp. 259-263. Private Libraries Association 2003.   cc

 

THE BORN ILLUSTRATOR

 Edward Ardizzone’s views on illustration and the training of illustrators, when presented at a recent meeting of the Double Crown Club, started arguments all over the floor. The author is England’s most prolific illustrator.

 

WE TALK OF born doctors, born musicians, born scientists, and so on. If there is any validity in this simplification, then we may in reason talk about the born illustrator. The born illustrator is sometimes a great artist. He is also very often a bad one. The field in which he functions best is not the de luxe limited edition, in which the text, which nobody reads, is merely a peg for a number of fine plates. It is the novel or tale published at a popular price.

 The born illustrator came to the fore with the rise of the novel as a new art form in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His prototypes were such artists as Cruikshank, Leech and 'Phiz' in England, and Doré, Granville, and possibly Daumier, in France.

Gustave Doré - Don Quixote



Many great artists of the past were in a sense born illustrators and would have certainly enriched the novel, if such a thing had been existent in their day. There are many born illustrators with us now; but since today the novel is rarely illustrated, they either make miserable drawings for the popular magazines, or make even more miserable drawings for the advertisers. There are, I suspect, many painters today who, despising this rather lowly form of art, confine themselves to painting pictures, but who are really illustrators manqué.

 

The two characteristics
There are two things that all born illustrators have in common. The first is that their creative imagination is fired by the written word rather than the thing seen; the second is that when it comes to their illustrations, they would rather make them up than have recourse to life. In fact, as a rule, they don't like drawing from life at all. Cruikshank and Daumier were extreme examples of this. One denied that he ever drew from life and the other was never seen to do so. Much the same could be said about most of the other well-known names.

It might be truly said that the born illustrator is not very interested in life as it is. He likes to create his own version of the world around him. Actuality is not pointed enough for him.

Just in the same way that the author, in writing a work of fiction, created a world which is not reality but has a life of its own, so the illustrator, if he is a good one, creates an imaginary world analogous to that of the author. He creates a visual world, which looks real and which can be believed in. Yet it is not the real world but, like the author's, a fiction.

At his best, the good illustrator does more than just make a pictorial comment on the written word. He produces a visual counterpart which adds a third dimension to the book, making more vivid and more understandable the author's intention. In fact he makes a visual interpretation of the author's text.

A comparison of the work of George Cruikshank and Charles Keene will show the difference between the work of a born illustrator and that of a more painterly draughtsman.

Charles Keene
Keene%20a.jpgKeene was a realist who went very much to life for his inspiration. It was this quality of realism that endeared him to the impressionists, who even went so far as to copy and collect reproductions of his work. One might say that Keene drew like a painter, and his own self-portrait shows that he could paint extremely well.
But, though he was a great draughtsman and a brilliant commentator on everyday life in his Punch cartoons, Keene was not a book illustrator in the true sense. He was too much of a realist. He illustrated few books, and those were early efforts which he did not do very well.

George Cruikshank
Now think of any of Keene's drawings and compare it with any of Cruikshank's - for instance Cruikshank's famous etching of Fagin%20a.jpgFagin in the condemned cell – the picture which moved G. K. Chesterton to write: 'It is not drawn with the free lines of a free man; it has the half-witted secrecies of a hunted thief. It does not look merely like a picture of Fagin: it looks like a picture by Fagin.' What a terrifying little picture this Cruikshank is. How it crystallizes and makes clear the fearful drama implicit in Dickens's text. But this etching of Cruikshank's is not like life at all. I doubt if any condemned cell ever looked quite like this, nor any old Jew, waiting to be hanged, looked quite like that terrified old figure on the bed. Cruikshank, you see, has used a number of stage clichés. The drawing is like a stage setting for a popular melodrama. The Jew himself, with his long hooked nose and staring eyeballs, is a popular conception of what a frightened old Jew should look like. It is not reality.  
Yet the impact of this etching and its sense of reality is all the greater for its basic unreality. It illuminates the text for us. It is a heightened concept of reality. It is in fact a true born illustrator's drawing.
 
Keene, the realist draughtsman, could not have made this drawing and I doubt if he would have wanted to; I am sure that, brilliant draughtsman though he was, he could not have done justice to Dickens's text in the way that Cruikshank did.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, when there was a revival in book design, and when much thought was being given to the look of the book and the quality of its illustrations, enlightened opinion said that to get a book well illustrated one must go to the painter, who, with his painter's eye and sensitivity though often with little technique, would give you the goods.

The net was thrown even wider to include a poster artist like McKnight Kauffer, and various designers who had hit the mode. Anybody in fact but the professional illustrator. At the time one was told 'Young man, look at Keene' or 'What a splendid illustrator Sickert would have been'.  In my bones I never quite believed this.
Some of the books produced at this time were very pretty, some very 'arty' and many now look very dated. Few indeed were illustrated in the true sense of the word, but were merely decorated in a rather precious way.

I am by no means saying that this was a wrong movement. Illustration was at a pretty low ebb, with few or no decent professionals. The painters and those who were not quite painters did produce some good-looking books. But if there had been at that time a few born illustrators the results would have been better and would by now be less dated to look at.
 
Arthur Hughes illus. C. Rossetti 'Sing Song'

One can see the same sort of thing happening towards the end of the nineteenth century, when, under the influence of Ruskin and Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites, the artist with a capital 'A' entered the field. Indeed, how pretty and nicely decorated and niminy-piminy was the result compared to the robust splendours of Rowlandson, Cruikshank, Caldecott and Leech.

 

 

However, to return to our born illustrator. How does he acquire his skill if he does not go to life in the way that the painter does? It is done, I am sure, by learning ways of drawing things rather than by drawing, things themselves.

Copying
The born illustrator, to gain knowledge for his make-up drawings, often starts by copying the work of other artists, and, having compiled a dictionary of forms, and, what is just as important, a way or technique of depicting them, he then goes to life, not exactly to copy it, but to sweeten and add to his knowledge.

Leonardo, on the education of the artist, wrote: 'The young man should learn first perspective and then the proportions of all objects, next copy work after the hand of a good master to gain the habit of drawing parts of the body well and then work from nature to confirm the learnt.' I would like to underline that word confirm.

You can see this empirical method functioning in the schools. The embryo illustrators with their heads bent low over the paper, making one little drawing after another of the same subject, instead of getting somebody to pose for them, or finding the object they want to draw and drawing it. These same boys and girls have to be driven into the life class or out to draw something in particular. They don't like it and in some ways I sympathize with them. They would rather make it all up.

After all, I did much the same myself, spending hours as an idle clerk in a city office doodling little drawings over and over again until I thought they looked right.
 
It is true I spent four nights a week at evening life classes and painted at weekends, but then I had other ends in view besides illustrating. But, on looking back, I realize that most of what skill I possess came from that endless doodling at the office, plus copying figures out of the few art books I had at home, Daumier, Rowlandson and Rubens being the favourites.
Even now I wish I had paid more attention to this copying. I might have been able to draw better than I do.
 
 Modern teaching methods
I believe that the reason why the standard of professional illustration is poor today is due, at least in some part, to our modern methods of teaching art.
Unlike the old days, the emphasis is now on aesthetics, individuality and sensitivity, rather than craft. The 'sensitive mess' reigns paramount in many a school. But illustration, besides being an art, is also very much a craft.
 
Painting is the fountainhead of all the visual arts, and some knowledge of it is necessary for all who practise these arts.

The illustrator, however, besides a sensitivity of eye, and a feeling for colour and design, has to have his own special skills, which are:

E.A. - Scurfield: 'A Stickful of Nonpareil' 195

1. Inventiveness

2. The power to draw away from life, or, in other words, to make up.

3. The power to draw small.

4. The ability to use a pen and that intractable fluid, black ink, which is a craft in itself.

5. The ability to read, which is by no means so common as one would think. All can read and understand the words, but how many fail to get the meaning and implications of a book.

6. The ability to compose with figures and place them together in space.
 
Inventiveness is a gift which all potential illustrators must have to some degree. It can, however, be increased by methods. There are ways of helping one's inventiveness.
The power to draw away from life or, in other words, make up, depends on two things: visual memory and knowledge. It is these two things which give the artist his dictionary of forms.
           
Because the illustrator can rarely go to life and because he has to work fast, it follows that the bigger and better the dictionary of forms which he carries in his head, the better and more efficient an illustrator he will be.
 
Visual memory and knowledge
Visual memory can be trained and knowledge can be acquired in two ways. First by copying from good masters, which is probably the easiest way, and secondly by going to life. In fact, of course, both methods should be used.

 Copying is also, I am sure, the easiest way to acquire the ability to compose with figures. Give any junior student the task of copying in pencil, and as accurately as possible, one of Hogarth's subject pictures, and his skill in this field will be greatly improved.

E.A. - Farjeon: 'The Little Bookroom' 1955

Drawing from memory
To acquire a good visual memory and knowledge another practice is essential: the practice of really looking at things and trying to commit them to memory. In this context the keeping of an illustrated diary helps enormously. If every young student would jot down something of what happens to him or interests him each day and illustrate it with a small drawing done from memory, he would find the combination of words and drawing a most useful exercise.The ability to draw small, the ability to draw with a pen and black ink, and the ability to read can, of course, all be acquired with practice.

 

Few of my fellow artists and teachers agree with me about the value of copying as a prime method of acquiring these essential skills. It may be my King Charles's head, but I am unrepentant. I still think that if the right sources are gone to, and used with intelligence, it is a most valuable practice, particularly in the early stages of a student's career.
 
I am told that the Japanese have or had drawing books giving sixty ways to draw a bridge, or a tree, or a man or woman, and so on. How useful it would be for a budding illustrator to learn these ways!
 The Victorians had copy books: I remember seeing one on the subject of trees, which showed different ways of describing various types of trees and their foliage, showing in detail the sort of squiggles to make with one's pen or pencil to suggest oak, ash, elm and other leaves.
 
A book like this would be invaluable to many illustrators today, whose trees are poor and impoverished affairs. I must admit I found the book that I saw most useful.

All this may be anathema, to the serious modern painter or teacher, and dead against modern methods of teaching, in which Art with a capital 'A', integrity, originality, and above all sensitivity, are all-important. It is a matter that can be argued over till Doomsday without conclusion. In any case the whole trend and mood of art today may well make it impossible to force the student to copy.
 
All the same, I can't help feeling that this emphasis on individuality and refusal to learn by copying from skilled artists of the past is a form of spiritual pride, with its attendant loss.
 
The special skills
I think it is also forgotten by many that illustration is an art which has to have special skills of its own: knowledge of forms, because he is a make-up chap, is all important to the illustrator, and the more easily he can acquire this knowledge the better; and because the illustrator's drawings must be small, and therefore to some extent summary, the illustrator can use known tricks to advantage.

If the illustrator is a good creative artist with that poetical quality in his work that all good artists have, his genius will not be stifled with these tricks. On the contrary, he can use any trick known to the trade to splendid advantage. If he is an indifferent artist, then at least the tricks may help him to gain a measure of competence.
But if tricks are to be used let them be the old well-tried academic ones. These have survived over the years because they are based on observation and knowledge.

E.A. - Farjeon: 'The Little Bookroom' 1955

A simple example is the making of very black cast shadows to throw up the form, a device which is particularly useful when one, is making small drawings of figures in pen and ink. This is a valid trick because it is based on observable fact. It may take a beginner a long time to find it out on his own, however. Why not pick it up from a master in the art?

What must not he copied are the idiosyncrasies of a stylized artist, however charming or pretty these idiosyncrasies may be.
 That is a very dangerous fault into which, by the very nature of his art the born illustrator is likely to fall. He is so enamoured of his ability to make up his little drawings that he gets out of the habit of ever looking at things, with the result that his work becomes merely a repetition of old clichés.
 
When we see a bad illustration, full of stale clichés, we are immediately against clichés. But in fact what is wrong is that the artist has a pedestrian mind. If you took away his clichés the result might well be worse.

To sum up, I have discussed, on purpose, the extreme case of the born illustrator. In fact many artists today are hybrids with various qualities in their make-up; and many books today do not need the true illustrative drawing to illuminate them, as did the old more picaresque novels of the past.We have the born illustrator and potential illustrator always with us. He is not as good as he should be and I have tried in the course of this article to give what I think are the reasons why.

 

Brighton.jpg

E.A. - Menu for Double Crown Club Dinner held in Brighton in 1958

 

 

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