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  What you see and what you get
Nanette Hoogslag
posted on February 27, 2013 at 17:33

As one of the editors at Illustration Daily I often see editorial illustrations that - though beautiful - are not able to communicate much beyond what they depict. What could have been a good illustration is now ‘just a picture’, in other words: it's to be ignored. Sometimes this is simply because the image is not strong enough, but all too often it's actually the flip-side of a core quality of illustration: the ability to connect to the reader. But this is a thin line. If an illustration is too specifically connected it means no-one but that one reader understands the picture, but on the other hand if the illustration is too general no-body cares.

Let me show how a great illustration walks the line.

The illustration bridges the world of the article with the exclusive and fickle world of the reader. Whilst having to depict an internal narrative, it must also address both the underlying message of the article and convince the reader to engage. The savvy reader, with his or her own national, cultural, sexual and temporal identity subconsciously looks for clues. In a split second he or she makes a judgment: “Is this picture meant for me, will it lead me to a world that will be interesting for me?” The wrong signals not only renders the illustration useless, it tarnishes the article and ultimately the entire publication....

Like I stated in the very first article of this blog ‘Pictures sell!’, illustrations are there to attract and convince. This process of attraction and being convinced is intriguingly instinctual and complex at the same time. It’s those semiotics, those signifying signs, we continually code and decode. They are eloquently described by Roland Barthes and Stuart Hall and many other linguists, media theorists and psychologists. The coded signals are the stuff that makes you spot a dubbed German washing powder TV-add a mile off. It’s what makes you choose a sustainable-eco-vegan-local tea shop over Starbucks (or the other way round), it is what makes you pick up a novel because of its intriguing cover.

It is all about the object sending out visual signals you recognise, trust and feel related to. It tells you that it is meant for someone like you or someone you aspire to be and it links in with that very basic instinct we have to detect friend or foe. Humans are very good at reading signals; too obvious, too direct, unintelligent, outdated or overstated images put us off, or when misunderstood create unintended meaning. This is equally valid for signals that are too obscure, too abstract or just plain off-putting, whether the reader is a four year old, a hip young thing or an old conservative.

In illustration the art is to take and play with these codes and present them together with a fresh look on universal truths and stories and the particularities connected to the related written story or context.

This is where international reading can go wrong, this is where even the experienced editors of Illustration Daily get puzzled, this is where fanatic Islamists can’t see the joke. Illustration is both universal and local, inclusive and exclusive, and above all it is context bound. If the context is not clearly stated, the chances are that much is lost. If you wish to speak to a wide audience as well as an exclusive group, give everybody something to hook onto and be aware of who your audience is.

Master illustrators like Saul Steinberg or Peter van Straaten knew and know how to play this thin line. Whilst telling the stories of universal human drama - readable outside a local context of the publication and beyond national boundaries - they weave in the second layer that deals with its related (written) story, the current event, or observation. And they create that intimacy that allows each reader to believe the picture speaks directly to him or her.

illustration by Shepard Failey, 2008 - originally for Esquire Magazin and used as part of the Obama election campaign

The "most efficacious American political illustration since Uncle Sam Wants You", according to Peter Schjeldahl art critic at the New Yorker is the 'Obama Hope' image made by the illustrator and graffiti artist Shepard Fairey. Fairey used a crop from the otherwise bland news portrait by Mannie Garcia, as a starting point for a portrait of Barack Obama during election time. The image captured the intended electorate, captured America and captured the world.

What do we see? A portrait of man in red and muted blues in a style that refers to graphic stenciling, a way of working known from graffiti artists and underground movements. The head is portrayed from a slight angle below, an old trick used in many classic ‘strong leader poses’, from Benito Mussolini to Nick Clegg. The four capital letters in a sans serif make the word HOPE. They are engulfed by the dark blue shape of a jacket, and appear to be something between a pedestal and an exclamation that sprang from the body.

The effect is a strong gripping portrait, which links to a mix of generic and specific, local and global, overt and subconscious visual references. For instance: the echo of Russian constructivist posters from the days of the Russian revolution, the iconic image of Che Guevara and an uncanny likeness to John F Kennedy.


The USSR is the Stakhanovite brigade of the world’s proletariat, 1931 - Gustav Klutsis (Ne boltai! Collection) & Che Guavara, 1968 - Jim Fitzpatrick

It also carefully presents yet mutes the racial features of Obama, shows him pensive and mild - a modern day Ecce Homo - ready for his thorny crown.

Where it refrains from direct references to the Democratic Party or elections, this image is a visualization of the universal idea of changing times, people power, utopian belief and the spiritual sexual potency of a strong leader.

But look at it from the local American perspective of the elections of 2008... Here is the patriotic blue, white and red of the American flag. Democrats and revolutionists connect to the red and the Che Guavara echo. The suit and tie and the non aggressive color scheme present a thinking man speaking to grey color workers. Young people understand the ‘hip graffiti look' as theirs. And for many Americans the word 'Hope' spells something desperately needed. 'Hope' and this face make a powerful connection in the slipstream of a peoples election, at a very urgent time and with a very new type of presidential candidate.

I think this could never have been on the back of a photographic portrait. Where the photograph would give you a particular man - Barack Obama - at a particular moment in time - 2008, the illustration gave all that, but importantly it left out the insignificant details and enlarged the iconic. On that basis this image travelled the world and impacted locally and I believe will remain strong for times to come.