Sunday, 6 December 2009

Authorial Practice Conference

I was lucky enough to attend a conference in Sheffield last week based around Authorial practice in context with commercial illustration. Authorial practice being the personal output of illustrators away from their work for clients, this include ventures into fine art and the production of 'zines and ornaments, animation and so on.
So we went up to Sheffield to see three main speakers namely Simon (in order of appearence) Spilsbury, Ben Cox and Andrew Foster. The day also included the official opening of Andrew Fosters' gallery exhibition at the nearby Sheffield Institute of Arts Gallery entitled 'Precious In Thy Sight'.
The conference aimed to define how authorial practice affects commercial output and development, how online publishing has changed the role of the art director, designer and distributor etc. and lastly determining the role of the commissioner, director, artists agent in
furthering the contextual use of illustrative outcomes....apparently.

The speakers involved all had very different thing to say concerning the topics, first up Simon Spilsbury gave us an exciting talk through his career and how he chose illustration as a career and how he developed his style.
Saying that his dad was his art teacher, he took us through some of the work he completed at art school when he still didn't know what he really wanted to do. I guess he was saying that it was this sort of authorial practice that helped him develop a distinctive style. He went on to say that now he is not concerned about how his clients perceive him and is more than willing to draw things up spontaneously right on the spot for clients. Apparently the time he spent working at an ad agency gave him a good appreciation of quick turnover which has also helped him.

He talked quite a bit about the importance of context concerning his output and being aware of the critical factors in determining what suits a brief.
Simon also told us more about his personal attitude towards his work. Whilst he does not have a specific output other than his commercial work he constantly develops new ideas in and from his sketchbook that goes everywhere with him. This is where he will find many of his ideas but he also talked about being able to really look for the right answer to a question no mater how hard it might seem at first.
At the conclusion of his talk we were reminded that nowadays everything is considered media space.
Ben Cox from Central illustration (CIA) was next and he talked about the role of agencies and finding and matching the right client and illustrator together in order for the most mutually beneficial relationship. He explained to us the importance of personal experimentation and development being crucial to creating new styles and looks for clients to commission.
We were shown how one of their illustrators completed some personal work after completing a fairly well paid job but who was unhappy with the sort of thing they were being asked to do by clients. They decided they needed to show what they were capable of to their audience and so spent a couple of weeks working on something they preferred and submitted that to them (central). The agency liked it so much they used it as part of their own promotional material and the illustrator involved got more commissions along the lines of that sort of work.
We were reminded of the need to keep developing our work as over time it can start to look and feel stale.
Ben talked to us about various promotional exercises the agency had done with their (illustrator) clients. One of these was the Summer/Winter festival an event where the illustrators involved decorated the Royal Exchange in London and held a street party where prospective clients could see their work on display.
This was followed by an explanation of the Consequences show in Covent Garden, an event where each illustrator involved was given a piece that would sit in between the work of two others'. They were all given a horizon line to adhere to and the contact details were supplied to them of their respective neighbours.
The main point Ben seemed to want to make is that he saw authorial practice as a way of the artists he employs being happy in what they do.
I guess he did a pretty good job of promoting his agency as a place where good illustrators want to work and where the best clients will look. He showed us other examples of illustrators they had used to create promotional material for Central, playing us the video 'we like colour' (link to creative review), by Pirates, a creative group who were given a very open brief
Ben also took time to portray his agency's role in creating this sort of relationship whereby he says they will also try to bring client and practitioner together as soon as possible so that the creative involved can have as large an impact as possible on the output of the project. This he believes limits the amount of poor illustration and dummed down ideas that we see time and time again and hence must be good for the industry.

Andrew Foster has some of the strongest views on offer and by the time he took the stage we were all waiting t hear what he said.
There was a large focus was on -as we might have expected- the lines/boundaries between fine art and illustration.
He was very concerned about people doing things just for the sake of it and what he sees as a struggle within the industry for finding real talent and discerning that from the people who assume that just because do something means that you're automatically good at it.
He wanted us all to decide if we were interested, if we had anything to say.
He had a lot to say about practicing illustrators who rely on illustrations that they completed 'fifteen years ago'. He looked at examples of what he perceived as boring approaches to illustration with an example of a bag; he told us if something is 3d, why just draw something 2d on the front of it?
With such a large focus on integrity and responsibility he began to explain that he will loose 90% of his prospective commissions because of the content of his work. Client will be drawn towards his style and attitude but when it comes to the point they dont like wht he wants to do.
Such an uncompromising attitude has left him needing to find other outlets for his work and that is why his work has crossed the barrier into being fine art. Something that he has produced purely for himself, for 'therapy' as he calls it. It seems as a sort of cathartic exercise for him to exorcise his demons and push his creativity.

Following all this we had about an hour for a Q&A session.

All the speakers got together at the end with some of the staff from Sheffield university for the Q&A session where questions collected from members of the audience were put to the panel and discussed with also some input from the audience.
The debate shifted from the need for this sort of approach to illustration being perhaps a 'sticking plaster solution' for an industry producing too many graduates for the work producing answers such as;
There is now so much work out there with the internet and other forms of media that there is no excuse to not find work, or make some.

This sort of work is purely the result of unemployment.

There should be more of a focus on authorial practice in illustration courses.
This raised particularly heated debate with various camps being set up within the room, arguing over the neccessities of what an illustration graduate needs to know with regards to the industry and how to teach that. Some were adamant that the particulars of the commercial demands need not be taught to students as apparently they need to be creative and not get bogged down with that sort of thing. Some believed that authorial practice pretty much was covered on their courses and so the argument was mute.
Panelists particularly Andy Foster said that he felt students were short changed and to many people could get onto courses by virtue of the fact that they had a checkbook and a pulse. He wanted to see more realism and preparation for the real world of illustration.
It seemed to me that it was the usual case of people wanting to moan about something instead of being willing to accept something for what it is and accepting that it is you that has to change and not the world. If we want to be illustrators we must accept that there is a system there that works a certain way and if we are going to change any of it then we must play the game to some extent.
One good viewpoint on this was made I believe by Ben Cox that nothing is really going to substitute actually looking for a job anyway.

There seemed to be a lot of confusion on the floor when the subject of personal style came into discussion. Some believing it to be not important or that too much emphasis was put on students to produce something very particular to themselves with regard to style upon their graduation.
Panelists views included such things as, If you don't have a style you're not going to get anywhere. With someone from the audience pointing out the you might be able to do all the tricks under the sun but if your work doesn't hold together and isn't strong, that no-one will be interested.
It seems to me that the more you work at producing something that is your own the more the work you produce starts to hold together as your own. Whether you realise it or not, you will have particular tastes and patterns in your decisions and with things like the way you draw that are very much specific to you and so the only person you have to blame for not having a style is yourself.
It is your responsibilty to experiment with the things you want to experiment with and to come up with good illustrative ideas. No-one is going to do it for you.
And remember to keep experimenting and things will develop over time.
Rant over...

Oh and thanks to the staff at Sheffield uni we all thought it was a brilliant day. :)

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