Peonies at Twilight, with Corresponding Poem by Takahama Kyoshi

Amid green leaves are three windswept peony flowers. In the upper right, a series of vertically written Kanji spell out a corresponding Haiku poem.
Peonies at Twilight (2024)

Peonies at Twilight, with Corresponding Poem by Takahama Kyoshi

Traditional Japanese woodblock prints were usually created through collaboration between the artist, carver, printer, and publisher. And though motifs did recur, these works were not homogenous. There has been a longstanding typology which acknowledges different pictorial subjects, formal treatment, and the mode of production.

For this way of printing, each colour used would need its own block to be carved. Though early prints typically used up to three inks, the number later grew for artwork comprised of multiple colours. These ‘Nishiki-e’ would set the stage for the rising popularity of prints. One designer of woodblock artwork who contributed greatly toward this was Suzuki Harunobu (1725 – 1770). Many of his prints have a solid single-colour background, a technique called ‘tsubushi’.

The inclusion of poetry was not uncommon among privately commissioned ‘surimono’ works. With these woodblocks the carving of kanji characters was especially challenging. As standard, seasonal themes were referenced in haiku, foregrounding the connection between poetry and nature.

Artwork with Poetry

The poetry of Takahama Kyoshi is exemplary in connecting haiku with the seasons, which extended to his editorial role at Hototogisu haiku magazine.

Peonies at Twilight (2024) is part of an ongoing exploration of Japanese visual culture. The featured poem is one of summer:
夏の蝶  眼鋭く  駆けり来し

The clear day in the rainy season.
The madder red of evening twilight
And instantly fades.

Giclée printed onto archival quality 308gsm Hahnemule paper, this unique art-print is available framed. Drop an email if interested.

Ginkgo Under Autumn Rain, with Featured Poem by Natsume Sôseki

Against a dark blue backdrop, the Autumn Rain falls on the yellow Ginko leaves. In the upper right, a series of vertically written Japanese characters spells out an accompanying Haiku poem.
Ginko Under Autumn Rain (2023)

Ginkgo Under Autumn Rain, with Featured Poem by Natsume Sôseki

In bygone Japan it was not uncommon for privately commissioned woodblock prints, known as surimono (摺物), to incorporate poetry. The one here is by the acclaimed writer Natsume Sôseki (夏目 漱石 1867-1916) whose works are considered to have an enduring influence on Japanese literature in the modern era. Here he writes of the colour blue, how it sets in with Autumn, not unlike  the dying of woven pattern fabric;

Autumn begins,
The deep blue settles —
Iyo kasuri

Around this time is when the Autumn rain appears (Akisame 秋雨). In woodblock printing the indication of rain was no easy feat, and placed particular demand on the carver tasked with etching countless parallel streams. As the season takes hold, the leaves of the indigenous ginkgo tree turn from green to golden yellow.

Tradition in the Making

As with Western wood engraving, woodblock printing was the accepted technology of its day. And similarly it required the collective intentionality among the contributors: artist 浮世絵師, carver 刀師, printer 摺師, and a publisher 版元. In the case of surimono, a poet might also be sought out by the commissioner. Printing this way has long been surpassed by photomechanical engraving and lithography. Nonetheless, it is a tradition that has been preserved remarkably well.

Ginko Under Autumn Rain is part of an ongoing exploration of eastern visual culture. Giclée printed onto archival quality 308gsm Hahnemule paper, this unique art-print comes framed. Drop an email if interested.

What Meaning can be Found Within the Peony Print

Amid a bed of green leaves, two red peonies rest at the opposite corners of a vertical sign with Japanese characters.
Peony Print (2023)

What Meaning can be Found Within the Peony Print

The Peony Print acknowledges the ongoing global influence of traditional and contemporary Japanese artwork. Known as 花言葉 (Hanakotoba), meanings are assigned to different flowers. In this language, peonies denote prosperity, bravery, and prestige. The decorative print also features the Kanji of a commonly recognised idiom, 見ぬが花 (Minu Ga Hana). Translated as ‘not seeing is a flower’, the underlying meaning is that reality is dwarfed by imagination, and it is best when the two are reconciled.

The Historical and Cultural Context of Japanese Artwork

When trade routes were reopened in the mid 19c., Japan’s visual culture began to resonate with European sensibilities. While Western painters had been preoccupied with realism, the Eastern tradition sought to depict the essence of pictorial subjects. Flora and landscapes were particularly common subjects in the Japanese art tradition, with overarching harmony expressed through the painter. The woodblock printed ukiyo-e, made in collaboration with a carver and publisher, were of particular interest to European painters and collectors of objets d’art.

Japanese painters, rather than pursue volumatic perspective, arranged compositions with flattened shapes counterposed by negative space. The calligraphic line-work emerged from writing character scripts, in which black ink is brushed from above onto thin absorbent paper, affording little way to overwork the surface.

Throughout contemporary history, Japanese popular culture has evolved to become one of the eminent global forms of media entertainment. Since the late 2010s Manga has been greatly outselling American comics, with record sales in 2022. There are over 400 Anime production companies throughout Japan, with 60% of revenue expected to come from overseas in 2025. Japanese media franchises are among the world’s highest grossing, Pokémon being the global-leader since 2016. Like 19c. Japonism, global interest is being driven through cultural products. However much influence later came from America’s post-war occupation, it is ultimately Japanese tradition which has emerged through its cultural exports, and remain a hallmark of its culture industry.

Giclée printed onto archival quality 308gsm Hahnemule paper, this unique art-print comes framed and is available to buy from the online shop.

NFT Digest: The Mainstream Finally Caught Up With Crypto Art

With corresponding eyewear and clothing print, three young kids embrace their chosen screen colours; red, green and blue
RGB Kids (2023)

NFT Digest: The Mainstream Finally Caught Up With Crypto Art

The perceived value of NFTs is they can prove ownership and provenance of a digital asset. This carries implications not only for collectables, but also limited, and unique works. Importantly, this does not restrict public access to the asset. Rather it certifies it for sale on primary and secondary markets. This has meant recognition and reward for digital artefacts, spurred curation on NFT platforms, and trading in NFT marketplaces.

To mint an NFT means the underlying digital asset is recorded onto a blockchain; an immutable, add-only, distributed ledger. Minting does not prevent asset copying, which many argue increases exposure, and consequently, the market value of the minted asset. However, unauthorised minting is a pressing concern for many. Fraudulent asset sales diminish the legitimate income of artists, and undermines trust in the broader NFT market. In the event that disputes do arise, recourse is certainly not helped by the absence of legislation dealing with the specifics of NFT creation and trading.

The implications of putting assets ‘on-chain’ are ostensibly far reaching, and the interest among those making native-digital products is entirely understandable. The artwork ‘original’ bares little significance when the output is a software file rather than a painted canvas. Moreover, barriers to physical reproduction are irrelevant on a computer, where file copying is central to how operating systems work.

Eye on the NFT Horizon

Crypto art caught mainstream media attention in early 2021 when Christie’s auctioned Beeple’s ‘Everydays’ for $69 million. While this has increased public awareness of crypto art, it remains an area that is opaque to most. As with other areas of Web3, time will likely be required before achieving mass adoption. With the maturation of the NFT space, the hope among visual artists is the fuller value of authorial works can be tapped, so that creators see the financial gains that have been absent in today’s mediasphere. Sadly however, at the time of writing, some NFT marketplaces appear to be reneging on artist royalties. This development has dismayed many who look to NFTs as a viable alternative to the traditional art market. In light of this, the importance of embedding the royalties within the NFT smart contract has become evermore evident.

Outlining the Changing Role Played by Character Design

With crayons in hand, a young girl uses an upright easel and canvas to draw a large picture of herself.
Millie Crayon (2021)

Outlining the Changing Role Played by Character Design

At its core, character design is the authoring of invented characters. Due to this, anthropomorphism often features in these creations, and a review of the contemporary field uncovers several meaningful uses.

It is helpful to note the distinction between characters which are narrative, and those which are not. For instance, we come to know the former through exposition, as with sequential art and animated cartoons. Story-telling requires characters, and our knowledge of narrative characters is aided with biographic insights.

Enter the Mascot

Mascots generally avoid the exposition that comes with storytelling. Above all, they can represent any organised group, from a sports team to a student club. Many corporations use mascots as spokespeople for their consumer products. What is crucial is that a mascot is made to be recognised and understood at a single glance, without need for a shared language or enculturation. Since they emerged, it was evident to marketers what potential lay in mascots, which could appear in various media, and in spaces where advertising was not permitted.

Post Digital Characters

The affordances of the internet have proven to be fertile ground for pictorial characters. These web-native characters have much in common with mascots, eschewing narratives in favour of embodying ideas and values. Having emerged before the mobile web, these characters would later transition into becoming collectible vinyl toys. Today’s character designers increasingly explore techniques that place them in the physical world, thereby ensuring the stability that is inherently absent from the internet.

Character Design Within Personal Worlds

Further to how a character appears, illustrators may create the space they occupy, thereby staging where events might unfold. This correlates with what the screenwriter Bob Foss has termed the plane of events; the imagined setting where characters dwell. Illustrators have been known to craft personal worlds which are revisited whenever needed, and can be realised in different media. Character design and the expansion of a personal world can certainly have far-reaching implications for independent entrepreneurship and merchandising.

Emerging Web Trends

Further to characters being visible on websites, today’s social web and cellular MMS have given rise to memojis and messaging stickers. These can be potent marketing tools, and are driving interest in character design. In addition, 2021 saw the demand for PFP NFTs reach new highs, placing digital collectibles in the limelight, and bringing the value of character design into ever-clearer focus.

Uncovering the Roots of the Illustrated Decorative Poster

Illustrated decorative poster depicting the profile of a daydreaming woodsman set amid a billowing foliage of herbal leaves.
Know Your Herbs (2021)

Uncovering the Roots of the Illustrated Decorative Poster

Originally intended for outdoor publicity, the decorative poster soon began appearing in people’s homes and offices. Dating back to the beginnings of the modern commercial poster, this deliberate repurposing for interior decor has been with us ever since.

Recognising there was a willingness to display them inside the home, commercial poster pioneer Jules Cheret (1836–1932) prepared runs of ‘avant la littre’ proofs; artwork without lettering. Cheret was a trained lithographer able to paint directly to each of the stone plates that offset colour to the paper. Astutely, he chose to keep the typographic layer separate. Without the commercial text that deterred bygone poster collectors, art proofs became collectible items. Before long they were hung alongside paintings and engravings in the study, drawing room, and dining room. Value was rightly attributed to illustrated decorative posters as artistic works in their own right. This would soon lead to exhibitions and magazines dedicated to these accessible lithographic prints.

Commercial art forked in the 1960s. In time fewer commercial posters were undertaken by illustrators, as the explicitness of graphic design would prove more apt in meeting advertising needs. Whereas the particular style offered by an illustrator was their stock-in-trade, graphic designers provided anonymous messaging for commercial effectiveness. With time studio hierarchisation saw illustrators becoming widely regarded as outside freelancers. Now, more often than not, they are hired to lend their style to project responses that have already been conceived.

Crafted by Hand

As many contemporary designers and collectors look toward works from the past, a renewed appreciation has arisen for the integrated visuals made by commercial artists. To be clear, these are works that predate desktop publishing, and needed to be crafted manually. Specific instruction was also given as to how reproduction ought to be carried out. The expansive role of the bygone poster designer often meant suggesting what written copy might accompany the image. This is exemplified by the characterful posters of the late Milton Glaser (1929–2020). Commercial posters of the past did not emerge from an agency pipeline. They were created from the direct business relationships between commercial artist and their clients.

The List Goes On: One Reason To Reconsider Illustration Listicles

Tucked in the beak of a bewildered homing bird, a hand-written list is flown through the air
Homing Bird (2023)

The List Goes On: One Reason To Reconsider Illustration Listicles

Given how SEO influences online publishing, the list article has become all too commonplace, and illustration is not exempt from its reach. One needn’t look far to find posts that itemise tools, trends, and must-have skills in the field. Conversely, it can be noticed that ‘listicles’ of this sort are nowhere to be found among reputable illustration organisations. It is unlikely that industry professionals are without pertinent views on this topic, which raises the question… Why does this commentary seldom come from relevant experts? And moreover, how valid are the illustration listicles that are being posted?

  • 10 Illustration Trends for 2023
  • 10 Tools to Supercharge your Artwork
  • 10 of the Hottest Styles in 2023
  • 10 Essential Tips to Improve Your Portfolio
  • 10 Illustrators you Should Follow
  • 10 Courses to Boost your Illustration Skills
  • 10 Dos and Don’ts for Recent Graduates
  • 10 Steps to a Lucrative Career in Illustration
  • The List Goes On

These listicles are usually easy to recognise, as they are often short descriptive summaries, and can easily be interspersed with any salient themes of the day. What is problematic is they are often penned by creative-industries personnel who do not actually work in the field. Meanwhile, illustrators, agents, educators, and industry experts are conspicuously absent. A media-literate reader would rightly question if there is adequate domain-specific knowledge to underpin such industry-wide commentary. And while quoting an active practitioner might sure up an article, it is no substitute for meaningful research.

A Question of Credibility

Potentially informing creators and commissioners alike, listicles regularly speak of illustration as though it were a homogenous bloc, a preconception with no basis in reality. Furthermore, the major illustration markets each have their own distinctive needs. Editorial publishing, creating children’s books, gaming, entertainment, the comic book industry, advertising, and making saleable goods are not one and the same. In spite of all the insights being claimed by illustration listicles, this basic market segmentation is rarely mentioned.

“In a temporal world, when references are immediately commodified as the latest trend or fashion, it is ever more important to understand your own practice as an illustrator – to appreciate one’s status of being beyond simply that of an image maker […]”

Former AOI board member Roderick Mills, 2019

As illustration moves further into professionalisation, wide-ranging reforms are being influenced by meaningful debate among educators, academics, researchers, and practitioners. The surface-level commentary that is typical of the aforementioned listicles is too often reductive, and ultimately counterproductive to the cultural and economic future that illustration is striving to build. In light of how SEO now influences online publishing it may be unrealistic to discontinue posting trend listicles. But perhaps a different tack ought to be considered, one acknowledging illustration as being a multifaceted field of practice. And in turn, the work of illustrators deserves to be meaningfully contextualised by authoritative sources.

A Dash of Colour: The Palette Shared by Visual Art and Illustration

A floral assortment emerges from an artist's palette and paint brushes.
A Dash of Colour (2021)

A Dash of Colour: The Palette Shared by Visual Art and Illustration

Above all, the task of an illustrator is to communicate something particular. It is a practice which crafts images to be seen by specific audiences. In History of Illustration (Bloomsbury), the first peer-reviewed textbook of illustration history, Professor Susan Doyle suggests it is an illustrator’s intent that distinguishes their works. For example, many pieces considered as visual art are shown to be illustrative images, striving to influence perceptions, opinions, and consumer choices. A reasonable argument could be made that illustration’s status can benefit from this critical mapping of it’s domain-specific history.

What has certainly contributed to the ambiguity between visual art and illustration is having shared the same means of creation. Drawing and painting was undertaken to make saleable works of fine art, as well as images intended for commercial use. Today’s illustration practice has seen the wide adoption of polygenous digital methods, spurring the ubiquity of images online and IRL. These are means to an end. But the output continues to be rhetorical images that resonate with the public psyche. Similarly, the lauded illustrators of the past were painters who also served the major markets. This commercial activity saw the distribution of their images via the packaging, media, and communication industries of their day.

Finding Meaning

Within the rapid technological and social changes of this new century, illustrated visuals have remained relevant. If considered in terms of semiotics, they convey meaning with signs that the audience can already understand. As in the past, the illustrator communicates what the onlooker is able to comprehend, which oftentimes happens with little more than a glance.

“Visual communication is always coded. It seems transparent only because we know the code already, at least implicitly […]”

Kress & Leeuwin, 2005

Within today’s attention economy, the fleeting moment to consider images places importance not only on pictorial clarity, but the clarity of ideas which are made visual. In short, it is this communication of ideas that gives purpose to the crafting of illustrated visuals.

Revealing the Language of the Illustrated Travel Poster

A mallard stands poised in high heels and accessories.
Enchanté. Travel Poster (2021)

Revealing the Language of the Illustrated Travel Poster

The travel poster of the early 1900s did not only depict attractive destinations. It also persuaded prospective buyers with images of what could be their future fulfilment. Commercial artists of that period were tasked with showing people enjoying scenic locations, and the comforts of passenger travel. This can be seen in the works of Tom Purvis, Frank Sherwin, and Percy Trompf to name a few. To travel was presented as something for the sophisticated and glamorous, and as the art critic John Berger once wrote, glamour is “The happiness of being envied”.

The Lingua Franca of Marketing

Due to the commercial nature of the travel poster, the unambiguous image was typically met with the explicitness of written text. The esteemed designer/publisher, Adrian Shaugnessy, has described this as the lingua franca of marketing. Being that travel posters were made to be seen by passers-by, the destination and strapline were read at a glance. This placed added importance on concise copy and legible typography. In this market, commercial artists were commissioned by travel agencies, tourist boards, and passenger travel companies operating by land, air and sea. Though commercial posters would later become the remit of graphic designers, the travel poster reminds us of what can be accomplished when coupling design sensibilities with illustration skills.

The travel landscape has changed immensely in the last hundred years. This has contributed to an active secondary market for reprints and original travel posters of that bygone era. Prices range between a few hundred, to tens of thousands of US dollars. The irony is there may now be more glamour in owning a valued poster than visiting the destination it publicises.

The Digital Poster

Today there is less call for printed commercial posters where there are outdoor LCD screens. These make possible animated movement, aid viewing during the nighttime, and ease any corrections that may be necessary. Translation and localisation are certainly more easily addressed with digital posters, and though energy is continuously used to power the screens, this reduces the heavy environmental footprint of paper based reproduction. Overall, it is reasonable to anticipate that many physical posters will be phased out in favour of their digital counterparts.