The Case for Illustrated Visuals in a Digital Time

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

The Case for Illustrated Visuals in a Digital Time

The way images are consumed has always been linked with its corresponding media technology. For print media, a sea change was prompted by the iPad in 2010, compelling much of the publishing industry to overhaul its longstanding revenue models. More recently, the primacy of broadcast television has been usurped by online media consumption. In particular, mobile web has surged to lead internet traffic worldwide.

“Visual search and recommendations in Google, Yandex, YouTube, Instagram or Pinterest expose us to endless images and video, while websites of major museums, invite us to browse hundreds of thousands of digitised artworks and historical artefacts.”

Lev Manovich, 2017

The rise of media tech and digital platforms has spurred innumerable visual works made to exist as screen-based image data. And while some artwork may not be natively digital, this too is frequently documented, adjusted, and/or published digitally. Once within the mediasphere it is of little consequence how an image has been created; if it can be viewed on a pixel display, it is subject to the conditions imposed by the hardware and software technologies of the day. Unlike the single artefacts of the 20c., visual culture is now available at a massive scale in digital form.

Adapting to Media Tech

To paraphrase Professor Emeritus Alan Male, illustrated visuals are not made to be encountered in their original state. They are contextualised, and communicate to their audience largely through contemporaneous media. From the engraved images of late 19c. newspapers, to the offset-lithography used for printing ephemera, to 8bit computer graphics seen in early video games. Commercial practitioners have implemented techniques to make their visuals fit the media. Ergo, the skill profile of practitioners has adapted to the changes in media. As with other creative domains, the early internet beckoned greater computer literacy, setting the stage for use of today’s digital media platforms. While many illustrators might use traditional methods for creating images, the dissemination of visuals happens on screens.

“In a post‐digital world, surely we are beyond the debates about digital and analog in the production of illustration: all illustration becomes digital in some shape or form.”

Roderick Mills, 2019

In 2008 former AOI Director Paul Bowman highlighted numerous shortcomings within the Illustration scene. This included what he regarded as the parochial stance taken toward emerging media. However much truth there may have been in this view, it bears mentioning that wider broadband adoption had only begun. Since then hardware limitations have diminished, and evermore online space has been opened up for multimodal visual content. Illustration may have been incubated through commercial printing, but it could not have been insulated from the far-reaching changes that swept through the communications industries. The role of contemporary illustrated visuals now lies with their emergent roles in today’s post-digital culture.

Is Copyright Now Under Threat From A.I. Machine Learning?

The creative thoughts of a young girl are augmented by the circuitry of an AI neural network.
Neural Network (2023)

Is Copyright Now Under Threat From A.I. Machine Learning?

The emergence of machine learning has given many illustrators and visual artists cause for concern. The techlash has been especially pronounced where artwork is used by A.I. companies to train image making models. This also marks a turn for illustration markets which can now potentially be serviced by A.I. generators.

Unlike the availability of creative software, A.I. does not remove barriers to entry, it removes the need for practical expertise. Text and Data Mining is essential for A.I. development, and governments have granted copyright exceptions to make those inputs available. As a result, text-to-image generators like Stable Diffusion, Midjourney, and DALL·E, are being trained using copyrighted images harvested from the internet.

The Fallout from Machine Learning Outputs

The likelihood is that the A.I. generated outputs are where most first encounter this emergent technology. Though not protectable by copyright, an illustrator’s style is often a crucial part of their stock-in-trade, which has been made easier to coopt with little recourse. The difficulty of enforcement is partly why has been developed by digital artists Matt Dryhurst and Holly Herndon. Rather than react via copyright warnings and takedowns, this digital service allows artists to opt in or out of datasets used in A.I. training.

From a legal perspective, if author attribution can be reassigned by this technology, the bearing on copyright ownership is significant. Litigation involving entertainment companies repeatedly shows us how copyright can be weaponised.

First, can you copyright the output of a generative AI model, and if so, who owns it? Second, if you own the copyright to the input used to train an AI, does that give you any legal claim over the model or the content it creates?

Andres Guadamuz speaking with James Vincent – The Verge

Unsurprisingly the Society of Illustrators has disallowed A.I. work from their annual competitions. Their rationale is that A.I. has been trained using copyrighted images, which they view as “the cornerstone of the illustration community.” Similarly, the Association of Illustration has urged the Intellectual Property Office to reconsider the copyright exception granted for A.I. training.

This exception would mean that creators and rights holders of images would not be able to prevent their work from being scraped for data unless it was protected behind a paywall, which clearly would not be practical for image makers who want potential commissioners to see their work in the easiest way possible (or stock libraries who want to licence images).

The Association of Illustration

Platforms Abetting Machine Learning

Though authorial works are protected by copyright, when original content is published to an online platform those rights can be held hostage. Artist gallery platforms Artstation and DeviantArt have drawn the ire of their user-base for permitting image scraping. The community reaction has led to them introducing opt-in ‘No-AI’ tags, preventing content being used to develop A.I. generators. Meanwhile, A.I. generated images have become viral on social media.

Are A.I. Generated Images the New Stockart

Much concern related to A.I. generated images is around the erosion of illustration’s market value. Once prompted, an image generator can render countless images, making the task one of curation and adjustment. It is disheartening that a person’s creations can be used to undermine the viability of markets for that very work. Author and art journalist Zachary Small writes in Artnet;

Recent developments in machine-learning programs have turned A.I. into an impressive artistic tool capable of outpacing—and underpricing—human artists, touching off an earthquake in creative circles. Anxieties are highest among graphic artists and commercial illustrators whose livelihood is connected to their ability to turn out content to clients’ specification.

Zachary Small – Artnet

The notion that A.I. is a technological tool frames its comparison with other historical technologies. Engravers were made redundant electrotype plates, and illustrators gradually lost the advertising market because of advancements in photography. But the execution of artwork has always been pegged to human authorial intent, which is not the case with A.I. Conceptual artists can often provide a reasonable argument for the superordiante role of creative authorship. But as conceptualism has shown, this does not bode well for human craftsmanship, nor the autographic works of hand and mind working as one.

The Un-new Truths of Our Derivative Culture

In spite of how societies glorify creativity, derivative works are much the norm in our post-digital culture. This coupled with algorithmic bias means little of what we encounter is truly original. Be this as it may, published content once had to be made by people. As emphasised by the AOI, an illustrator’s contribution is not merely the image creation, but also suggesting ideas and exploring a brief to bring about best results. Though cases of progressive work using A.I. are likely, one can imagine how generators trained on chirographic man-made images shall mostly amplify the dominance of derivate images.

Might Legislation Catchup to A.I.

The intersection between A.I. and copyright law is rapidly evolving, and is where many expect to see landmark cases in the coming months. The use of A.I. does recast the role of authorship, and often makes a claim for copyright protection less accessible. However, in spite of its shortfalls, copyright law may be one of the best available deterrents against A.I. enabled plagiarism. The stakes are high. If the cultural products we consume are A.I. generated, the potential for controlling human perception may become centralised in a way that won’t be easily unspun.

The Way Copyright Protects Creative Works in Broad Strokes

A note whistled from Posterboy becomes a convenient perch for his feathered lapwing companion.
On a Lighter Note (2022)
Masked and with his typical whistle, Posterboy brushes a wall with paste ready to hang up his printed posters.
Posterboy Brushwork (2022)

The Way Copyright Protects Creative Works in Broad Strokes

Intellectual property refers to a creation of the mind which can be protected by law. Copyright is one area of IP law, and has been legislated differently around the world. Though it is a multifaceted subject, a grasp of its core principles better enable people to safeguard and earn from creative works.

The Importance of Copyright

Wherever we encounter authorial works, there are legal protections to prevent any unauthorised use. These protections are made explicit by way of copyright law, which regulates permissible rights. For example, copyright holders can decide who can produce, reproduce, publish, create derivative works, distribute copies, display, perform, transfer ownership, and license the ‘original authorial works’ to designated parties. Licensing fees are economic rights from which financial reward can be derived. To use copyrighted works without approval is infringement, and subject to legal penalties.

How Copyright Comes Into Effect

For the relevant laws to come into effect, works must be in a ‘fixed’ manner, for which reason an idea alone can not be protected. Once an OAW has been created it immediately comes under the protection of copyright law. Additionally, moral rights ensure the author’s right to attribution. To verify the right to these legal protections, there is the option for works to be registered. Should future disputes occur, registration aims to demonstrate which party has the prior claim, a significant point were litigation to arise.

When Works Enter Into The Public Domain

Copyright is typically valid for the duration of the author’s lifetime, plus several more years. This duration can be further extended, thereby prolonging the exclusive rights of the holder. Once expired, OAWs enter into the public domain, where they can be used freely by anyone.

Work for Hire or Commission

The expression for an idea may come about when commercially tasked. If commissioned, the creator retains copyright until it is explicitly transferred. This is not so with a ‘work for hire’ contract, in which case it falls to the employer who uses the skills of others. Sadly, a commission contract can harbour rights grabs, a reality which can affect practitioners in any creative field.

Copyright Exceptions

There are instances in which use of copyright material does not require permissions, and thus need not seek approval from copyright holders. Fair Dealing (Fair Use in the U.S.) covers these contexts, which include education, scholarship, review, and reporting to name a few. Search engines are mostly exempt from liability for the time being.

The Grey Area of Remix Culture

Unlike originative works, much creative production relies on assembling pre-existing parts. The status of these remixes continues to be a point of legal debate. While derivative works clearly infringe upon standard copyright, many agree that due consideration ought to be given to avoid prohibiting amateur, non-commercial creative works.

Works Made Available to Reusers

There are cases when it is not desirable that the spread of creative works be inhibited by the need to seek permissions. In those instances there are tools provided which encourage the reuse of creative works. Under the Creative Commons licenses, the usage rights make works available to the public for limited use, which may also include adaptations. This is certainly a timely development, given the societal shift toward online participatory culture.

Illustrated Visual Communication for the Online World

A spectacled character with a back-turned cap holds up a giant computer pointer, arguably the most active icon in visual communication online.
Leftclick (2022)

Illustrated Visual Communication for the Online World

As a means of conveying messages and ideas, illustration has long been central to visual communication. At the turn of the c. 20th, the surge in American and European print-based publishing incubated what became commercial illustration. Today however, the primary medium in which illustrated works exist is not one of mechanical reproduction, but rather the various interfaces of the mediasphere.

When online, images exist as data, irrespective of how they were created. The desktop monitors that display images have, since 2008, been joined by the touchscreens of mobile devices. As a result we are continuously surrounded by web images. Without the inherent stability of print, artwork now dwells in a medium where scale and dimensions are subject to flux. In addition, the ever-wider adoption of broadband has made possible the use of motion in otherwise static illustrated images. As the internet has matured into web2, the place where many first encounter images is not at the url where they are published. Instead, the initial contact with images happens on search engine result pages, and the scrolling feeds of social networks.

Digital Symbols

In 2022 global internet usage stands at around two thirds of the world’s population. To navigate web2 presumes user familiarity with digital symbols. Many of these are provided freely by Google, and are considered a standard convention for desktop and mobile use. The global community recognises these recurring internet symbols and can infer what is meant when they appear in software interfaces. Given our growing fluency with digital symbols, it is clear why they appear in illustrated content, particularly digital product illustration which can be seen on user-facing apps and websites. By definition, illustration must communicate something particular, and these symbols are a way to speak in the language of today’s internet. Historically, changes in print reproduction have affected the commercial art field. Similarly, the evolving web is almost certain to influence the production of illustrated images, and how onlookers interact with visual works.

Hear and Now: Charting the Event Poster

With an oboe held diagonally across her body, a young girl in a long red dress is poised to play. Illustrated poster artwork for World Music Day.
Hear and Now. Event Poster (2021)

Hear and Now: Charting the Event Poster

The need to publicise cultural events has long given call for the event poster. Many of the most revered posters have been created for this reason. Commercial artists were tasked with making the onlooker aware of what shall soon be taking place. Bearing on the way posters looked was not only the knowhow of the hired artists, but also the societal milieu where their work would be seen. And though posters did not command the same prestige afforded to painterly art, when advertisers realised the potential of the poster, a reliable market for artists did emerge.

Still Recognisable

Since the dawn of the modern illustrated poster there have been countless depictions of young women. Among the early entrants are those in the works of Jules Cheret, who harnessed the opportunities brought forth by colour lithography. Similar contributions were made by Alphons Mucha, and Adolfo Hohenstein. In the early 20th century poster design became less ornate, affecting both image and typography. Many norms of contemporary posters can be traced back to works belonging to this period. Today there is broad agreement that images ought to be legible at a glance, with ample ‘air’ for all the visual elements to breath. This is exemplified by the Sachplakat of Lucian Bernhard. To the same end, typography that leaves no room for ambiguity is advantageous.

Advertisers recognised the value that event posters brought to publicising performances of theatre, cabaret, opera, film screenings, exhibitions, live music, and festivals. This, along with the promotion of purchasable goods and services, formed a lucrative market for many poster illustrators. Those most successful images were not made to be studied, but rather were eye-catching and persuasive. These visual works appeared on morris columns and alongside walkways in major cities worldwide. Posters later fell under the remit of advertising agencies, where they were considered a part of larger marketing campaigns. Graphic design and photographic realism would soon usurp the position held by the illustrated poster within the printed commercial sphere, a medium which would later be dwarfed by the internet. Any illustrated festival poster is now obliged to exist in print alongside visuals optimised for mobile screens.

The Affect Digital Drawing has Made on Contemporary Illustration

With a chisel-tip marker, a young girl pulls a line of red ink across the surface of an A4 drawing pad.
Workspace. Drawing Pad Cover (2022)

The Affect Digital Drawing has Made on Contemporary Illustration

Though traditional drawing techniques are far from obsolete, digital drawing has seen a marked rise in the last decade. Aside from spurring demand for software, this is contributing to the market growth of Digital Drawing Tablets. Standing at over 710 million USD in 2021, the global market value is predicted to rise at a compound annual rate of over 7.5% going into 2028. Global growth is also forecast for the traditional art supplies market. However, those who draw digitally do not share the same need for physical supplies. This shift in practical methods is widely accepted as part of contemporary illustration.

The Absent Matter of Digital Drawing

With physical media, visual textures often reveal how an image is made and reproduced. Notably this was foregrounded by the Ben Day paintings of Roy Lichtenstein. Working digitally, a draftsman can make images that are void of textures, or emulate the concrete traits that are otherwise absent. What is more, digital methods have replaced physical originals with files that can be edited ad infinitum. This is a marked advantage whenever commercial assignments are subject to review.

Digital drawing replicates mark-making by way of software algorithms. To paraphrase digital culture theorist, Lev Manovich, the simulation of a medium means to simulate its tools and interfaces. As more than one medium is present in user software, the affordances of digital workspaces expand what draftsmen can do. This industry-standard software is available to professional and amateur users alike. This has removed a major barrier to entry in a global labour pool that is being flattened by access to broadband.

In spite of this transition, what have remained consistent are the competences that predict a successful drawing, which can be applied to paper or digital. When depicting pictorial subjects, a draftsman’s technique bears upon the fundamentals of volume, composition, light, and colour, to mention a few. The means chosen to prepare images are, in essence, part of the cumulative know-how of a draftsman’s repertoire.