It’s the middle of the millennium and monks sit in their candle-lit libraries and work from dawn to dusk meticulously hand-painting illustrations on papyrus. These works would take decades to complete and were considered a form of penance by medieval puritans. Cut scene to an artsy cafe in the year 2019 and you have quiet recluses at every corner pursuing their version of this ancient art of creating pictures with untold meanings buried deep in the imagery.
The art of creating illustrations and using it as a means to convey a deeper perspective has existed for as long as humans drew on the walls of caves and wrote down their versions of ancient rituals. But illustrations truly came to power in the middle of the 19th century when young graduates from American art schools decided to add hand-drawn abstract illustrations to advertisements and magazine covers. Founded in 1954, New York-based Push Pin Studios was one of the earliest ad agencies to be founded by illustrators and designers who set about laying the building blocks of creative illustrations the way we know about them today.
Barefoot Jerry by Seymour Chwast, Founder of Push Pin Studio
While the room is getting crowded, Modern day artists have decades of celebrated artists to look up to and emulate as well as their own contemporaries to nudge, this leaves the fate of hand-drawn illustrations in strong arms. Contemporary and indie illustration styles are everywhere and cannot always be clearly labelled, but we can identify their sources of inspiration and this gives us quite a decent idea about the message the artist hopes to communicate.
Here are some of the inspirations that prompted the different styles of illustrations we see today:
Art Nouveau and its love affair with psychedelic art and typography
What started in the late 1890s soon became the mother-ship of modern illustrative styles. Art Nouveau was created by free-thinking designers who wanted to create outside of traditional illustrative teachings. With free-flowing lines, typography that stands out, and extensively detailed workmanship, Art Nouveau turned out to be a period that has inspired everyone from typographers to the hippie children of the psychedelic movement.
(Art Nouveau inspired Pink Floyd poster from 1966)
Surrealism and the art of crafting the unsettling
Andre Breton described Surrealism as ‘pure psychic automatism.’ A way to blend in the dream world with the vaguely familiar is what gives surrealism its distinctly unsettling quality. Surrealism has infiltrated all aspects of art, from performance art to the skill of creating music posters, viewers are instinctively drawn towards the shapes as they seem recognizable but are soon forced to confront the dream-like vagueness of the illustrative style.
(The persistence of memory by Salvador Dali)
(Surrealism in graphic design – Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ music poster)
Bauhaus and iconography
Inspired and created by some of the most illustrious architects, constructivists, and designers of the 1910s, Bauhaus still stands as one of the most influential art styles adopted by modern design schools. We can see the influence of their usefulness before form ideology in everything ranging from good UI design to the design of icons, brand identities, to contemporary architecture. Straight forward design and clean lines are everywhere!
(A Bauhaus exhibition poster from 1923)
(Bauhaus inspired posters for Coca-Cola.)
Art Deco and the birth of visual arts
Created for the Paris International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925, Art Deco is characterized by its clean lines, aerodynamic curves, and clean shapes. Created as a reaction to Art Nouveau, Art Deco hoped to bring back traditional art styles back with updates from constructivism and modernism. Still considered one of the founding pillars of modern design education, Art Deco has influences in most modern luxury design languages.
(Henry Tajous Print – Original Vintage Art Deco Cycling Poster Advertising Siccea Bicycle Systems)
Political illustrations, Caricatures, and Lowbrow art
What started as political commentary in British newspapers from the 1800s soon turned into a full-fledged form of illustrations made for the purpose of communicating the feelings of the rising middle and lower classes. Everything from M.A.D. comics to the common man as depicted by R.K. Laxman falls under this category of illustrations made for mass publication.
(The cover page of The New Yorker from May 2002)
Digital and hand-drawn digital illustrations
We are headed into a brand new day in the world of Illustrations as computers and digital drawing tools offer up the world of art to the entire world. We see the birth of new art styles every day and progress is the only way forward. Characterized by the way in which graphic designers reinterpret traditional art forms and imbibe modernity into their pieces – illustrations are taking on a new meaning in the world of 1s and 0s.
(Chip Kidd’s iconic logo for the Jurassic Park book and movie series)
So what inspired artists in 2019? All of it. And more.