This past weekend, I was in Chicago attending a high school reunion where I met a photographer for The National Geographic Society. He travels around the world eleven months of the year on various assignments. Passionate about his work, he invited me to an art fair held the next day on the plaza of the Chicago Tribune Tower where he would exhibit his photos. When I located his booth where he carried on a brisk trade, I was impressed with the high quality of his work and purchased a lovely photo of a group of colorfully dressed women from Senegal. Strolling among the large variety artworks there, I observed that many of the exhibitors shared the commonality of a hopeful face, waiting for that one sale that would make their work and expenses worthwhile. I was reminded that I hadn’t done much to promote myself in recent years, having been preoccupied with the book project that has been driving this blog.
Revisiting the notion of self-promotion, I reflected on my own strategies throughout my career in the vast trend-driven marketplaces of publishing and ‘fine art’. In addition to cold calls and travel that occasionally secured face time with gallery owners, museum curators and art directors for ‘book (portfolio) shows’, my promotional activities have spanned media from photos and 35mm slides of my images to expensive illustration sourcebooks and competitions, posters, postcards, broadsheets, brochures of limited edition prints, a web presence and targeted snail and emails. All were effective to a point and I can see most, if not all of my illustrator colleagues nodding in agreement.
Despite all of this effort, the frenetic world politics, virtual social interaction and financial markets of the last few years have dramatically affected both the nature and financial well-being of the illustration industry, raising the question: is illustration still relevant?
For those of us who practice traditional illustration with a certain passion know there is only one answer. Yes. Though photography poses a formidable competitive challenge for high profile assignment work and our art has changed steadily over time with technology and applicable venues, at heart it remains the handmaiden of storytelling, if not the story itself. For us, the challenge to keep our work relevant and visible remains a priority.
In a recent conversation with a well-known New York art director, I wondered whether he still received armfuls of illustrators’ promotional materials and if so, which sort prompted him to assign work? Expecting to hear a variety of answers from promotional gimmicks to source books, I was surprised when he said one simple word: postcards. Now he is only one art buyer among many and all have their personal preferences, but you can’t beat a simple, memorable promotion that can be pinned to a wall as a visual reminder of who you are.
There are some days I feel lazy and want nothing more than to let my mind drip out of my ears, but I have to remind myself that being an illustrator is damn hard work. And none of us can afford to rest on past accomplishments because the eternal question is not, ‘what have you done?’ but ‘what have you done lately?’