- My name is Bryn Barnard, I'd like to talk to you about From Art Making to Art Thinking, New Paradigms for Illustration Education. When I was an illustration student at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, I lived with a group of other aspiring artists in a seedy apartment building in nearby Highland Park called The Golden Palm. My roommate was James Gurney, my neighbors were Paul Chadwick and Thomas Kinkade. Tom could do a dead on impersonation of Art Center's beloved Illustration Chair Philip Hayes.
At our evening show and tells one of us would proudly display a drawing or painting done in class that day, and Tom would sadly shake his head, "Concept." He'd drawl, "Where's the concept." The room would howl with laughter. We were at Art Center to learn skills, color theory, paint chemistry, brush technique, and mostly drawing, drawing, drawing the human figure. We wanted wrist mileage. Phil's mantra that ideas were what mattered most it seemed hilarious.
Phil and Tom are both dead now, but their argument continues. Skill is crucial in the creation of an illustration, but a well observed drawing is merely a well observed drawing. A concise concept, a radiant idea communicated through those skills is what gives an illustration transcendent power. Paul Chadwick invented Concrete, the comic series about a thoughtful man trapped in a body of rock. James Gurney went on to invent Dinotopia, his beautifully realized world where dinosaurs and people live in harmony.
Tom became the Painter of Light, whose Christian inspired vision of a perfect world made him arguably, one of the most recognized and controversial branded artists of recent times. These days' opportunities for transcended illustration are becoming fewer. Although the contribution of art's cultural goods and services to the US economy in 2011 has been estimated at 504 billion dollars, illustration is a shrinking part of that pie. Illustration as a cultural and economic force has continued the decline that began with the invention of photography, and accelerated with the ascendance of film and television.
Traditional opportunities in the field have become less, due to recession, the shrinking of publishing, the increased use and reuse of stock imagery, the growth of piracy, smaller advertising budgets, the transition from traditional to digital media, and the flattening of the cost of global digital communication, putting American illustrators in direct competition for commissions with artists from countries with much lower fees and living costs. As Milton Glaser remarked at ICON3 in Philadelphia, "All of us in the field of illustration are beginning to "feel we've been struck in the head and have fallen "into a coma and are waiting "to wake up in a more generous time." In the time since Glaser's pronouncement if anything things have gotten less generous.
True, new opportunities have evolved in film, animation and video. Since 1985 animators from just one school, Cal Arts, have accounted for 30 billion dollars in revenue for Hollywood, but these industries too are migrating to lower priced markets like China which is angling for an increased share for the global animation market, and aims to have three to five animation industrial parks in place and is just getting started. Since 2003 over 20 US visual effect houses have closed.
In 2013, one of the best Rhythm & Hues, announced its bankruptcy only a few days before its pièce de résistance, Life of Pi won the special effects Oscar, 500 special effect artists picketed the event to protest their contract conditions. In the documentary, Life After Pi, one of Rhythm & Hues' senior visual effects advisors refers to himself as a pixel gypsy, living out of suitcases, moving from country to country chasing effects work, seeking better subsidized and lower tax environments in Canada, the UK, and the developing world.
The company just couldn't race to the bottom fast enough. Despite these problems the enthusiasm for illustration in academia has increased. NASAD, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, has gone from accrediting a handful of art programs in 1980, few of whom offered illustration, to a groaning roster of over 323 accredited members today, 76 of whom offer an illustration major. Illustration education once a vocation taught by experts like Howard Pyle, with tons of street cred, but little in the way of academic polish, now has adopted most of the tropes of the ivory tower.
An MFA in illustration, an object of mockery at Art Center three decades ago when the first one was offered, is now an academic degree available at 14 NASAD accredited colleges. In the UK you can get a PhD in illustration. Illustration now even has an academic journal that uses the rarified jargon of international art English, where ideas like relational aesthetics, dialogic aesthetics, and connective aesthetics, are discussed to evaluate the genre, and of course illustration now has a bona fide academic conference.
These academic trappings don't come cheap. The price of an illustration education has exploded since 1978, sustained even more than the rest of America in higher education with massive private college loans. As Noah Bradley has pointed out in his essay Don't go to art school, a four year design education at Rhode Island School of Design tops out at $245,816, considerably more than an education at Harvard Law which is only $236,000.
It's true, the top illustrators can still earn impressive money. One anonymous respondent to a 3x3 magazine survey of 600 self-selected illustrators put their income at 980,000 dollars. Good for him or her, good since an online debt repayment calculator recommends an annual income of 400,000 dollars to pay off that RISD loan in ten years, but according to Forbes, which rates commercial art as one of the 10 worst college majors, mediate income for new grads is around $32,000, and experienced grads only $49,000, the 3x3 survey average is a bit higher $53,000.
Illustration education professionals who address this reality encourage illustrators to brand, to spam, to blog, to Tweet, develop web traffic, buy ad space, and above all to persist. As the competition presumably neck deep in art school debt, withers and falls away. Imagine selling an engineering or a computer science education this way, it just doesn't happen. Accumulating more skills and more degrees will not solve this problem.
There simply aren't enough well-paying illustration jobs in the world to support the zombie apocalypse of deeply indebted graduates that American art schools continue to churn out. It is not ethically defensible to continue training them in the way we do, in the numbers we do. This of course is part of a larger problem, in his essay, The End of Higher Education's Golden Age, NYU Professor Clay Shirkey argues that the current model of higher education is bankrupt. He writes, "As long as the income was incoming, "we were happy to trade funding our institutions "with our money (tuition and endowment) for "funding it with other people's money (loans and grants)." The value of our core product, the bachelor's degree, has fallen in every year since 2000, while tuition continues to increase faster than inflation.
If we can't keep raising for students, we can't, and if no one is coming to save us, they aren't, then the only remaining way to help these students is to make a cheaper version of higher education for the new student majority. What's an illustration program to do? Well, for one look around, the United States is now in the midst of an accelerating counterrevolution to modernism. Witness the figurative revival, and the return of the academic atelier.
The Art Renewal Center, the web based self-appointed champion of traditional western art values has accredited over 200 US based ateliers that teach 19th century style drawing and painting. ARC is unapologetically reactionary, disparaging of modernity and modern art. ARC promotes the work of numerous living masters to spread the gospel of realism and 19th century neoclassical aesthetics. Atelier training costs a fraction of an illustration education, about $30,000 for a two year course, sometimes less, and for the best work there's a ready market of buyers.
One possible solution to illustration education's dilemma would be to return to the metier's vo-tech roots. Double down on the skill side, cut the fees, dump the bachelor's degree, and the MFA, and PhD, and reemphasize the connections to 19th century European academic painting. Setting up elite, highly competitive, low cost in house ateliers within the illustration departments for students interested not in an art degree, but just rigorous academic training would be one way to capture a new growing market.
Another possibility, one with more potential risks, but also potential for greater success for a larger group of artists is for illustration education, at least part of illustration education to reinvent itself as an engine of creative innovation. Research is recognizing the importance of visual arts to innovation in other fields. The notion of STEM into STEAM is championed by the Rhode Island School of Design, and is embraced by the National Association of Art Education.
STEM is the National Science Foundation's initiative to teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, as a core K to 12 Educational focus with the goal of raising from the current miserable eight percent the number of college undergrads who go into STEM fields. STEAM seeks to inject art and design training into STEM, STEM plus art equals STEAM, to encourage the integration of art and design into K-12 education, and to encourage employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation.
STEAM is an idea not an organization. Several entities contribute to the power of STEAM, including STEAM education whose Georgette Yakman, originally articulated the idea, and stemtosteam.org. STEAM even has a congressional caucus. STEAM case studies include the California College of Art's efforts to address solutions to climate change through participation at the 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, the only art school in attendance.
New York's Institute of Play, which seeks to redesign the principles of education around games, and RISD itself, which in 2011 collaborated with scientists in residence Marta Gomez-Chiarti to develop new methods of information dissemination. How many of your illustration programs have a scientist in residence? There's pushback of course, since money for art means money someone else isn't getting. Vince Bertram, CEO of Project Lead The Way, which claims to be the leading voice for K to 12 STEM education, suggest that STEM drives inventiveness in the arts, not the other way around, and that budget pressed governments and school districts should focus on encouraging creativity within STEM disciplines, but one has only to look at the famous case of the calligraphy course that future Apple co-founder Steve Jobs took at Reed College during his six month stint there as an undergraduate, to understand the profound effect art can have on a receptive student.
Lloyd Reynolds taught the course, it was holistic and cross disciplinary. It taught Jobs taste, to understand the power of seductive beauty, as do any of you who have an iPhone. An educational idea conceptually related to STEAM is Art Science, the brainchild of Harvard's David Edwards, which he describes as the simultaneously imaginative and analytical process that underlies all creative thought. Art Science is a hybrid area that pairs artists and scientists, makes artists part of science teams, and brings scientists into areas traditionally resolved for artists.
The Art Science prize supports student projects at a dozen locations around the world. Three art science labs founded by Edwards are endeavoring to become centers for cultural innovation and experimentation. Whereas STEAM initiatives tend to emanate from the art and design world, the impetus for Art Science projects comes mostly from the science institutions. More than 20 medical schools, including Harvard, Yale, Rutgers, Cornell and Columbia, already have developed art classes for medical students to train their ability to see and empathize.
Medical students who take the Harvard course Training the Eye make 40 percent more clinical observations than untrained students, which means fewer tests and that's potentially huge financial savings. Art saves money, imagine that. Individual artists are also using their science to inform their work in profound ways. The Neukom Vivarium, an installation by artist Mark Dion is one example of Art Science.
A high-tech greenhouse in Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park, designed to keep a live a nurse log of fallen Western hemlock from which seedlings grow. Shades open and close, misters mist, drawer collections elaborate the biodiversity of the tree ecosystem. Experiencing the Vivarium, the viewer understands just how hard we have to work to do what nature does for free. This isn't illustration, but it is art that like the best illustration, illuminates.
Another art scientist is Anna Dumitriu, supported by the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Trust, and the Arts Council of England, she crochets MRSA and staphylococcus into quilts, and felts tuberculosis bacteria. Such pursuits may seem silly or outré to illustrators, but bacterial art has a pedigree. Alexander Fleming enjoyed playing in the lab and creating petri dish portraits and landscapes with a pin and a palette of multi-colored bacteria. In the process he discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin.
It is old news that art play is central to scientific innovation. In his book Art and Physics, Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, medical doctor Leonard Slain, suggests that human beings have a universal, evolving meta-consciousness that visionary artists are the first to channel and express in their art, years before the ideas develop rationally in science. He links, for example Piero della Francesca and Raphael's invention of the elliptical halo during the Quattrocentro to Newton's invention of the calculus a century later.
Calculus, of course, was used to calculate, among other things, the path of ellipses, which we used to get Apollo 11 to the moon and back. In their book, Sparks of Genius, The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People, Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein have shown how the Renaissance invention of anamorphosis the projection and distortion of one dimension onto another, used to make maps, linear perspective, and the angular distortions that have made a sidewalk chalk career for artist Kurt Wenner and his imitators migrated into other fields.
In surveying, anamorphosis enabled GaspardMonge to work out the principles of projective geometry, important to engineering and architecture. The 16th century anamorphic experiments of Albrecht Dürer inspired 19th century biologist D'Arcy Thompson to show how the shapes of organisms evolve by anamorphic distortions. The motion picture industry uses anamorphosis in wide screen projection, and so on and so on.
The Root-Bersteins make the point, repeatedly, that the kind of art thinking they endorse is not innate, but can be taught with the thirteen thinking tools in the title of their book, observing, imaging, abstracting, recognizing patterns, forming patterns, analogizing, body thinking, empathizing, dimensional thinking, modeling, playing, transforming and synthesizing. They're relying on precedent. The most famous artist of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein, is renowned for his gedankenexperiment, thought experiments, visualizing the perceptions of a passenger, for example, traveling on a train at the speed of light.
Though you get the impression from some biographies that this was something Einstein invented along with his Theory of Relativity, in fact he was taught how to think this way at the Kanton Schule in Arrau, Switzerland. Students learned to feel what it felt like to be inside a physical system. They learned to draw and create models. Nonverbal non-mathematical forms of thinking were at the center of their education. Einstein was an under-performer until he transferred to Kanton Schule.
He used those visualization tools to upend our understanding of the way the universe operates. He was a pretty good patent inspector, too. Einstein imagined what it was like to be a photon. He played. In 1931 Alexander Calder, a sculptor who loved the circus and continually invented for fun, invented the mobile, a kind of perpetually moving hanging kinetic sculpture. Years later art student Kenneth Snelson was studying with Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller.
Snelson decided to play with Calder's mobile concept and Fuller's tetrahedral principle of stability. He ended up inventing tensegrity, a set of isolated components inside a net of compression, which is now being applied in architecture and understanding the structures of the human body. Mathematician Roger Penrose was inspired by the reality-bending work of artist M.C. Escher to play with geometric shapes. He invented the impossible triangle and the endless staircase, both of which Escher, returning the compliment, famously used in his art.
Fascinated by Escher's use of tessellations, Penrose went on to discover infinitely non-repeating tessellations. Penrose patterns that were eventually discovered in nature, quasi-crystals and more recently, in the Islamic patterns that were the original inspiration for Escher's art. These are a few of the many examples of art informing science, but as any National Endowment for the Arts administrator can tell you getting the public, politicians and educators to think of art as not just useful, but essential will take some doing.
Fine art has spent more than a century making itself useless, ironic, incomprehensible, apart, and sometimes a little ridiculous. This is where illustration has an advantage. Unlike fine art, illustration has to be readable. It has to communicate. It has to sell an idea, a product, a story, that's the point. Illustrators play, but they play with purpose. Illustration education, with its focus on communication, visualization and story-telling, has the potential to take advantage of the STEM STEAM art science paradigm shift.
Illustrators think transformatively, they take verbal ideas and change them into visual imagery, they learn to observe carefully, they learn to put themselves in the shoes of their characters, they visualize imaginary worlds, they imagine how an audience will perceive their work. Moreover, illustration training is, ipso facto, active, hands-on, inquiry based learning, which a growing body of evidence has shown has definitive advantages over passive, lectured-based instruction.
Students in STEM classes who engage in active learning remember more and get better grades. STEM can learn a lot from the way we teach illustrators. I believe illustration education is well suited to transition from art making, making pictures, to art thinking, visualizing ideas, and to partner with schools, universities and professional institutions to integrate visualization in all fields, math, English, social science, physical education and natural science.
I'm talking about not just specialized art making in art class, but holistic art thinking in all classes. Today many K-12 schools have literacy coaches whose job is to help teachers improve writing skills. Illustration programs could train imaging coaches who would enable teachers to teach visualization, creative communication and guided creative play. At the K-12 level, such illustrators would treat the development of picture-making skills with the same reverence in which we now hold writing.
They could follow the lead of Misty Adoniou, a professor at the University of Canberra, Australia, who has shown how letting students draw the first draft of their essays instead of writing them makes for better writing, accelerated learning and better comprehension. At the post-secondary level, art thinking programs could teach higher-level visual skills to doctors, engineers, biochemists, physicists, military planners, politicians and climate scientists.
This is not just an exercise in saving illustration education from conceptual and financial implosion. One has only to take a cursory glance at the predictionist literature to know that we will need radical new ideas to confront a future of unprecedented environmental, political and social problems, rising sea levels, mega-droughts and famines, water-wars, environmental refugees on the move, novel epidemics, the cessation of ocean currents, even the destruction of the ozone layer.
Business as usual, thinking as usual, illustration as usual, won't cut it. We need our brightest, most unorthodox minds to take risks, make unorthodox connections, see with new eyes. Chris Jordan is one set of those new eyes. He does with art what Last Week Tonight's John Oliver does with comedy, he makes boring but crucial statistics in news vividly understandable. Like this take on Hokusai's famous ukiyo-e print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, it's made from 2.4 million pieces of plastic collected from the Pacific Ocean.
The name number as the pounds of plastic, 2.4 million, that enter all the world's oceans every hour. Art thinking is one way to address what promises to be, as that Chinese curse puts it, interesting times. I've written and illustrated books on plagues, on disasters, on Islam's connections with the West, and next year on climate change. I've seen the advantages of art thinking in my own career.
Although, as far as I know, none of my illustrations have opened wormholes into new fields of research, my illustration career has predisposed me toward art-science teaming. I've done my share of children's books and bus ads and magazine portraits, but the science history books I've written and illustrated have steeped me in the process of solving problems in the world. Dangerous Planet looks at the ripples of change natural disasters pulse across history. Outbreak considers the hard lessons epidemics have taught us about providing equal access to healthcare for all human beings.
The Genius of Islam explores the deep connections between the Islamic World and the West. My forays into the academic arena a Fulbright fellowship, a Crane-Rogers fellowship, a consultancy at Universities Field Staff International, a trusteeship at the Institute of Current World Affairs, have shown me the importance of artsy non-linear thinking to come up with non-obvious solutions. I now teach international baccalaureate art at the American International School of Kuwait.
It isn't illustration training, nor a STEAM, nor an art science curriculum, but it suggests an approach. IB art mixes art history, art criticism and art making. Our students go on to study engineering, medicine, business, art and design. Colleague Angie Hani and I stress sophisticated art thinking as students devise a framework on which to build, over two years, twelve to eighteen artworks around a theme. They research artists of influence, analyze artworks of inspiration, develop approaches to picture solving.
Students work as much preparing and researching as they do executing the finished work. It's that preparation that helps them grow artistically and intellectually. The finished art is the frosting. An analogous process, of course, goes into every scientific, business, and policy advance. Here's an investigative workbook page from my student Jane Sleiman. She explored the different facets of human isolation, the masks we wear, the lies we tell, the emotions we experience.
Here's the finished product, using her sister as a live canvas on which to write her diary entries. Her classmate, Ferras al Habib's study of his mother's life was inspired by her unexpected death. His suite of artworks included a meditation on her smile, the stages of her forty-seven years of life as child, newlywed, mother and hospice patient, and finally a sarcophagus for the last piece of clothing in her closet. Farah Marafie's exploration of the media's impact on her self-image started with a sculpted head generated from a poll of her classmates' favorite features, evolved into a door of locks to keep the real her safe from inspection, and ended with a let it all hang out head to toe X-ray of her body displayed on a life size light-box.
Will any of these students grow up to be part of that group of inventive minds who can save us from ourselves, I hope so. Art thinking may take some holistic reimagining in illustration departments where the focus for the last decades has been training students to use an ever expanding, ever more specialized armamentarium of traditional and digital tools for an increasingly fragmented market. Art thinking is a new market with new clients with different needs.
Art thinking will have to prove itself as an essential link to creativity and innovation, one of the links that can make the difference between success and failure in business, in national competition and in human survival, but this is a market there for the taking, if only we have the courage to try.
Professor and illustrator Bryn Barnard offers solutions to these problems in this fascinating presentation on art education. Learn how two-year "atelier" training, integration of art into STEM-driven curriculum, art science, and IB Art programs can help students transition from making art to thinking art—using art to solve all sorts of creative challenges.