May you live in interesting times. So goes the curse….
Last year at IlluxCon, a convention devoted purely to the buying, selling and showing of painted art – I overheard a young artist saying to another how he yearned to learn how to use “traditional media” – but he just didn’t have the time. Putting aside the obvious, that learning how to draw takes a while, and youth are an impatient lot, was this label ever required before the era of “digital media”? Sure, for a while we added the words airbrush and handbrush as descriptors but most of the time (in my opinion) this information wasn’t for the sake of accuracy, so much as to elevate the work or demean it, depending on one’s view of airbrushing. Now we’ve got “digital media” – and everything else, by default, is “traditional.” Forget about oil, or acrylics, or tempera or gouache. It’s all “traditional”. Yikes!
The digital revolution has brought a sea-change to the hobby of collecting illustration art – but only as a consequence of the numbers of industries that have been thrown into disarray, if not bankruptcy by “digital media”. And while it’s still unclear exactly what the most successful business model will be for many of them in the 21st century, one thing seems almost certain when it comes to the field of commercial art: there ain’t gonna be many assignments for hand painted illustration – airbrush or no airbrush. And artists aren’t alone. Publishers of printed books have enjoyed a good run. Now it’s time for e-books. Is this good news, or bad news, for those who collect books and illustrative art?
You might go so far as to say: Print is dead – or if not dead, dying. Newspapers certainly are dying; they’re losing advertisers and subscribers. Anything printed on paper, in fact, is going away. I just bought a piece of jewelry this week, and I was handed a cel phone to sign my name (with my finger). My receipt would be sent to me….by email. “Would you like a paper receipt?” is now an option. Soon, it won’t be.
Few fields have experienced upheaval in the digital age as dramatic as the field of photography (upon which, once upon a time, artists, graphics and book designers, advertisers, game companies, publishers, and printers all depended…). I stopped printing catalogs two years ago, after 16 years of annual production – and I’ve already been solicited by a dealer who’s wiling to take my entire inventory of outdated catalogs off my hands. He thinks they have promise as “collectibles.” (!)
But it’s not just books, and printing that’s been affected. All sorts of business sectors that used to provide income and career opportunities for commercial artists have collapsed. Yes, after about a century of unparalleled popularity, science fiction and fantasy illustration art has succumbed to the inevitable, the tidal wave of digitization that has swept us all into an uncharted future dominated by pixels. All through the years, there was one constant – the need for a steady supply of paintings and drawings for book and magazine covers, interiors….and calendars, puzzles, game box covers, packaging art for toys and action figures, collector plates, pin ball machines, tee-shirts, notecards, trading cards, even wine bottle labels and POGs (yeah….remember those?) Along the way there would be valleys and peaks; war time disruption of production and conventions, popcult energizers like Star Wars. But science fiction was golden. Long after mysteries, westerns, men’s adventure, military and romance genres stopped needing artists….science fiction and fantasy was there.
Dozens of artists left the field for greener pastures. Many more left because there was nothing to keep them there anymore. No more Sega Pinball backglass art or Hamilton Mint “I love Lucy” collector plates for Morgan Weistling. No more Stirling or Landmark wall calendars for me or dozens of other artists. No more Second Nature screen savers, no more wall paper designs, no more phone cards.
Illustrative art: It was a field of artistic endeavor that grew for 80 years, and then took about 20 years to wither away…..and rise like a phoenix in the form of anime’, video and computer games, film animation, graphic design, and any product that needs an image you can make via Poseur or Photoshop. A whole new world that begged for attention, that rewarded youth and novelty and experimentation, and speed. A career that paid book illustrators . . . even less than before.
For commercial artists, just as for collectors of contemporary illustration, there are a lot of decisions being made today – many of them painful. For those still addicted to “traditional media” when it comes to the visual arts, the digital world seems like an alien place. Are we to go silent into that good night? What are our options?
Not all media will be equally satisfying to collectors or artists. Now that the last roll of slide film has been manufactured, and the last projector bulb has burned out, we need a better understanding of how technology is affecting how we think about art. Is the quality of art measured by the medium? Or is it measured not by how it is created, but rather how well the art serves its intended purpose? And what happens if there is no longer that purpose drawing us to the art (a treasured book or story from our childhood, or an artist’s vision of what it’s like on Mars that captured our imagination when we first saw it in a magazine) will we still be attracted to girls riding dragons, exploding space ships? A chapter in the history of art may be closing – what new story is beginning? If there is no original art “as we know it”, if there is no painting, but the imagery is as strong as ever, will collectors be satisfied with owning printed reproductions of digital files?
If there is anything to be learned from the diversity of viewpoints on this issue, it is that artists are no more immune to cultural and economic dislocation than steelworkers. And yet… as many point out, the global shift to digitization is no more certain than was the popular “end to movie going” predicted in the last decade. It’s possible that publishers will come to regret their errant ways, and re-discover the powerful marketing advantages of paint (“it’s cyclical”). My guess, though, is that it’s just as likely that software (or robots) will fill the void, because where there’s a need (“brush strokes” sell), business will find a way to satisfy it. There are no best answers, only plenty of them, while the number of questions will continue to expand in proportion to the increased diversity and expansion in artistic media.
I will continue to explore this theme in future blogs. It’s been on my mind since I started sounding the death knell for SF/F illustration art “back in the 90s, claiming that would be the last decade for such art “as we knew it .” By 2009 I decided it was time to ring the bell publically, and edited a collection of essays for Paint or Pixel: The Digital Divide in Illustration Art (NonStop Press). The views expressed there, together with this blog I hope will provide fodder for your comments. I want to hear your opinions on the many sides of this issue as we leave the 20th century – “The science fiction century” as the late Charles Brown (Locus publisher) called it – in traditional dust.