Illustration Research Symposium

Posted by on Nov 11, 2015 in Comics, Drawing, Illustration, Travels | 5 comments

The 6th Annual Illustration Research Symposium hosted by the Illustration Research Network and Rhode Island School of Design was a total blast of ideas and great presentations. Thanks to Maine College of Art for sending Illustration Department Chair Mary Anne Lloyd and me to this international gathering of illustration academics. I filled my MECA sketchbook and more.

Thursday evening upon arrival at the RISD ISB Gallery, we were warmly greeted by Susan Doyle, Department Head of RISD Illustration at the opening of the conference exhibition, Little Pieces, Big Ideas.


It was a delicious entry to what was in store for Friday’s full day of presentations and panels, held in Chace Auditorium.


RISD Illustration faculty, Robert Brinkerhoff, designed a charming visual for this year’s theme: Illustrator as Public Intellectual. He offered a welcome, introductions, and made the apt comparison between ICON (celebratory and extroverted) and the Research Symposium (reflective, abstract, introverted) and we were off and running.

The first panel on Challenging Professional Identities and Roles included David Blaiklock from the University of South Australia, whose topic, Illustration: Towards an Understanding of Expertise, was peppered with his conceptual illustrations. Many of his drawings made great use of the eye as metaphor, but for some reason this is the one I captured.


I was sketching the man in the row ahead of me. I liked his hat.


It turned out to be Gary Powell from the University of Brighton who spoke next on Inside the Outsiders: Intellectual Creativity and Social Concerns. Leaving Jamaica as a child to live in England, he gained confidence making art. He gave credit to his teacher, Ms. Hyden, for encouraging him, and quoted Eleanor Roosevelt: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

Roger Reed of Illustration House, Inc. gave the history behind Illustrator/Author John McDermott’s Intellectual Look in the Mirror. McDermott wrote Brooks Wilson, Ltd. under his pen name, J. M. Ryan, about the exploits of an illustrator in NYC. Later, a film adaptation was made, Loving . Back in the day when being an illustrator was way more glamorous, and yet apparently still unsatisfying.

Mary Catharine Johnsen,  Carnegie Mellon University’s Design Liaison Librarian, discussed New Yorker Cartoons and Invention. Her premise that “cartoons can teach ideas” was effectively presented with a bounty of examples, many from the 40’s and 50’s. She suggested “have the user finish the thought” for more powerful visual communication. She shared a wealth of fabulous lists, this one being my favorite, also handy for brainstorming in the classroom.

After a lunch break, the next panel was Visual Satirist as Public Intellectual. Marsha Morton from Pratt discussed German illustration from the mid-1800’s, much of it from Kladderadatsch, a newspaper in Berlin that frequently used illustrations by Wilhelm Scholz.

This led into the next topic, Thomas Nast’s “Appropriations”: Agency and the Mechanically Produced Image in Nineteenth Century America by Stephanie Delamaire of the Winterthur Museum. While Nast is perhaps better known in American illustration history, I didn’t know he was born in Germany or that he refused a bribe from Boss Tweed to go to Europe. His pictorial journalism grew into sharp satire that could change opinion and thus the balance of power. I sketched Stephanie as she spoke. My likenesses aren’t great, but drawing helps me listen.



Duncan Ross from Ulster University talked about Illustrating the Vaccum, literally. The Vacuum is an alternative newspaper whose strategy was to subvert the “troubles iconography.”


After presenters were done, they gathered together as a panel for questions. There was mention of Charlie Hebdo and the illustrator as agitator. The Kladderadasch Boy in Germany is now Alfred E. Newman of MAD, the foil for satire. This led into a roundtable discussion led by D.B. Dowd of Washington University on Cartooning & Illustration As Modes of Authorship: Cousins, Siblings, or Twins?


With Nora Krug, Seymour Chwast, and Anita Kunz onstage, the discussion covered big territory. Dowd argued that cartoons are stand-alone creations while illustrations are interpretive, accountable, and contingent upon text. Does that make illustrations less creative? Krug said illustration is underestimated; it has power to shape faith, politics, morale, and culture. “The act of drawing is a form of research,” she said. In illustrating her book, Kamikaze, she could imagine her subjects more deeply by drawing them, not seeing them as either victims, heroes, or culprits, but as human.

I drew her profile.


Chwast was born in the Bronx and lived in Coney Island, “a hotbed of naive radical activity.” He was influenced at a young age by trips to MOMA and the art of Ben Shahn, Daumier, and Goya. His point of view inspired the posters he created. Dowd suggested illustration lies in the middle between cartooning and art. With the economic climate of publishing shrinking, creators are left to make more personal work. Within the simultaneous scarcity of opportunity, there is a new audience bounty online. Kunz finds the now massive appeal of Comic Cons (one happening the same weekend in Providence) evidence that the field is changing. Chwast’s advice: Be brave, be aware how your work communicates.

We broke for fresh air and forays to other destinations. Mary Anne and I had fun in the RISD Museum.


I returned to Chace to catch part of “In And Out Of The Margins: Affirming The Illustrator As Philosopher And Boundary Catalyst in the Public Realm” with Chris Glynn playing piano while Richard Parry sang. It was remarkably entertaining, even though the audience was hesitant to sing along. They are launching the “University of Wednesdays” declaring there’s a tunnel that runs under the Venn diagram, and it’s the space anywhere people talk about relationships. Affirm obscurity!


A reception followed with wine, food, and mingling. We befriended Harini Kannan and Nayana Gupta, both visiting from Bangalore. They were presenting the next day, and had participated in last year’s Research Symposium in India.


We returned for the Keynote Address by Rick Poyner from the Royal College of Art in London, who was introduced by Jaleen Grove, Assistant Editor of a forthcoming History of Illustration (Bloomsbury 2017) and currently teaching at Wilfrid Laurier University. She was the first person I had sketched as the conference began.


She’d gotten her first degree in Graphic Design just when there were no jobs to be had, and became a freelance illustrator doing little $100 spots. She discovered the lack of discourse on illustration, but her questioning led her to the Illustration Research Network, where she now edits the Journal of Illustration as well. She called Rick a great megaphone for illustration, but when he took the podium, he admitted “I forgot my megaphone.”

He asked How seriously should we take illustration? How seriously does it take itself? Read more on that topic here. Poyner used Russell Mills as a case study for an illustrator who meets his definition of the public intellectual. Mills didn’t see any difference between self-motivated work and commissioned work. His illustration became less narrative and more complex, with use of collage with painterly textures. Mills now lives in Ambleside, a bucolic lakeside village in England, where “establishing a sense of place is a radical antidote.”

Meanwhile, I sketched the audience.



We headed off into the Providence night, and this rather summed up the day for me, an ode to the scopic regime in the window of Lovecraft Arts & Sciences.


Saturday’s agenda brought tough choices with double the offerings; panels in either Chace or over at the ISB Gallery. Arrrggghhh! I opted for Image Reference & Authorship.

Stuart Medley of Edith Cowan University presented Metapictures: Signposts to an Illustrated Public Space. He asked, “can illustration resist words?” He defined a metapicture as a picture inside itself inside itself, or a picture that references picturality, or a picture that is related but with a new spin. The hands-down best example was a smart series by Mike Mitchell called Super.


And what the audience brings to a visual gestalt….


I was eager to hear Lisa French’s talk: The Impact of Data Collection Technology on the Sophistication of Visual Thinking. I had this feeling: will she touch on the overuse of Google searches as primary reference?

She discussed how visual memory, even unconsciously, can focus the mind inward, where creative impulses form a cognitive network. I sketched her.


She outlined the steps in creating an illustration, the fact finding, problem finding, incubation, photo referencing. As a non-fiction illustrator, I get the inherent limitations of using only a single source, and one that is at everyone’s fingertips. We all need to dig deeper.

Catrin Morgan presented Evidence and Illumination. She said, “Illustration doesn’t need to make any claims to being important. It uses all languages.”


James Walker presented The Forgetful Act: Erasure and Forgetfulness in Illustrative Reportage. My, how true. I am leaving out SO much in this report, and my sketches barely catch a whiff of what I saw.

Photography is one click on an event, while drawing takes more time and perhaps discomfort. It is a furtive and clandestine act amidst “the image well we are drowning in.” What is left out of a drawing, the white spaces, the erasures, create “an empty space that becomes filled with viewers’ emotions.”


During the coffee break, Mary Anne and I dashed over to the ISB Gallery for the next panel: Cultural Representation & Intervention in the USA. Chris Lukasik from Purdue University began with Looking the Other Way: David Hunter Strother, Race, and The Rise of Mass Visual Culture. In his examination of Strother’s rise from an “expensive ornament to a crucial piece of media” he documented the work of Strother’s alias, Porte Crayon, whom he called “the drunken uncle” that nobody talks about. A peer of Winslow Homer, his work for Harper’s New Monthly was full of racial stereotypes that earned him praise in media circles at the time.

I began sketching the woman in front of me who was in fact the next speaker, Robyn Phillips-Pendelton from University of Delaware.

24robyn_blogShe presented Diversity, Perception, and Responsibility in Illustration, a continued thread of racial stereotyping in newspapers and advertising from Strother’s day, to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to Aunt Jemima packaging, to Time’s cover by Matt Mahurin of O.J. Simpson, to Barry Blitt’s New Yorker cover of Michelle and Barack Obama’s fist bump. It just doesn’t stop. When will it STOP?

Sabrina Scott’s Drawing the Other examined the contemporary illustration scene by looking at recent illustration annuals, counting the number of white males, females, people of color, LGBTQ folk. White males are the default in illustration, while females are often sexualized, sometimes appearing only as legs. She said, “We can make work smarter than this.”

25sabrina_blogShe provided a sharp list of Cool Tips.


There was talk of who are the jurors for these one-sided annuals? Robyn pointed out there were no people of color presenting at the last ICON, where she was one of two black women in an audience of 500. We ALL need to raise our voices.

After a quick lunch break, I headed back for Practitioners in Collaboration With Clients & Audiences. Nayana Gupta presented Urban Dissection, in which she shared this busy map of what makes Identity.


Culture is primary; her observations while walking in Ranchi (capital of Jharkhand), where little temples sprout up on public property, became an investigation into what those structures represent. Her first step is to decode the environment, in which sketching adds a focus. “The gods are on the street” became not just a translation, but a diagram of symbolism, materials, and relentless expansion.


Kathrin Amelung was unable to attend, and Chris Glynn superbly delivered her Scientific Illustration as a Specific Kind of Research, declaring that scientific illustration is not just after the fact, but can BE the research, using dinosaur bones in animation to argue the point with great effect.

Chloe Bulpin, a recent RISD graduate in Illustration, presented The Art of Conservation, asking do we need to keep every species? Like, the oblong rock snail, who cares? What is the more effective approach to conservation, doom and gloom or empathy? The viral circulation of this photo is evidence that empathy might work.


Check out Creature Conserve to learn how you can contribute.

Mark Smith presented You Look Like the Right Type, his dedication to overheard phrases and hand-lettering. He’s become fascinated by Scott McCloud’s definition of closure, that space between sequential panels that a reader completes without thinking. He considers these juxtapositions when hanging his works in modular displays, all done on small sheets of drawing paper.


Last but not least was the Education panel, where Luise Vormittage from University of the Arts presented Confidence, Conviction & Depth: Emboldening Illustration Students. She used Google search image clusters to illustrate her points, asking if what we teach at our institutions is relevant to contemporary conditions. How we currently teach is neither practical or truly academic.


We expect students to be self-directed, to find their “voice” when such work is rare and badly paid. Students don’t often choose relevant themes. She said, “Most illustrations aren’t made by illustrators.” It’s the usage that has become primary. What authorized the author? In today’s digital glut, a personal voice has become anachronistic. She raised many questions.

Dushan Milic from Ontario College of Art and Design followed with no visual aids whatsoever for The Power of Forms: Abstraction and Imagination, Representationalism and Power. He said what is excluded counts. A blank screen engages the void when we are awash in images without meaning.

Robert Brinkerhoff’s presentation of Stereotypes and Paradigms: Revolutionizing Archetypes in Illustration also used Google as a data visualization device to illustrate the filter for flower, for man. Is there parity or clarity? His students are showing him the way.

He has noticed a shift in their sensitivities; they are bold, vocal, and active. They are investigating empathy. The closing panel provided great dialogue around broad issues of diversity, ethics, and interiority. A row of RISD students spoke about their ranks, their need to question, to not force passions on them. They have their own and will get to them.

Both Susan Doyle and Sheri Wills, Dean of Fine Arts, thanked the audience and presenters in their closing remarks. Everyone was ready for the reception at the RISD Library. After all, as Jaleen had remarked at the beginning, the Greek translation of symposium means drinking together. Finally!


Thank you, Illustration Research Network and RISD, for a provocative assembly in the name of illustration studies. May we all keep our pencils, eyeballs, and thinking sharp. Waterfire was a fitting parallel to all the bonfires set in the mind.



  1. What a visual and verbal feast!

  2. thanks for reading, Nicole!

  3. Wow! Thanks for taking me along. Glad to hear about the focus on diversity.

  4. Your posts are always so wonderful and thorough. Thank you!!
    What a great synopsis…it makes me feel not quite so bad about missing this!

  5. Great coverage Jamie! There was so much to take in while managing programming that it was a bit of a blur. It is really terrific to have access to your perspective— truly another lens through which to consider the event. Thanks for coming and taking the time to share your notes and illustrations. Susan

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