Ian Whadcock is an Illustrator and Senior Lecturer at Manchester School of Art who's research interests focus on landscape, boundaries and narrative through practice-based enquiry. A regular contributor to Beneficial Shock!, his editorial client list also includes The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Management Today amongst many others. We caught up with Ian to hear his thoughts about a unique philosophy that he has forged over many years in the 'business' of image-making, teaching and informed research.
Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions Ian.
First off, can we ask which piece of work or project have you learned the most from?
I believe most design work can teach you something if you have the time to bring the client with you into interesting conversations. Whilst commissioners may come with a specific concept that has resulted in your selection, most are open to listening to your ideas. The best art directors push you to produce the kind of work that surprises and delights both you and the client in equal measure. The ones you learn the least from are the ones that come predefined by projects or themes you have already explored – ie ‘can I have one of those in green and yellow’…etc.
I enjoy projects that take me into unfamiliar territory, inspire me to undertake research and invest time in formulating a considered response. The projects that have come via Phil Wrigglesworth at Beneficial Shock!, are great examples of how the role of illustrator, content and art direction are interconnected, there is a correlation between the trust and mutual respect in achieving the best outcomes, which is easily overlooked.
Illustration from a Visual Essay on the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Powell/Pressburger (Issue 8: War & Peace)
An illustration in response to the 1961 film 'The Innocents' (Issue 5: Secrets & Lies)
The projects across four of the seven issues of Beneficial Shock!, have coincided with a period in my career where I am looking for opportunities more aligned to practice based research and the adaptation of illustration methods to less familiar contexts. The nature of making work in response to a film requires that you go beyond that which the film depicts, you need to seek out wider terms of reference and ways to connect with the directors’ underlying themes. Otherwise, what’s the point? what you create is essentially ‘fan art’ which although perfectly legitimate as a form, relies too heavily for my needs on borrowing from the visualisation of the filmmaker. My motivation is to revisit the source material and directorial motivations to create an adaptation that adds to the existing visual lexicon of the film and avoids as far as possible directly quoting from it.
Which illustrator alive or dead do you most admire and why?
I admire lots of illustrators for all sorts of reasons and to pick any individual would be to diminish others. I would instead choose to celebrate the team of 30 engravers who created 500 steel plates engraved with more than 13,000 illustrations covering subjects from astronomy to zoology for the J.G. Heck, Iconographic Encyclopædia of 1851.
Page from J.G. Heck's Iconographic encyclopaedia of science, literature, and art (1851)
What is the most challenging aspect for you of being a ‘working' illustrator?
The challenges for me have changed over time – from initially establishing a reputation, to managing the deadlines of weekly editorial commitments and coping with the whims of advertising projects led by focus groups…There is also an aspect of working alone for so many years that became challenging and took a while to recognise.
I think the challenge for illustrators at the start of their careers now, lies more in avoiding the distortions of online comparison and not being overwhelmed by the pressure to post new ‘optimised’ content daily in order to feel relevant. The challenge is in remaining true to yourself and focused on the themes, causes and interests that first made you identify as an illustrator…I increasingly encourage some of my students to think of themselves as designers who illustrate – this opens up the possibility of what else they might take on board, it also recognises the capacity of an illustrator to apply skills, processes and methods as part of projects that may not in themselves necessitate an illustration as the final outcome. In my experience Illustration students are multifaceted and agile learners who have a great deal to offer but sometimes become confined by the word illustration and need to recognise their capacity to operate in wider sectors of activity.
Below: Illustration for BBC Music looking at research reflecting Artificial Intelligence and the automation of musical composition. The artwork references ongoing work with the jacquard looms in Macclesfield Silk Museum and the relationship between weaving, the sampling of motifs and the unlikely origins in a dice game invented by Beethoven.
'I think the challenge for illustrators at the start of their careers now, lies more in avoiding the distortions of online comparison and not being overwhelmed by the pressure to post new ‘optimised’ content daily in order to feel relevant.'
Who would be your ideal client to work for and why?
I am open minded about what might provide the next opportunity, sometimes the projects you crave turn out to be less appealing in reality. As a full time, academic my interests are now more likely to intersect with health / heritage / place or archive through collaboration. The challenge I find in academic fields lies in illustration being recognised as participant in the formulation and delivery of a research project not solely as the service or wrapper that is brought in at the end to make it visually engaging to audience.
What do you think defines ‘good illustration’?
From a practitioner perspective – good illustration arrests your attention mid-flow, presses pause, makes you laugh out loud, cry or connect with content that you otherwise would have missed. This is not always the same as successful illustration which is ‘good’ from a commercial perspective and may win awards… but leaves you unmoved and the work very often leaving no trace in the memory. Good illustration fixes your eye and leaves a lasting imprint on the way you engage with and remember, fundamentally it inspires you to pick up the pencil or pixel and make more work, read more books, watch more films, have more conversations.
Below: An illustration in The Stanford Social Innovation Review for an article entitled 'Can Measures Change The World?'
Good illustration fixes your eye and leaves a lasting imprint on the way you engage with and remember, fundamentally it inspires you to pick up the pencil or pixel and make more work, read more books, watch more films, have more conversations.
If you weren’t an illustrator what would you be?
Looking back, the choices we make seem arbitrary – as a first-generation student I had no road map or cultural capital that opened doors for me, so illustration was a pragmatic way, in my eyes, of being an artist – in retrospect I would have pivoted at an earlier stage to study, in greater depth, the discipline of design and design education.
What actor/actress would play you in a film about your life and what would the name of that film be?
I cannot see why A: anyone would be interested in my life. B: why anyone would wish to play my part! – It would basically be one long meandering walk punctuated by chance conversations and periods of reading / making work.
What was the last film that made you cry (in sadness or in laughter)?
Wim Wenders ‘Paris Texas’ Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski.
See more of Ian's work at: ianwhadcock.com