Diversity Matters more than ever in illustration

Last December The Simpsons hit its 30th anniversary, and during the animated classic's three decades and counting on the air, it's managed to represent 'small town' American life whilst inclusive of the range of ethnicities making up Springfield, USA.

When the show's attempts at representation don't work, it's usually down to how characters are written or performed (with Apu being at the forefront of this discussion.) How the representations look on-screen though is less of an issue, for The Simpsons isn't one to whitewash Springfieldians.

Or should that be 'yellow wash?' Think Simpsons, and you think yellow skin; indeed, the popular Get Simpsonized website has the URL of 'turned yellow', promising this process for your portraits.

That the Simpsons and others of their more predominant race in the show are yellow is all down to Matt Groening's stylisation choices as artist and cartoonist. The world of Springfield is an imaginary one borne from art after all, and when it comes to drawing and colouring, the sky's the limit for how your figures in a picture look.

Does the aspect of aesthetic then make the issue of diversity and representation a redundant one in illustration? Bristolian artist Dave Bain doesn't think so.

"There is a deep understanding of culture and diversity in The Simpsons, even though many of the characters have a heavily saturated and brightly coloured skin tone," he tells me in an email conversation about diversity in drawing. "Illustrators need to level-up on their cultural history and study the way different cultures have been and are currently represented to ensure that their own depictions, no matter how stylised, are not offensive.

Dave Bain shows how art can be diverse without being colour-accurate

"If anything, an illustration has the power to help spread a positive message of diversity, even in small ways, for example showing correct cultural fashion, hair styles, mannerisms and attitude."

It's hard to argue here with Dave. Animation is designed more to entertain a TV audience, whilst an illustration is created for a brand or news outlet whose 'consumers' are looking for knowledge and authenticity over entertainment value (not that cartoons are necessarily absolved of any moral duty.)

The real questions though start when you bring clients into the fold: on a commission, should either side be striving for diversity in a group scene, and if that isn't happening, how does the conversation start? And who should start it: the client, or the creator?

"It’s become standard practice for a client to state diversity when commissioning a group scene," Dave answers. "As with any commission, it’s important to understand the audience and the brief  —  so, in relation to a diverse group, ensuring that it fits these factors is critical.

"Of course, some projects are focussed on subject matter that is specific to a particular demographic, in which case a careful discussion with the client on who should be depicted in the illustration is important."

Speaking with London artist Sneha Shanker, it also seems to be the case that illustrators can decide for themselves whether to display diversity if it's not brought up by the client. Likewise, what the artist does on a regular basis with their expression may preempt any need for a dialogue. 

Sneha Shanker

"My clients haven’t specified diversity unless the piece requires me to," Sneha writes. "I personally try my best to accommodate varying sizes, skin colours, ethnicities and same-sex partners in my work so I guess my clients never felt the need to do so."

"I think the responsibility of fair and diverse representation lies on both the illustrator and the commissioner," she continues. "It might help if the art director has a strong viewpoint and directs newcomers with specifics. Usually, if they don’t want to perhaps ‘tie down’ the illustrator’s vision, they ask you if you are willing to incorporate some details after the sketches are shared. That might a good time to share deeper interests regarding the core of the work being done."

It seems then that the 'unsaid' doesn't always signify bias; indeed, it may be a sign the client trusts you and knows enough about your work already to portray a realistic cross-section of society.

Likewise, if you have a penchant for drawing purple people but the client wants something more realistic, then it'll likely come up for discussion during drafting. After all, commissioned illustrations are a result of collaboration, as English artist Andrew Thomson explains when telling me that as much as he has been asked to "add more diversity to an illustration", he has also been asked to edit out "diversity I had put in."

"Illustration is almost always the work of multiple peoples' views and ideas," he reminds me, "and there's often only so far you can push any agenda into your work if the client doesn’t want to see it."

A Diverse Industry

We've looked at imaginary worlds representing the make-up of the real world, so it's time to see how the real-world itself is doing, namely in the diversity of the illustration sector itself. 

Harking back to earlier in 2020, I revisit Ben O'Brien's most recent survey of illustrators, which revealed almost 67% of respondents believe their industry should be more inclusive.

Dave Bain worked on the survey with Ben, and obviously has thoughts on the issue of diversity in the world of illustrators. 

"As the world has become smaller through technology and communications," he says, "I think the importance of showing diversity when appropriate has become a necessary default.

"Perhaps this has raised questions as to why there is an imbalance in the illustration industry when it comes to diversity, and where that imbalance stems from. Questions need to be asked about our education system, the opportunities that are available to all of our society, and what might be preventing a more diverse representation of illustrators."

Sneha agrees, saying the issues in both real world and imaginary can co-exist.

"There has always been a diverse range of illustrators in the industry; the problem is, geographically everyone isn’t located in a hub, hence they aren’t in the public eye.

"We as a community," she continues, "need to look outside of what we are used to and welcome and push work from other cultures into the forefront as well.

Sneha Shanker

"The discussion regarding diversity has certainly increased and I have personally observed illustrators beginning to warm up to diverse representation within their work, which is great."

Departing words on diversity

Dave concludes there’s a responsibility for the illustrator to sometimes take the reins and work with the client to highlight a need for diversity, should the client be innocently unaware.

As he says, "depicting diversity shouldn’t ever restrict an illustrator. If anything, it should make it more wonderful.

"For both the client and illustrator, they should have a responsibility and care for the project that should dispel any awkwardness when talking about diversity. The industry needs to make sure it’s common place to discuss these things and educate themselves on best practice.

"A rushed job that ignores diversity will, at the very least, result in a poor artwork, and, at worst, deeply offend and possibly cancel further work for that client and illustrator."

Dave Bain

"I think when two parties work together, trust and communication are the key elements," agree Sneha. "I have personally never felt awkward asking questions or communicating ideas which might affect the final outcome. And if at all the client thinks otherwise, the illustrator can always change up the characters or decide not to work with the client next time (if ethics matter to them while picking up jobs.)"

Sneha also reminds us again that representation isn't limited to race. When we talk about the colourful worlds and people of The Simpsons or Pixar's Inside Out, we are at risk of missing all the other attributes used by their creators.

"Even those characters can have varying body sizes and ages!" says Sneha. "Representation can come in so many forms and can help the viewers relate to the content so much better."

Stock imagery in this piece courtesy of the Black Illustrations set.

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