#Illustration Explorer | Part 3
THE CONCLUSION TO AN OVERVIEW OF TECHNICAL ILLUSTRATION
Last month in Part 2, I examined the kinder gentler aspects of getting into the technical illustration (TI) field. There’s always two sides to every story though, right? This part of the overview is going to be a little longer. With continued help from highly respected tech illustrators Roy Scorer of Swindon, UK, who primarily works for the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD), and total freelancer Clint Ford, it’s now time for the bad news. Well, sort of.
Paradigm Shift and Professional Downturn
In my research, I have found that in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, some visual artists began to question whether or not TI jobs were becoming obsolete. This appears to have been because there was a major paradigm shift that many illustrators had difficulty adapting to. It’s the same shift that began to affect practically every other industry on this planet back in the late 80’s. That is the development, and reliance on sophisticated personal computers and powerful software.
There have been people who have worked many years mainly or exclusively as technical illustrators, and they did it the good old-fashioned way. They used architectural drawing compasses, plotter systems, mechanical pencils, technical pens, art markers, brushes, airbrushes, inks, pigments, white erasers, clear-tack erasers, erasing shields, circle templates, ellipse guides, French curves, splines, mill scales, triangular scales, protractors, set squares, T-squares, art knives, burnishers, paper and show card stock, page layouts, stencils, dry-transfer lettering, symbols, frames, vignettes and motives, adhesive tone films, adhesive graphics tapes, adhesive copy text, vinyl adhesive pictograms, drafting machines, pantographs, photo-mechanical transfers (PMT’s), opisometers (map wheels), photocopying screens, acetate overlays, spray fixatives, adhesive mounting, layout panels, presentation easels, drafting tables, etc.
Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, however, desktop computers, mice, tablets, magic pens, styli, Computer Aided Design (CAD/AutoCAD) and desktop publishing (DTP) platforms forcefully revolutionized the commercial arts industry at a lightning fast pace. The tech pundits of the early and mid-80’s said they would.
It was so hard for some tech illustrators to learn the jargon, constantly evolving and competing software, and myriad techniques of computerized illustration. It was even harder for others to get their heads around the idea that people who sought out illustrators and designers preferred and demanded state-of-the-art computer-generated creations over skillfully handmade art that required more tools, implements and media, took longer to make and was; therefore, more expensive. It seems to me that these are little spoken about factors on how jobs were lost in this field.
There was still more to it. I asked Roy if he thought that TI jobs did or had declined or if he thought that there wasn’t a decline but a revolution of the field due to the paradigm shift. He said, “The inevitable; as it has with a lot of things, technology happened. Draughtsmen, and design engineers now have CAD. So, a knock-on effect was 3D modelling software, i.e. Solidworks, was created taking place of the technical illustrator.”
“I started a thread in LinkedIn, ‘Technical Illustration, The dying art of the technical illustrator.’”
“Went down a like a storm. Colleges stopped teaching TI only a couple of years after I left college. 3D modelling is a lot quicker than a technical illustrator even if single line work images are not as good. So, the beginning of the end for TI. The UK has some requirement still, more for the upper end of goods, aircraft, sports cars and the USA regularly has vacancies for technical illustrators but only if you are a USA citizen.”
Clint, of Detroit, MI, US says, “Computers made it so that people who were not terribly skilled at illustration could get a job as an illustrator as the tools make it easier. From my experience, the shift from analogue to digital came in around the early 90’s. I remember my first job interview for a contract position at GM and there was a guy still inking on the board. My college education was split up so that the first half was all on the board and we took that to the computer for the 2nd half. There may be a decline, I’m not sure. All the guys I know stay fairly busy but I do know that there are not that many of us doing Technical Illustration, at least on the freelance level, which is good in that there is less competition.”
To many laypeople who don’t know the details, these issues, this simply looked like proof-positive that pursuing a career in the visual arts is only a one-way ticket to becoming a starving artist.
I think this shift even adversely impacted young art students. 80’s and 90’s high school kids who depended on their parents to obtain personal computers and software for them but didn’t get the goods, where severely handicapped for the washout periods of college and university art school courses. Computers and arts-oriented software were expensive; they still are. Some families couldn’t afford these tools which art students should have been learning to use before attending formal art school, never mind the professional art world.
Handicapping children wasn’t only finance-related either. It was also about poor communication. Many colleges and universities back then weren’t doing as good a job as they assumed in conveying to secondary education schools which computers and software were the most ideal for young high school art students to get their hands on.
For many years, the Macintosh personal computer was ridiculed as the “Monochrome-Mac” but after the Macintosh Color Classic came out in 1993 and showed its versatility in the visual arts fields, Macs became the go to standard for most artists for many years afterward. Apple Inc. owes much of its success to the world’s artists.
The technological information vacuum consequently made high school guidance counselors and teachers ineffective at advising parents and students as to what specific new art tools to invest in. A large number of students able to get into college or university art courses were unable to survive the washout periods of post-secondary institutions. Of course, all of this helped to perpetuate the myth of the starving artist in the minds of the general public.
The luckier art academy students went out and purchased the same computers and software that they were introduced to soon after getting into art schools. Those students graduated from their courses, and went on to have successful careers in the commercial arts.
“I have been very lucky,” says Roy when asked what obstacles or challenges, if any, he faced in becoming a tech illustrator. College for 4 years went better than expected. A bit short on cash sometimes but worked summer holidays to get sorted. The college Head of Department nominated me for a job interview with a few others, and I got the job. So, I left college and went straight into work.”
Clint explains that the challenges he personally faced in entering the field also began during his time in post-secondary education, “My professor in college told us that we may only make $19,000 per year. I almost quit and considered a degree in graphic design. Again, I’m pretty sure my mom convinced me to stick to it. I was also not one of the best illustrators in class, maybe somewhere in the middle, so I had to eventually rely on other skills to get me to a higher level. Once I got out of college getting a job in the auto industry was pretty easy.”
The fact is, artists who adapted to the digital paradigm shift or were trained in art schools that taught the new ways survived, even thrived. TI careers really have never been in decline; at least in some parts of the world. They’ve largely just changed dramatically, even though there is a minority of tech illustrators that still make healthy livings producing work the old-fashioned analogue way. This has been the status quo ever since.
“All my work is digital but in an analogue style,” Roy told me. Corel Draw is the main application. I have not had the chance to use Isodraw or similar applications but this year I have started to hand paint an illustration of the M26 McLaren F1 raced by James Hunt in my lunch times. Going to take all year at least to complete. I still have all my tools, pencils, Rotring pens, ellipse guides which I am now using to help with the painting.”
“All TI work, not just locally but worldwide, is now dependent on using computers.”
Clint echoes today’s heavy electronic impact on his own work, “Now, it’s probably 99% digital. Only occasionally do I sketch out an idea on paper. I mostly go right into line art drawings in Adobe Illustrator now and just refine.”
There is still something important to be said about analogue art skills and techniques, nevertheless.
“A few years ago,” Roy continued, “I had a visit to Lotus F1 team HQ to show them the Ayrton Senna, Lotus 98T cutaway I had produced. The interesting comment from one of the team leaders, was that they could not produce that kind of illustration themselves as there’s just too many parts to put into the 3D modelling application. A room full of servers would not cope.”
“In my field,” adds Clint, “I would say it’s 100% digital.” Even the best people doing it are not working on paper but the best people doing it know the analogue skills. I don’t think you can be a high-level illustrator without knowing the basic fundamentals.”
Personally, I really enjoy hearing all of this but I had to ask Roy and Clint what illustration software they currently prefer or recommend.
“Corel Draw X6 is my main tool for the line work illustrations,” says Roy. He explains, “When compared with Adobe illustrator it has some tools that are much more helpful. For work, Corel Draw also has a much wider spectrum of file types it can import and export with. Adobe Illustrator has a much narrower list. The more complicated colour rendition illustrations are of course done with Adobe Photoshop CS6 with help of Adobe Illustrator to make masks and colour up small parts, then copy and paste into Photoshop using gradients for metals which are quicker than those in Photoshop.”
On the other side of the pond, Clint’s says, “I do the majority of my work in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. I use Rhino for basic 3d modeling and to manipulate client 3d data for reference. I use Keyshot for rendering and animation and Poser when I need good reference to draw people.”
For anyone interested, Clint has an impressive online video tutorial on TechnicalIllustrators.org.
All things considered, I had to ask Roy and Clint how they would recommend someone; either young or an adult switching career paths, to go about pursuing a technical illustration career in today’s world.
Roy replied, “TI now seems to be an old man’s game as it is the design engineer who creates the final image. I would have no idea how to suggest to someone in what to do. No full-time courses that I know of. Purchase Isodraw it’s only £4k to buy, then get trained on that. Kevin Hulsey a fantastic technical illustrator in the USA has some tips and basic lessons on TI.”
“In the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s motorsport magazines would often have colour cutaway illustrations as centre spreads. The TI that people would see would be the cream of the crop, not the illustrated parts lists for manufacturers. For anyone wanting a career in TI, they would either have to be self-taught or apprentice.”
From an American point of view, Clint advises, “If you can find a college program for Technical Illustration that would be the best start. If not, I would say just draw every day, build the best portfolio you can, reach out to other illustrators for advice or to see if they can send any work your way, it’s a great community of people who are willing to help each other out.”
I wondered what are either artists’ greatest current obstacles or challenges as tech illustrators. Roy explained, “With the day to day illustrations of vehicles and equipment for the military to be restrained in and under aircraft, the biggest obstacle is for manufactures to provide basic 2D drawings. Not CAD files, just a .pdf as our schemes are 2D, but the majority will not provide them so we have to take photos, measurements and create side and plan view illustrations from them. Not easy, and time consuming especially when it is a rush job.”
“For the race cars that I do, the biggest obstacle is convincing a current and prospective customer who loves the cutaway illustrations to be happy to pay more than the minimal wage for 150 hours of work. Everyone that has seen the race car cutaway illustrations comment on how good they are but there is no longer the interest in commissioning them unless I have not sent an email to the right person. Even motorsport magazines are not interested in using for free. So, unless I spend a small fortune on an advert or a stand at a prestigious event it will stay as it is.”
Roy Scorer apparently remains gainfully employed in spite of the odds. He is not a starving artist. I, therefore, thought it was important to ask if he thought working as an artist for a firm is most rewarding or if freelancing is.
“For me, both working for the MoD and my freelance are rewarding. I am senior TI at the MoD, and I illustrate different vehicles and equipment every week.”
“Haynes contacts me when they need an illustration, so that’s a compliment”
“United Autosports (Zak Brown) wants his historic race car collection illustrated.”
Clint’s job concerns appear to be more emotive; “Getting through the slumps where you hate everything you do. Staying positive when you are working on mediocre projects or are dealing with challenging clients and being financially disciplined to handle the slow times.”
I can identify with both of these artists but I empathize the most with Clint Ford on doing client projects that aren’t very stimulating to my brain. I don’t like war but I probably would enjoy illustrating military vehicles and weapons, as Roy often does, much more than designing instructions on how to use an electric hair curler. There are times when you just have to do what pays.
“I spent 15 years on staff for various companies,” Clint told me, “and now about 5 years as a full-time freelancer. Freelancing by far is much more rewarding for me. The variety of work makes it so you never get bored drawing the same thing over and over. The respect and appreciation from clients is also more rewarding most of the time and the money is way better.”
So, of course I had to ask both artists what they’re top 3 greatest rewards or benefits of pursuing a career in TI are.
“This is a difficult one,” was Roy’s response. “An MoD civil servant technical illustrator of 30 years earning the same as my kids in a factory. So, it’s not the money but I am currently illustrating some famous historic race cars which is a pleasure and very interesting to see how they have developed over the years.”
“I’ll come back to you when I know what the greatest rewards or benefits are.”
A fair answer.
“Becoming an independent business owner and defining my own career,” states Clint. “Having the ability to support my family and have it so that my wife doesn’t have to work and for her to be able to focus on our kids and her own education. The adventure of it all.”
A very special thanks to Roy Scorer and Clint Ford for their time and extremely valuable input.
You can link to their websites from the blogroll at the right side of your screen. Do check out the work of these top-quality illustrators.
Some Highly Important Words of Caution
So, although TI is not quite dead nothing lasts forever. The entire universe is in a constant state of flux. Today’s professional digital artists and hopefuls — tech illustrators or not, do need to keep eyes and ears open for the next paradigm shift; whatever and whenever that will be. Survival depends on it.
Thinking “out of the box”, as people say, just imagine artificial intelligence becoming advanced enough within the next thirty years or less that you, an artist or not, can verbally describe how you envision something to look like and function to a computer. That computer will brilliantly produce the illustration or 3D animation for you in a few minutes or even just a few seconds. Yeah, adapt to that!