Illustration in Germany A distinctive art

Illustration from the book “Donata, Tochter Venedigs” (“Daughter of Venice”) by Donna Jo Napoli
Illustration from the book “Donata, Tochter Venedigs” (“Daughter of Venice”) by Donna Jo Napoli | © Henriette Sauvant

The art of illustration is experiencing a renaissance in Germany. In view of the ever-growing use of computers, admiration increases for traditional crafts.

The Children’s Book Fair in Bologna is the most important international meeting of the industry. That Germany has been named guest of honour in 2016 testifies to the international attention gained by German illustrators. Because in the world of book illustration Bologna enjoys a special regard. So far the appreciation of German illustrators at home has lagged behind their international reputation, though over the past decade their standing has also significantly risen in Germany.

Experimenting with the computer

Particularly in view of the ever-growing use of computers, admiration has increased for traditional crafts. This applies as much to illustration as it does to disciplines such as typesetting or layout, though the proponents of this return to traditional virtues by no means generally do without the use of computer, but rather combine the possibilities of information technology with their own individual styles. A particularly prominent example is Wolf Erlbruch, one of the most successful illustrators, who has recently experimented intensively with computer graphics without his specific signature taking the back seat.

Still, the Illustrators Organization, with its 1,300 members the largest advocacy association for illustrators in German-speaking countries, deplores the poor working conditions for the professional group it represents. Fees are stagnating, although since the beginning of the twenty-first century newspapers and magazines have more and more relied on illustration (in distinction to the long inflationary use of photography).

Animated cartoons from low-wage countries

But in especially labour-intensive fields such as picture books, animated cartoons and comics, increased public attention has not gone hand in hand with better pay, while expectations of fast production under the pressure of computer-based production have risen.

The production of animated films for the mass market is carried out almost exclusively in low-wage countries. On the German book market illustrated works, whether comics or picture books, are still not accorded the same standing as in countries such as France, Italy, Japan or the United States. Most illustrators in Germany are therefore compelled to spread their occupation broadly. This makes it difficult for them to develop a distinctive style.

Personal line, distinctive style

  • “Toothbrush”, Cover of American Illustration no. 20 © Amilus Inc.
    “Toothbrush”, Cover of American Illustration no. 20
  • “Pip and Posy” by Axel Scheffler © Carlsen-Verlag
    “Pip and Posy” by Axel Scheffler
  • Franziska Neubert and Hans Christian Andersen: “The Nightingale” © Franziska Neubert
    Franziska Neubert and Hans Christian Andersen: “The Nightingale”
  • “Schreimutter” by Jutta Bauer © Beltz-Verlagsgruppe
    “Schreimutter” by Jutta Bauer
  • Illustration by Michael Sowa © Verlag Antje Kunstmann
    Illustration by Michael Sowa
  • “Der fliegende Jakob” by Philip Waechter © Verlag Beltz und Gelberg
    “Der fliegende Jakob” by Philip Waechter
  • “Oskar” by Rotraut Susanne Berner © Gerstenberg-Verlag
    “Oskar” by Rotraut Susanne Berner
  • “Das grosse Balladenbuch”, with illustrations by Tatjana Hauptmann © Diogenes
    “Das grosse Balladenbuch”, with illustrations by Tatjana Hauptmann
That, however, is the most important prerequisite for an individual reputation. With the best-known currently active illustrators the public associates a specific approach and usually a clearly recognizable personal line: Wolf Erlbruch, Rotraut Susanne Berner, Christoph Niemann, Jutta Bauer, Philip Waechter, Franziska Neubert, Nikolaus Heidelbach, Sabine Wilharm, Volker Pfüller, Anke Feuchtenberger, Klaus Ensikat, Sabine Friedrichson, Axel Scheffler, Tatjana Hauptmann, Michael Sowa, Henriette Sauvant, Hans Traxler, Binette Schroeder and Hendrik Dorgathen (this list makes no claims to being complete).

It is no accident that this slender listing hardly includes an animator or comics illustrator. Because the perception of illustration is still dominated by the book and magazine market, even if for younger exponents of the guild – as an example we could cite here Christoph Niemann – the boundaries have long disappeared. Today the newcomer to the illustration market must think above all of placing his drawings on the Internet and smartphones, which often requires moving elements.

The principle of the “beautiful book”

Illustration is increasingly moving away from what was once its point of reference: the word. The etymology of “illustration”, from the Latin term “illustrare”, bespeaks its original function: the explanation of a text by adding images. Today, however, illustration should be ideally comprehensible without words so that it can be seen and marketed worldwide. This demand has made illustrators more autonomous artists than before because now their own ideas serve as the basis for their work, not texts of others.

At the same time, the challenge of the e-book has made possible in Germany a return to the principle of the “beautiful book”, which has particularly benefited illustrators. Careful book design and layout provide arguments for the purchase of a printed work, and the number of illustrated books from traditionally literary publishers has significantly grown in recent years.

A new sense of community

Given this, it is astonishing that, in contrast to animation and comics, there is no special industry meeting for book illustration in addition to the book fairs in Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig.

The traditional idea of the illustrator working in isolation has been corrected by atelier communities such as “Labor” in Frankfurt am Main and “Monogatari” in Berlin, and the increase of members in the Illustrators Organization also shows that a new sense of community is arising in Germany amongst the exponents of an art that is experiencing here a renaissance.