Friday, March 8, 2013

Pulling no punches

"I'd love to sketch a boxing match!"

That's what I replied to Roy Winterbottom when he recently e-mailed me.

You see, Roy is a student at Worcester University and has been boxing for a few years now, but he wasn't inviting me to fly to England to sketch him on the boxing rink. I wished!

He was reaching out with some questions about reportage illustration for a school assignment.

"I have been looking at where commercial reportage exists," he wrote, "and I have found your work to be very successful ... I would appreciate if you have the time to reply as I understand the industry requires a lot of work."

I was flattered, and Roy's interest seemed genuine. He is graduating in May and wants to start looking for jobs that will support his illustration career. Right now, "I work part time as a scaffolding labourer whilst at university," he wrote.

The industry sure needs people who don't pull any punches. If Roy applies the stamina he shows on the rink to the business of illustration, I'd say he's off to a good start.

Here are my answers to his questions:

What do you feel reportage gives the viewer that photography does not?

For the reportage illustrator, the pen is the extension of his hand. A drawing carries the artist’s emotions in a way a photograph can’t. Photographers can produce wonderful imagery as well, but they are always one step removed from the creation process. That step is the camera itself. The reportage illustrator, however, has no other tool but his brain to process colors and shapes and put them on paper. That process usually translates into artwork that feels very honest and authentic. A sketch drawn on location can also depict the activity happening before us over a period of time. We’ll draw people coming and going, for example, when sketching a street scene. A photograph, on the contrary, can only capture a moment. Franklin McMahon describes this aspect of reportage illustration as “seeing around the corners.”

With the economy in an unhealthy state and access to photography and images easier than ever via the web, how is it that an illustrator can be paid to produce reportage illustrations?

I wish I knew the answer to that question! I’m fortunate to work for a newspaper that appreciates what I do and has given me the opportunity to practice reportage illustration as part of my job in the News Art Department. I encourage illustration and journalism students to pursue this field and try to break ground for generations to come. Knock on the door of newspaper and magazine offices and show your work. Don’t give up. If it’s good, you’ll get paid for. Very important: Don’t give your work away for free or in exchange of “exposure.” Exposure will not pay your rent.

Would you agree that reportage is a viable commercial Illustration genre?

I would like to believe it is, more and more illustrators are doing this type of work or similar these days. Paul Madonna does wonderful on-location sketches for the San Francisco Chronicle, Richard Johnson has drawn in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan for the National Post, Olivier Kugler’s work for The Guardian feels a lot like reportage even if he draws from his own photographs.

Who's work do you find inspiring that has encouraged you to become an established reportage illustrator?

In addition to the names I just mentioned, I’m inspired by many of the artists who contribute to Urban Sketchers ( sites. Isabel Fiadeiro contributes sketches to a weekly in Mauritania; Pete Scully has been published by The Davis (Calif.) Enterprise; Richard Sheppard contributes to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. There’s a lot an artist can offer to a local publication in terms of drawing the community and everything that happens in it. From my own experience in Seattle, I can tell you readers connect with drawings and just want to see more of them!

Where else does commercial reportage exist that is successful?

I think businesses and organizations looking for illustrations for their company literature would be smart to commission reportage illustrators more often. New York-based Veronica Lawlor and Melanie Reim; Lapin, a French illustrator based in Barcelona; and Swasky, another Barcelona-based illustrator; all have experience producing reportage illustration for commercial purposes.


  1. Gabi, did you know George Bellows did a ton of location painting and sketching. And he frequently sketched at boxing matches long before he painted his famous Sharkys painting. Fun read. Hope you're well.

  2. Hey Steven, great to hear from you! Thanks for the tip about Bellows, better do some research on that!