Brain Pickings

Portraits of Cultural Icons by 80 of the World’s Top Illustrators

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What Stephen Hawking’s eyebrows have to do with Amy Winehouse and the artist as a storyteller.

Hardly does the responsibility of art get more intricate than in portraiture, with its expectation of capturing a person’s entire character and history with a few strokes of the proverbial brush. We’ve recently looked at Platon’s powerful portraits of political leaders and Noma Bar’s brilliant negative-space illustrated portraits of cultural icons. Today, we turn to Illustration Now! Portraits — a stunning new showcase of illustrated portraits by over 80 of the world’s most exciting artists, culled from Taschen‘s previously published Illustration Now! volumes, in addition to exclusive and unpublished work. The lavish 400-page tome spans a remarkable range of media, from ink and watercolor to collage to digital illustration, and covers a wide spectrum of styles, from the minimalist to the hyperrealistic to the grotesque and beyond.

What makes the project particularly interesting is that it’s essentially a visual meditation on the changing role of portraiture in an age where the barrier of entry for photography is at an all-time low and photographic portraits are technically accessible to just about anyone, making yesteryear’s gold standard of photographic accuracy no longer the merit metric for what makes a good portrait. Instead, a new creative meritocracy has emerged, pushing artists to differentiate themselves through unique styles, techniques and points of view in how they capture their subjects.

Miles Davis by Jorge Arevalo

Elijah Wood by Jorge Arevalo

Amy Winehouse by Jorje Arevalo

Rihanna by Pablo Lobato

Albert Einstein by Pablo Lobato

Stephen Hawking by Havoch Piven

Keith Richards by Havoch Piven

Borat by Havoch Piven

Precious by Tavis Coburn

Avatar by Tavis Coburn

Frida Kahlo by Montse Bernal

The anthology is also a study in the evolution of our culture’s narrative on faces and ideals. As editor Julius Wiedemann points out,

Editors and advertisers once demanded that illustrators idealize the face and figure, thus codifying an aesthetic of universal beauty. In Western society, that meant white, ethnically cleansed portraits of pretty or handsome models. Today portraits come in the proverbial all shapes and sizes, styles and mannerisms, colors and hues. They seem to be more honest and arguably today’s illustration is more in our face.”

Visually stunning and creatively stimulating, Illustration Now! Portraits is a coffeetable museum of our era’s expectations regarding faces, both of the artist’s role as a storyteller and of our collective response to the icons and personalities portrayed.

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