The quarterly report on current and emerging creative trends from IllustrationX.
Dating back to 1929, IllustrationX is the world’s longest running illustration agency, and one of the largest. At the time of writing, we represent over 200 artists and animators, located on every continent (except Antarctica), and have offices in the UK, United States, Brazil, France, Germany, China and Australia.
The IllustrationX website is one of the most-visited illustration resources online, attracting over 100,000 visits every month. With our large stable of creatives, we receive a significant volume of enquiries and carry out hundreds of commissions each month across advertising, publishing, editorial, packaging, branding and more. The data we collect on web traffic, submissions, enquiries, commissions and artists’ revenues, tells us a great deal about the illustration market at any given time.
By analysing the data and combining it with insights from our agenting team - who work with commissioning clients and artists every day - IllustrationX is ideally positioned to identify current and emerging trends in the creative industries. This can include general stylistic and aesthetic matters, market category and geographic factors, and more.
TrendX is our new quarterly report, created for decision makers in the creative industries. It won’t be your only source of inspiration, but it is based on the interpretation of commercial realities by experts in the field.
Trending: A retro comic aesthetic
- Three of our 20 highest earning illustrators work in the comic style
- The style with the largest year-on-year growth in monthly web enquiries in both Nov and Dec 2023
- The artists with the most enquiries in Nov and Dec 2023 work in this style
- The artist with the most enquires from Oct 2023 to Dec 2023 works in this style
For clients in the entertainment industry, editorial, publishing and advertising, retro comic illustration is highly sought after. Older audiences may find this look nostalgic, however in other cases material targeted at millennial and Gen Z consumers uses a retro comic feel to create a sense of authenticity, establishing an association with traditional heroes, horror and fantasy. Sometimes, it’s chosen simply for its clarity and visual impact.
Classic comic book-style linework is a constant visual element, but how it’s treated can vary. Lighter line work with halftone dot patterns that revive mid-century printing techniques – à la Roy Lichtenstein – are very popular and take the retro vibe back to a 1960s look. A sense of knowing humour sometimes accompanies this approach.
The thicker lines and heavily applied shading of the late 1970s and early 80s have been prevalent in poster commissions where the focus is often on action and/or the strange and the weird. Combined with soft or playful colour palettes, an 80s comic style adapts well in editorial contexts and for informational communications.
Artists to watch
Trending: Live fashion illustration
- Strong year-on-year growth in monthly web enquiries Dec 2022 versus Dec 2023
- The most enquiries across all styles Oct to Dec 2023
- The artist with the second most enquires from Sept 2023 to Nov 2023 is a live event illustrator
- Four of our top 50 earners work in this area
- Significant volume of enquiries across the second half of 2023
The growing popularity of live event illustration is more than a post-COVID correction. We believe there are two aspects to this trend.
Firstly, for many consumers, purchasing is about more than owning an item. Whether it’s cosmetics, jewellery or garments, the experience and engagement are important to people. Brands in this sector work with fashion illustrators to make the launch of new collections, individual products or retail openings a better experience for their customers. Live mural painting and the creation of individual portraits for guests both make such events memorable for all involved. Having customers feel that they are a part of something is invaluable to brands and live illustrators make this possible.
Secondly, in a world of online shopping, mechanised manufacturing and artificial intelligence, human creativity adds a special touch. If a brand wants to associate itself with individuality, imagination and artistry, live illustration is the perfect way to do so. Chatting with a professional fashion illustrator while they create your portrait is something personal that can’t be replicated digitally. Most people love art in childhood and even today many wish they could draw like an artist, which means they really identify with this form of creativity.
Artists to watch
Trending: Playful graphic illustration
- Cartoon and humour received the second most enquiries across all styles Oct to Dec 2023
- Significant year-on-year growth in monthly enquiries
- Significant growth in enquiries across the second half of 2023
- 33% of our top artists by enquiry quarter-on-quarter for Sept to Nov 2023 create cartoon and humour illustrations
A sense of fun has returned to the world of illustration in a big way and artists creating playful, light-hearted graphics are very popular with clients as 2023 turns to 2024. This is borne out in the numbers, and anecdotally our agents around the world have noticed a growing taste for illustration that’s cool, friendly and fun.
It’s a look characterised by simple, flat graphical forms and bright, optimistic colour palettes. With or without classic cartoon linework, characters and their expressions are exaggerated. Elongated limbs, improbable proportions and goofy distortion help pull us away from the real world and its problems to places full of possibility and positivity.
This often combines with a relaxed vibe – natural and modern settings where quirky, laid-back characters generally live the good life. Wildly stretchable arms and legs put everything within reach and even when it rains, it does so in Technicolor.
Artists to watch
Emerging: Straying outside the lines
Alongside the popularity of playful graphic illustration outlined above, we’ve noticed that commissioners are gravitating towards an offshoot of this style that is more artful and eclectic. While the forms remain exaggerated, fluid and malleable, in many cases the graphic elements are dispersing or the linework is becoming fragmented.
Patterns, textures and bright gradients combine with dashes of natural media, and bodily proportions are becoming even more outrageous.
Tonally, the light humour gives way to a more nuanced atmosphere, with texture, shading and brush strokes supporting a greater depth of subject matter. Both the content and vibe are becoming stranger, with places and objects deconstructed and the imagination of the artist running wild. Semi-mystical destinations are replacing realms of quirkiness.
Artists to watch
Trending: Cultural authenticity
Trends in illustration aren’t limited to visual styles and their aesthetic characteristics. As 2024 begins, clients who contact IllustrationX are increasingly interested in working with artists who align with their brand and relate to the subjects being illustrated.
In the past, a white male illustrator in London might easily have ended up creating campaigns for a client in the Philippines. Today, the background and lived experience of an artist are make-or-break factors for many commissioners. If the communication relates to a particular community or minority group, they want to collaborate with illustrators who visibly represent that community in their portfolios.
There are creative and practical benefits to this approach. The artist is more likely to understand the topic quickly and intuitively. Their passion, experience and insight result in artwork that connects with the target audience in the right ways. In addition, projects of this nature often prove to be a learning experience for all involved.
Many brands have talked about how they value diversity for some years, but now we detect a deeper shift towards cultural authenticity in the creative process. Clients are much more sensitive to the notion of cultural appropriation and are serious about how they communicate with customers from a broad variety of ethnic backgrounds, with different sexual orientations and gender identities.
In emerging economies, such as Brazil, global brands are working with local artists to create a deeper connection with the markets they serve. Equally, home grown brands will employ Brazilian artists to maintain the local vibe and differentiate themselves from imports.
The examples below include artists whose work is unique – shaped by their location, who they are, their culture and how they see the world.
Artists to watch
Tai – Brazil
Alyah Holmes – Canada
Mpumelelo Bhengu – South Africa
Emerging: Dreamlike surrealism
- Based on our data, forecasting tools predict growth in enquiries for artists working in this style from Jan 2024
Complex emotions and the juxtaposition of chaos and serenity might be the main themes driving this emerging visual trend. Dreamlike surrealism is characterised by strong, swirling colours and characters who find themselves in imagined landscapes that defy reality. These can represent dreams, other dimensions, altered states of perception, and more.
Illustrators working in this style take the viewer to places that are both tranquil and troubling – beautiful and powerful, but at the same time these places may not even exist. These realms grow from human experience, imagination and creativity, rather than from AI mashups of existing surrealist art.
What we are witnessing here could be the evolution of the retro comic style, playing with the imagination in similar ways but moving towards more sophisticated and nuanced narratives. Referencing artists such as James Jean, and a fusion of East and West, the look tends towards graphic novels rather than comic books, often combining line work with a mixed media approach.
Emotion plays a key role, for a look that is moody and atmospheric – more dreamlike than it is nostalgic. The artwork can engage the viewer in a curious way because it’s not as easy to put your finger on the emotional message. Ambiguous, open to interpretation, work in this emerging style is ideal for topics that deal with wellness, wellbeing and mental health.
Artists to watch
Written by Garrick Webster