Hats off to New Jersey City University Illustration

by Ella Rue

Historically, many designers have viewed illustration with reverence and awe; in my opinion, that was with good reason: design was, and is, about conveying messages anonymously, while illustration is more about vivid displays of personal communication. Similar to fine artists, illustrators sign their work. In the past, some even became public figures - no designer ever enjoyed the fame that Norman Rockwell did. As Ed Fella, a practitioner with one foot solidly in each camp, sagely noted, 'Whereas graphic design is more anonymous, all illustration is sold for its particular and individual style.' While some people say that the professional world of illustration is currently in poor shape, Murray Tinkelman, director of the Limited Residency MFA in Illustration at the Hartford Art School - University of Hartford and professor emeritus from Syracuse University argues, 'The field of illustration has changed, or, more accurately, it has evolved. Some previously lucrative markets have shrunk and some have virtually disappeared. However, new markets have emerged that more than take up the slack. To paraphrase Mark Twain, 'The news of the illustration field's demise is greatly exaggerated.' '

At New Jersey City University (NJCU), enrollment within the communication design concentration, and specifically within the illustration specialization is growing, indeed thriving. A liberal arts state university in an urban setting that primarily enrolls first-generation college students, NJCU has but one full-time, tenured illustration faculty member, Dennis Dittrich. Dennis wears many hats on campus, ranging from professor and colleague to mentor and friend. Off campus he will soon serve as president of the Society of Illustrators. On more than one occasion, Dennis has worn all of these hats at the same time, each piled atop one another.

Hired in 2000 on a tenure tack when there were only five illustration majors, Dennis now teaches and advises more than 50 students specializing in illustration, a 900% increase in eight years. Despite these growing demands, Dennis remains an accomplished illustrator and an invaluable educator. Upon completion of their degrees, his students have found illustration work in both the public and private sector throughout the New York metropolitan area and beyond.

When asked why they had chosen to study illustration, and why specifically at NJCU, Dennis' students come alive. Claudia Ross ('09) said she wanted to learn how to 'draw and paint well.' She says, 'I became aware of Illustration when taking classes at Parson's School of Design. Of all the art displayed at Parson's, the illustration paintings were the most interesting, energetic, and engaging. I saw those and thought, 'I want to do that.''

After transferring to NJCU, Claudia soon discovered what made its art department so special. 'One of the most wonderful things about the NJCU Art Department is that all of the professors actually care. They are committed to the students, to teaching, and to a love of art. They are always available. At NJCU, I can find my professors on campus at any time. The art department is a small, close-knit community. I know that I can approach any of the professors and that my questions will be welcomed and I will be supported artistically. I struck gold in finding NJCU... it's a real gem.'

Ciro Romero ('08) says, 'As far back as I remember I always liked drawing - but it was Professor Dittrich who convinced me to major in illustration as opposed to fine arts.'

Kelly Cuenca ('09) also says that she had been drawing since childhood, but 'honestly, illustration was not my first choice. I was actually considering medicine, but while I was taking pre-med classes, I was also taking art classes. My professor at the time taught me about illustration, and its commercial aspects as opposed to the extensive, esoteric explanations that accompany fine art. I chose NJCU because it was recommended by my teacher at the county college. The tuition was affordable and it was close to home. When I met Professor Dittrich, I was sold.'

When asked about the strongest elements of NJCU's illustration program, Claudia smiles and responds in her notable Louisianan drawl, 'Here's where I get to cheerlead for Professor Dittrich! Professor Dittrich's method of teaching the foundations of illustration, which combines an introduction of the media with basic principles of light, form, shadow, tone and color, is nothing short of brilliant! As a student, having classes that teach and then reinforce the tools, methods, and principles of illustration, enables me to then take these skills and apply them in any way my creative little heart desires. Having a consistent method of instruction and the opportunity to have a professor who becomes a mentor is priceless. Once upon a time, artists apprenticed themselves with other artists. In a sense, this is what illustration students at NJCU have with Professor Dittrich.'

Taylor Sterling, a recent transfer student from Grand Rapids, Michigan, says, 'Illustration is something I have returned to throughout the years. It's something I just love - I just kind of feel it.' But, when it came to choosing a college, he researched many options. 'Dennis was the first person I spoke with at NJCU. In fact, he's the one that really influenced me to choose this university. He mentioned internships at places such as Marvel Comics and that excited me because I would love to become a comic illustrator!'

Lizette Louis ('09) who first attended the Art Institute in Atlanta but found it unaffordable, returned to New Jersey, where she enrolled at NJCU because of its wide variety of majors in art. 'When I first enrolled at NJCU, I took a 3-D class and my professor introduced me to Professor Dittrich. Dennis, in turn, introduced me to the rest of the department - and I was hooked.'

After meeting Dennis and being exposed to the array of professional illustrators with whom he is acquainted, students soon realize that illustration is as much about the technical craft as it is about finding their own voice and visually articulating it. His expertise reaches far beyond the classroom. He is a long-standing member of the Society of Illustrators and its Board of Directors. Because of his relationship with the society, his students are afforded countless opportunities to visit and meet illustrators and animators and hear about their experiences. As much at home at the society as he is in the classroom, Dennis' creativity, energy, and unbridled enthusiasm in teaching, advising his students, or organizing lectures for the society is seemingly boundless. He has been known to stay on campus beyond midnight to help his students complete their work during the end-of-semester madness.

One class that Dennis teaches each spring is 'Portfolio Preparation.' This course, bridging the gap between design and illustration, helps students prepare portfolios that reflect their individual talents, encourage job placement, and utilize new technologies. Students learn about resumes and cover letters, interview techniques, and internet job research. The course also covers such forms of self-promotion as mailings, memberships in professional organizations, and networking. This past spring Dennis' mentor, long-time friend, and world-renowned illustrator, Murray Tinkelman, along with distinguished designer and director of the Design Studio at Kean University, Steven Brower, visited NJCU to share and offer comparisons of their experiences. This kind of first-hand interaction between students and illustrators and designers leaves a strong impression on both the students and the visiting artists.

Our senior portfolio class covers the basic tenets of copyright law in assigned text and class discussion. Authorship, ownership, and the way rights are sold, from first North American Limited to Work-for-Hire, are covered along with their distinctions. Students learn about common contractual language, such as clauses that award the client all rights in perpetuity for media currently in use or yet to be created and are advised to negotiate for acceptable terms. Contracts and negotiation are also covered along with royalty arrangements. Licensing and licensing trade shows are addressed as part of the on-going discussions on selling rights. These discussions are repetitive by design. The idea of intellectual property is often difficult to grasp because it is an abstraction to most of our students. They don't hear about it at the kitchen table at home, so I tend to belabor it in the classroom. Students are made aware that usage is a ma or factor in determining fees and different market pricing structures exist as shown in our text, the Pricing and Ethical Guidelines Handbook.

Because of today's fiscal climate, the arts are being hit hard. In our society, the arts, inclusive of design and marketing, lose their significance and are not deemed as necessary as in more fiscally fluid times. Artists and designers become a luxury for only those with fat budgets. Even Murray Tinkelman reminds us, 'We are a luxury. In many ways we ARE a luxury. No one wakes up in the middle of the night and yells 'ARTIST! I need an ARTIST!' They yell out 'I need a doctor' or 'I need a plumber.' Therefore, we are left to use our own creativity to enhance our resources.