Why are all my favorite illustrators men?

Liz Starin, Men in illustration

Illustration: Liz Starin

Every so often, I’m asked to name my favorite illustrators: the ones who influence me, the ones whose work I hold up to my nose with my glasses off so I can study their every pen mark and brushstroke. Though it varies slightly with the seasons, the children’s book section of the list goes something like this:

William Steig, Calef Brown, Quentin Blake, Roz Chast, Neal Layton, Blexbolex, Maira Kalman, Tomi Ungerer,* Jules Feiffer,* James Marshall, Chris Raschka.

Children’s literature is a dramatically woman-dominated field. So why is this list almost entirely male?

I can speculate. The observant reader will note that I admire humor, irreverence, an energetic line, and appearance in New York periodicals.** Humor, at least humor worn in public, is mostly a Male Thing–anyone been to a stand-up show lately? Or read The Onion‘s masthead? Roz Chast is an exception that proves the rule, a phrase that never made much sense to me until now. She’s best known for her New Yorker cartoons, another boys’ club.

Illustration itself also has a long history of belonging to men. Even, to some extent, children’s illustration. But why bat around words when you can have data? I took the list of Caldecott winners and honorees since the award’s inception and broke it down by gender.*** Since 1938, there have been 310 awards. 105 of these have gone to women and 194 to men (plus 11 to couples, like the d’Aulaires), making the list 63% male. And lest you think the result is distorted by Ye Olde Sexism, the list since 1990 is 73% male; 11 of the 13 winners since 2000 have been men.

As for my list of favorites, there may be still more factors at work, but it’s hard to say. Is there really something more masculine about Quentin Blake and Neal Layton’s loosely drawn line, or Calef Brown and Blexbolex’s graphic boldness? Is it really possible to say, even though it sounds kind of icky, that I just like the way men draw?

Here’s the thing. Making the kind of illustration I like–the stuff that’s funny, or provocative, or groundbreaking, or simply drawn with a free and confident hand–takes chutzpah, a quality that tends to get socialized out of women. In conclusion: balls out, ladies.

What does YOUR list of favorites look like?

*A couple of years ago, I got to see these two in conversation at the Society of Illustrators. All I can say is that I’ve never heard anyone discuss pig slaughter with such wicked glee.

**Snob.

***A small amount of additional research on unusual names was required. I must admit that I was not familiar with the work of Brinton Turkle, illustrator of Thy Friend, Obadiah.

20 comments
  1. Victoria Chess is funny, provocative, and groundbreaking, in my opinion. And Wanda Gág. And Beatrix Potter, for her time. As soon as I hit “post” I’ll think of many more, I’m sure.

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    • Liz said:

      I do like Wanda Gág! (Interestingly, she was also quite political…)

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  2. Tove Jansson! Don’t tell me you don’t like Tove Jansson.

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  3. Liz said:

    When I put a link to this post on Facebook, someone commented that one solution would be to hire more women, and that “balls out” sounds like victim-blaming. I think it’s worth repeating my response here:

    Yeah, I worried about giving that impression and I generally agree. In the case of contemporary children’s book illustration, though, I don’t really know whether there continues to be gender imbalance overall, just that men seem to be doing more of the artistically risky (and award-winning) work.

    My artistic training was not especially traditional, so I’m not sure what an undergraduate art education is like–but if it’s anything like the sciences, the gender imbalance starts long before any hiring decisions are made.

    So I think part of the solution is increased awareness for everyone–including art teachers and art directors, but also including women, because when we want to draw something less cute and more weird/funny/out there, we should be able to recognize that little voice saying “don’t” and tell it to shut up.

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  4. Moira said:

    It’s hard to be a fan of someone who doesn’t get published. I wonder what the numbers would look like if you looked at the breakdown of men and women illustrators who have been published since 1990.

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    • Liz said:

      Fair point! There must be some outrageously funny women lurking in dark corners where the publishing industry refuses to visit them.

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  5. Liz, as I made up a list of my “influences” for a future cameo on your blog, I too wondered “Where are the women?”. No one is “typical” but the names and images that collided in my mental inbox of “influences” were men. As I ponder the question further, I can quickly round out the list with women (mostly foreign children’s book and graphic novel artists because I’m interested in these areas. It’s quirky to me perhaps. I certainly know many contemporary female illustrators. Maybe 20 years from now, the disparity will even out a bit because of the continued decline of a traditional illustration field (advertising, editorial) that has favored men. One can hope.

    Another unrelated (?) observation is that the great majority of editors and creative directors I have worked for over two decades of free-lancing have been women. Why is that? There are SO MANY dynamics in play here! I’m sure you are familiar with them.

    Finally, maybe you read the cover story in June 2012 Atlantic magazine “Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Toward the end of the article she posits or proposes a different employment timeline for women. One punctuated by child-rearing through the teen years. Again, many dynamics at play here too. Everyone’s situation is different. As a man, I feel very fortunate to be able to free-lance for so many years and that I could not have done it without the continued financial partnership of my wife. Lots of dynamics here too, yada yada! Thanks for your blog!

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  6. Liz said:

    Hmm, I know a lot of German illustrators’ work, and come to think of it, my favorite is probably Katja Spitzer. (FEMALE!) I wonder what the balance of my list would be if I isolated it to various countries? Rob, thanks for an interesting comment. Looking forward to seeing that list of yours.

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  7. Thanks for telling me about Katja Spitzer! She does fantastic, energetic work. In that vein, do you know the work of Eleanor Davis and Luci Gutiérrez?

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  8. Liz said:

    The former, somewhat; the latter, no! I love her palette!

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    • Sergio makes a good addition to this thread: A few of Kitty Crowther’s books have been translated into English. She is VERY VERY VERY wonderful. She was awarded the Astrid Lingren prize in 2010 and has been nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen medal too over the years. I think Shaun Tan, who won the prize in 2011 might resonate more though. He’s equally talented and vital of course …but Kitty Crowther is my favorite🙂

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  9. Mike Jung said:

    A newcomer whose style is highly whimsical and humorous is Debbie Ridpath Ohi.

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  10. I like Delphine’s work too. And don’t forget Beatrice Allemagne and the effervescent work of Chamo. And then there’s Ana Juan… help!🙂

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  11. Liz said:

    I love this conversation. Perhaps this calls for a blog post…

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    • Robin said:

      Yes! Liz, since you posted this I have been very conscious of the gender of the illustrators that influence me. Many of my favorites are women. For the most part, I favor illustrators who do not use black line work in their pieces. There happen to be a lot of male illustrators that excel at the pen and ink style you favor and use yourself, which I think is part of the equation here.

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      • Liz said:

        That’s so interesting!

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