The most successful illustrators of the turn of the century--and I guess I should specify the 20th century at this point--were magazine illustrators. There was a golden age of print media at the turn of the century with the rise of the automated four-color press. There was a high demand for color pictures, and since there was no color photography, illustration was the only way to go. Periodicals were a cheap, current form of entertainment, and even during the depression, everyone still read newspapers and magazines. This golden age began to decline some time in the fifties, with the rise of TV and color photography, and now, finally, we're seeing the internet overtake most periodical print media, like magazines and newspapers.
So what are illustrators supposed to do now? Now we're told: make digital media. Learn to animate. Learn to storyboard. Learn to provide content for video games and movies. New media will replace old media. But I think this is approaching the problem from the wrong direction.
First, I don't think traditional illustration is going to disappear entirely. Though digital media may largely replace old media, I don't think it's going to entirely replace the inanimate illustrated book or story. You may replace the mode of presentation and distribution--it may be on an Ipad or Kindle, but the form itself will endure. An animated or interactive Cat In the Hat isn't going to be able to replace the simple experience of reading the book. It's still a unique experience that people value. Otherwise it would have happened already--Chuck Jones did a great animated version of The Cat in the Hat in the 70s (available on DVD and Blue Ray!), there's that awful Mike Meyers movie, there are video games, interactive toys, but kids keep wanting to read the dead tree version for some reason.
But still, digital media continues to grow as a popular form. You can't stick your head in the sand. So I do think Illustrators can benefit from being involved in more aspects of media production, but it's not the form of media that you work in that's going to make you a success. Illustrators need to be storytellers first, rather than simply picture makers. That doesn't mean they have to learn to animate, so much as learn to tell stories structurally and visually in a complete way. Rather than ornament someone else's story, they need to learn to tell their own. The more complete their unique vision is, the more invaluable they become. Artists who have spread themselves over the greatest variety of media have done so because their vision and ability to tell stories is what's compelling, not their aptitude for working in different media. Flexibility is important, but have a vision, first.
Illustration by Boris Arzybasheff