It all begins with drawing.
Drawin g skill, whether inborn or learned, forms the foundation of almost all visual art – but in particular, illustration. Drawing is the fundamental base from which expression flows. Before all else, comes paper and pencil – and just like any other skill, drawing prowess require patience and a lot of practice.
How do you then bring that command of drawing to life as an illustration? For all that hard work honing your talents, it’s not necessarily enough, for example, to be adept at drawing a perfect rose (although it’s helpful). It might be that a perfect rose is what’s needed, but often there’s “more to the story.”
This is where one’s skill and vision can team up to potentially create a “perfect storm”. And this is where it gets both fun and challenging – because the point of book or editorial illustration is to capture the essence of a story or an idea.
Knowing how to best illustrate a given subject can take some critical thought. It’s vital to grasp the mood of a piece, and like a detective, look for what’s going on between the lines. These sensitivities then bring to light the key ingredients of content, color, tone and style.
Speaking of style, illustration styles are as varied as a sunset – no two will be exactly alike, which is mostly due to that intangible quality called human expression. Even if two artists have similar abilities, it will be their conceptual thinking, their interpretation, that makes them unique.
It’s also important to know that while “style” definitely matters, and can be hugely communicative and entertaining, it shouldn’t override the mood or intent of the story: it is there to enhance. While illustrations may – and often do – steal the show, their real role is one of support. Generally speaking, style isn’t “the thing.” Visually expressing the heart of an idea is an illustration’s lifeblood. Style then becomes a tool to that end.
A side note to aspiring illustrators: I would urge artists to find their own style, rather than mimic a trend or favorite artist. In the learning stages you may not “have a style” and it may be necessary to study other styles on the path to discovering your own. But down the road, allow your individuality to shine through – you’ll find your own strengths and as a result, develop greater confidence and mastery.
The most effective illustrations tell a story by evoking the gist and mood through picturesque details …so that if someone saw only the pictures – no words at all – they would still know something about the story.
But what makes an illustration really sing is when visual excellence flawlessly harmonizes with relevant emotion. And the real test is eliciting that feeling while remaining true to your subject. Because an illustration always accompanies words, it has to be an honest ambassador – yet still an engaging and inviting one!