Illustration – Subjects and styles

For this blog post I shall begin to look into the different subjects that illustrations are produced to cover as well as the different styles that I could use to produce a editorial illustration and explain the qualities of each style, as well as any connotations that could be read into by using a particular style. I will also add in some example images to help my educational analysis of them.

A useful resource for this was a book written by Alan Male, (head of the BA Illustration course at the University College in Falmouth since 1993), called Illustration: A Theoretical and Contextual Perspective, which has helped me to better understand the role of illustration in communicating a message to the audience.

An interesting point I noted was how Alan Male states that despite there being hundreds of different styles, they can all be placed within two groups, which I will quote below:

  • Literal Illustrations: These “tend to represent pictorial truths. Here there is generally an accurate description of reality, and even if the image depicts narrative fiction of a fantastical or dramatic nature, the accent is on creating a scene that is credible.”
  • Conceptual Illustrations: “Here we can have metaphorical applications to the subject or visual depictions of ideas or theories. The images may contain elements of reality, but as a whole take a whole different form or meaning.”

Examples of literal illustration would include the following (Images are the work of others who I have linked to):

Photorealism: This is where an illustration is created by the illustrator looking at a photo, and re-creating it to match the photo as closely as possible. Normally this is done through a style of painting or airbrushing, but a great example of a photo realistic illustration that was created using ballpoint pens by Samuel Silva is pictured here on my blog but also in far more detail here.

Hyperrealism: This is where an illustration is made to look like a photograph with perhaps a few illusionist features added to give an extra meaning to the piece, but does not necessarily need to be based on an existing photo. Paul Cadden is an example of an artist who produces these illustrations has provided an in-depth definition, which can be read by clicking on his name. I feel that this style could work well for my idea of drawing an eye for instance, to make it look realistic and then add in the extra meaning to show the psychology of the face.

Historical/Cultural: These are primarily paintings, focusing on areas such as portraits or landscapes where the artist wanted to convey something, take for example this portrait of Henry VIII from 1536, more information of which can be found here. This style was most common before the invention of photographs as that was the only way of documenting an event or person. Although some scenes could be seen to be exaggerated in either a flattering or degrading way, generally these were realistic enough to be classed as literal.

Examples of conceptual illustration would include the following:

Sequential Imagery: Normally in the form of a storyboard, whether that be for a cartoon (as the example of a Snoopy cartoon can be seen here), or a graphic novel. Styles vary to the individual piece. For example a cartoon may focus more on fine-liner for the outside, using Photoshop to add colour to keep things crisp and clean, while a political satire cartoon may use ink, with an chaotic layout in order to portray the chaotic business of politics etc.

Information graphics/Technical diagrams: These can include cutaway or technical drawings that make it clear to the audience what they are looking at, but presented in a completely different way visually to convey extra information. Some areas of these may even look like literal illustration. More can be read about this image here. As for the artist, Tony Matthews, more can be read about him by clicking on his name, there are also some amazing cutaway illustrations I can’t show here because of their copyright restrictions.

Distortion/Abstraction: These illustrations often are far removed from reality and are the figment of the imagination of the illustrator. Any style could be used depending on what the illustrator is trying to achieve. The example illustration I have put here is part of a tutorial that can be found on the Computer Arts website. The exact link to this is here.

So here I can see that are lots of sub-sections that illustration can fall into, and that some of this overlaps some of these sections. I believe that the illustration I will be looking into producing will be more of a conceptual nature, take my strongest idea so far, showing how the eye is a visible marker of someone’s psychology, while the majority of the image will be of a literal illustrative style, the iris of the eye would be completely conceptual, not focusing on reality at all, especially with the colour wheel idea.

Now I will be looking into the actual styles used by artists to create these illustrations and what they best suit themselves for. As there are so many different styles, I will be narrowing down my research to the ones that could be relevant to what I want to achieve for this project.

Pencil: Personally, I am very fond of this style of illustration. That is because the monochromatic result is very much like a black and white photograph, in that because there is no colour, which is so dominant, your eye starts to focus on other areas such as how the lighting and texture work. I think that lighting and texture are two factors that are very important indeed when it comes to portraits, as the way a portrait is lit or the texture of their skin forms an identity that makes someone who they are. It is also possible to achieve a wide range of tones with a decent pack of drawing pencils, so this makes it a viable option for this project. This link here as well as the example image, displays some portraits as well as other pencil illustrations and shows what I have just talked about. Another advantage to pencil illustrations is the range of finishes that can be achieved from hyperrealism discussed earlier to loose, conceptual sketches.

Fine-liner: This is another style I am a fan of, I find using fine-liners works in one of two ways. The first is for loose sketches that need to be bold and where sometimes it can be beneficial for the lines of construction to be shown, as they can’t be removed on the paper whereas I often tidy up a pencil illustration on the actual page. The second is for a very tight, neat finish, most commonly seen in cartoons as a way of outlining a design ready to be scanned in for digital colouring in a program, normally Photoshop. The fine-liner drawing I have shown here as an example was created by Goodge, whose blog that link will take you to. Although the qualities of these illustrations are roughly similar to that of a pencil illustration, with a pencil the pressure placed on it can determine the difference in tones, whereas with a fine-liner it is the density and quantity of the strokes that make the difference. It can also work well with ink, as it can give a real depth to the illustration if a block of one colour is needed. It is possible to get fineliners and ink in more colours than just black, which opens up the possibilities for illustrators.

Watercolour: I think that watercolour painting would be an interesting style of illustrating to depict a portrait, as some research into this has shown me that the paints are translucent, being primarily water based, and that this can give the appearance of being quite luminous, which I think would work well for some portraits as the skin can sometimes have a luminous feel to it, especially when lit brightly. Also, if done in a style so that the brush strokes are visible, this means that the illustration can have a textured feel to it. I do not have experience of this style of illustration, but it is interesting to note that there are watercolour pencils that are soluble with water, allowing for fine details to be created. This is more what I would be interested in creating, as I do like the fine details in illustrations, and I feel something like watercolour may be too vague for what I am looking into. An example of what can be done with watercolour can be seen on the Smashing Magazine website and that is where the image is from, created by Ben Tour.

Airbrush: This technique allows illustrators to create highly detailed illustrations that have a very high level of detail to them. This would be good for creating a photorealistic or hyperrealistic illustration because of this detail. Airbrushes are small air-operated tools that can be used to spray paint onto a canvas for instance. They work best when they are larger, as this allows for more space to work, and a higher level of detail to be able to fit into that space. The example image you can see is of a truck that has been airbrushed, and the quality and detail are fantastic. Glenn Anderson was the person who created this, and more of his work can be seen by clicking on his name. From what I have seen during my research though, it is a very skilled practice, and as I don’t have experience of this, I won’t be using this style.

Vector: The first digital style of illustration that I have looked at here, and is another style of illustration that I have experimented with in the past. I find that vector illustrations work fantastically well for block colour and flat drawings where no reflections are needed. To this extent I have added a vector illustration I did over the summer of a Land Rover (more detail will be written up on my blog about this when I get the time) that was designed to be very simple, but detailed. I felt it worked very well. I think this could transfer well across to a portrait, but I would have to be careful that the end result did not look flat and uninspiring. The trick I think to get around that is to either make it as realistic as possible with gradients, reflections etc. as the example vector from Tony Ariawan above on the right shows or I could make it a silhouette. There are many options here…

So what have I learnt from this research? Well, I have learnt a lot about the classification of illustrations and this will help me to focus and think about what I want an illustration to achieve, and which audience different types would work best for, instead of randomly creating an illustration and then fitting it in later. As for the style, I think I will narrow it down to pencil, fine-liner or vector illustration for my final design, but which one I go for will be entirely dependent on the design I produce.