Day 13: The what of illustration

Monday morning and we’re back! I did skip yesterday, and I think that was probably a good decision. I also bought a picture book and went to see Mamma Mia, so it was a pretty fantastic weekend and I’m gonna be listening to ABBA all week.

I wrote about themes and emotions in the first few days, which I’ve come to think of as the why of illustration. The techniques and materials used are the how of illustration. And today we’re going to talk about the what of illustration: the subjects and settings on the page.

You can explore the same ideas and concepts in many different settings. And although certain subjects lend themselves more easily to certain ideas, there’s also fun to be had in exploring themes by bending the tropes: fantasy-esque adventures in the everyday world. A romance in sci-fi worlds. The what, why and how all interact with one another, and influence one another, but they are also distinct points of consideration.

The what is relevant for both macro and micro decisions. It’s in the big setting elements of monsters, dinosaurs, spaceships, forests, cities, anthropomorphised creatures, or medieval castles. But it’s also in the smaller elements, of clothing folds, graffiti, wrinkles, foliage, wear and tear, or satellite dishes.

Unintentionally, and without really realising it, I discussed these micro elements a little in the comparisons I wrote up last week. And it’s worth noting that an illustrator’s micro elements can often stay quite constant over a variety of big picture settings. It seems to me that micro elements form quite naturally, based on what is interesting to an illustrator within a scene. When you’re sketching from life, you cannot possibly include everything. These decisions of what to draw and what to leave out seem to be the decisions that define the micro elements of subject for an illustrator. Any given element can, of course, be strengthened or weakened in order to emphasise a particular mood or emotion. Illustrators are not held captive by their natural interests. Or shouldn’t be, anyway.

Macro elements can, and do, change from project to project, but many illustrators tend towards a ‘natural’ setting or interest. James Gurney and his dinosaurs. Briony May Smith’s cottage-filled woodlands. I don’t think this is necessary for an illustrator, although perhaps eventually it happens to all.

Tomorrow we might go back to my own work and try to tease out some of my own habits and interests and techniques and see what’s what.

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