Everyone seems to be under the impression that if you can’t draw you can’t illustrate. This is in fact not true. If you breakdown the definition of what illustration is, you may be surprised. To put the definition of illustration in its simplest form, it goes something like this:

You visualized an idea then put it to paper and BAM! Illustration!

To expand on this; illustration must always have representational intent that goes beyond merely its looks. It must not express but communicate, and it cannot be evoking form alone.

Cow Illustration

Whilst researching the topic I came across the similar opinion that illustration must also be clear and concrete in order to be successful. Like the definition above, people believe that as an illustrator, it is our obligation to deliver a message in the clearest form and it’s not our job to demonstrate our artistic techniques.

I have to disagree on this account. I firmly believe that there is more to an illustration than just the aesthetics, however depending on the circumstance the visual appeal of an illustration is paramount to the communication of the overall message.

Like any piece of artwork, an illustration needs to entice the audience long enough to become engaged and invest their time to explore and appreciate the work.

It must apply sound visual forms to ideas. It has to sell a product.

How Can I?

I don’t believe that there is a concrete way to approach illustration, mine is a mix of winging it and hoping for the best and REFERENCE. I would not recommend this method for everybody; instead there are steps everyone can follow to help the process along. So without further ado,

How To Illustrate:

1. Gut Feeling
First and foremost there is NO concrete method. The best way is to have an idea in your head aka a ‘gut feeling’.

If you don’t have one then you need to find this gut feeling by searching and researching for inspiration. Or if inspiration may have already come, research your inspiration. Never stop collecting and drawing inspiration, as it will bring you closer to your final product.

You don’t see it unless you are drawing it, and you have to draw it. In order to draw it, you have to have observed it. You can see it, or you can really see it.

Always put pen to paper from the beginning, you will never get anywhere if you are afraid to get a bit messy.

2. Question Yourself
Always question yourself at every step. Questions like why are you drawing those lines? Why did you choose that colour? This will help refine the product outcome.

A specific question that is a must is, ‘Is the message communicated through the illustration clear enough?’ If the message is not clear start evaluating the elements. For example, if the character is happy – do the colours highlight this? This will help eliminate and consolidate the process.


3. Details & Reference
Make sure you pay attention to the overall design; think about the juxtaposition and composition of elements within the illustration. Hierarchy is key. Where you want to engage your viewer first is the upmost importance in an illustration, other wise the message is lost. Also think of the harmony of the design and how everything moulds together.

It is key to remember that referencing is not cheating. Using a reference for a hand (which I have been told is one of the hardest things to draw) or the casting of light and shadow is not cheating. Giving incorrect information to a viewer can be extremely distracting and could be the downfall of a piece of hard work.

4. Experiment/ Refine/ Repeat
If you don’t ‘feel’ your illustration, why should anyone else? You have to believe in it to make it work. Experimenting with other aspects is the only way to achieve an outcome that you are happy with. Change the colour, the lines, background and composition.

The only way to evaluate if it is “the best” is to compare it to something else.

When you are happy with the direction you are going, keep on going. Experiment and make mistakes until you are happy.

There’s a saying that “Ninety percent of the work goes into the final ten percent” This is paramount at the refining stage. Unless you are a Jedi master of illustration, you are cheating yourself, your work and your audience. If the outcome is coming together easily, you get sick of refining it.

If you don’t put in that extra 10%, you may keep the work from being a standout piece.

5. Ask For Feedback
Ask early, ask often. If the audience does not understand the piece of work, take that seriously into consideration. Don’t shy away from other opinions, there could be vital information that the illustration is missing. Not to worry though, there is no right or wrong answer.

Here is a clip that summarises these steps:
This man is a professional animator, author and illustrator so don’t be too intimidated. First and foremost, before he started to draw he believed his character was real. He didn’t have a complete vision, but gut feeling. He needed to draw hundreds of drawings to know that he didn’t like any of them. Lastly, it wasn’t until he discussed it with a colleague, that the character came to life. Most importantly, he brought life to paper with only a few lines.


I asked around the office what illustration means to a few and got many insightful responses in return. However this is one I think that sums it up nicely.

“Sketching, drawing, visualising in general is the only way to convert haphazard thoughts, concepts and ideas to a meaningful foundation. This would apply to almost everything, from a business process or workflow design, to application architecture and systems infrastructure topology, etc.” – Loucas Gatzoulis

To emphasize this point as to why we use illustration as a tool, we do it to make point and enhance understanding across our audience. Illustration has the power to attract, aid retention and enhance understanding.

Attract Attention
If the work is attractive it will gain attention.

We all have ‘short-term’ and ‘working memory’. Most of the time content is lost in our short-term memory. Illustrations can help break the barrier into the ‘working’ memory.

The complexity of the image (attractiveness) can stimulate our senses and will attract us to the visual. However if the image is too complex, there is a chance that the image will be lost in the ‘short term’ memory.

Aid Retention
Visuals usually retain in memory far better than textual content (making information memorable).

Graphical representation can be more efficient when deciphering information. For instance arrows are a fast way to communicate direction, relationships and hierarchy between elements. Because of the simplicity of the illustration, the likelihood that it will be lost in memory as opposed to text is highly unlikely.

Enhance Understanding
Illustrations have the capacity to make the visible clear. It can add depth to an idea or make the idea more meaningful. Both add another level of understanding to the information that is being conveyed.

Together all these aspects create the content that we wish to communicate.

Illustration has always been present, but just been sitting on the bench for a while.

But now it’s an exciting time for illustration as it is one of the most versatile art forms used today. Using the opportunities within other growing industries such as fashion, computer games and animation, will take the artistry to the next level.

It has grown from being a supportive tool to being a creative statement unto its own. There are many factors as to why the illustration industry has skyrocketed in the last few years. The decline of print & rise of the digital age is a key player in fuelling illustration forward at a rapid pace.

US… We have discussed why we illustrate and touched base on the illusive, “how” to illustrate, but I want to talk about “when” we actually do it.

Some will draw for pleasure, some for necessity and some don’t even realize when they do it. This action is called ‘doodling’ and I am 99.9% sure we all do it.

Doodling mostly occurs when you are bored or stressed. It is a great way to relieve frustration in a creative way. Studies have shown that doodling whilst in meetings/ lecture’s etc. is actually more counter productive then it appears as it prevents you from daydreaming. When you daydream your brain uses up a lot of manpower as it starts to elaborate across a tangent of random thoughts. Doodling forces your brain to expend just enough energy to stop it from daydreaming, but not so much that you don’t pay attention.

When we doodle we have an intense freedom allowing us to draw representations of our aspirations, needs and feelings. So I think along some line we have all come to connect and maybe admire our doodling.

Doodles are like fragments of a map that show how someone’s mind works.

This all being said doodling is a form of illustration as it conveys an idea, message, internal emotion that we have subconsciously put onto paper, so in a way it is illustration in its purest form.

I want to leave you guys with this clip. It really resonates with me because of the connection this guy has with illustration. It’s almost like his livelihood; it’s how he sees the world. I can relate to that but I can also aspire to it! One of the greatest things about illustration is that there are masters but I don’t think you can ever master it.

Anisha Gittins can color in-between the lines and is a Designer at REBORN.