Illustration = Communication

November 18th, 2006 | Posted in General

One of the benefits of being a member of the National Caricaturists Network is that you have access to their excellent member’s only forum. This is a terrific place to interact with fellow caricaturists from all over the world, get feedback on your work, find and give advice on the business of caricature, network with other artists and artist/agents and in general just have fun gabbing and posting artwork.

The highest honor the NCN bestows is the “Caricaturist of the Year” award, otherwise known as the “Golden Nosey“. One of the more prominent members of the NCN and a past winner of said award is illustrator and teacher Court Jones. Court has started, on his own initiative, a series of friendly competitions on the afore mentioned forum that are meant to be a sort of exercise and learning experience for those who want to participate (again, you must be registered on the member’s only forum and therefore a member of the NCN to participate). Court is a terrific teacher and this effort of his is a fantastic thing to offer to members, because it really has a great deal of value as a learning tool.

The concept is that each month, Court assigns an illustration job to participants. Just like a real job, it has stages like conceptual roughs, pencils, final pencils, final art. Each stage has deadlines that must be met or you are disqualified. Each job is different but all obviously involve caricature. The good thing here is that they aren’t just “draw a caricature of Geroge W. Bush” type assignments. These are like real jobs where caricature is only one element, and things like composition, environment, design and storytelling come into play. Many of the artists in the NCN are event or theme park artists, and to them this is really breaking out of their box and tackling new frontiers. Each job also features as judges Court and two ‘guest’ judges, who provide critiques and such at each stage. I hope Court is receiving the kind of praise he deserves for donating his time and constant attention in critiques and constructive comments that are really helping those who are participating.

The November competition is to do the art for a MAD Magazine cover, with the subject being the upcoming Rocky Balboa movie. I was honored that Court asked me to be one of the guest judges, and I secured as the third judge MAD artist Ray Alma. I knew Ray would agree to do it because he is a great guy and a generous man, but mainly because he owes me ten bucks. Anyway, the competition is on and so far it’s been a lot of fun working with the participants. Many of them are green to the ways of illustration, and while they can draw faces with the best of them the rest is quite a challenge for some. During the course of the critiquing I noticed some common issues among the entries, and posted a general bit of advice I though might be of interest here. It’s mainly about what is important in approaching an illustration, and steps to make it successful:


From the NCN Forum:

As caricaturists, most of us spend the majority of our time thinking the world ends at the neck. Our primary concern is faces, and that is our comfort zone. Doing something like this is very different. Here many elements need to be in place in order to achieve success. I see a number of people who have only pursued one or two ideas/concepts for their cover. Even if they have done many sketches, they are all variations of the same concept. More thought needs to go into the initial brainstorming stage.

Here’s how a MAD cover, or any illustration, is worked out:

First, you need the concept or subject, in this case the Rocky Balboa movie. Check. Then you need the message. In an illustration job, the artist is trying to communicate some message or central theme of the article or subject they are illustrating. Sometimes you are given the message by the art director, but often as in this case you are also acting as writer and coming up with the message (i.e. “gag”) you need to illustrate. Some of you are aimlessly throwing ideas around. You need to have more of a focus than that.

Decide on what you want to make fun of for the cover. As I have written in several people’s individual threads, there is a ton of potential gag material with Rocky. You can make fun of Sylvester Stallone’s age (an obvious one, but again, so what? A clever gag makes it work), Hollywood’s sequelitis, the movie industry, boxing as a sport, Stallone’s reverse career (started with an Oscar, now he’s a punchline), etc. You need a direction and something you want the illustration to say. Say we decide to go with Stallone’s age as a target.

You want to make fun of Stallone trying to do an action movie or make a comeback as Rocky at his age. Next you need to start asking yourself questions. What is a good way to communicate that? What makes us think of old people? What ways can you visually demonstrate that this is ridiculous? Illustrating is storytelling. Your message needs to be loud and clear. Old people are weak and can’t be boxers. They have things like false teeth, hairpieces, pot bellies, liver spots. They use a lot of medications and things like walkers, canes and even oxygen tanks.

You want to deliver the message as a gag i.e. funny. Just having a boxer being old is okay but there can be more to it. Try to come up with a vehicle for delivering the message that is appropriate. One obvious image is to show that Stallone can’t possibly be a believable boxer at his age, so we should then show him failing. Having him just getting beat isn’t enough, he has to be getting beat in a humiliating way. Something that is a result of his being old. Using boxing as a vehicle, we need to brainstorm things that boxers do. They hit punching bags, they jump rope, they dance around the ring, they sit in their corners and get “worked on” by their trainers. They wear mouth guards and boxing gloves. We need to come up with a way to get our message across using these or similar devices, and we need to make it funny.

Now we start doing roughs to explore possible ways to illustrate these ideas. The joke has to be immediately apparent. we should not need to rely on word balloons or text to explain the gag… covers especially must be visually arresting.

Sometimes the humor can be the visual itself, with the gag being just so-so. If I was doing this cover, I think I’d go with a shot of Rocky slumped in his corner, bruised and battered. Alfred is his trainer and he’s handing him not a mouthguard but a pair of dentures. Perhaps their is a tube of Ben Gay or jar of Metamucil in Alfred’s other hand, and a few prescription drug bottles laying about. I’d tighten in the shot to show Rocky’s calves and up. Not the funniest gag but visually I can make Stallone look really bad, old and wrinkly with liver spots and saggy, old man boobs. His face and expression will have to help “sell the gag”… he’s looking at the dentures and his mouth has that puckered look old people have without their teeth in. To add a little commentary on the state of his career, I’d have him in his famous Rocky trunks, but they and his boxing gloves are dirty and tattered because they are old and haven’t been uned in some time. Then I would put his Oscar headfirst into his spit bucket next to him.

Of course I’d want to do at least three other different ideas before I settled on one. But let’s say I settled on that one above. Now I need to work on my composition and the image to make it read and work within the space. That’s the next step.

What I am trying to say here is that as an illustrator you need to identify your subject and the message distinctly, and then go about the job of figuring out how to communicate the message is a funny and interesting way. Ask yourself questions and make lists of things when brainstorming. It’s this process that will help you come up with something that will work, as one idea will lead to another.

One last bit of advice, do not fall in love with your first idea. Force yourself to work out at least three more ideas that are as different as you can come up with. If an idea isn’t working or reading well, abandon it and move on.


The message I am trying to impart with that post is that illustration is about communication. Whether it’s the cover of MAD, a full page illustration to accompany an article or a spot within somebody’s column or feature, it’s all about identifying the intended message and delivering it visually, in a way that is immediately apparent and easy to understand. In my case it usually means do so in a funny way, but the same purpose applies to more serious illustrators as well. The world is full of artists who draw and paint pretty pictures, but the really successful illustrators in the business are great communicators and storytellers as well.


  1. craig says:

    Any chance we’ll get to see what the participants come up with? I know the folks who come to my sites would love ’em!

  2. Kannard says:

    I think we need to also thank Tom for finding the time to donate. His and Court’s advice and feedback have helped greatly and you can really see it as each artist progresses. It has pushed me much harder than I have been pushed in some time and for that I thank you. It reminds me I have a lot to still learn.

    A word about illustration and communication. I think the hardest part of illustrating is finding a “voice”. This term was thrown around the school I went to and was geared more towards the fine art world. What it means is through a visual context to express a concept or opinion. Your voice of your view of the world. Granted as illustrators you have to express the view of your client, but you still have to have a voice. I think that is probably one of the toughest aspects of editorial style illustration, well outside of the uber short deadlines. Remember that you have to deliver it in a glance. If it takes longer than a glance then generally the message isn’t clear enough. For some reason it seems that we have shorter and shorter attention spans to visual stimulus. I think that is due to the overstimulation in the media and advertising. Though I can’t complain too loudly, it’s how a lot of folks make their living.

  3. Tom says:

    Well said, Kannard. Indeed while an illustrator is trying to communicate the art director’s message, they are doing it within their own “style” or voice as you put it. That can sometimes be a challenge, but it’s really the job of the art director to choose the illustrator who’s ‘voice’ will match best with the message. Using your voice metaphor, it would make no sense to hire Pee Wee Herman to read Edgar Allan Poe. It’s like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. I wish I could say I’ve never been hired to do an illustration that clearly needed a different style of artwork, but I can’t.

    Craig- interesting idea… if I get permission from the participants perhaps I can post the final art of our top three here.

  4. craig says:


    If you do post the top three [or however many], I’ll send folks your way with a link from my site.

    I can’t wait to see wha they come up with!


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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