Sunday Mailbag

January 27th, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: How thoroughly do you “picture” the final illustration in your mind before you begin work on it? Are you able to formulate a mental image of the final scene before you start and strive to replicate it, or is most of the image worked out on paper and in sketches?

A: Good question. There are several stages to any illustration job, and each incorporates a mental “image” of different degrees.

When I get a new assignment I get an initial idea that forms pretty completely in my head of what the final could look like. I think most artists have that first flash, and it’s second nature to grab onto it and believe that’s the right and only solution. I’ve found that to be a big mistake, and always force myself to come up with and explore at least two different ideas with an open mind. Often that first one still ends up being the winner, but just the mental exercise of trying to think things out from a different angle will either lead to a better idea or make the first idea stronger. In this concept stage the sketches and thinking done on paper is as or more important that the mental visual imagery.

Once I have the final idea, I visualize it as completely as possible to the final. Even here, however, it’s a slippery slope to trust completely to your mental image. Doing a quick value or color study can really make the final art that much more effective and complete. I confess I seldom do that, but if I’m working outside my comfort zone with some kind of different technique or look, I will do experimental studies to see what is working and what is not.

Michaelangelo has several quotes attributed to him that basically say he sees the figure in the marble, and simply chips away what is not part of it. That’s romantic but also untrue. He did a lot of sketches and both small and full size sculptures prior to his final work in block stone. Art is a process and even the most brilliant of artists like Michelangelo need to follow the process to achieve their goals. We mortals must do the same.

Thanks to Howard Wright from Grand Rapids, MI for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. SteveH says:

    The process approach is so true. I have found that the more I use a process to work towards a final piece, the better it turns out. When I rush along with an initial idea, it seldom comes out right. Tom, this is excellent advice and any budding artists reading this should take note, keep practicing and use the process of pre sketching and construction lines to help you work towards the final piece! If it’s good enough for Michaelangelo, it’s good enough for us all!


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