The Narrative of Illustration

November 13th, 2015 | Posted in Freelancing

In the art world “illustrators” sometimes get dismissed as nothing but image making machines for other people’s ideas or concepts. According to that point of view, we draw and paint nicely but we have no original ideas of our own, and only draw what people tell us to draw. I remember in college, the fine arts majors called the illustration majors “wrists”, since the considered us little more than human copy machines with art filters. To be fair, I think I might have referred to a few of the fine arts majors as “future baristas”, since 99% would never manage to make a living with their art.

There is a similar attitude with some people in the world of comics and cartooning. Some say illustrators are not real cartoonists because they don’t write or come up with the concepts that they do the visuals for. A few years ago someone said something to that effect in a comment on the Daily Cartoonist website… I can’t recall the date nor have a link… but the commenter essentially said illustrators should not be considered cartoonists with respect to cartooning awards for the reasons I just reiterated. Former NCS president Steve McGarry begged to differ, citing humorous illustrators like Arnold Roth, Roy Doty and others as great examples of how illustrators are also storytellers, but ones with (usually) only one image to tell the story with. I agree.

Illustrators are storytellers. The images we create for articles or media are meant to visually communicate the ideas, opinions, concepts and story of whatever it is we are illustrating. Often this is done with only one image, which makes the thought and concept behind that image as important as the final artwork itself. There’s a lot more to it than just being able to draw and paint. All jobs are different but many art directors lean on the illustrator to come up with a way to say what they need said visually.

To demonstrate, here’s a cover job I did for Library Journal magazine a few years ago:

The Job: The cover article was concerning how libraries are having to deal with shrinking budgets and other difficult challenges, and some are having a hard time surviving. At the time “Survivor” was a big TV show, and the concepts of “challenges” and “surviving” really tied in to the idea of “Survivor” nicely. That was the client’s idea.

After reading the article I thought a sense of menace, like things were really getting hard and there was a lot of direct conflict to deal with, was needed. The fact that library funding was being taken (i.e. “eaten”) away also needed to be addressed. With libraries having to keep cutting back, showing how their facilities and programs were shrinking would be a good point to emphasize. Finally, despite all this adversity, many libraries were determined to beat these challenges and were staying optimistic and defiant… I needed to also show that.

Keeping with the “Survivor” theme, I used circling sharks to represent the challenges libraries have to deal with, and made the island they were on ridiculously small to both add to the sense of adversity and to demonstrate their shrinking resources. The sharks doubled as the ones eating away at the funding, with them chomping up money in the image. Finally I have the lady librarian looking defiant and confident that this can all be dealt with. Here’s are some of the roughs I sent in to get these ideas across:


They liked the bird’s eye angle that really showed how small the island was, and how surrounded they were. After a little refinement, here are the inks and final art:


Storytelling most definitely involved.

Not all jobs are like that. Sometimes I am just given the article and a checklist of the major points they want the illustration to address, and even the basic concept is something they want me to come up with. Other jobs they really have it all spelled out and you just need to pull it off. Most fall in between there somewhere.


  1. This is right on the money!
    Thanks Tom.

  2. Ryan Knight says:

    love your blog and your art style, very inspirational and motivational. thanks for all the info!


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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