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Getting Real:
Common Problems in Illustrators' Work

by Anne Sibley O'Brien

Originally published in the SCBWI Bulletin
Republished on Anne Sibley O'Brien's website: used with permission

I am an optimist, a glass-half-full kind of person.

(“No,” says my husband, looking across the breakfast table at what I’ve written. “You’re not ‘the glass is half full.’ You’re ‘the glass is almost empty,’ and you’re saying, ‘Aren’t I lucky to have a glass?’ Or you’re ‘look at the way the light plays on that glass. If it were full, it wouldn’t make that nice rainbow pattern.’”)

I tend to concentrate, in my own work and with others, on positive reinforcement and growth through envisioning possibility. This is one of my favorite sayings about writers’ critique groups, and applies just as well to illustrators: “What’s the most valuable thing you can tell a writer? What they do well, so they can do more of it.”

But even I must acknowledge the usefulness, the necessity, even the relief, of an occasional dose of cold, hard reality. The development of my illustration work has been enhanced, from time to time, by the cold water splash of straightforward, on-target criticisms. In that spirit, I’d like to offer some observations of what I frequently see as problems in the work of beginning, and sometimes experienced and even published, illustrators. (These are all sins that I have committed myself at one point or another. I have been lucky enough to have people point them out to me. These days, I’ve gotten smart enough to actually continually seek out people who I know will deliver this kind of truthful critique.)

Common problems of execution:

- Lack of drawing skills. This includes figures with awkward proportions, odd placement of figures in space, poor perspective, characters that don’t look like themselves from page to page. Remedy: There is absolutely no substitute for learning to draw well, and if you want illustration as a career, no excuse for not learning. Take classes. Spend an intensive year putting in the time to really get your skills solid. And keep them fresh by frequently drawing from life. For a particular drawing you think may have problems, turn it upside down, or hold it up to the mirror to see what’s wrong with it.

- Poor color. It may be too garish, too weak and diluted, or use a mismatched palette, such as cool reds and blues and suddenly a hot green. The use of black is often problematic. Remedy: Get a book, or ideally a workbook, on color theory. Learn to use complementary colors for darkening and shading (green shadows on a red sweater, etc.). Most painters mix black from multiple colors rather than using a tube of black paint, because straight black creates a harsh, dead area. Study fine art masterpieces and make sketches of color combinations.

- Poor use of medium. This shows up in a piece where it looks as if the medium controlled the artist rather than the other way around. Remedy: Practice with a new medium until you’re confident and fluid with it. Study other illustrators who use the medium skillfully. Or, switch mediums to find one that’s better for your approach. I got stuck for awhile trying to work with pen and ink until I finally realized it wasn’t the best for my style. When I switched to softer mediums (pencil, conte crayon, pastel), my work improved significantly.

- Tentative hand. Some artists pull off even very delicate work with great authority. Others look like they just aren’t sure what they’re doing. Remedy: Do the drawing multiple times until it feels familiar to you and you can reproduce it with confidence. Use tracing paper to do drafts over and over until you can really say what you mean.

- Static, stiff quality. Figures may be drawn accurately, but there’s no movement in the piece. It looks like freeze tag instead of life. This is often a result of a rigid adherence to photo references. Remedy: Move away from depending so heavily on photos. Sketch the subject or setting from life. If you have to use a photo, sketch it first. Then do the illustration from your sketch, not from the photo.

How do you know if your work suffers from any of these or similar problems? In my experience, until the eye is sufficiently developed to recognize and remedy these faults, the only solution is the cool, honest gaze of somebody else’s eye. (The downside of wearing rose-colored glasses is the tendency towards thinking, or wanting to think, that “everything’s fine”. My habitual desire for things to be acceptable as they are, and my resistance to the hard work necessary if I identified a failing, can blind me to flaws in my work.) Someone else’s eye is invaluable, to see and to point out what I can’t, or won’t, see.

How to find such an eye? Start an illustrator’s critique group. Take art classes that include critiques, and ask the instructor for some help with your work outside of class. Attend children’s book conferences and sign up for portfolio critiques. Take courses in illustrating children’s books. Call for an appointment with the art director of a publisher (those that still view portfolios in person). Invite an art director to your community to give a workshop and look at portfolios. Hang out with artists of all kinds. Notice who among your friends and acquaintances has a discerning visual eye. Ideally, do all of the above. Whoever you find, remember what you’re looking for, what you really want, is not reassurance, but a truthful assessment.

This kind of assessment is truly invaluable. What do we have to lose by getting an honest evaluation of our work’s problem areas? Certainly, it may hurt our feelings. But the sooner we face it, the sooner we can get on with learning whatever needs to be learned for the work to improve. And isn’t that what we want most of all, to serve our work, to share our work and have it recognized? To honor the work.

Copyright © Anne Sibley O'Brien. May not be reproduced in any form without prior permission. Terms of use

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