Monday, March 20, 2006
I've had a lot of inquiries about my process over the past couple of months. It's always been rather difficult to answer these questions, because I approach each job with a different process, dependent on the needs of the resulting art. But lately, I have noticed a loose pattern all my jobs tend to follow — and while not every job can be shoe-horned into a rigid assembly line of tactics, they all seem to pass through the following phases. One job in particular consistently follows this "general process". So in this article, I thought I'd rustle up a few paragraphs describing how I go about producing an A List Apart Illustration.
Generally speaking, the process for any illustration begins with determining just what the image is supposed to communicate. In the case of A List Apart, every illustration is created to support whatever point the article is trying to make. So the first thing I do when I get an ALA article is... read it.
Revolutionary, eh? Well, it's a step worth mentioning because I'm reading with a definite agenda — to find the core message (or as they called it in elementary school, the "theme") of the article. Once I've figured out that article's main point, I can move on to the next phase.
I believe the concept is the most important part of any illustration; or any artistic endeavor, for that matter. Artistic styles go in and out of fashion quick as a rabbit on rockets; the best way to ensure an illustration remains relevant long after its style grows stale is to make sure it's based on a relevant idea. Notice I don't say ground-breaking. Or even clever. After enough people have mimicked it, even the most clever ideas become cliched. But at the very least, an illustration can still be effective if it's getting a message across.
In the case of the ALA illustrations, I try to think up visual situations that support, echo, or accentuate the article's core message. If the article is about "making informed choices", then maybe an illustration that echoes the concept of testing could work. If it's about "redesigning for a reason", maybe I'll draw the results of an unnecessary redesign. Whatever the case, the illustration must be a slave to the concept, and the concept a slave to the article.
But enough about theory. How does the process start?
My first step is to jot down as many illustration ideas as possible. Every concept is sketched out just coherently enough so I can understand what's going on in it; sometimes I even can get away with describing the situation with a few hastily-scribbled words. In any case, the goal is to generate an unfiltered visual "list" of concepts. It doesn't matter if they're good or bad, or even embarrassingly idiotic. They just need to be pushed out of my thinkhole, and onto a piece of paper, or the back of a folder, or a desktop. Hell, even a Ham sandwich if that's all that's around. Anywhere is better than in my head, because they'll vanish in the cubbyhole.
The next step is to take the loose visual list and sort out the best ideas. I often put at least a day in between when I jot down concepts, and when I come back to them for the rough phase. Why? Because I need to forget what each of them was trying to say. Coming back to them later, I can approach them objectively, and really separate the ones that are successfully communicating the same message as the article, and the ones that probably should be buried in the backyard with a live hand-grenade.
So now I've weeded out the concepts I want to pursue, and entered the vital stage that bridges the gap between an illustration's soul (its concept), and its body (the final art).
The Rough Phase requires versatility. I produce my roughs with a pencil because it's quick, easy to make changes with, and able to get across all the important virtues of the final art — tone, contrast, form, and composition. Even when the final art is in color, I prefer to work with pencil roughs and give an example of coloration based on prior finished art, rather than doing color roughs.
The reason for keeping this stage so fluid is because this is where I try to contain all the revisions to the art. The process of revising a pencil drawing is much quicker than revising a watercolor, a relatively unforgiving medium compared to acrylic or oil (and definitely compared to digital coloration, blessed with multiple undo's).
In a perfect world, you'd get every illustration right on the first try. But in most cases, it's going to take a couple of rounds to arrive at a place where both you and the client are happy with the direction. It's important that you expect revisions, and prepare for them. Yet, in any job, time is of the essence; so it's just as important that you protect yourself from entering round after round after round of revision. The best solution I've found for this is charging a revision rate per round. If people aren't concerned by the precious time the revision loop might be eating up, they'll at least be concerned by the expanding budget; a hopeful consequence of which is that it forces the revisions to be weighed carefully, and provided in one round.
With A List Apart, I am blessed to have had very few instances where the roughs required a revision round more than once (and you can be sure it was for all the right reasons). If there is a minor revision, they'll more often than not just ask that I incorporate it into the final art. Generally, I think it's best to have a rough that everyone has approved before moving onto the next stage; but this is always a judgment call. If the revision seems too extreme, I'll do another rough just to be safe.
The best part about the Final Art Phase, is the peace-of-mind. If I've arrived at this stage, that means that my biggest concern with any illustration — that the concept is healthy — has been attended to. So now I've got an idea that I like, that the powers-that-be like, and I've already figured out and gotten approval on about three-fourths of the components of an image. For me, this relieves a lot of the pressure of rejection; and it allows me to enjoy the act of creating the final art. Not to say that technically executing the image won't have its own associated stresses (ahem... color), but much can be forgiven of an illustration when it rides into town on a sleek, well-groomed concept.
So that's the A List Apart process, which could very well just be referred to as my Illustration Process. Undoubtedly, other Illustrators out there work in a similar fashion; and I'm sure there's a whole sackful that have an even better process in place. Which is rightly so; in a proper climate, everyone can tailor their process to suit their own needs. I hope this has given you some insights into your own work processes, even if it's just affirming that other people work in a similar way as yourself. As always when I write one of these long-winded, non-Mojo related posts, you're more than welcome to add your own thoughts in the comments. Now, just for fun, I'll leave you with a couple samples of finished ALA illustrations alongside their rough: