The Elements of Illustration*

I critique hundreds of pieces every year. Not because I’m a Creative Director (although I have been), but because I (like you) am a consumer of art – of illustration, painting, comics, games, et alia. And the act of critique is one of the most helpful for enlarging one’s own understanding and formalizing concepts that might otherwise float away….

While the following list is by no means scientific (many of the elements listed below overlay others, and many great paintings use only a few) I made it for my own reference and I hope that you may find it useful food for thought. Please print it out and put it by your drafting table or computer if it’ll help.

Where do you want your viewer’s eye to go? What’s the heart of the piece, the crux of the biscuit?

Is there a story here? A big idea? A paradigm, a parody, a pastiche? Has the sword been nicked in battle, has the dog been fed, has the sweater been patched? Norman Rockwell began his pictures thinking of a soldier under a light post and ran scenarios in his mind (often switching “lead” characters) until he found a painting.

A stunning piece from Swedish artist Anders Zorn

Composition and Design
Create a visual hierarchy – A path for the viewer to follow? Something fractal? Separate elements intended for book cover, spine and back cover? Consider the surface you’re working on, its aspect ratio and how that effects the harmonies and tensions of your piece. When working in a tall oval, or a wide ceiling, or a strange milled form, that’s pretty obvious. But it is just as important within a normal rectangle.

There are many good ones that great painters have applied over the years. Use one of theirs or make your own!

Can your piece be reduced to black and white and still read correctly?
Sometimes good pieces work their value in terms of warm and cool colors, but most need strong tonal variety to read well.

A little-known satyric illustration by Kewpie Doll creator Rose O’Neill

Think Rodin, JC Leyendecker or Rose O’Neill.

It makes things and people seem real.

Personal, classical, mystical or cultural – words, numbers, objects, beings. There’s no shortage of sources or end to interpretation. While there was an entire movement of Symbolists (only some of whom were painters),  Michael Kaluta and Brian Despain are excellent modern examplars.

Synecdoche  (Micro defining Macro)
A small area of tight or implied detail will help define vast shapes – like the windows in a colossal building or the wrinkles on an elephant. One needs only a few wee bits to represent a larger whole.

Whether it’s Mary Engelbreit‘s checkerboards, or Stephen Hickman‘s ornate orientalism, Ornament matters. Sometimes it’s a sort of texture, other times the whole raison d’etre.

Comparisons and contrasts of size, scope, meaning, characters… in our world of Zoroastrian black and white contrasts, this is often too-easy. Use discretion and variety

3 of Glen Orbik’s spectacular pulp covers

Sometimes it’s fetishism for a type of brush-stroke or color scheme, sometimes caricature or anatomy. For example, the best pin-ups (by Gil Elvgren, Aly Fell, Glen Orbik, et alia) have similarly stylized elements, some of which might surprise you.
If you’re working on a pin-up, just crack their code and you’re off to the races.

Have the characters lived real lives? Are they real beings with hopes and fears? Body language, gesture and costume are crucial here.

Gesture is important, but so is the feeling of tension. Sometimes it’s the most important part of a piece. Drama, high stakes, suspense. If you can enlist the viewer’s sympathy support or curiosity, you win.

It’s quite obvious in the works of Franklin Booth, Aubrey Beardsley, and Mike Mignola – but don’t underestimate its importance for Drew Struzan, Arthur Rackham or John Jude Palencar.

I know precious few people who draw brilliantly out of their heads, but those heads have absorbed the lessons their eyes have shown them for many years. Most of us have been nowhere near as observant, and while we may remember and be able to imagine many things, there are usually areas where we fall down. Bolster yourself and your work with reference. Don’t stick slavishly to it, but make it do your bidding.

The play of shape (whether silhouette or fully rendered form) against a white, colour, or fully realized background is so important for keeping a viewer interested. It can be akin what designers call negative space.

Each point in perspective applies to a single dimension (in 2 point perspective the points are nearly always width and depth). Get perspective right and you’ll be halfway home. Also, the more you keep you POV away from a normal grid as seen from a height of 6 feet, the more dynamic your piece is likely to be.

A certain joie de vivre is key. It doesn’t matter if you paint supplely or with technical perfection – If you don’t bring some fun and adventure to your work, viewers can tell. They won’t always know what’s wrong, but they’ll get that something is…

To which list the delightful Kurt Huggins suggested:

Process: This is your way of managing and editing all of these different elements. Each step of your process should be about solidifying one more element of the image, building up to a final piece. There are many processes, and many ways to finish, but I think most processes start with idea or composition.

*And while I find that this list applies to my own artwork, I also find that much of it applies to my writing, sculpture, et al. Your mileage may vary.

© 2008 Lee Moyer.


Starstruck was ahead of its time in 1980, and it’s still ahead of its time. The difference is it’s now being posted online (and of course there are hundreds more pages each lovingly painted by yours truly over the inspired inkwork of Mssr. Michael Kaluta). GO READ IT HERE. And while you’re reading it, look around. If you cast a clever eye, you’re bound to find me lurking in the shadows.

I first encountered it at the ABA convention in DC. The Marvel Comics reps were tearing down, and there was no way they wanted to schlep books home. So I kindly volunteered to take the Starstruck Graphic Novel (#13!) off their hands. Reading it was my introduction to Anarchera and adult storytelling. Here was a comic that took advantage of the form, and as a student of narrative I could not but be impressed.

I’d been fortunate enough to work with Mw Kaluta on this video for the Alan Parson’s Project:

I was familiar with his work from that and his remarkable covers for Madame Xanadu, et al., but Starstruck was a revelation. It was all manner of good put together in ways unthinkable to anyone but Elaine Lee and Mike Kaluta working together on a plane never before imagined. It’s not got neither the 80’s dystopian bells and whistles of Dark Knight, or the OCD completeness of Watchmen. Instead it has life. I can only imagine what Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby might have thought!

A properly thoughtful take on its wonders by John Hilgart can be found on The Comics Journal site.

A particularly inspired section reads thus: “Everything adds up, even if you cannot figure out what it might mean or where it’s headed. Starstruck’s reputation as a confusing book unfairly implies that it is a confused book, which it emphatically is not. History, culture, family relationships, religions, vernacular speech, and all manner of written texts from this fantastic world accumulate and intersect with perfect consistency”.

W. Andrew Shephard has another fine take in his review on The New Inquiry.

But I while I could show you pages of art and masses of critical acclaim, I will instead quote one random tiny part of the marvelous Glossary (also online). Here’s a snippet about the March Baptists:

“In the book of South Carolinians 1:35, Zed gives to his followers his famous 27 AMENDMENTS to the 10 COMMANDMENTS of Moses (Old Testament). The first seven of these are: 1) Thou shalt wear brown shoes, 2) Thou shalt purport thyself in commodious and seemly ways at all times, 3) Thou shalt talk louder than anyone else in the room, 4) Thou shalt leaveth thy door open by six inches and keep thy best foot on the floor at all times, 5) Thou shalt not be surprised by anything the Lord Thy Zed doeth unto thee, 6) Thou shalt button thy top button in the presence of thy neighbors, 7) Thou shalt March faithfully and without hesitation into the Heavens. The March Baptists took the Seventh Amendment quite literally. After the Unification, the March Baptists did more for the push into space than any other Amercadians. March Baptists researchers developed ships and weapons, March Baptist workers built them, wealthy March Baptists financed the work. They poured credits and human fodder into the new Amercadian Space Brigade. They were not among the first to go into space, however. During simulated flights it was found that non-Baptist crewmembers (the majority) developed a tendency to repeatedly bash the heads of the March Baptists into large metal objects after only a few marbecs’ confinement in the small (by our standards) ships. Only after they began to build and launch their own mission-ships were March Baptists able to realize their god’s commandment. As of this writing, the March Baptists have missions on 938 planets and free-floating temples EVERYWHERE.”

Over 30 years the story has appeared in small and teasing installments. And where some of those bits were in color, all were physically shorter – they were a different aspect ratio altogether – on intended for a magazine format. Some have never been seen in color before I painted them. So to round off this attempt to share one of my great loves (and two years of my work), here are a couple of befores and afters (and please note the new panels that the greater page height allows!):