Thursday, December 15, 2016

How to Keep Your Illustrations Fresh

So I recently retired from doing Bible illustrations for Lifeway's Explore the Bible curriculum. Over the last three years I created 168 illustrations for it. Let's just say that I've become kind of an expert in drawing bearded men. (Note to self: write blog post on drawing beards.)

Over time, the art orders from Lifeway started to become repetitive. They required a lot of drawings of men preaching to crowds. Jesus, Paul, Peter, Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Eli, Aaron, etc., all preaching to groups of people. Additionally, they started asking me to draw scenes I had already drawn in previous years. I had to find fresh ways to approach the same subjects over and over again - both for the client's sake, and the sake of my own sanity.

Thankfully, Lifeway gave me complete artistic freedom as far as compositions and color palettes went, so I tried to see each illustration as a way to try out at least one new thing. By doing this, I learned a few tricks to keep my illustrations from looking repetitive.

Here are some of the techniques I used to keep things fresh:

1. Vary the camera angles. Everyone's natural tendency is to draw everything at eye-level perspective, because that's how we experience the world. But that's also the least dynamic perspective artistically, so I tried to avoid it. Sometimes this wasn't possible; for example if the art brief asked for a crowd of people AND a certain building in the background AND emotion visible on the main character's face, etc, sometimes a straight camera angle was just the best solution. But for simpler scenes, I tried to use some birds-eye (high angle) or worms-eye (low angle) perspectives when I could.

2. Vary the time of day. There's no reason that everything needs to take place mid-afternoon. I learned to rely on sunrises and sunsets as easy ways to bring bright colors into an otherwise dull setting. Even when a scene had to take place at a specific time of day, there was still room to experiment. For example, in the Easter illustrations below, the color palettes are very different but they all give the feeling of early morning.

3. Vary the cropping. I learned that by using a combination of various perspectives and cropping, I could make the same scene look and feel differently. Both of the illustrations below are of King David and the prophet Nathan speaking together. In the one on the left, the close crop puts the emphasis on their relationship and body language. The one on the right is more about the setting.

4. Vary the light and shadows. Just as not every scene has to take place in mid-day, not every scene has to be lit by flat, soft light. I learned to use dramatic spotlights and shadows as a way of breaking things up and highlighting important characters. When I compare my older paintings with my newer ones, across the board the lighting became more interesting.

5. Play with symbolism. Friends sometimes ask me if I ever hid anachronisms in Bible scenes, like someone in a crowd talking on a cell phone. Nope. I did find ways to entertain myself by adding subtle visual symbolism. If a character was experiencing doubt or sadness, I would cast shadows over them - for example, in the Adam & Eve scene below. (Bonus - there's a hint of snake hiding in the foliage!) The second illustration is Jesus on His way to preach the Sermon on the Mount, so I added some sparrows and "lilies of the field" to the environment. The third illustration is the scene where Jesus refers to Himself as "Living Water," so I depicted him wearing blue, and the environment becomes greener as it gets closer to him. The art director didn't ask for these, and possibly never even noticed, but including these little "Easter eggs" was fun for me.

Wow, I didn't realize I had quite so much to say about this! In summary, I learned that there are always new ways to visually tell a story. That's the awesome thing about art. Unlike math, where there is only one solution and one correct way to reach that solution, in art there are infinite solutions, and the more you try new variations, the more compelling your solutions will be.

TL;DR : math is stupid.


  1. HAH your last line! Anyway love this post and your insight into how to keep your illustrations fresh! :)

  2. Those were lucky kids who got your drawings! I'll bet most artists wouldn't have put half so much effort into it.

  3. Haha wow I've loved reading all your posts, all your thoughts and processes. (I came here from Storybird – I love your artwork!)

    Hehe, yes it is wonderful what you can weave into art! I like both maths and drawing, (along with many other things to be clear, well, learning and creating in general) I admit I couldn't help commenting that with maths there are many approaches to a problem if anything XD (and I use maths for making art) but anyways, it is indeed lovely hearing about that beauty of art in storytelling, and also all your other tips!

    I was excited to see you were still updating this when I decided to randomly visit today, and also I was encouraged after seeing you read each comment hehe :) anyways all the best with everything!

    1. Thanks for your comment, t1! I guess I never got far enough in math in school! :)

    2. Hi Kelley! I can't believe I saw this only now while coming to this page again (ah seems like there were no notifications) but that doesn't matter, I'm glad I wandered back here. Looking through it again, I really want to express that I love hearing about the thoughts going into your artwork, especially things like the part about the environment becoming greener as it approaches Jesus in this post. (I think that's so awesome, what lovely touches)

      And haha drawing is something I love too and, if anything, reading about your story gives me faith and comfort – moving from your other job, going to art school and what you're doing now. (I'm at a point where I'm having doubts about what to do next about future and those worries) I'm really glad hearing about what you've done.

    3. I know how it feels to be in a place where you have doubts about the future and wondering what to do next. I'm glad that my story can give you some hope.


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