The Origin of Illustrations

October 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

For a while now I’ve been wanting to do a post where I lay out my idea development process for illustrations, particularly the maps. Now that I’ve made a few illustrated maps, I’m becoming more self-aware about the considerations I need to weigh at different stages in the process and that’s helping me make slightly better decisions slightly faster (what a relief!).

So naturally, things always start out at the tiny idea phase. The common ancestor of all illustrations is the scribble. Scribbles begin to appear on receipts, ticket stubs, memo pads and other available writing surfaces near me and eventually migrate into my sketchbook, where they multiply and compete for valuable page space. I tend to revisit the same ideas several times in a sketchbook, and by a process of natural selection the strongest ones rise to the top. These are the scribbles that, for various reasons, have the most potential in being developed into full-on finished pieces.

I then take that idea through an in-depth sketch process, which usually involves at least three “rounds,” getting gradually more finalized each time. For my USA Road Trip map, I went through roughly four sketch rounds:

1sketchprocess

As the sketching happens, I shift from focusing on content in the beginning (what’s my concept? what does each part do to strengthen the concept?) to focusing on compostion (space, scale, balance, and designing the look of each element). In this case, I started with a pretty general idea – “USA map” and sketched whatever I wanted until I felt it was pretty clear that what I really wanted to make was a USA Road trip map. The thing about the maps is that there’s just too much stuff – landmarks, cultural highlights, food, modes of transit, animals, and so on – that I find it’s useful to clarify a more specific concept for the map, rather than just plopping random images down on the appropriate places. For this map in particular, I wanted to avoid feeling too constrained by geographical correctness, and I definitely didn’t want to be fussing over state borders or trying to find a symbol for each state. I wanted to have a nice flow of negative space, a balance of larger and smaller scale elements and a variety of elements that would look great at small scale. I also wanted to tell the story of a road trip and all the little moments someone might experience traveling around the USA by car. Going through a thorough sketch process helped me get clear on these goals, which provided me with a framework for all my decision making.

The tough part comes when I have too many ideas – or an idea that doesn’t really fit into the bigger picture. Refining means letting stuff go, stuff that I’m really excited about but will have to save for another time. In the case of the map, I had a lot more ideas for little icons that would have been cool but I just didn’t have the space on the map for them. Or sometimes, they seemed repetitive when placed into the larger composition – that’s how the Rocky Mountains got booted – too many natural landmarks concentrated in the west on the map.

Also, it’s helpful to remember what the final use is going to be, and what scale it’s going to be see at. I created this map as a promotion piece that I’m going to print on jumbo sized postcards – 8.5 x 5.5 inches. Not a lot of space. I tried to do as much of the sketching at that scale so that I have a real idea of how its going to look as a product.

Then, finally I can start my favorite part(s): color and paint!

2color

3paint

I almost always paint in pieces, since that makes it easy to make color, scale and position adjustments in Photoshop later. There’s almost always a few last minute changes, due to my evolving idea or the needs of my clients. For this map I made a last-minute decision to change the position and style of the title lettering:

4almostdone

And then, there’s always the final touches that make it seem final. Now, this scribble has become a higher life form!

5final

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