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Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade

Delving into the toolbox of the contemporary illustrator and looking at the process behind the images

Most of us are familiar with what are now considered ‘traditional techniques’ used by artists. You yourself would have most probably dabbled in a bit of drawing and painting at school, and may even know what lino cut, etching, or screen printing involves. However, look at any of the multitudes of illustrations we are surrounded by today, and you may struggle to pinpoint how exactly that image was created and what instruments were used.

How do contemporary illustrators create their designs and what is in the modern tool box?
The reason it may be difficult to deconstruct the process behind an illustration today is because they often involve a combination of various things. Of course, everyone is different and there are as many ways of working as as there are styles. But it is worth taking a look at what tools are available, how they are used and why.

It would probably be obvious to most that to talk about about contemporary illustration techniques you should start with computers and the emergence of digital illustration.

Computers and other electronics completely changed the landscape for illustrators, not only because of what became stylistically possible, but because of what it meant for time and efficiency. ‘Ctrl+Alt+Del’ is part of nearly everyone’s vocabulary nowadays, and it is this ability to undo actions without consequence that makes computers so useful for editing and exploring multiple ideas while an illustrator works.

Graphics tablets have also played their part in the ease and practicality of digital illustration, with Wacom being the most popular brand. With a graphics tablet, illustrators can ‘draw’ or ‘paint’ directly into their computer using a large touch pad and ‘pen’ or ‘digital brush’.

In the modern world, even those who work solely in something like pencil or watercolour will have to involve computers at some point, even if that only means scanning the finished piece in to be emailed or sent for digital reproduction. Because of this, the use of computers and graphics software is now taught as standard as part of visual communication courses.

If we are talking about imagery that is created digitally from scratch, however; there are two things you need to know. With 3D rendering and animation programs aside, the most popular art packages fall into one of two categories: bitmap or vector applications. Thanks to the widespread use of airbrushing, most people have heard of Adobe Photoshop. You could say that Adobe Illustrator is its sister application.

Photoshop is the most commonly used bitmap computer software. You may have heard the word ‘pixel’ before, especially with the growing popularity of retro pixel art styles. Pixels are at the core of how Photoshop and other programs like it work. Visual information is stored digitally in fixed rows and columns of tiny squares, or ‘pixels’. This is the kind of program you would use to edit photography, and thus the term being “Photoshopped”.

Another commonly used term is something being “pixelated”. This happens when there is a problem with the DPI (dots per inch) or PPI (pixels per inch), basically the amount of pixels there are, but that’s a whole other can of worms we probably don’t need to go into.

Adobe Illustrator works in a completely different way, however. As with Photoshop and pixels, vectors provide the basis for Illustrator’s system.

When working with vectors, visual information is created via mathematical formulae that produce a line or shape, known as ‘paths’, as well as any additional information about colour and applied effects etc. One of the main benefits to vector-based designs is that, as formulae, the images can limitlessly be increased in size without suffering any kind of degradation like pixelation.

However, even though the two kinds of program work so differently, digital images can incorporate both formats quite easily. A pixel-based image can include a vector layer and vice versa, which brings us to how most illustrators work today.

While it can be said that there was a sharp increase in the use of completely digitally created illustration as the technology became readily available a couple of decades ago, illustration of recent years has come almost full circle. There are of course many illustrators that still work using only vectors, but the combination of that with hand-made imagery is becoming fairly common.

The ways in which illustrators work today seem to be shifting into two different camps. There are those that are embracing cutting edge technology, experimenting with various CGI and interactive media, and then there’s a kind of push against that. While no one can deny the practicality of working digitally, there are many illustrators that try and incorporate more traditional mediums into their work. They will scan in hand-made marks in pencil, ink or paint, the textures from pages of old books, or whatever they can find to mask the polished finish of digital illustration.

There are also illustrators that are going that one step further and moving away from the computer completely for the majority of their process. These illustrators are going back to craft and looking for that sense of ‘working with your hands’ again. You can see illustrators today working with woodwork, ceramics, paper craft, cloth weaving, tapestry, and a lot more.

So what will happen to the modern illustrator’s process as technology continues to evolve and become increasingly affordable? If anything, it’s possible these two attitudes to the relationship between art and technology will only keep growing.

There will always be illustrators that take the newest and most exciting technologies, be it 3D printing or virtual reality, and do something new and creative with them. Then there will be the illustrators who will move in the opposite direction, in a way trying to rediscover the ways people worked in the pre-digital generations.

Whatever their process involves, technology can only provides artists with different tools. It’s an illustrator’s artistic talent and creativity that we enjoy, no matter what has been used to get it onto the page or onto the screen. An illustrator’s most useful instrument is their brain, and always will be.

Written by Philip Dennis

Top left: Berto Martinez— watercolour.
Top centre: Dan Foster— vector.
Top right: Martin Sati— vector.
Bottom left: Sam Gilbey— digital painting.
Bottom centre: Carne Griffiths— mixed media.
Bottom right: Tara hardy— mixed media.