When a picture is worth a thousand words

When a picture is worth a thousand words 1

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“When you make illustrations, you’re supposed to have a subtext; you’re not just communicating words – you’re actually adding another story altogether.” – Peggy Rathmann

In the beginning was the word. But before that there were cave drawings and cuneiforms and hieroglyphics, and which morphed into the alphabet and the word. So, in a sense, illustrations (in the sense of hand drawings, paintings and now, digital art) have been with us since man first walked on earth.

That notwithstanding, as an artform, illustrations call for far more thought in their use and generation. Unlike copy which can be redrafted easily or photos procured from stock galleries which are interchangeable, illustrations are more demanding to produce and take more time. Better to get them right in the first place and save a gallon of heartache and dollars in the process.

So, why illustrations? First, they reinforce one’s message as contained in the copy – be it an ad, a publication or a how-to manual. Second, they give the eyes some relief, acting as a breather following a long chunk of text. In addition, they provoke conversation on current issues – the subtler, they merrier – more so, when in the form of caricatures. Lastly, they can also be used as a mascot à la Eustace Tilley, The New Yorker’s dandy or to adorn the cover page.

A good place to start when it comes to illustrations, naturally, is the brief. What is the intended effect of the illustration or illustrations? In the case of a publication whose narrative is to be acted out in the form of a comic book, what is the storyline? Does the dialogue appearing in the various panels need to be tightened such that the action can be illustrated more impactful? Then again, who are the intended readers of the publication? Such differentiation, say a children’s picture book versus an adult book, goes a long way in aiding the illustrator develop relevant illustrations.

Next is style. As the author, what types of illustrations do you have in mind to anchor your copy. As always, it is advisable to shop round. Perhaps, scour the repertoire of your favourite cartoonist and whose contacts can be gleaned from the local dailies. Alternatively, with our increasingly interconnected world, look for an illustrator online. Definitely, the kind of illustrator you employ will heavily influence your story by way of tone or mood, perhaps, by his or her choice of characters tasked with narrating your story. And while we are on the subject of choosing an illustrator, it goes without saying that a detailed contract will ensure fruitful engagement both ways.

Characterisation is important too when it comes to illustration. The characters so developed – as protagonists and antagonists – in telling your story have to be deliberate. Do they play into stereotypes? And if yes, is this intentional? If not, it might be a good idea to recast your characters at the sketching stage. Ideally, devoid of stereotyping, the actions of the characters should be their markers as to whether they are good or bad, heroes or villains. Of course, subject to the choices they face and the reader’s own perception.

Lastly, illustrations should observe that cardinal of rules as pertains to storytelling: Show, don’t tell. As it is said, pictures are worth a thousand words. As such, illustrations have the power to show the whole range of human emotions and experiences at a glance: shock, horror, devastation, a smile and so on. All that is needed is a little bit of ingenuity and collaboration between the author and the illustrator to develop hard-to-forget, thought provoking pieces of art.