Sunday, September 10, 2023

Visual Problem Solving Explained

When it comes to solving problems and thinking up ideas, there has been a long running debate as to whether these skills must be an intrinsic, instinctual, “creative” talent within a person; or whether creative problem solving be achieved as a learned intellectual ability. For professional visual problem solving illustrators, designers, or artists it is a bit of both. Either way, it is a necessary requirement for anyone considering a career as a creative visual artist.

Professional illustrators usually don’t have the time or luxury to wait for that lightening stroke of inspiration to materialize a brilliant idea. Most of us have to work at it, that’s what makes illustration a profession. And just about every illustrator I know has a different way of solving a problem to complete a job. I’ve heard of many methods for getting the creative juices flowing, from taking a shower, to running in the park, to staying up straight for 40 hours, to eating pizza after midnight, to prayer, and to even asking pets for advice, seriously. All this in the hopes of getting a great idea.

When asked how he always had great ideas for illustrations, Seymour Chwast replied, “ I don’t always get great ideas, I just never show anyone the bad ones.” When animation director, Chuck Jones, was asked the same question, he replied with one word, “fear”. The fact of the matter is we all get ideas all the time about everything, and we do get ideas for the illustration projects we are commissioned. The problem occurs when it comes to the quality of these ideas we get. And, as it was for Chuck Jones, the “fear” of not being able to come up with an idea or of getting a dreaded “mental block”.

The solution is to apply a working method to solve the problem posed by the assignment and client. Understanding the process of thought that is involved with solving a visual problem can be very useful for challenging assignments.

Whether illustrators are aware off it or not, they instinctively apply many of the following stages of problem solving in the process of working on an assignment. The following is a process for generating ideas and avoiding mental blocks.

© 2013 Don Arday.

The Assignment (The Problem Stage)

Client Input
Usually a description with a collection of facts and information describing the assignment and the desired outcome. The assignment will probably be related in terms that are familiar to the client. Most likely the information will be in non-art terms and may involve marketing information and technical specifications. This is a good thing, as clients generally don't have knowledge of visual terminology. You may receive the assignment directly from the client or from an intermediary such as an art director or an account executive. Either way it won't be from an illustrator.

Reinterpretation of Client Input
To prepare for the process of “creative construction” it's necessary to translate the client's description into artistic terms that you can work with, i.e., a personal reinterpretation that applies to pictorial terms and ways of working to allow you to act on the assignment task and content. Reinterpretation will help identify any missing information the client overlooked in assigning you the job, in which case you can ask for further explanation, additional facts, or clarification.

© Don Arday.

Creative Construction (The Thought Stage)

Open Brainstorming
When you begin to think about a problem, it is important to record any and all ideas, thoughts associations, experiences, first impressions, etc. about the subject. The record of this activity may take the form of visual sketches, written words or short sentences. These will become the building blocks of further ideas. And it is absolutely critical you remain non-judgmental about the ideas you come up with, good, bad, ugly or even silly ones. Don’t disregard any ideas. Know that brainstorming is a very personal activity. At this stage the ideas generated are for you and you alone, and sometimes thoughts that are seemingly unusable may lead to ideas that are. Also, it is not sufficient to simply have the thoughts; they must be put on paper in one form or another. This process can be completed in a short period of time or it can take much longer.

Focused Brainstorming
This thought session involves searching for ideas independent of the first thought session, trying to expand the number of ideas to add to the material you already thought of to produce final sketches to present. The main difference is that this time you should relate all of your ideas to the assignment. Try to improve on your original set of ideas. Once again, try to avoid metal blocks by being to judgmental about your ideas. It's often our own judgmental expectations that stand in the way of our creative thinking. 

© 2013 Don Arday.

Research (The Education Stage)

Subject Research
One of the most interesting things about being an illustrator is all the things we learn about various subjects, in order to produce illustrations. You must familiarize yourself with the subject of your design problem. This will aid in eliminating stereotypical ideas you may have concerning the subject such as previously publicized phrases or visuals. At all times during this process you should be adding to your cache of ideas. Research is an important part of any problem solving process and should be part of your creative fee. Although I prefer to brainstorm ideas prior to researching facts, some illustrators prefer to proceed directly to the research stages before attempting any brainstorming.

Media Research
These days it is especially important to consider the media requirements of the assignment. You must become aware of the specific production processes, materials, and limitations that will influence the completion of your illustration. Budget also becomes an extremely important consideration here. This research will help you make visual and production decisions that will influence the look of your illustration. For example, a small, illustrated logo or icon will work better with a high key contrasting color scheme. Dark colors and subtle tones should be reserved for larger display formats. Also, an illustration that will appear on the web may require a different amount of detail and production resolution, than one that will be printed with a 200 line-per-inch screen on a sheet-fed offset press.

© 2013 Don Arday.

Evaluation (The Decision Stage)

Idea Review
Now it’s time to be judgmental. Idea review is the time to look for some personal benefit that might result from your choice of ideas. This is the stage where you assess all of your thumbnails and other recorded material and select those ideas you feel the most positively about. You can set your own personal criteria to judge the quality of the ideas, like which ones would enhance your portfolio, which ones will best suit your style, or make a great composition. Or you can place classifications on the ideas such as practical, attractive, unique, client suggested, etc.

Criteria Review
Consider the criteria given by the client. Re-evaluate your materials and relate them to the requirements of the problem reinterpretation. Search for unique qualities inherent in your ideas to bring attention to your client and even yourself, or ideas that may lend themselves to added benefits, such as a concept that is versatile or marketable. Criteria review is when you choose ideas that will benefit the client and cross-reference them with personally beneficial ones to choose which idea(s) to present. The idea(s) that will motivate you the strongest and you will be most excited to produce--a win, win situation.

© 2013 Don Arday.

Development (The Proposal Stage)

Idea Implementation
Now that you know exactly how you want to proceed with the assignment, obtain the specific visual references necessary to visualize your ideas. Begin the final sketch stage, all the while ironing out compositional problems. This is also the point where you should consider the actual working methods needed to produce the finished illustration that will be dictated by the sketch. It is advisable to plan out a logical schedule of action when the sketch is approved to save on time and any production answer questions the client may have.

Support Rhetoric
Sketches don’t sell themselves these days so it’s very important to provide some verbal support for your idea, whether it is spoken or written. Even though you may have provided verbal support, be prepared to justify all decisions concerning the idea and your sketch. It is not enough to be able to intuitively produce a pleasing idea. You must sell your idea clearly. The idea, in turn, will be sold again by whom ever you sell it to, especially if your client must present it to their superior or a constituent. See “10 Steps To Presenting Illustration Ideas Successfully”, posted on 12/11/12,

© 2013 Don Arday.

Production (The Finish Stage)

This is the stage where approved ideas are turned into finished illustrations and prepared for delivery and commercial production, most likely, as a digitized file. All the formal visual and media considerations are finalized at this stage; media, format, size, composition, color scheme, visual elements, digital resolution, file preparation and archiving, etc.

Final Review
You are finally finished. But are you? This is perhaps the most important stage prior to the release of the finished illustration, and the one illustrators most regret not doing. Take some time to look the final illustration over very carefully and make sure you are completely comfortable with all the decisions you’ve made. I call it the 5-Minute Rule, take 5-minutes to look over the work. If something “bothers” you, then correct it. It’s the last chance.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Thoughts on Illustration Style

Style is an important trait needed to achieve economic success as a professional illustrator. Illustration reps, clients and even fellow illustrators recognize, remember, and identify work by associating it, or attributing it to a particular style. Phrases are often used to describe the particular work of an illustrator like; “It’s sort of like…”; “It reminds me of…”; “It has the look of…”; It’s done with…”; and “It was for…”. These phrases are usually followed by; the media used; a technique; the name of a famous illustrator; an illustration genre, the name of a client, and/or a market. This is mainly done for the purpose of marketing or commissioning an illustrator by associating their work with the work of others that may already be familiar to a client or an audience.

© 2001 Don Arday

Three Schools of Thought on Style

Like anything else that involves illustrators and the marketing of illustration, there are differing opinions, or schools of thought on the subject of style and how style should be applied to an illustrator’s work. In addition to the three main schools of thought, there are also some fringe viewpoints such as the extreme belief that a style should be conceptualized before the illustrator creates any work at all. Much the same way a scriptwriter and director come up with a character’s role before it’s actually acted out. Another extreme belief is that an illustrator should define a restrictive color palette for their works and be confined to it. In other words, once a work in black and white, always a work in black and white, forever a black and white artist, or some other such visual tithing. A further view is that an illustrator should stick to one medium such as gouache, acrylic, or Adobe Illustrator. And yet another is that an illustrator should restrict themselves to one type of subject matter, such as automobiles, birds, pop stars, etc.

School One
The first school believes that every illustrator, and every artist for that matter, should display a commonality of style in their work. This could be one or more of the categories below or a particular attitude expressed in the work as a whole.

School Two
The second school believes that every illustrator should not only display an identifiable commonality of style in their work, but should possess qualities that are not only instantly identifiable, but are also unique, i.e., never been seen before.

School Three
The third school holds the opinion that an illustrator’s work should demonstrate a versatility of style, as manifested by the ability to execute a variety of techniques in several modes, and alternatively to produce works for a variety of markets.

Categories of Style

Style as interpreted by illustrators can mean several differing things. Illustration reps will often categorize bodies of work based on their ability to communicate and market a style. Clients will classify the style of an illustrator’s work based on their company's needs and desires. Although functional for marketing purposes, style categorizations made by non-artists, reps, and clients tend to be a bit basic and stereotypical in nature.

For some, style refers to the use of a specific media, such as scratchboard, watercolor, or pen and ink, etc. This happens particularly when the medium used plays a visually dominant role in an illustration. It also happens because it is an easy way to classify work.

A special note: At one point in time in the not too distant past, all digital illustration was simply known as digital illustration without regard to it’s visual appearance or any of the other categories below that serve to define an illustrators style. Digital raster paintings were not distinguished from hard edge vector works, montage, or dimensionally modeled imagery. The “shock of the new” regarding digital media overwhelmed any visual style that was apparent in the illustration itself. Happily, this is no longer the case, and digitally created works are classified by their visual traits and relative merits.

Taking it one step further, style can refer to a manner of mark making, such as the use of stipple or cross-hatch in pen and ink work; and for painting, the use of a palette knife, wet into wet, glazing, or spattering. Other methods include collage, vector art, etc.

This kind of stylistic categorization relates to the form and structure of compositional arrangements, such as geometric, organic, montage, dimensional, etc. Form, as a style, can also have identifiable elements, shapes and even color schemes such as the above example of the black and white artist.

Style can manifest itself as an artistic genre either past or present such as art deco, nouveau, constructivist, psychedelic, fantastic, street, urban, etc. Genres can also be regional or cultural such as manga or Japonism, etc. Stylistic genre can even be expressed in terms of “schools” such as the steam punk school, weird west school, and neo-Victorian school, etc.

Style can even be classified in reference to the purpose for an illustrated message. Examples of purpose categorizations are satirical, humorous, comic, caricature, scientific, botanical, medical, diagrammatic, or technical. Along with purpose, the markets illustration serves, such as high tech, fashion, children’s book, etc., are used to classify styles of work.


Perhaps the most important thing for an illustrator to know about having a style is that someone else will have to confirm whether the work has one. Unless of course, the illustrator deliberately attempts to acquire someone else’s style, and even this is a type of style known as pastiche. Although the determination of a style is more useful when referring to a body of work, it can also be attributed to a single work. Regardless of style, editors, art directors, publishers, clients, patrons, and fellow illustrators will attribute the desirability, and relevance of an illustrator's work.