Friday, April 12, 2019

Digital File Formats for Illustrators

As illustrators we use a few digital file formats in the course of the work we produce, and even though knowing about them is important, we tend to take them for granted. Especially when the software we are using offers up convenient default options for formatting and saving our files.

The Basics of File Extensions

Firstly, it is important to know what a file extension is. A file “name” extension is the suffix that is attached to a filename. For instance, My Illustration.tif, where “My Illustration” is the file name and “.tif” is the extension. The extension identifies the type of file I have saved. The important thing to note is that the file extension is the code that a software program will use to recognize and open the file. And in the case of the .tif extension, there are many software applications that can recognize and open a .tif file.

File extensions can be application specific, cross-program, or cross-platform.  Since each software application usually has its own file extension, there are tens of thousands of file extensions patented. Nowadays, the file extensions suffix is automatically attached to the file name. This is not only essential for a software program to recognize the file, but it is also very helpful for a user. Back in the day suffixes weren’t displayed, so one often had to go to “File Info” to check the format. In the too much information category, the longest file name extension registered at this time is the 25 letter + dot “.bejeweled2deluxesavedgame”. This doesn’t help when the total length a file name including the extension can be is limited to 255 characters.

This post is going to highlight cross program image based file extensions such as .tiff.eps,, etc.; rather than application native ones such as .AI (Adobe Illustrator) or .PSD (Adobe Photoshop Document) file formats. It is also going to focus on those that are most commonly used by illustrators.

The Reason for File Formats

In a nutshell, the purpose of a file format is to preserve the accuracy and appearance of a digital document for a desired context. That’s why it is very important to know the purpose, uses, and limitations that were designed into the various file formats to avoid usage mismatches or loss of data. For instance, saving a 24-bit RGB Adobe Photoshop document in a .gif format will reduce the number of colors from 16,777,216 down to 256, i.e., 24-bit down to 8-bit, which could have drastic consequences depending on the output requirements for the file.

The Formats

TIFF stands for “Tagged Image File Format”..tif files can be raster or vector based images. .tif supports black-and-white, grayscale, index color (256 color), RGB, LAB, and CMYK images and offers excellent compression options including  LZW (Lempel-Ziv-Welch) lossless compression. A .tif file embeds an ICC color space profile, which means many applications can access .tif files. .tif files can be reopened and edited. A non-flattened Adobe Photoshop .tif file will save layers, adjustment layers, channels, paths, and transparencies, but programs that can read a .tif may not be able to read all of the these features. Presently, Photoshop supports 16, 24, and 32-bit depth images.

JPEG stands for “Joint Photographic Experts Group”. The .jpg format operates strictly in the realm of raster imagery. .jpg produces lossy compression, which can result in a lessening of image quality. Vector graphic documents that are saved as .jpg files will be rasterized, resulting in a loss of their resolution independent scalability. There are two main reasons for using the .jpg format. The first use is to loose data. Now it sounds like this would be a bad thing, but in actuality, loosing data or shrinking a file can be very useful. For instance, you can create a high resolution illustration and retain an original file for many different uses. If one of those uses is to display that image on a website, you can compress the file by saving it in the .jpg format. The ,jpg format allows you to set the image quality, i.e., the image size, when you save your illustration, making it very small if needed. The second reason to use .jpg is that stores 24-bits per pixel, 16,777,216 colors for a realistic true color look. Most significantly, the .jpg format supports RGB, CMYK and grayscale color spaces.

JPEG low resolution color sample.
JPEG maximum resolution color sample.

EPS means “Encapsulated PostScript”. A format that was once quite popular, .eps encapsulates raster and vector image files in PostScript code. There are two main purposes for using an .eps format. One was to export an image that could be placed into another document, such as an illustration file that would be placed into a page layout program for final output. A placed .eps image retains its integrity; it can be scaled, but not resampled or content edited. .tif files can also be placed inside other documents and offer greater flexibility than .eps files. The other main purpose is to save a file in encapsulated PostScript to be output directly on a PostScript printer. .eps files can produce lossy compression in raster based applications like Photoshop.

PDF is the acronym for “Portable Document Format”.
Based on PostScript, it was developed by Adobe Systems as a highly compressed, efficient way to format documents for platform independent readability. Another hallmark of a .pdf file is that it will look the same on screen as it does in print. The .pdf format has several quality variations available. For instance, Photoshop offers “Press Quality”, for high quality output on an imagesetter or platesetter, however, the file is CMYK down sampled to 300ppi for efficiency. Another offering is “Smallest File Size” where the file is down sampled to low resolution RGB for use on the web. .pdf is useful for saving page layout files with single or multiple pages with images,  text, fonts, graphics, and multimedia content. .pdf has grown greatly in popularity due to it’s extreme usefulness for viewing documents on all sorts of platforms like the iPad, iPhone, etc.

GIF is the abbreviation for “Graphics Interchange Format”. It is a raster image format that maxes out at 8-bits per pixel RGB, or 256 colors. At one time the .gif format was the most popular format for saving files for use on web documents. Due to its limitation on colors it is not generally used for full color illustrations or photography, although .gif is an excellent format for certain purposes such as illustrated icons and graphics with limited color schemes.

GIF 256 color sample.
GIF 256 color sample with maximum pixel dithering.

PNG stands for “Portable Network Graphics”. Preceded by .gif, the .png format has all but replaced .gif for use by illustrators when converting images for the web. .png is known for lossless compression in a raster image format. Another advantage over .gif is that the .png format comes in two sizes; PNG-8 or 8-bit per pixel, and PNG-24 or 24-bit per pixel; 256 colors and 16,777,216 colors. PNG-24 can handle full color illustrations and photographs while PNG-8 is better suited for limited color images. One limitation of .png is that it only supports the RGB color space. For this reason .jpg is the preferred format for full color images, but .png may be a better choice for illustrations that use a limited color pallet or solid colors.

PNG-8 color sample, 256 colors.
PNG-24 color sample, 16,777,216 colors.

The SVG file type is primarily associated with “Scalable Vector Graphics”. SVG is a language for describing two-dimensional shapes, text, and embedded raster graphics. Although not a natively supported by Adobe, SVG images can be created and exported from Adobe Creative Suite programs, such as Illustrator for use on the web. SVG is ideal for interactive, data-driven, personalized graphics. It is widely supported by modern web browsers.

Best Usage Summary

.tif – For CMYK illustrations for commercial printing
.tif – For RGB/CMYK illustrations for high quality desktop output
.tif – For CMYK illustrations placed in other application files
.jpg – For RGB/CMYK full color raster illustrations for desktop output or web
.eps – For illustrations for output on a PostScript device
,pdf – For illustrations for emailing, digital display or desktop output for proofing
.png – For illustrations with limited color for the web (PNG-8)
.png – For full color illustrations for the web (PNG-24)
.svg – For two-dimensional vector graphics for the web

One Final Word

For archiving I recommend using the native application file format and .tif. As long as applications are updated to be upwardly compatible, the native file format will be best. I use the .tif format for insurance.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Arranging A Professional Illustration Portfolio

So now that you have prioritized a goal, or list of goals you would like to accomplish.’ve decided what it is you would like your portfolio to do for you, in other words, you have a strategy in mind. And…you’ve selected the format, or formats, you feel you will need to be prepared to achieve your goals. And…you’ve taken advantage of resources that are available to provide the best portfolio formats for what you need. And…you have acquired the portfolios, equipment, software, output papers, etc. And…you have created a body of work to choose from, which actually was the first hard part. Now comes the next hard part, which is selecting and arranging the work you wish to present.

© 2013 Don Arday.
The proper arrangement of your work can have a profound effect on the reviewer who looks at it. So it is important to spend time selecting, revising, and reviewing the order in which you place your work. In galleries and museums there is actually a person who’s job it is to do just that, the curator. You must think of your portfolio as a sort of traveling exhibition or gallery, with you taking on the job of a curator. Your portfolio will be putting on a show for the reviewers, whether you will be present as the master of ceremonies or not.

Coming up with the right arrangement for your work can be more difficult than it may seem. What makes it difficult is the fact that there are no hard and fast rules to doing it. However, there are some guidelines that can be quite helpful, and those guidelines ring true when it comes to how a portfolio is reviewed in reference to a reviewer’s attention span. So forthwith are some suggestions and points to consider when arranging your work for your portfolio.

Subject Matter

The display of subject matter is an extremely important consideration when sequencing work. Although color schemes, picture formats, and style traits will influence the opinion of a reviewer, subject matter, a.k.a. image content, is the number one center of their attention. A reviewer will examine all aspects of the illustrations for their content. For realistic illustrations, they will note the figures or characters shown; how they are dressed; their posture and expression; the setting they are placed in; the objects that are situated within the setting; the attitude, mood, and atmosphere that is being visualized; the narrative the illustration is communicating; etc. For more stylized, non-figurative, or technical forms of illustration, reviewers will focus on composition; the representation or stylization of forms; the choice of elements or objects included; the juxtaposition of objects; if idea based, the concept the illustration is communicating; etc.

Depending on what the overall desired purpose of the portfolio may be, the selection and arrangement of subject matter can vary greatly. Still, for general showing situations it is best to include a range of subjects and settings. Alternatively, showing illustrations produced for different clients or purposes is another way to show a range of imagery. Even in situations where an illustrator’s work is extremely specialized, it is possible to present it to its best advantage by separating like images from one and other in the portfolio sequence. It is particularly important to avoid any kind of qualitative comparison. For example, let’s say that an illustrator has two portraits of famous musicians in their portfolio. If the portraits are shown adjacent to one and other, or one after the other, a reviewer will invariably pass judgment on them by picking the one they feel to be most successful, thus diminishing the value of the other one. It is also important to avoid any quantitative figuring. In other words, avoid giving a reviewer the opportunity to note that your portfolio has five of one type of illustration and only one of another type.

Color Schemes

Color schemes are an important indicator of the visual range that an illustrator possesses. So an illustrator that uses the same color palette over and over again will be less attractive than one that shows versatility when it comes to color usage. Now, as illustrators and artists, we are predisposed to favor certain color and color treatments, and that is perfectly alright, but when it comes to the arrangement of works in a portfolio, there is no need to overemphasize this by, lets say, placing all the cool colored pieces together, and likewise grouping all the warm colored ones, or any other specific color schemed works together in the portfolio. By disbursing the order of works with similar color palettes, a portfolio can appear to present a greater range of breadth concerning color. If works that use a similar color palette are shown in an adjacent order, a reviewer will get the impression that the illustrator has a distinct color bias.

Series Works

A series is comprised of two or more illustrations produced for one assignment, like a brochure, a storybook, an editorial article; or illustrations produced for a set of like assignments, such as a book jacket series, poster series, etc. There are two common misconceptions when it comes to showing an illustrated series in a portfolio. The first is that the entire series must be shown, and the second is that the series must be shown together and in order. Almost invariably, a series, and especially a series that is comprised of several pieces, is going to have one or more pieces that are not as successful as others in the series. Although the thought of editing a series is a hard pill to swallow, it will not only strengthen the appearance of the series, but also the look of the overall portfolio.

Even harder than editing a series down to its best pieces, is the notion of splitting up the series when sequencing the works in a portfolio. A series shown all together has a tendency to interrupt the natural progression of how a reviewer moves from one illustration to another. Also, a series of work shown together is apt to become a dominating part of a portfolio, its own section so to speak. I have seen portfolios that contain 15 pieces total that included two series of 4 pieces each. Shown in succession it called attention to the fact that the illustrator was only presenting 9 assignments. In this instance, the progression of work in the portfolio would have appeared much more even by splitting up one or both of the series.

Style Traits

Many illustrators have a style, and within that style there is usually a range of variation. This is only natural since as illustrators we are constantly striving to improve on our craft. These subtle variations that occur naturally in the work should be recognized and considered when arranging a portfolio. One example of a stylistic variant could be an evolution of the color palette that an illustrator uses. Another may involve a deliberate stylistic adjustment to suit the display space an illustration is produced for, e.g., simplifying a color palette for an illustration that will be published on the web, or using a higher keyed color scheme with less detail for an illustrated logo. It is perfectly acceptable for marketing reasons to include these types of variants in a single portfolio.

For young illustrators who are still exploring several manifestations of their style, it is particularly important to present work that embodies this exploration in a manner that actually emphasizes its variety. This also applies to service illustrators who work in many styles.


There are three choices regarding the page orientation of a portfolio; 1) landscape; 2) portrait; or 3) a square. The rule of thumb is to go with the picture orientation that is most predominant in your work. So, if you do a lot of full-page editorial work, the portrait format is probably best. If you illustrate scenic landscape settings then the landscape format will work best. The idea behind choosing an orientation is to allow for each image to be displayed at a respectable size. That may be all well and good, but which orientation should you choose if your illustrations are both portrait and landscape in nature? The simplest solution would be to go with a square shaped portfolio. It may be the simplest, but from a practical standpoint it isn’t the easiest. A square portfolio would most likely have to be custom built, and digital displays, like tablets, simply aren’t made to be square, so for reasons of practicality, most illustrators choose either portrait or landscape.

Having made the choice one way or another, work that doesn’t match the orientation of the portfolio is somewhat compromised when seen in the wrong setting. For instance, a landscape-oriented illustration that is displayed on a portrait-oriented page will appear much smaller and somewhat less significant than the portrait illustrations that fit the format so well. There are two alternatives to correct this situation; 1) make all the portrait illustrations smaller to match the size of the landscape illustrations; or 2) position the landscape oriented illustration on its side. This will require the portfolio to be turned by a reviewer to view the landscape piece. Obviously, neither is a great solution. I recommend the second alternative, and here’s why. The illustration is more important than the portfolio, in other words the most important consideration is to make the illustration look the very best it can. By turning it sideways, the illustration can be shown at the same scale as the other portrait-oriented works, and it will be larger and more impressive on its individual page.

Nitty-Gritty Considerations

In addition to the overriding arrangement considerations that have already been discussed, there are a number of other considerations that are nonetheless as important.

1. The scale areas of the illustrations displayed should approximate one and other. Since nearly all illustrations have different proportional dimensions, this may require size adjustments to individual illustrations to make them appear consistent. Illustrations that appear larger will also be interpreted as having more importance.

2. Illustrations that are displayed adjacently, or that follow one after the other, should compliment each other. Strive to achieve some sort of visual or contextual transition.

3. Illustrations should be displayed at a respectable scale. White space or border should not dominate the “real estate of the page”.

4. Original artwork should never be incorporated into a portfolio. However, an original or two can accompany a portfolio when there is an in-person interview.

5. Illustrations should be accompanied by, but not dominated by, text that provides information about the illustration to support it for situations when you are not present.

6. The name of the illustrator should be on each page or file in case a reviewer removes individual illustrations from the portfolio.

7. Logos or identity imagery that appears on a page along with an illustration should be treated in a manner whereby it does not compete or diminish the illustration it accompanies. A small graphic or monogram can work to reinforce branding, but if too large or placed improperly, it can also cause a visual distraction.

8. Limit the number of orientation changes, or turning of the portfolio that may be required on the part of the reviewer. In other words, group several portrait or landscape oriented illustrations together to minimize turning. Note: For digital tablets, it may be advisable to lock the page orientation so the images will remain in one constant position.

9. Know whether the choice of illustrations and their arrangement in the portfolio will have to be changed frequently, or can remain constant. Some illustrators create different arrangement schemes to suit different types of interviews or clients.

10. Be very selective, “less, is more”. If two or more illustrations are demonstrating a particular subject, then consider choosing only one of them to represent it. The same goes for demonstrating certain skills, showing specific clients, etc.

11. Smaller illustrations, like spot illustrations, should be grouped together on one page provided they relate to, or compliment one and other.

Some Handy Arrangement Tips

1. Lay the illustrations out in a space that will allow them to be seen all at once to view them gallery style. It will be much easier to arrange and see how individual illustrations coordinate with one and other.

2. For purposes of analysis only, group illustrations by category, either by subject, color, style, series, or orientation, to recognize the similarities and differences among the illustrations.

3. After arranging the illustrations in order from beginning to end, reverse the order, and then review your choices again.

4. Go through the exercise of forcing yourself to eliminate one piece from your portfolio. By doing this, you can identify a work that may be unsuitable, or the first one to be replaced when you introduce a new illustration.

5. Consider sectioning for organizational purposes. This works well for portfolios that contain many pieces. Sections such as magazine, advertising, book, etc. could be established to help a portfolio appear easier to review and more organized to a reviewer.