A blank screen is scary enough, but many creatives find the process of refining and honing their artwork can be just as tough as coming up with ideas in the first place. Even if you find that ideas flow easily from your pen, transforming these rough nuggets into beautifully polished gems can be fraught and time-consuming.
Some claim that refining their art is all about gut feeling – you just know when work is heading in the right direction. For others, there’s a structured process for sorting the wheat from the conceptual chaff.
“When armed with hundreds of ideas, the impossible or irrelevant are first out, followed by predictable, clichéd and easy options, and those that already exist,” says Ben O’Brien, who’s better known as Ben the Illustrator (www.bentheillustrator.com).
From here, he sketches out the viable concepts: often it turns out that some just don’t work well on paper. These are also scrapped. “We then have a few ideas to present to a client. If there’s no client, we continue to work on the one that excites us most.”
O’Brien admits his approach is businesslike – “But we are a business, after all.”
Other creatives rely more on an emotional pull.
“When I’m working on ideas and sketches, I know I’m heading in the right direction if something makes me smile,” says editorial illustrator Noma Bar (www.dutchuncle.co.uk), whose images have appeared in The Economist, The Guardian, and The New York Times. He adds that what defines him as an illustrator is the meaning of his pieces, as well as simplicity of form.
“It’s like defining my own language, and the solutions must be part of me as well. When it comes, I feel it,” he says.
Bar says that he never picks a direction from the start – instead, he works up several ideas. “Once ideas have gone through my filter, I’ll narrow them down on feedback from others, such as art directors.”
Barcelona-based illustrator Pietari Posti (www.pposti.com) says that his art goes through many tiny changes. “I start with nothing, and then add and take away until I have a basic idea, and then work on the details, cutting here and there, until I don’t need to do more and like what I see.”
Claudia Cimpan (hyperhyphen.com), who is best known for her T-shirt designs, says she continues honing until she feels that “if you do more, you are ruining the work.”
Street art-inspired illustrator Kid Acne (kidacne.com) says it’s different for him. “A few years ago, I finally realized the linework in my sketches had more personality than my finished pieces, which had become a little contrived. Now I just redraw the bits I don’t like and stick them back together in the computer. The artwork has the quality of the sketches, but I get to choose the best bits.”
For him, the lesson is clear: refinement is important, but so is recognizing when you’re doing too much and should move on to the next stage.
Kid Acne adds that getting a second opinion on what your draft is missing can also be useful – “Although only if I value their opinion,” he admits. “I’m not bothered about trying to please everyone, but I do know I’m not always in the best position to see the bigger picture.”
Of course, it’s fine to have a method, but things don’t always go to plan.
“Sometimes, things don’t come together, or you go too far in the wrong direction and feel it’s too late to turn back,” says Seldon Hunt (seldonhunt.com), who’s best known for his music illustrations.
“I usually forge ahead and ‘rescue’ jobs, identifying what’s making a piece awkward. I’ll savagely delete areas or layers – sometimes destroying something opens up new directions, but maintains the essence of the original aesthetic.”
Occasionally, more drastic measures are needed.
“If you know your work doesn’t fit the project, you’ll lose its overall quality and also the idea, which in a bad light won’t look as good anymore,” says Cimpan.
Posti agrees that sometimes it’s best to move on: “You’ll have other opportunities to use your idea, even as a personal piece. There’s always a place for good ideas – you just have to find the right place.”
Sometimes there’s no way out of a tricky illustration corner but to slash and burn.
Cimpan says: “Whether you erase or rewind depends on how bad things are.”
O’Brien reckons that erasing is often best: “It can be heartbreaking, but if something doesn’t work, it’s out.”
He recalls a recent ad campaign made up of three illustrations: “We had one sure-fire idea good to go. On completion, it didn’t work in the series and no longer answered the brief, so we scrapped it.”
Although this approach can be upsetting, O’Brien says there’s an upside: “Clear your mind, get moving again and you’ll find starting afresh leads to the best, most original ideas – as long as you recognize where you went wrong.”
And what if all your careful refinements only lead you back to the dreaded blank screen? “Start thinking of new ways of working,” suggests Bar. “For example, I’m trying drawing with both hands, which is liberating when you’re usually stuck in one direction.”