Studies and sketches leading up to a final illustration (montage)

The Difference Between Drawing and Illustrating

Why I Don’t Illustrate How I Draw

This is a drawing:

A drawing of a runner in the desert (2021). Mechanical pencil on paper (digitized).

And this is an illustration:

An illustration of a runner in the desert (2021). Digital illustration.

You might like one more than the other. You might see one as being more artistic than the other. Or showing more skill.

It depends on what you mean, and what you are looking for in an “art” piece.

The first image is a drawing from a photo. I drew my friend Ryan, running the Javelina Jundred, an ultra marathon through the Arizonian desert. I looked at the photo and draw what I saw. There is definitely a certain amount of skill involved. I had to know how to hold my pencil. I had to make decisions about which details to draw, and which to leave out. I had to measure proportions with my eyes. There is also a certain amount of stylization. While the drawing is representational, it does take certain liberties with shape and line. There is also a velocity to the line quality itself. All in all, the drawing, while not necessarily the best in the world, has some artistry to it.

The Difference Between Drawing and Illustration

Why then would I not consider it an illustration? To answer my own question, it’s because it is drawn directly from the reference. There is no concept to it. If it has any idea at all, the idea already existed in the photo. No conceptual value was added through the act of drawing. More importantly, I needed the photo to make the image. I could not have made the image without the photo. That’s all well and good if that was all I ever had to do as an illustrator. If my job was re-creating photographs through drawing, then this heavy reliance on references would be acceptable. My job, however, is to express ideas through images. Sometimes, that means devising entire scenes that don’t exist. Sometimes that means isolating one object and using it to represent a clear idea. Every time, I need to be able to “draw” my ideas in a style that is consistent, and always, the ideas must come through clearly. And always, my ideas must come in time for me to meet my deadlines.

The illustration in this example adds a layer of value that the drawing cannot. There is something created that didn’t exist before.

The second image is what I would consider an illustration. This is based on the same photo, but I did not need the photo to draw it. This time, I had the idea of the photo in my mind, but then I used techniques beyond mere drawing to render it. I had to think about what the illustration was about. I had to think about what was most important to represent. I had to think about how to put this all together on the page. While in the drawing I just looked at a photograph and drew what I saw, this time, I had to have an idea and represent it. While this second image is still representational, it editorializes the situation altogether, meaning I made changes to what was being represented in the photograph to suit my artistic intention. Specifically, here, I flipped the view so we see the runner from the other side. I put a lot of emphasis on the legs, which was based on a conversation Ryan and I had before making the image. I changed colours from the original photograph.

The reference image (From Ryan’s Instagram profile)

I minimalized the surrounding environment so as to become secondary to the running figure. I reduced the background to a few key objects to set the scene. Nothing is naturalistically represented; each object is reduced to a symbol, still recognizable but decidedly unrealistic.

If I had to re-draw my friend without looking at the photo, it would look a lot more like my illustration than the first drawing (first image above). However, if I had to re-illustrate it, I could probably repeat the result with higher fidelity to the first illustration (second image above). That is because the forms and ideas are based on information stored in my memory. I have a repertoire of stylistic elements, shapes, and symbols that I can piece together on demand, fairly regularly. My style—my line and shape quality, textures, mannerisims, use of colour, and technique—is like a building set. As long as I have an idea to draw and some visual information about my subject, I can build an image that both represents the idea and is consistent with my other work.

Illustration is About Originality, Not Artistry

The illustration in this example adds a layer of value that the drawing cannot. There is something created that didn’t exist before. There is also a signature of the artist, a way of building up the image that is unique. Anyone with half-decent art skills can draw from a photo. I’m not saying those drawings don’t have value or aren’t special in themselves, but the overall idea of the image remains the same. More importantly, only the photographer owns the original idea of that exact moment being captured. For illustrators, one of the dangers of being dependent on reference photos is that you risk violating copyright. You risk being a plagiarist. This could result in a slap on the wrist, or it might result in litigation. In my experience, however, it always results in feeling not quite in control of my art. In order to have higher artistic control over my work, I need to have as much autonomy over my source material as possible. While I do reference photos all the time, I never simply translate the photos through drawing. I cannot have the outcome of my creative process so dependent on the availability of a specific photo or scene to reference.

The hardest thing to reconcile about my drawing versus illustrating approach is that, if I’m honest, sometimes I like the drawing better. Sometimes others will like how you draw better than how you illustrate.

The hardest thing to reconcile about my drawing versus illustrating approach is that, if I’m honest, sometimes I like the drawing better. Sometimes others will like how you draw better than how you illustrate. So what do we do? Should we push ourselves to illustrate more how we draw? Perhaps there is a way to internalize more visual information so we can illustrate more how we draw without being dependent on reference images. If you’re able to do this, I tip my hat to you and say go for it. I might even be jealous. But that’s not what I have been able to do. Instead, I compartmentalize drawing and illustration. I see how each has a different purpose and works toward different kinds of goals. I have found ways of using both in my process. I know how to rely on each, and what I can expect of them. I know that my commercial style, which is less spontaneously expressive than my drawings, is more reliable, and it’s more repeatable. It’s something I can promise and deliver upon. I can’t do that with my more observational, from-reference drawing style. My drawings are for me. And very occasionally I am able to use this art form commercially. But illustration is for my clients and my audiences. It’s fun, it’s recognizable, it’s repeatable. It’s just a different form of art, based on what I know about myself, my strengths and my weaknesses. At the end of the day, how I illustrate is a choice, based on well-founded ideas of who I am and what I can bring, creatively, to my clients.

I do not mean to disparage drawing, or illustrators who prefer to work more directly from references or in more representational, literal styles. We must all find what works for us, what gives us joy, and go with that. But I do suspect that a lot of tension that artists experience comes in this space between their drawing abilities and their commercial style of working. And I believe the solution is to give each kind of image-making a proper place in their process.

Drawing is an almost universal skill. Most people enjoy drawing when they are kids but simply stop when other interests displace it. We could all benefit from drawing more. Ideally, we would be taught more about how the act of drawing is more important than the product. It seems to me that we are only taught about drawing as “art”, such that those whose art yields the most pleasurable result are encouraged to keep going, while everyone else sees no value in what they draw, nor the process of drawing itself. For the artist themselves, whether a drawing looks great or not is besides the point. It’s what they see while drawing that really matters.

The illustrator’s true skill is not in how they draw but in how they translate what they see into expressive, communicative symbols. Regardless of the illustrator’s drawing abilities, the more important skill is their ability to transform the everyday into something new.

To learn more about how I compartmentalize drawing and illustration, and how I use drawing as a step along the way towards illustration, I talk about this in depth in my Skillshare class, Drawing Toward Illustration. I’ve also written more on the topic of why I illustrate the way I do here on Medium.

Illustrator. Creatively Empowering Teacher/Speaker. Represented by Making Pictures/UK & Dot Array/USA. Top Teacher on @skillshare.