Why Do I Illustrate the Way I Do?

The Strategy Behind Dumbing Down my Drawing Style

Kids often have a very different perspective on art than adults. Generally speaking elementary school-aged kids value realism more than abstraction. It’s actually for this reason that many kids give up drawing around 9 or 10 years of age: their drawing ability never keeps up with their expectations and taste for more realistic representation.

My children are seldom impressed with my illustration. It could be that it’s because their dad is an illustrator. Papa’s drawing again. Big deal. That’s okay by me, but I do get a little worried when they think I can’t actually draw. So every now and then I’ll do a little something to show them I have at least some chops. I want to impress them!

My youngest (age 7) was asking about how I draw hands. She said something about how when I draw hands they’re just very simple. We were looking at a colouring sheet that was drawn in a more realistic style. She commented on how good the hands were. I took the opportunity to do a live demonstration of how to draw hands in a more realistic way. Using my own hand as a model, I started blocking in the general shapes. And then defined the contours, first lightly, then more decisively. Impressed, she picked up my iPad and showed it to her sister (age 9). A little wiser and world-weary, the eldest matter-of-factly replied, “I know he can draw.”


Then my youngest asked a fair question. “Why don’t you draw like this more?”

It all makes sense in my head, but explaining it to a 7 year old is a test in my ability to clarify complex concepts. The best I could do was one of my favourite quips: “If I wanted a realistic picture of something, I could use a camera”.

Illustrated scene from The Castle the King Built (Nosy Crow, 2020)

She understood. “Your illustrations are meant to be more silly and fun”, she said.

But really, why don’t I illustrate in a more representative, naturalistic way? I certainly could if I wanted. This really comes down to the bigger question of having a style: why limit yourself to one set style when you could enjoy the freedom of doing many?

Why Don’t I Draw More Realistically?

It really comes down to one thing: to overcome the problem of having to copy reference images. When illustrating, I want to get right into building up ideas without having to get stuck on the details inherent to more realistic and naturalistic representation. For me, I care less about recording reality and more about telling a story or expressing an idea. While I do often gather up reference images along the way, I don’t want my ideas to be limited to the specific compositions or details of whatever I happen to find on the Internet. I don’t want to always be shooting reference photos of myself either (I used to do that a lot). Ultimately, I want to draw as much from imagination as possible. Toward this end, I have two options: develop skills in drawing more realistically from heart (through intensive study and practice), or develop a system of symbols and mannerisms, (i.e. a style) that I can more quickly call up when developing my ideas.

Because I am more idea-oriented, and less detail-oriented, I naturally opted for the second option. It just so happens, that, in my opinion, working in a more stylized and symbolic style is more conducive to expression of ideas anyway.

Illustrated beer label for Field House brewing Co.

Originality over Perfection

Aside from being able to draw from my imagination, more intuitively, a natural and highly desirable outcome is originality. Because I am leaning less on reference images, my images are never at risk of being imitative, either of photos or the illustration work of others. There was a long period in my early illustration career when I relied much more on reference images, both scavenged from the Internet and posed selfies. I would spend a lot of time trying to find the perfect image. If it didn’t exist, I would piece together something from a variety of images: maybe use this background and mix it with that woman, but swap out that guy with the other one, and then add the kid in the middle. Not only was the process of piecing together my references cumbersome, being so reliant on these forms and details, the compositions were naturally quite awkward. When you are using unnaturally composed sources, it’s hard to expect a natural feeling in the final composition. But more to my point, when I did find “perfect” images to draw from, the resulting illustration was too derivative. Someone else took that photo, which means that, technically, the general composition is someone else’s art. It may be copyrighted, or it might be free to use, but either way, whatever I made using it is not completely my own. I risk being busted for plagiarism, or, less likely but still a possibility, finding other illustrations based on the same reference.

Paul Rand once wrote, “Don’t try to be original; just try to be good.” I think what he meant was that, in the end, you’re not going to reinvent the wheel. Nothing you do will be totally original. Instead, it’s better to focus on being good at making good wheels. For artists and designers, it’s more important to be good at communicating ideas visually. But if I know my hero, Paul Rand, at all, I’m pretty sure he did not mean it’s better to imitate than to be original. Part of being good is having a voice, a fluency in using visual media to convey certain feelings and ideas. And inherent in such a fluency is a trace of originality. Originality, while not the top priority, is a natural outcome of proficiency. A little (or a lot) of you gets peppered into the final work, whether you mean it or not.

Image for Harry Rosen (2019)

In my own opinion, and I don’t think Rand would disagree, I think it’s better to be original than imitative. It’s better to have some personal way of doing things. It should be built upon more universal understandings of how images work, such as learning the elements and principles of design. And of course, you should have some deeper understanding of forms through observational drawing. I am not anti-observational drawing, I am not anti-realism. I almost always draw from references in my work, but I do not rely on references for my final composition. The role of references in my process is to feed my imagination with visual information that I can literally draw from when I actually start sketching out ideas and more original compositions. I often talk about O-mode and I-mode sketching, with O-mode being the first part of my process, where I draw observationally, to feed my imagination. Then, I break out I-mode, where I draw ideationally. This second stage is made much easier by spending some time in the first. While it may seem to be an extra step, contradicting my overall goal of drawing up ideas more quickly and intuitively, this “quickly and intuitively” can only happen after the first step.

Drawing from life, in a more observational, naturalistic way, is indeed an important and highly valuable skill. But there is a difference between having this skill and using it to see, and having a more stylized, symbolic way of illustrating and using it to say. But I think, ultimately, it comes down to what I like. I like drawing in a more abstract, expressive style. I enjoy the challenge of simplifying realities and manipulating factualities to create new meanings in new ways. I love to create illustrations that surprise with playful arrangements of form and colour. Sure, I like drawing in the ordinary way, but when I’m illustrating in my style, I just have more fun.

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