Sunday, July 10, 2011

Diner Drawing, 3D models, and when Detail is and Isn't Necessary in an Illustration

Here's a diner I designed for my current project.

Perspective has always been difficult for me, and I've recently taken to making 3D models on Google Sketch-Up to make my life a little easier. Here's a basic model I made in Sketch-up that I then put under my light box to add details.

Then I added a little distortion to the drawing so it would have a more organic feel and wouldn't be so perfect. The approach still requires me to use vanishing points for some of the details, and I need to use vanishing points to conform the other elements in the picture to the model, (after I've posed my model to fit with my composition the way I want it to, first) but generally it makes my life easier. I can now turn my diner in any direction I want. This has been a approach I've used quite a bit with architecture, mostly using primitives and grids.

You'll also see here that I originally planned to have a standing sign, but opted instead for 3D lettering. The way I did this was by taking my typography and distorting it in photoshop so it would be in perspective. Then I added depth in the drawing.

This diner was based on photos of a number of different diners, so that I could come up with one, archetypical diner. Archetypes and symbols are useful in illustration if you don't want too much specific detail to distract from the focal point. How much observational detail I add to an image is relative to its importance. If I want to portray a very specific place or kind of car or house, I try to add those little unique details. But if I want to portray a "diner" rather than a diner, I keep things simple. Illustration requires you to consider the hierarchy of your subject matter: where do you want the viewers eye to fall? What distracts from, and what contributes to the story you're trying to tell?

Say you're illustrating a kid's messy room. The objects in the room should relate to the story you're trying to tell about the kid. If you have some odd or distracting prop that catches the viewers eye too much, that prop might take on more importance than you intend. A kid's room is a very specific place that requires very specific props. You can really express who a character is by showing where they live, but at the same time, you need to take care that the viewer is paying attention to what you want them to pay attention to. There's a difference between a stuffed toy monkey crammed on a shelf with a bunch of other props, and a stuffed toy monkey sitting on the foot of the bed. Putting it in so prominent a place makes it seem important, while as just another background element it takes on less importance. Make sure, when making an illustration, that your decisions are deliberate, and not simply happenstance.

This is the difference between a painting or drawing done for its own sake, and an illustration or sequence of images done to tell a story: with images done in sequence, or images that are meant to tell a specific story, the narrative takes precedent over the task of simply making a picture.


  1. Thanks for explaining more about what illustration is and what it is not versus a drawing/painting. Now I'm getting the idea.

    As it was explained to me by an illustration major student at the SF Art Academy, that there's a progressive level of communication from graphic design to illustration and then painting. Graphic design is more about clear communication through the layout of a page or label. Illustrations does the same but through pictorial means. Finally paintings or drawings can be use to communicate but in a less specific way.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Design often incorporates illustration, or design is often in the service of illustration, as in the design of an illustrated book. So "clear communication" is fairly accurate, but since illustration is dependent upon and works in conjunction with design, I wouldn't say it's a progressive level of communication from one to the other. There's such a dialogue between the two, it's hard to pinpoint where one begins and the other ends. Milton Glaser is a good example of that.

  3. I think some designers become so enthralled with typography, that they forget how important illustration can be to design. That's why often, these design annuals are so type focused, as if illustration were some completely different and unrelated discipline.

  4. Also, it's important to distinguish the discipline of illustration from the word "illustration", or the adjective, "illustrative", or the verb "illustrate". An illustrative quality in a painting, such as a descriptive or rendered, or even a narrative quality, does not make it an illustration.

  5. I would make the logo sign larger, I think.

  6. I've since distorted the image quite a bit more, and the sign is a bit larger, but I don't think the sign is very readable as it's foreshortened either way. but I anticipated this. Since in the final image there's a big standing sign right next to it with the same title that's a little more flush with the picture plane, that's not really a problem as far as readability.

    Presenting these little pieces like this, I think it's hard to get a sense of the overall composition and what will and won't work. But I'll post the finishes for all three illustrations in mid Sept. after the conference that I'm doing these for.

    But thanks for the feedback! The art director who's going to be looking at all the entries will be evaluating my sketches before the final deadline, so she may have the same suggestion. I'll see what she says!

  7. Thanks, Jed. I see what you mean about a dialogue between design and illustrations. And when you explained the difference between illustration vs. illustrative, what came to my mind is paintings done by illustrators turned painters. Their paintings I see are often more illustrative than paintings done by artists who were mostly fine artists.

  8. I think what you're talking about are paintings that look, or feel like illustrations in the traditional sense of what we talk about when we talk about illustration the discipline, but that's not quite what I mean.

    Any representational art has an illustrative component. you're communicating very specific information in an illustrative way: this is a apple. It's an illustration, but its also more than an illustration, or at least, something other than an illustration. A Cezanne painting of an apple is, in part, an illustration of an apple, but there's other information in the image that does not serve simply to describe apple, the object. It's about light and color as much as its about an apple. The fact of it being an apple is less important, but the fact of it is what makes it illustrative.

    Similarly you may have a narrative component in an image--say, a Hopper painting or a Thomas Hart Benton painting, or something from the ashcan school. Both the fact of the objects and figures in the image, and the narrative they help describe, are illustrative components. That doesn't make these images illustrations necessarily, but they have illustrative components.

    In an illustration for a media purpose, you may have an apple, and it may be rendered like Cezanne, and it may have elements that aren't illustrative that are more about light and color, but these elements are in the end, in the service of the narrative. The story is at the center of the image, and the purpose of the image is to tell, and embellish upon the story.

    There's a lot of overlap here, and it can be argued that everything from Renaissance Paintings, to some of Picasso's work is an illustration of one kind or another. All of these kinds of definitions and distinctions are pretty rubbery. But this is the distinction that I make.

    To dismiss or ignore this illustrative component is to miss the intention of a lot of art that we see. In fine art, the word, "illustration" is often used to dismiss work that is what someone might consider to be too literally descriptive. Value is placed on images that avoid literal narrative in contemporary art, or art that appears superficially to be too much like other media, and I think this is a shame. These lines are drawn arbitrarily. The overlap between illustration and fine art is a significant one.