The Three Cs of Illustration | PART 2: CRAFTSMANSHIP

by Jonathan Hunt


The last time we met on these pages, I was pontificating about the importance of Concept in fine art and illustration. Today I would like to discuss the actual skill it takes to coax an idea into physical form. But first, I should mention that in a telling demonstration of irony, I actually misspelled “craftsmanship” in my last article. *sigh* So much for my aspirations of being a shining beacon of technical perfection. Anyway…

I used to be a craftsmanship snob. Let me explain… I graduated from art college in 1988 (right around the time Gutenberg invented moveable type [2*]). The only computers I was aware of during my art education were used by the receptionist and the registrar to type letters and do scheduling. I learned how to make art the “good old-fashioned way”. I was trained in the use of many traditional art tools, but my medium of choice was watercolor— transparent watercolors only, thank you very much. You know, REAL watercolor. I was partial to Winsor & Newton Series 7 sable brushes and only worked on sized, 100% rag watercolor paper (preferably mould-made, deckle-edged 140# hot pressed). I refused to “cheat” by using opaque white gouache or color pencil (although I would occasionally employ a single edged razor blade to flick out highlights).

I was so dedicated to these lofty artistic tenets that sometimes the final result suffered. I mean seriously, you can’t paint around every single blade of grass or strand of hair, even with masking fluid. At some point, it became painfully obvious that if I wanted to make a living as an illustrator I would have to compromise. I started to include color pencils and other opaque water-based media in my watercolors. I supplemented my series 7s with cheaper synthetic brushes. The work went much faster, was less stressful and most importantly— the quality didn’t suffer. In fact, experimenting with combinations of different media actually expanded my ability to make engaging work on a deadline. I simply stopped fetishizing the process, which in turn precipitated my emancipation from those ridiculous self-imposed rules. The artistry didn’t suffer in the least. And dammit, it was fun!

Illustration by Jonathan Hunt

Assessing craftsmanship can be a tricky road to navigate. People outside of the art field tend to exclusively equate a high level of polish and technical skill with craftsmanship. And indeed, accurate perspective and anatomy, clean, crisp linework and smooth gradients coupled with luxurious slatherings of photo-real detail are impressive to be sure. Who has not heard the oft-repeated exclamation “That is SO cool! It looks just like a PHOTOGRAPH!”? But what of the gestural, spontaneous mark-making of the Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists? Are those artists simply lazy or unskilled? Or is something else going on here?

During the concept and sketch stage, I am rarely concerned with the rendering or level of finish of my image— it’s the idea that counts and I do my best to get that idea into visual form as quickly and efficiently as possible. Once I am happy with the initial sketch, I may then pose a model, research costumes and architecture and consult photographs. But the funny thing is, I sometimes actually prefer the rough, intuitive quality of the original design so much that I dial back my rendering in the final image in an attempt to reclaim the naive energy of the original sketch.

I have always recommended that before taking any classes, young artists should acquire a few basic art supplies, then go home and play. No rules. See for yourself how the various media feel, look, and smell (3*). Only once you have gained some undirected experience smearing charcoal, troweling acrylics onto canvas and smashing pixels around, will you be ready for some structure and focus. My reasoning for this is that after you have become intimately familiar with the materials on your own terms you will be less likely to accept “You can’t do that with (insert art media here)!” from hung up art professors and workshop facilitators. (Think of it as “dating around” before you have to “honor and obey, in sickness and in health”)

Illustration by Jonathan hunt

Now don’t get me wrong—there are certain cases where doing things the “right way” is extremely important. Take oil painting for example: There are some fundamental techniques and rules that have been developed over the centuries that artists should adhere to if they want their paintings to survive the rigors of time. One of the most basic techniques is to work “fat over lean”, which is to say that each progressive layer of paint contains more oil than the last. This method allows the painting to dry properly which helps prevent chipping and cracking (keeping in mind that it can take decades for an oil painting to fully dry).Please note that while following procedures such as this will help to ensure that the art will remain intact for future generations, it contributes little or nothing to making the painting “better” conceptually. A skillfully made painting is not by default a compositionally exciting or creatively innovative painting.

There is yet another way to think about skill and training and how these relate to craftsmanship. Imagine, if you will, a rebellious teen in her parents’ garage, guitar slung low, cheap amp cranked up to 10. She’s learning her favorite Hüsker Dü song. She plays for hours every day until she can do every part perfectly. She hasn’t practiced scales or done any other technical training. She can only play that one song. So, in truth, she isn’t actually what I would call a “guitarist”. She may be a Rock Star, but she is certainly not a Musician at this stage of the game. Eventually, she gets tired of that one song and starts trying to write her own stuff. She doesn’t read music, but she knows what sounds good. Eventually, through perseverance and a whole lot of messing around, she comes up with her own strategies for writing and performing original tunes. She discovers that when you make your own rules, limitations can blossom into something akin to a distinctive “personal style” (4*). She may never become a virtuoso like Julian Bream or Joe Satriani, but let’s face it– Angus Young and Dave Grohl have done pretty damn well for themselves.

So, what is “better”? The violent black strokes slashed onto white canvas by Abstract Expressionist Franz Klein (5) ? Or the dispassionate, rectilinear precision of a painting by Piet Mondrian (6*) ? I’ve come to the conclusion that “craftsmanship” is not necessarily a synonym for “skillfully or properly constructed using proper archival technique”. We’re not engineering bridges here– this is just art for goodness’ sake! No, craftsmanship in my opinion is a purely situational construct based on:

1) The concept that an artist is trying to convey (e.g. visceral/emotional vs. intellectual/clinical)

2) The context in which that idea is to be expressed (e.g. punk show vs. classical concert)

3) How that idea is best communicated to the viewer. (e.g. bold/immediate vs. calm/measured)

And that, Dear Reader brings us to the subject of my next missive; the last of the Three Cs: COMMUNICATION.


1*. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/craftsmanship

2*. This is not a true statement.

3*. Tasting art supplies is not generally recommended. Don’t be that person.

4*. Ever wonder why Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and The Grateful Dead’s Gerry Garcia have such distinctive guitar
sounds? Garcia was missing the ring finger on his right hand and Iommi is missing two!

5*.  http://www.artnet.com/artists/franz-kline/

6*. http://www.artnet.com/artists/piet-mondrian/