Articles - 16th April 2019

The Changing Tools in Illustration

Words by Holly Exley
Illustration by Georgie McAusland

There’s a change afoot in the commercial art world: illustrators are putting down their traditional tools of pencil and paper and reaching for a tablet instead. The rising popularity of Adobe and Wacom products, used in conjunction with portable devices, means that illustrators have never had so much freedom; working on the go and generating images which can then be edited at lightning speed. But what sort of effect is this having on the creative process? With every textured surface, colour palette, and mark-making tool you could ever need, only a click away – will experimenting in sketchbooks soon become an obsolete activity? As an illustrator stubbornly sticking to traditional media, I reached out to my tablet-owning peers to find out more.

Steph Coathupe, a freelance illustrator with a portfolio that’s almost exclusively digital, explains: “Making digital thumbnails can be really useful, especially for working out colours. You have LOADS of freedom with digital colour choices, and it’s super quick!” The planning stage was not an area I had considered could be digitalised, having long been accustomed to sketching and note-taking on paper upon receiving a new client brief. One could well imagine the convenience that comes from an ever erasable sketchbook page, the deliverance of every colour-way and tool at your disposal, without the need for time-consuming trips to the art store and subsequent expensive experimentation. With project deadlines in commercial illustration notoriously tight, making the need for roughs to be signed off by the client especially urgent, any time-saving method is surely welcomed at this stage.

Melody Nieves, an artist and designer with over 12 years experience in the digital painting field, expanded on this: “Digital art has completely changed my views on art. It gives me the freedom to chip away at the concepts in my head without ever feeling like I’ll ruin the paper…it’s a good morale booster too.” The quick disposal of mistakes with the tap of a Wacom pen is a tempting prospect for any practising artist. Sketchbooks in comparison could be seen as a paper trail of failed ideas and drawings. Destroying the evidence efficiently and digitally gives the illustrator a chance to move on more quickly, editing colour and composition faster than one could ever hope to on paper. A morale-booster indeed.

A recent survey from Twine found that 83% of illustrator’s use some sort of Wacom hardware to create their illustrations, meaning that a large proportion of artwork in the industry won’t have seen a single traditional tool in the process. But what about the finality that comes with working on paper? Surely there are some negatives to all of those discreet digital adjustments? “It takes away some interest, in comparison with sketching on paper, because you can’t see the flaws and lines anymore,” illustrator Sara Faber explains. “It’s so cool to go back and flip through the pages and feel the same feelings as when I first created the drawings. I barely ever do that with my iPad.”

Tablets are great for streamlining the creative process and quick decision making, but could this lack of lingering be detrimental to the learning experience? Whether that be in the moment, as materials are experimented with and sketches are smudged, or later when returning to sketchbook pages busy with trial and error, could it be that illustrators benefit from keeping those initial sketches close at hand. If only as a way to track progress and observations, keeping a sketchbook is keeping yourself accountable. Tablets may allow the illustrator to race faster and more efficiently towards the finished piece – but as with any action made more efficient for the pace of the modern world, there are certain things we’ll surely miss.

The platform of youtube has allowed even archaic watercolour artists such as myself, an over-the-shoulder peek at what it takes to create digital artwork – and the results are impressively perfected and, dare I say it, better than I could ever hope to achieve with my paints alone. Yet I can’t help but notice the heavy focus on the finished piece. Of course, illustrators need to finish their work in order to meet their deadlines and in many ways technology makes the whole process, and therefore a career in illustration, easier. However, a career in illustration isn’t undertaken for financial gain alone; often it is born out of curiosity for a particular medium or way of seeing. A passion turned career, with many of us starting in the classroom or at home with traditional mediums. In the beginning stages of learning a craft, the focus is not solely on the consummation of artwork, it is on experimentation, story-telling, mark-making. Therefore, might illustrators still crave a place for inconsequential sketching?

Coathupe explains she often finds herself “drawn back” to her sketchbook for the decisiveness it provides. “There’s no undo, no stretch and skew, and if you’re using pens there’s no erase tool either. It forces me to loosen up, to stop being so precious, let go of my anxieties and just draw for fun. I tend to choose my sketchbook when I’m feeling stuck and just want to play around for a bit.” In many ways the sketchbook is an escape from a finalised piece; bound between two covers, it’s a chance to imagine possibilities without any commitment to take it to completion. Coathupe even dedicates a section of her portfolio site to her sketchbook spreads, expressing a fascination for “sketchbook pages on Instagram and process videos of illustration created using traditional media.”

The widespread use of tablets at the start, middle and end of a piece of artwork could result in the changing opinion towards sketchbooks: perhaps now seen as keepsakes and creative spaces separate from the final piece. Tablets encourage perfection because that is what they offer – sketchbooks could be a lasting place for creative freedom, where mistakes are still welcome.

On the subject of freedom, advances in portable tablet technology have resulted in a movement of illustrators working from whichever location they choose. According to the Twine survey, 59% of us are still strapped to our desks to produce most of our work, but that number looks set to drop further as the use of digital art tools increases. Faber notes that the fact that she can work on the go “is a huge benefit. Ever since I started using an iPad for drawing, I find myself drawing outside on the balcony, in coffee shops, on the couch, in bed before I go to sleep, at my parents’ house when I visit them, while travelling, on the plane… the list is endless.”

Moreover, the portability of a tablet and the sheer number of different tools and effects they hold in their slim-line bodies is surely no match for the cumbersome sketchpad and pencil case. Faber continues, “(with an iPad) I feel I have all the colours and brushes with me wherever I go. I am not a fan of taking my watercolour palette, water, brushes, tissue paper and sketchbook with me. I felt like people were looking at me when I tried watercolours outside. Drawing with an iPad outside is not as noticeable and easier to carry around.”

Migrating from coffee shop to street corner to train seat to a scenic view, all whilst working on illustrations from a handheld device – surely this is an improvement from feeling trapped in the studio? Especially as a typical freelancer’s working hours will often be longer than standard office hours, working on the go becomes imperative for getting out of the house or studio. Using a tablet to draw could mean more spontaneous drawing, whenever the mood strikes and in almost limitless locations – provided there’s an electrical outlet to recharge the battery of course. Could it be that, although there is an increasing detachment from mistakes and traditional materials, there is an increased attachment between illustrators and the world around them?

Our role as an illustrator is to “elucidate concepts by providing visual representation” (according to Wikipedia) and what better concept to elucidate than our environment as it currently stands. By being immersed in shared, public spaces whilst we work, whether that be in a coffee shop or at a bus stop, we remain involved in society to a certain extent. One must wonder if this has any impact on the work being produced.

Many artists recognise the difference in working from life, noting elements of light and movement that they wouldn’t get from a reference image copied online. Moreover, working on the go in busy locations, as opposed to a quiet, tucked away home-studio, changes the pace of creation. We find ourselves inspired by what we see as we move through the world and what we overhear from conversations happening in our vicinity. Could this increased understanding and involvement in the current atmosphere, whether that be social, political, fashionable or even something as inexplicable as a feeling in the air, leave illustrators better equipped to illustrate client briefs?

All things considered, I’m still yet to be convinced on tablet-ownership, despite many of the benefits. But I suspect I might be part of the last stubborn few to remain in the dark with my paint brushes. There’s no tablet in the world that could imitate the tangibility and mystery of blotting watery pigments onto dappled paper, unsure and unable to erase the outcome. But there are plenty of creative software programs offering almost limitless possibilities for mark-making, and at a speed and convenience that will surely revolutionise the illustration world in the years to come.

We champion the freelancers and every entrepreneur who took a leap of faith with their idea.

If this sounds like you, head over to our Virtual Office and send us your best work via an UnderPinned Portfolio. We want to hear from you!

Make your UP portfolio

Related Articles

A checklist for the January 31st tax deadline

It’s boring, but if you’ve saved money specifically for this purpose, it shouldn’t be painful. Here’s what you must do to get through your self-ass...

Read more
The what, how, and why of pivoting as a freelancer

Pivot. It’s one of those words that we often cast off to the figurative bin labelled ‘corporate jargon’ alongside the likes of ‘leverage’ and ‘syne...

Read more
How freelancers can use cold emailing to attract new clients

Have you ever written an email to someone you’ve never met before, asking them for something? It’s tough; cold emails can feel pretty d...

Read more