Illustration has a job to do

by Joey Marsh

Understanding what makes a good illustration is the first step to becoming a successful illustrator.  You don’t need to be an outstanding draughtsmen or highly skilled in using a tablet; you need to understand the key principle of what makes a successful illustration.

The main aim of an illustration is to visually communicate a message to an audience. It is an art that focuses primarily on communicating subliminal messages where the image created must be purposeful to be effective.  Whether it is a visual accompaniment to text or a stand alone piece, to distinguish it from fine art it needs to do deliver a message. The intention of an illustration should be to include enough information to convey a clear idea without overloading it with unnecessary detail, which could detract from its purpose.

Understand your brief

How we tackle a brief is an important factor in creating a successful illustration. Whether your brief is self-assigned or for one of the commercial giants, the rules remain the same. Understand it. If you don’t understand what the purpose of the illustration is then neither will the audience that view it. If we question the role and meaning of the project we are more likely to create something with conceptual depth as well as flair and originality. Because every illustration is unique, the process and technique that the illustrator decides to use in order to communicate the message will be specific to that brief. Below I have included a few different techniques that I have used to create a variety of conceptual illustrations.

It would seem that perfection is attained not when no more can be added, but when no more can be removed. – Antoine de Saint Exupéry


Coinciding with Exupéry’s theory a concentrated effort has been made in ‘Laundry Day’ to share information without over-complicating the narrative and detracting from the purpose of this illustration. If there was a second sock in a different colour the message may have become unclear or muddled. Small details such as the subtle appearance of the red sock in the washing machine are intentional to enhance the message and provide enough information for the audience to determine a narrative. That being said, detail can be subtle and make the audience work harder depending on the style of illustration.  An audience may react differently to an illustration depending on personal preference, experience and cultural differences. Colour and style can have a different psychological effect on an individual. Although people react and interpret ideas differently, ultimately there should be an idea that the illustrator has intended to convey.


In ‘Farmyard’ colour has been used as a way of delivering and enhancing information. If the background of the image also included colour then the emphasis would shift and the balance of the illustration would change. Currently we are drawn towards the pig and its muddy nose because of the simplicity of the design and the decision to highlight it. Grey is a neutral colour that can intensify and enhance any other colour surrounding it. The grey enhances the psychological response we have to the colours that it supports.


Often multiple images are required to build a narrative. The illustrations communicate and rely upon each other to convey the overall message. In the self-assigned brief ‘Bookshop’, a single image may not have suggested the change and increase in time that is portrayed through multiple images of this made-up shop. In order to create a sense of human presence without the addition of people, it was important to include recognisable and familiar details (both positive and negative) which, as human beings, we can readily relate to.

Illustration is an exciting and diverse subject matter and when answering a brief every illustrator will find an individual technique that works for that particular project. Whatever the style or process you decide to use, don’t forget that the concept is key when transforming a brief into an illustration. Does it deliver the message I intend? Conquer that and everything else will follow.

All images copyright Joey Marsh