How to Work With an Illustrator

Start by closing your eyes. See that image in your head? Go from there. Perhaps it’s a wedding. Or a funeral. Or a zebra flying a hot-air balloon over the Danube. Or perhaps there isn’t a picture in your head at all, but there desperately needs to be. An illustrator can help there too.


An idea, or even just a feeling you’re trying to evoke, can be enough to go on. Ask yourself: Does it make sense to use a photo instead? Sometimes realism works best (when it’s even possible—the zebra shoot could be tricky), but a photo of a tea party is completely different from a line drawing or a painting. Remember that images are never silent. Each one has a voice, and it’s up to you as the art director to choose the one that’s right. You’ll probably have an instinct here. Trust it.

So, let’s assume you’ve decided on illustration. Splendid. Stock illustration is a great resource, but if time and budget allow, you should consider having an image made from scratch. There’s a term in the garment industry: "bespoke." It means a piece of clothing made specifically for you by a tailor. The difference when you’re wearing the finished piece is subtle but definite.

If you do elect to go this route and hire an illustrator, start by looking through your illustration resources—portfolio books, annuals, postcards. You do have illustration resources, don’t you? Keep your eyes peeled for any examples of the style you’re after (or interesting alternatives). Once you find a good-sized pool of illustrators, track down more examples of their work. Here, the internet is your friend, as is the artist’s representative, who will happily send you samples.

Soon, you’ll be dealing with the actual illustrator, who will invariably be charming and delightful. Explain what you have in mind one last time, going over the details with all necessary hand gestures, even if you’re talking on the phone. This step is crucial; stick with it until you’re sure you understand each other. And listen closely for suggestions you hadn’t thought of. A fresh perspective (from an artist—one of your own kind, no less) can really help define the idea.

The next phase is Sketches, where you get to find out just how well you two listened to each other. Many illustrators are wonderful at communicating with words. Others … not so much. Focus on the artwork. Is it on the right track? If so, and you have approval from your client/editor (if you need it), it’s on to Final Art, which rhymes with Best Part.

Here, for lack of a better phrase, is Where The Magic Happens. Don’t scoff: It warrants capitalization. Really, if you think about it, the whole doggone process is crazy: A jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring image in your head turns into a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring image in your audience’s head, via this convoluted, logic-defying process of converting that image into some smears of pigment (or pixels) on a two-dimensional surface. It shouldn’t even work, but it’s does—it has for thousands of years, since the first prehistoric illustrator scrawled a buffalo on a cave wall. Something out of nothing. Colors and lines representing ideas. 1 + 1 = 3. It’s a miracle.

So, congratulations. You’ve got your perfect image. You look good. The illustrator looks good. Your client looks good. And what’s even better? Now you’ve got a success, and some experience, and a friend in the industry. So the next time a project comes along and something in your head tells you that a certain someone would be perfect for this assignment, you can say, "Hey, what if we used an illustrator? You know, I know a person we could call. …"

Scott Hull/Scott Hull Associates