Going Digital


Seventeen years ago, I tracked the growth of “digital” artmaking by examining a number of old Communication Arts Illustration Annuals. Because the yearly issue includes a description of artists’ media use, I was able to use that information to catch a glimpse of the pace of growth of the use of digital tools from year to year in their survey of outstanding illustration.

Some artists didn’t list their media, so I didn’t count them. Also not included, were those works described as “mixed media” because the term is non-specific.

Here’s what I learned from this year’s issue, and a comparison from my calculations from the past:

In the 2018 Annual:

73% of the entries described “digital” as part of the creation process*.

43% of the entries described “digital” as the only medium.


In the 2011 Annual, 54% of the entries described “digital” as part of the  process.
In the 2010 Annual, 44% of the entries described “digital” as part of the  process.
In the 2005 Annual, 29% of the entries described “digital” as part of the  process.
In the 2000 Annual, 12% of the entries described “digital” as part of the  process.
In the 1995 Annual,    3% of the entries described “digital” as part of the  process.
In the 1990 Annual,   .5% of the entries described “digital” as part of the process.
In the 1985 Annual,    0% of the entries described “digital” as part of the  process.


*Series of works were counted as one entry because all were described as of the same media and artist). “Mixed media” was not included, due to vagueness. Entries with no description of media were included in the calculations.


Meet the Illustrator: Olimpia Zagnoli

One of my favorite contemporary illustrators is Olimpia Zagnoli who lives and works in Milan. This short film, made by Mercedes Benz, introduces her and shows us how thoughtful she is as a maker and a communicator.

Lessons: “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You…”


Not long ago, Montserrat College of Art (where I teach) hosted the illustrator and designer, Oren Sherman as a guest artist. He lectured inspiringly and then visited classes including mine: Senior Illustration Thesis. It was there that Oren shared a terrific life lesson – that his professional career changed when he “stopped asking for things and started offering things” as a strategy for success. He urged the Montserrat seniors to do the same.


Dunkin Donuts painting by Amberlynn Narvie

As an example, he spoke of my student, Amberlynn Narvie’s terrific paintings of the “regulars” at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, where she worked for years. “That’s a great story” he said. “Call the editor of the local paper and start from there.”
She acted on his urging and did even better. She put the work on Reddit and was immediately contacted by both Boston.com (the Boston Globe) and Metro Boston.

Now she’s been interviewed by both papers, and so, her career begins.

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The Illustrator’s Sketch Defined


Edward Hopper’s “finished sketch” for Nighthawks

The word “sketch” is used differently by all kinds of artists. I myself use it differently in different circumstances. Fine artists use “sketch” to describe a preliminary work of exploration and possibilities: a visual question. On-site artists use it to describe works created from observation: a recording of an experience. But illustrators use it to describe a finalized concept drawing which is presented to a client as part of a job.

So, sometimes a sketch is “just a sketch” and sometimes it’s not. For professional illustrators, a sketch is never “just a sketch,” and it shouldn’t be “sketchy” or vague. It’s an important document and should be treated as such. Allow me to explain.


Edward Hopper sketch for Nighthawks, but not a “finished sketch.”

Illustration jobs have two deadlines: the deadline for the delivery of sketches and the deadline for the delivery of finished art. Before any artwork is created for a client, sketches  of visual concepts are proposed and approved. Like blueprints are for architects, sketches are for illustrators: the final plans. Before a client will publish an image, they want to know what’s coming – almost exactly what’s coming. So, as an illustrator, and more importantly a professor of illustration, I’m an advocate of clear, resolved, “finished sketches” (which I admit, sounds like a contradiction in terms, like “jumbo shrimp”).

Finished sketches, are preliminary drawings which are resolved conceptually and compositionally. Before using final art materials, or often color, viewers can see what the artist has planned to show and say.

An ideal finished sketch provides:

An Answer  A sketch for an illustrator is an answer to the assignment’s needs. The sketch says, “Here’s my way of saying this, and showing that”. By being finished, it asks for no creative suggestions from elsewhere.

Reassurance  A sketch reminds a client that you are worth every penny of the fee that has been negotiated. So, it should look like it’s been done by a serious professional, and not by drunk, in the back of a bus, on a used napkin.

A Sales Tool  A sketch that looks great is usually more convincing than one that does not look good. Illustrators work with limited time, and want to avoid going back to the drawing board. They want sketches approved, so as to go to the next step: the finished art.

A Plan The award-winning illustrator, Gary Kelley once said that the sketch is 75% of the job. It certainly helps to make a successful work of art in the limited time at hand, if most of the decisions have already been made. Plus, the art director, or designer who is collaborating on the project, certainly benefits from a completed composition to design around if need be.


“final art” Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, oil on canvas, 1942

Further Observation

Edward Hopper worked as an illustrator for many years before he turned to more personal subject matter for his art, such as Nighthawks. So, it’s no surprise that his process continued to follow the illustrator’s steps, even though he was no longer working for publishing clients. First, “thumbnails” (preliminary idea drawings) followed by “studies” (detail sketches of people places or things) and a “finished sketch” before painting the “final art.”


figure or character “studies” for Nighthawks by Edward Hopper


figure or character “studies” for Nighthawks by Edward Hopper


figure or character “studies” for Nighthawks by Edward Hopper


“thumbnail sketches” or “concept sketches” for Nighthawks by Edward Hopper


“thumbnail sketches” or “concept sketches” for Nighthawks by Edward Hopper