Draw on Tradition to Create Lasting Art

I’m always surprised—and, okay, a little peeved—when my mention of an arts background is often met with a puzzled look followed by the somewhat skeptical question, “What do you do with that?” The truth is there’s a lot to do with that, especially now—at a time when images are all around us, where a website can so easily turn into an artist’s own gallery and exhibition space, and because collectors, gallerists, publishers, and fans can easily find and follow artists whose work they respond to and respect.

Distlefink Girl by Christina Hess, digital.
Distlefink Girl by Christina Hess, digital.

This sense of opportunity can be especially true for artists with a strong foundation in illustration and drawing. When I recently spoke with Richard Harrington, the chair of the Phillustration, The Philadelphia Sketch Club’s annual juried illustration exhibition, he pointed out that those who submit to the show work in a variety of creative fields. “We get a lot of children’s book illustrators, artists working in the fantasy realm, ones doing concept work for video games, magazine cover illustrators, those who do album cover designs, cartoonists, comic artists, accomplished painters,” he said. “People cross over and work on many different projects—children’s books to postage stamps to calendars.” Harrington also mentioned that his former illustration students from Moore College of Art and Design, in Pennsylvania, have worked in as diverse fields as the film industry and prop houses, to the advertising and branding departments of companies such as Target.

What seems to be a common denominator for such successful draftsmen and illustrators is a strong grounding in the traditional arts. “Our students want to understand how to paint in oils; how to do life drawings, compositions; understand negative and positive space, and value structures,” Harrington explained. If students are working with modern technology, time-honored artistic practices still hold a lot of appeal. “Even in the digital realm there’s crossover to a lot of different mediums, which probably was not done so readily 10 or 15 years ago,” Harrington said.

1027 by Dominic Saponaro, digital.
by Dominic Saponaro, digital.

Another change that was also not so apparent with illustration a decade or two ago is the changing status of the field. “There’s a new respect for illustration and a renewed interest level,” Harrington explained. “Not because of any kind of nostalgia, but because with illustrations, people know what it is about and because illustrations give viewers information they need, and no one needs to explain to them what it means. There’s a certain comfort level there—not a ‘fuzzy bunny’ comfort, but a comfort in being entertained and stimulated.”

Man Sleeping in the Temple by John Thompson, acrylic on wood panel.
Man Sleeping in the Temple
by John Thompson,
acrylic on wood panel.

That stimulation isn’t always easy to evoke. As a society, we are pretty savvy viewers, inundated by images all day long. Most don’t make any kind of lasting impression, but, obviously, some images stick with us. They evoke a response and we enjoy seeing them. Think of the last book you picked up from the shelf for no other reason than the cover appealed to you, or a billboard advertisement that made you pause mid-stride or slow down as you drove by.

“I was once told that the best painters are former illustrators,” Harrington quipped. By that, he meant that an inherent part of an illustrator’s training is learning to harness the communicative possibilities of visual media. Knowing that you can tell a story, create a mood, and make people react with images. All artists should be so lucky to have this kind of awareness. Coupled with honed traditional artistic abilities, this understanding allows art of any kind—created in oil paints or acrylics, mixed media or watercolor, sculpture or comic-book storyboards—to stay relevant and memorable.

To put your work well on the road to being relevant and memorable, a solid foundation in drawing is crucial. Drawing Nature for the Absolute Beginner is like taking a fundamental drawing class that leaves nothing out. You’ll come away knowing how to create images of nature that capture the attention and stimulate the imagination of your viewer. Developing this skill set can allow you to communicate effectively with your work, sending out your own message for the world to see.





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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.