The Three Cs of Illustration | PART 1: CONCEPT

By Johnathan Hunt

This story was originally published in Art Hive Magazine issue #31, Fall 2019.


The other day I was thinking about what it takes to make an effective illustration (1*) . “That’s easy” you think “Anybody with a little talent can read a story and make a picture to go with it, right?” Well, yes and no. To begin with, I have a serious issue with that word “talent” (see my article “The Myth of Talent” in the May-June 2013 issue of Art Hive. It’s a classic). Let’s be honest, nowadays if a publisher is looking to fill empty space at the end of a column then there are plenty of clipart websites that license innocuous, ready-made images searchable by theme, size, and price. But any old picture does not necessarily make a good illustration. So, what does constitute a “good illustration”?

When I critique an illustration as an art director or teacher I base my assessment on what I have come to call The Three Cs of Illustration. I believe that for an illustration (or any piece of serious art for that matter) to be effective and engaging it must successfully employ all three of these principles: CONCEPT, CRAFTSMANSHIP & COMMUNICATION. There are probably more requirements that could be added to this list (such as context, cohesiveness, coolness, etc.) but three is a good number and the triple Cs thing is pretty catchy, so let’s stick with that for now. I’m going to split this rambling discourse cogent treatise into three separate articles so that I can go into excruciating detail on each topic. This month, I would like to discuss CONCEPT.

[con·cept ] \ ˈkän-ˌsept \ noun.

1: something conceived in the mind: THOUGHT, NOTION

2: an abstract or generic idea generalized from particular instances. (2*)

We all have ideas— and yet, the first thing I hear from students when I give an illustration assignment is “I don’t know what to draw.” They stare blank-eyed at me as if a vacuum had sucked all the thoughts out of their heads. And this mental Roomba is not just the bane of sleep-deprived college students. I too find the act of pulling ideas from my brain and making sense of them on paper to be the most arduous part of the creative process. The fact is, not all ideas are good ones; for instance, New Coke, or that time you tried to make pizza by putting ketchup and Cheez Whiz on an English muffin. We’ve all woken up from an incredibly vivid dream and thought “Wow! That would make a great movie!” But most non-artists simply don’t have the skills to snatch those nebulous shadows from inside their skulls and commit them to paper or canvas. And we can’t truly share the full majesty of our ideas unless others can see them (or hear them in the case of music). Have you ever tried to explain a joke rather than tell it? Yeh, it’s like that. Accordingly, a copyright cannot be registered unless the art is committed to a tangible form. After all, it’s the particular physical execution of the idea that makes the art visible, unique, and sharable.

“In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art… It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman.” (4*)- Sol LeWitt

There are various opinions on what makes a concept different from an idea but I like to define “concept” as a more fully-formed version of an idea; something that has context and a bit of intellectual depth and sophistication as well as a plan for executing it in physical form. Simply deciding to paint a lime green rectangle inside of a retina-burning magenta circle with the intent to cause an uncomfortable visual vibration is a very simple idea. Sure, it utilizes knowledge of the physics of light and the anatomy of the human eye to elicit a reaction from the viewer, but it would be a stretch to call this fun little one-off optical illusion a true concept.

You may have heard the terms conceptual art and concept art. Although the names sound similar, they are in fact very different disciplines. Conceptual art is a movement unique to the fine arts world. Here is how one of its originators and foremost purveyors describes it:

In LeWitt’s point of view, the idea itself IS the art. LeWitt believes that the physical art is mostly unnecessary and that the artist need not be concerned with the quality of the finished piece. It doesn’t matter what the artist makes since the physical construct is just a signifier or placeholder that evokes the pure idea (and no, I am not going to get into a discussion of semiotics here. These are just my own observations free from the constraints of pesky academic citations). This is why many conceptual artists (like Damien Hirst, among others) employ assistants to fabricate their finished pieces. The artist just isn’t all that interested in the physical manifestation of their idea (until of course, a high-profile buyer with deep pockets shows up). A large chunk of this type of art tends to be abstract or non-objective so there is generally no identifiable subject to give the casual viewer context. This explains why there is so much writing about conceptual art—because without an artist statement, there is no art (I personally have some issues with this approach to creating art which I will discuss in the next two articles).

So, what about concept art? Here is a definition from creativebloq.com:

The main goal of concept art is to convey a visual representation of a design, idea, and/or mood for use in films, video games, animation, or comic books before it is put into the final product. In other words, it aims to convey the overall design vision rather than specify everything in exact terms right at the start.”(5*) - Jason Pickthall
thINK copy.jpg

Obviously, both conceptual and concept art deal with ideas. Yet in many ways these two approaches to picture-making reside at opposite ends of the art spectrum. Where conceptual art focuses on the idea itself while only begrudgingly including a tactile, visible component, concept art is ALL about dragging amorphous concepts into the revealing light of physical reality. Simply put, the purpose of concept art is to show us what stuff looks like. It is the visual conduit that allows directors and producers of films, computer games and comics to see what creatures, props, and characters will look like; what costumes they will wear and what sort of environments they will inhabit. Small details of clothing, color, lighting, and body language hint at motivation, agency and narrative. Illustrator and educator John English has said that “An illustration must have a point of view” (3*) He was probably referring more to editorial illustration but concept art cannot afford to be neutral in its use of visual metaphor and design. Concept art revels in what is specific, special, attractive or repellant via the use of traditional media or digital 2D and 3D tools. In an interesting parallel with conceptual art, the physical artifacts of concept art are not the final product but just a step in a long process that culminates in a film, game or other viewable/consumable media. I mentioned the lack of emphasis on the quality of the physical form of conceptual art. This (and the fact that I have run out of space) makes for a convenient segue into the next article which will be about the second of the three Cs: CRAFTSMANSHIP.


*1. In case you were wondering—yes, my life really is THAT exciting.

*2. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionasry/concept

*3.The full interview can be found here.

*4. Sol LeWitt, & Paragraphs on Conceptual Art& Artforum, V/10, Summer 1967

*5. https://www.creativebloq.com/career/what-concept-art-11121155