Art Checklist (and writing)


I wanted a bookmark-sized list of things to remember when working on an illustration — or, more to the point, of things I know but sometimes forget to do.

Most of the techniques have a parallel for writing (or at least editing).

This checklist is tailored to my own forgetfulness, and is a work in progress. There are already a few more to add, including “emotional key” and “texture”.

  • Give sketches room — Personal. I tend to crowd-out the page.
    Writing: Probably related to legible handwriting and developing ideas a bit more.
  • Movement — Push everything a little further off-balance, like King Pellinore and Sir Grummore jousting.
    Writing: Stories, like sharks, die if they don’t keep moving.
  • Flip it! — Literally why am showing things in this order? What if I force the eye to travel bottom right to top left?
    Writing: Why am I telling things in this order?
  • Mirror — I keep an old bakelite-framed mirror to hold up to art and see if e.g. eyes match. It’s an old art technique.
    Writing: This is the same as looking at things with fresh eyes when editing — leaving it for a time, changing the font, printing it out, etc.
  • Posture — A subtler version of “movement”: what does pose say about thought/personality/tension, etc.
    WritingI actually made this note after listening to David Suchet talk about how he tried to capture Poirot’s posture as Agatha Christie wrote it, so I think it’s the same thing.
  • Exaggeration — Related to movement and posture, but more general: emphasise the telling/important details, make them bigger, abstract until things are meaningful.
    Writing: Same same.
  • Caricature — More personality-based version of the above. Clearly it’s a point I need to come back to.
    Writing: The principles of caricature are useful for descriptions — catching the key/memorable/meaningful elements of a person’s appearance and mannerisms and using them as a touchstone.
  • (Silhouette) — I think this is in parentheses because I mean it two ways: first, does it read clearly in silhouette (a composition question, but also one of character design); second, could I be doing this as an actual silhouette.
    Writing: The first principle is useful for thinking about structure in more physical terms. The second is more idiosyncratic, but sometimes there are stylised structures I’ve forgotten I wanted to play with, and which end up solving all the problems (e.g. for “Kindling” I realised part-way through I wanted to tell it in two points of view from two directions in time, and for Flyaway I was stuck at one stage of the edits until someone suggested one story be embedded within another and I had the epiphany that that’s mostly how I write long things anyway). Strict structural requirements (and silhouettes have those!) often force a story to tell itself.
  • Angle/POV — Worm’s eye? Bird’s eye? Whose eye? Whose distant city? I default to a straight-on eye-level view. Changing it up, even if I revert to habit, can at least reveal new things about the world.
    Writing: The same. What if I describe this room from floor-level? What if it’s told by the maid? Even as a mental exercise, it helps crystallise a scene.
  • Why this scene? Lean into it — Ask the scene to justify itself, and then strengthen (or stylishly misdirect the viewer’s eye from) those reasons.
    Writing: same.
  • Swap or flip or lean into stereotypes — What if the cats in this picture are loyal and foolish and the dogs are aloof and independent? Whenever I play with this I remember so many dogs and cats (or whatever the subject of the stereotype is) who are left out of usual pictures. On the other hand, you can lean so hard on a stereotype it comes around again to being an archetype.
    Writing: I learned this from Sarah Caudwell and Charles Dickens.
  • What is left out? — This is a reminder to myself to use negative space as part of the design, to feature it. Midcentury commercial art is fabulous at this, but I think I was thinking of Evaline Ness when I wrote it. But it’s also a reminder to think of which/whose stories aren’t being told — whatever I do with that thought.
    Writing: There’s negative space in books, too, and stories that are avoided or hinted at. Sometimes consciously and melodramatically leaving a gap is more honest than trying to paper it over. Plus the whole unreliable narrator thing.
  • De-elongate/squash it — I tend to attenuate my figures. This is a personal reminder.
    Writing: This would be like keeping a list of overused words to go back and deal with (in my case, this includes replacing up to 10% of the “and”s with full stops).
  • [Emotional key] — Pick one word or emotion and use it to key an entire scene, to inflect the composition and colour choices. This was a tip from Winona Nelson at 2012 Illuxcon.
    Writing: This tip works very well for editing, too — picking a word or emotion and adjusting sentence length, word choice, etc, to evoke it.
  • [Texture] — Add it, take it into account, don’t keep everything smooth.
    Writing: Primarily descriptive, it’s a reminder to take into account the surfaces of things. One of the patterns I noticed in researching the MPhil dissertation was that (particularly in a genre where things are often not what they seem) paying attention to the surface and texture of beautiful things made them seem truer and more reliable.

8 thoughts on “Art Checklist (and writing)

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