The All-Important Sketching Stage

Without a strong concept, illustration is just glorified doodling. The same can be said of design as well. Those entering these professions need to exhibit more than technical skill; they need to engage their minds and imaginations to get at the crux of the story they want to tell.

I was reminded of this while watching Craig Frazier’s video. A prolifically talented illustrator who still sketches thumbnails with pen and ink and cuts his final image out of rubylith film, Craig explains. “If there is anything magical about making illustration, it happens at the sketch stage. That’s when the idea comes out of the pen. The DNA of the illustration exists right in the sketch. If it is not there, it is not going to show up later on.”

Having worked with designer Kit Hinrichs for more than 30 years, I know he shares Craig’s views. Kit always starts his designs with rough pencil sketches, letting his muse lead him in the right design direction – sometimes it appears so thoroughly worked out in Kit’s head that I can compare his squiggly drawings with the final product and see a nearly exact conceptual match. Writers, too, produce draft after draft in search of that “aha!” moment of knowing what they are struggling to say. The “sketch stage” is the toughest and most creative part of any assignment; the execution stage feels like mechanics.

This brings me to my grievance with visual production software (whether for illustration, design or photography) that let practically anyone delude themselves into thinking they can approximate a professional-looking piece. At first glance, it may seem okay — uninspired, but clean and neat. A closer look quickly reveals that there is no “there there.” It’s generic and superficial, with no depth of concept. There is no cohesive idea, much less one that makes a compelling point. That’s because you can’t get there by starting in the middle. You have to start at the all-important sketching stage, which is where the imagination is released and ideas see the light of day.