Illustration Basics: Part 1

It’s the rainy season again, when I’m tempted to stay inside: warm, dry and sedentary. It’s a good time to draw, paint and post to my blog, but it’s not so good for my physical well being, and therefore also not so good for my mental well being. Thankfully, there are ways to shake myself out of this stay-at-home state. One of them is to sign up for an art workshop.

Last Saturday, I attended the first session of “Illustration Basics,” a workshop at the Vancouver Island School of Art. The teacher is Heather Caldwell, whose website can be found here. Heather has great depth of experience and understanding of her subject matter, and this 2-day course can only give a small taste of what she has to offer as a teacher. The workshop continues (and finishes) next Saturday.

At the most basic level, illustration is the making of images that communicate something. While fine art is often made for purely aesthetic reasons, there is a more practical purpose for illustration: it is a visual representation of information. It is not purely decorative, as textile design may be.

There are many types of illustration: technical or scientific illustration, book design, artwork for advertising, children’s books, graphic novels, comic books, to name a few.

Heather talked briefly about semiotics, a word I recognized and knew how to spell, but which I did not really understand. Semiotics, according to, is “the study of signs and sign processes (semiosis), indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication.”

Our exercise for the workshop is for each of us to illustrate the letters of our own name. Working in pairs, we made lists of our individual interests and important aspects of our lives. Our given names were in themselves a symbol: a representation of who we are. The letters are not mere decoration: each letter should be designed to express some part of ourselves. Heather is very helpful in guiding our thinking into more abstract or conceptual forms. Other students are asked to provide feedback as we complete draft versions of our letters, and this is useful, too. Is the letter recognizable? Is the image recognizable? Is one image more representative of the concept than another?

My list included gardens and nature, my grandchildren, the history of my mother’s family, my cats and my blog, but as I started to work through the possible meanings of the images I chose, some words stood out for me and somehow seemed to have more significance. For example, I chose the image of a bird to use with the letter “r” because the shapes seemed to work well together and I like birds and have included them in my paintings and in my blog posts in the past. Looking at birds on a more symbolic level, I found that the bird is sometimes used as a symbol for the human soul: a representation of one’s spirit, mind or self.

I’m looking forward to Day 2 of the workshop and my next post will describe our further activities and accomplishments.


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