ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Artwork size and the printed page

How big should you draw? John Shelley considers what’s a natural size for illustrators to work at, and how it measures up in print.

In illustration, size matters.

I’m not talking about dots-per inch, but the actual size of hand-drawn artwork.

When I was a student in pre-digital days we had something called a grant enlarger at college, it was a big old chunky device consisting of a lens and two plates. You’d put your drawing or source reference on the bottom plate, then manipulate the squeaky handles at the front to focus a lens up and down, projecting an enlarged or reduced image onto the top glass plate, which you’d then be able to trace. Ah…. the old days. I’m often reminded of this when I use software now to scan in at whatever resolution fits the job, we’re blessed with the means to zoom into the tiniest of details onscreen and tweak every mark we make. Times have indeed moved on. With all the power of technology, does it really matter what size we create physical artwork?

Grant Enlarger (image: Ebay)

Well, of course, it’s all about expression! It’s hard to recreate the zip of a tiny pencil doodle when you try to do the same thing ten times bigger on a spread of watercolour paper, and you’d need a pretty fat pencil! Marks on paper take on a particular quality at any particular size, and by changing the size we work, different challenges are revealed. This might take us out of our comfort zone, but for better or worse, it’s a good reason to explore boundaries. That’s why art teachers often push students to sketch bigly and boldly - to shake us up and break us out of self-set conventions. Sometimes it works the other way too - working much smaller than usual can unlock new qualities in our art.

But it's not only about our comfortable scale - there are opportunities presented by differences between artwork size and the reproduction size of the printed material.

Artwork Size vs Repro Size

Should we work smaller than repro size? The same size? Or bigger? And if so, to what degree should the differential be? Artwork that’s larger than published size will sharpen up when it’s reduced down in the final print, though you might lose some detail. Smaller artwork than repro size can give extra power to the enlargement, the texture of the marks carry a greater weight, but any messiness will be on full display. Anyone who’s seen their work blown up large will recognise the mixed feelings of rejoicing at the power of the image and cringing at all the tiny blemishes clearly viewed!

One big lesson for me was when I first started working on advertising posters soon after I moved to Japan. Up until that point I’d only illustrated children’s books and magazine editorials in the UK, almost always at 100% repro size (i.e. my artwork was the same size as the printed material). Posters were a new challenge, my very first poster commission was a “summer fair” for a department store. I was asked to put away my watercolours and mark up a line drawing for flat process colour, a completely new method to me. I drew a busy collage of summery elements, beach, postcard, camera, flight etc, at about A4 size. In one corner I added a single figure of a man running off the edge with a suitcase, barely more than an inch big.

When the poster was released I was in for a massive surprise. The art director had ignored the entire illustration, instead just taking the tiny figure of the man, blowing him up to an enormous B-0 (100 x 141.4 cm) poster size to make a simple, uncomplicated poster, the pen lines of my little man were thick and dynamic. It was a lesson in scale. That became my signature style for years in advertising, bold simple images drawn generally very small, a chunky expressive line, blown up big - all developing from that first poster. Very different from my children's books.

Tsukashin poster 1987 - Yes I still have the ancient and embarassing artwork! What I delivered to the art director on the left, and what they printed in the poster on the right.

Children’s books require a different approach, as we peruse images close up, so for most of us, artwork is usually at least 100% repro size. Working at 100% is very attractive - it’s easy to lay out, no need to work out scales, just measure out the dimensions and get on with it. But some years ago I began working slightly larger, at 115% or 120%, which I found helped to pull together the artwork on the printed page and tighten the detail. Recently with black & white text illustrations for novels I've realised that even this isn’t big enough - when I compare a good quality photocopy of one of my pen drawings, and a printout made from a 1200dpi bitmap scan of the same image, the photocopy wins every time - printing line drawings from scans seems to lose delicacy. As this has also happened in books, in future I’ll be drawing bigger to compensate, maybe as much as 200%.

I came to this conclusion after visiting the Chris Beetles Gallery exhibition of classic children’s book art last December. I was amazed to see some of the sizes of works by the great illustrators of the past. Sure, many were at 100% repro size or thereabouts, but William Heath Robinson’s drawings were far bigger than I’d assumed, especially his drawings for Rabelais (1904), some of which were enormous!

William Heath Robinson - "Having Discover'd an Ambuscade of Squob-Chitterlings", from Volume 2 of The Works of Rabelais (1904). The original artwork (left) measures a whopping 565 x 400 mm, compared to the printed illustration in my copy of the Navarre edition at only 158 x 107mm.

Aha! so that’s why they look so detailed in the printed book! Also my beloved Arthur Rackham, I knew he generally drew 2-up (i.e. 200%), but it was a surprise to discover that his drawings for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), though twice the size of the printed book, were dwarfed by an image he drew for Rip Van Winkle (1905), which is four times bigger than the printed plate. These heroes were not afraid of scale!

"Arthur Rackham’s “They Were Ruled by an Old Squaw Spirit Who Hung Up the New Moons In the Skies and Cut Up the Old Ones Into Stars”, from Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle (Heinemann 1905) - the original artwork at Chris Beetles gallery (left) measured 362 x 267mm, compared to a mere 172x127mm for the printed plate in my copy of the book (right). (Gallery photo by Clare Tovey)

But that was then, and this is now. Publishing has changed, for children’s books today, we can scan in textures and layers at all sizes to create the finished image. What works well as a simple, small image on social media may not necessarily have the same charm when it’s printed in a book, while an impressive double page spread in a book might look forgettable on tiny Instagram screens, so it’s horses for courses. The key for the illustrator is maintaining a high degree of finish, whatever the size, while including enough detail to make the illustration carry weight.

My latest commission was for a limited edition book, gifted to sponsors of a new health spa in Tokyo. The book was initially envisaged to be a bit bigger, hence the comfortable size I drew the artwork, but planning changed, the page count was increased, the format reduced, so the resulting book is smaller than originally designed. The wonderful thing though, is that the drawings have printed beautifully despite being drawn with a fine-point pen and quite heavily reduced in size, losing none of their definition or detail. I love it!

Artwork and printed book for Oka Tokyo (design by Satisone)

Miniature Me

At the entirely opposite end of the scale, though I generally draw artwork bigger than repro, this year I’ve challenged myself to create a 1-inch square drawing every day for the whole year (follow my daily postings on Twitter, Linked-In  and Instagram). This is considerably smaller than I’m accustomed to drawing, but the tiny size is wonderfully elastic - the confines of the small are countered by the immediacy of working something out quickly, if it doesn’t work, it’s not much sweat to draw it again. The challenge of working in miniature with a fine point pen is fascinating, and when seen close-up on social media the enlarged wobbly lines are full of expression, reminding me of my old advertising posters.

Recent one-inch daily drawings

So, if you work small, try working big and reducing the size for print, if you work big, try working small, and if you’re in the middle, why not try a bit of both!

(All images © John Shelley unless otherwise stated)


John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures and the illustrator of over 50 books for children, most recently A Purse Full of Tales, a book of Korean Folk stories, for Hesperus Press. He's a three times nominee for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

1 comment:

  1. I've been drawing for my own enjoyment for over 30 years. I wish I had been able to read your blog in my early days.... A light just went on for me


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