What can photographers learn from an award-winning illustrator? As it turns out, quite a lot.
Tyler Jacobson is a professional illustrator whose work can be seen everywhere from Dungeons and Dragons and Konami to Toyota, NBC, and Sports Illustrated. To say that I’m a fan would be an understatement, as I own a few of his pieces, and I wouldn’t be lying in expressing my geeky glee at getting to chat with him about how photography intersects with more traditional or analog art forms.
Photographers most often look to other photographers for education and neglect what we can learn from artists of other disciplines. So, when I got the opportunity to sit down with Jacobson and talk about visual storytelling from an illustrator’s perspective, I walked away with tons of inspiration and new ideas for ways I can strengthen my photography. I approached this interview with the idea of finding out how his knowledge of image creation could be valuable to photographers, and I hope you’re as inspired by his insights as I was.
I strongly encourage you to watch the interview, because Jacobson is not only deeply knowledgeable but engaging and generous with his knowledge, as well.
So, what are some of the main points I learned from this award-winning illustrator?
Use Every Tool at Your Disposal
Illustrators who do concept work, as Jacobson does, often have to create on tight deadlines. Photobashing, CGI, photography, overlays — anything goes when an illustrator needs to get a concept out quickly. I often get trapped in Photoshop using the techniques I’m most familiar with and forget there’s an entire world of creative possibilities out there that could help me realize a vision. And with software like Blender, the possibilities are literally endless. Jacobson said: “there’s absolutely no shame in using any of the modern technology we have to get the job done.”
Of course, there are people who choose to keep their pursuits free of any post-processing, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but let it be an artistic choice rather than one made because the photographer doesn’t realize those options are open to them.
Compositions Need to Be Strong at Small Sizes
Photographers often create with large prints in mind, but when illustrating for Magic the Gathering cards, Jacobson has to create compositions that read well in a small size. Now that so many people consume media on their phones, it’s worthwhile for photographers to think about how their photos read at thumbnail size. Of particular importance in that circumstance, Jacobson says, is a figure-ground relationship, or how the subject stands out against the background. This consideration won’t apply to all photographers, but thinking about the overall composition first and details second can help images stand out on platforms like Instagram or the screen of a phone, where a viewer's first impression of an image is only a few inches wide.
When creating is your job, making images can very quickly lose joy. Jacobson suggests guarding your weekends to make sure you have time to decompress. He also said that having fun with art, thinking about it outside the bounds of work helps him to remember that art is fun. The same could be said for photographers, especially when photography is so ubiquitous in our lives.
Don’t Overuse References
Illustrators, like photographers, find references to help inform their work. But Jacobson chooses to use only a few references so the final piece still has energy and originality. This translates to photography as well, because photographers can have their work unconsciously co-opted by their mood board and lose the originality they might have had if they’d allowed themselves more creative freedom.
Jacobson will often photograph his own reference photos and manipulate them in Photoshop so he has a solid visual reference to create from. When using outside references, though, Jacobson focuses on putting together elements rather than taking inspiration wholesale.
Maybe it will have a color palette that works great and that’s what I’ll stick with, or maybe it has a composition that’s really interesting, and I’ll take elements of that. But I’m a big proponent of the idea that none of us create in a vacuum. We live off of inspiration and our work is a sort of hybridization of all the inspiration we’ve ever had.
Other times, when Jacobson is conceptualizing a piece, the image is born through the blood, sweat, and tears of struggling over an idea until his experience and skill set finally bring it to life. I resonated with this experience because I’ve discovered the process of getting better at something often involves struggling with ideas until I build a skill set capable of handling it. It also involves turning an idea over enough times to really see it, to break it down enough to expose and understand it. “There’s no magic to it,” Jacobson said, “it’s just putting in the hours.” Whether that means going to school to master your craft or devoting every free moment to progressing, the need for time investment is the same.
Start in Black and White
This is an area where photographers might find a digital art practice worth trying. Jacobson will begin a piece of art in black and white so he can focus on making sure the value structure is strong and enhances the overall composition. Photographers often use a black and white layer as “eye help” when editing, but it would be worth a try to see if the initial processing in black and white can be used to focus on overall value structure and tonality before going back and making any adjustments to color. This can be done with curves adjustments, dodging and burning, luminosity masks, or other post-processing techniques. Jacobson’s main concern is that his images have a strong composition and value before ever considering color. When those things fall into place, he says, color can then be added and adjusted to strengthen the image as a whole.
Tell a Story
When creating illustrations for fantasy properties like Dungeons and Dragons, Jacobson receives a story briefing as a narrative base for building his images. That is also a technique photographers can take advantage of to ensure all the elements of the photographs they are making are cohesive and assist in communicating an idea. How does Jacobson go about this?
“I have to find a way to tell that story with a strong compositional base.” He begins by building a composition, often using the rule of thirds or the golden ratio several times within an image to assist in placing important aspects of the story, and then finessing that composition using different techniques like implied or overlapping lines, “lost and found edges,” and controlling the contrast to lead the viewer’s eye through the image.
Contrast, he says, can be achieved not only through light, but through things like color, sharpness, and color temperature. Jacobson isn’t afraid to break the “rules” either if it assists in communicating the story and guiding the viewer’s eye through the frame.
One interesting concept Jacobson often uses in his art is edge control. This is not something photographers often focus on, as we are most often concerned with the focal plane and the depth of field. But when painting, Jacobson is able to vary the softness or sharpness of the edges of shapes to create areas of contrast. He may often effectively have several “in-focus” areas on what would be different focal planes while softening the edges of lines in the areas of less interest. This is a technique not generally found among photographers, as the nature of our gear forces us to choose an entire plane of focus, but it would be an interesting thing to experiment with in post-production.
Try New Disciplines
Practicing other forms of visual artwork as a way to inspire, inform, and educate ourselves on the language of visual communication can give photographers much greater control over the end result of the images they create. Should a photographer take the time to study a more traditional or analog form of art, they may find that their understanding of things like form, light, and composition deepen in profound ways. This is because an analog artist cannot rely on a found scene, but must understand the nature of everything they include in the final image. If the artist does not understand light fully and the nature of how it behaves, that will be blatant in the final painting. In a piece of traditional artwork, nothing is included in the scene that the illustrator or painter does not place there. This means they're not only manipulating what was already in the environment; they are actively adding or removing things to strengthen the composition and tell the story. As photographers, we have the luxury of working with compelling locations, beautiful models, and light we can control with the touch of a button. Unfortunately, that can also become a hindrance to our progression as artists, because it does not encourage us to be critical about what is included in the frame and why.
When I asked him what advice he might give to photographers, Jacobson said: “I would encourage people to really dig into how people tell stories in illustration, and maybe there are ways to do the same things in photography.
Target Your Portfolio
As a longtime veteran of the commercial illustration world, Jacobson encourages artists to carefully curate their portfolios to suit the jobs they want to get and the clients they want to work with. Don’t force art directors to try and parse whether your style could suit their product, make the decision easy for them by showing the kind of work they can imagine using.
If you want to do concept art, have a concept art only portfolio you show them. If you show an art director a portfolio that’s going all over the place, it’s too much for them to take in and they’re not getting an idea that you can solve their problems. So you want to show them right away, do your research and show them work of yours that looks like it fits in their brand. That’s the best way to do it.
Go for the Emotional Response
As the interview was closing, I asked Jacobson what he thought made a strong image:
I tend to love an image when I get an immediate emotional response, and then I start to see why I got that based on the principles I know about illustration — how were they able to hit me emotionally before they were able to hit me with my knowledge of the principles of composition or color.
Of course, nailing that response is tricky, but becomes easier the more skill one gains in using visual clues to pull emotional levers.
This conversation was incredibly illuminating for me because it challenged me to think more broadly about what is possible within the realm of photography. Not being a purist and not using a camera for the purpose of capturing reality, this leaves me free to take as many liberties as I want in image creation. Why should I only have a single focal plane? Why does everything need to be tack sharp? Why should the photography “rules” be so embedded in how I approach my work that I’ve never stepped into the realm of other kinds of visual art to apply new techniques?
I feel encouraged to explore different areas of visual art so I can find out what I can take away from those disciplines and apply them to my own work. After watching and reading this interview, is there anything that stands out to you as tips you can see yourself using in your workflow? Let me know in the comments! And if you have any suggestions for interviews you’d love to see, post them below.