How illustrations work

While you’re on vacation taking a walk, you might find yourself staring at a tree. All relaxed and content, you suddenly notice the strength of the stem, the fragility of the leaves, roots being grounded while the branches reach for light—beautiful! 

But the next week, when you’re commuting to work again, it’s all gone. If you’re like me, you’re running to the subway in a dirty part of Brooklyn, and you barely register any trees at all. If you do, you simply notice there’s a plastic bag stuck between the branches.

What’s so great about illustrations is that they can bring you vacation-trees during a stressful workweek. Illustrators can look at a tree for you, work to see it fully, and then work again to draw the essence of what they saw. That drawing may not be majestic at all. It might be messy. It might be three lines on white paper. But if done right, a rich image will form in your mind every time you look at it.

This is how illustrations work. They need not be detailed or complex to be effective. They just need to provide the ingredients with which your mind can do its magic. 

So if you’re drawing a tree, you don’t need to copy the exact curves and texture of world’s most beautiful branch. You have to draw those shapes that will help your audience picture one, or even better: feel one.

It’s very difficult. But very magical when it works.

An example:

This is a drawing by Oamul Lu (, whose illustrations work for me every time. Looking at the brush strokes gives my eyes the input I need for my brain to reconstruct the feeling I felt on my last summer hike in the catskills.

Let me know if it works for you, too, in the comments below.

By Oamul Lu (

Published by

Hes van Doornen

Illustrator, Designer From Amsterdam, living in New York City.

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