‘To illustrate?’

‘It has to do with ideas.’

‘Not to be mistaken with the word “drawing”.’

‘A designer is not necessarily an illustrator. An illustrator does not always use drawing in their work.’

‘They could use photography, collages, sculpture, typography.’

‘Illustrators are storytellers. The important thing is that they tell things.’

‘It is not a question of manual skill.’

‘Was it Steinberg who said that illustrators are writers who write with images?’


‘Romanian. He studied architecture in Milan. He arrived to New York without speaking English. He says he learned thanks to billboards and neon signs.’

‘Ah, street advertising is the best school primer.’

‘Steinberg made many covers for The New Yorker. Some of them very famous.’

‘I do not exactly regard him as an illustrator: his drawings are exhibited in museums and galleries. Illustrators rarely display their work: their originals are meant to be reproduced by mechanical means.’

‘Perhaps one thing does not exclude the other. There are originals that are very beautiful works. If there are no more exhibitions, it is because paper has a very short life and the art market and collectors prefer more long-lasting investments.’

‘Personally, I prefer books. In any case, illustrators start from a previous literary idea or text.’

‘To illustrate means to enlighten, to shed light on something. Graphic illustration helps to understand a text, making it easier to read.’

‘For me, illustration works precisely when it suggests different readings’.

‘In the same way as with texts: it does not have to be obvious. It is essential to preserve a certain mystery.’

‘So that not everything is said and done.’

‘The reader must also participate.’

‘I find it pitiful to see in many children’s books how the illustrator merely repeats what the text says, without offering their own vision. Illustrators are also authors, and often times they forget. As authors, they have a responsibility towards their readers.’

‘That is true. The writer will say, for example: “Luisa was given a wonderful book and spent a highly amusing afternoon with it”. And the image the illustrator offers is a little girl sitting in an armchair with a book in her hands.’

‘Indeed, there is nothing wonderful about watching someone sitting in an armchair. Especially if they are holding a heavy book. Not even if they are laughing!’

‘The joy of reading can hardly be represented with a book.  A book is like a brick. What is interesting is not what the book looks like, but what happens in our heads.’

‘Sometimes, however, the gaze of the character, their smile, can make us wonder what they are looking at, what they are thinking.’

‘Absolutely. Sometimes you can tell a lot with small gestures. There are designers who are great masters of using minimal resources.’

‘Steinberg, for example. And Sempé. Great designers. Masters of the line.’

‘Narration goes well with concentration and synthesis.’

‘The image must be a carrier of information, but the visual elements must also be taken care of. One cannot separate one from the other.’

‘I remember someone comparing an illustrator to a film director. Not a bad comparison, in my opinion.’

‘Yes, in both cases there is a previous script or a literary pretext, and the illustrator or director must propose the images. They have to integrate very diverse elements and attempt to achieve the best coherence. When a director ties up all the ends together with skill and talent, a natural style and brand emerge.’

‘Many illustrators, in my opinion, get this wrong. They believe that style is about drawing very thin or very thick lines, or spray-painting onto a sheet of wood. This is technique, not style.’

‘Of course, an illustrator can use a variety of techniques, depending on the occasion.’

‘It is healthy to try new techniques. One must continue learning.’

‘If you do not enjoy your work, it can become torture.’

‘On the other side, we have illustrators who repeat over and over the same formula for success. I do not understand how they are not bored of always drawing the same thing in the same way.’

‘It is very difficult to avoid change. Everyone is subjected to a thousand influences.’

‘Sometimes you end up copying, even without being conscious of it.’

‘I think the important thing for illustrators is to recognise their world of ideas. More important than recognising their characters by their thick or sharp noses.’

‘But the effort of making a nose different from the rest is also a big challenge, it cannot be denied.’

‘I suppose so. Many designers have a single character that they polish throughout their whole lives. They grow alongside them.’

‘Just as drawing interesting noses is difficult, drawing animals is also very complicated.’

‘Everyone draws animals.’

‘But one must know a lot about dogs to draw one well.’

‘You have to observe dogs carefully. Spend entire days at their side. Live a dog’s life.’

‘I do not agree completely. Our imagination plays a very important role. Albrecht Dürer drew a rhinoceros without ever having seen the animal, based on written testimonies and others’ descriptions.’

‘Are there any illustrators who spend the entire day glued to their table, drawing?’

‘Most certainly, yes, but this is because the market requires them to work in very short time frames, and the low pay prevents them from turning down any commissions.’

‘I know illustrators who are highly curious about everything. They can talk about music and gastronomy as well as the history of costume or Oriental philosophy.’

‘Yes. Travellers. Collectors. Hoarders of a variety of objects. Treasure hunters. Among the illustrators I have met, there have been fantastical characters.’

‘I have the feeling that, unlike other artists, lost in thought, illustrators are more open to the world. Among them there must be a high number of encyclopedia readers.’

‘Also, not all illustrators are big readers. I am sure many do not even read the books they illustrate in their entirety.’

‘In their defense, not all books are worth reading. This is also true.’

‘Some include only one successful paragraph, or a sentence, or a word: mat.’

‘Yet, people buy books for the drawings. At least, children’s ones.’

‘Illustrations interest people of all ages, I think. What is happening is that we have lost the ability to read images, the capacity to be astonished.’

‘Which is precisely what characterises children.’

‘Of course, we do not like wasting our time with things we do not deem important or that we do not understand. And we do not deem them important because they are not socially recognised.’

‘Everything that has to do with children belongs to a more primitive world, to a pre-world which is not associated with the ultra-developed world everything seems to cater to.’

‘It happens here and everywhere.’

‘However, although they will not admit it, many people are fascinated by images and are able to carry them in their minds for a long time.’


‘Especially photographs, because photography has replaced graphic images almost everywhere’

‘In the same way, one remembers a phrase or a word from a book.’

‘A word is an image, a drawing. Just look at how many words Steinberg has drawn.’

‘By force of repetition, words lose their meaning. The word “peace”, for example, looks like a logo. By force of repetition, images also become invisible.’

‘It is interesting how someone from abroad, a foreigner, a stranger, can end up appropriating a code of images and a vocabulary that do not belong to their culture and propose new meanings.’

‘It is what you were saying about influences. They are reciprocal. Eastern prints influenced French Impressionists, but Western art also influenced the East. Look at Japanese illustrators now.’

‘Everything is a blend.’

‘In illustration, this is very evident. It is very permeable to fashions.’

‘Baudelaire considered illustrators as paradigms of modern artists. It is true.’

‘Everything is a blend of tradition and modernity, as someone once said.’

‘And what is most modern usually comes from tradition, as the same person probably said.’

‘Among them is El Greco, the painter who painted those elongated saints with such vivid colours.’

‘When everything was so dark! They used to say he had a flawed vision.’

‘He is a good example as an illustrator. Artists from before always worked on commission. Sometimes these were terrible.’

‘They had to please difficult clients and include things in the paintings that seemed impossible to include.’

‘There was also a magical value to the images that has disappeared for the most part.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘When someone draws or paints a person with a coal sack on their shoulders, they are not quite aware that they are condemning this figure to carry a monstrous weight for all eternity.’

‘The paper’s eternity, which is not all that long.’

‘I have the impression that contemporary illustrators, most of them at least, do not know the history of art that well.’

‘And, yet, they should be aware that every artist, or practitioner of art, so to speak, automatically enrolls in a tradition that goes back to dark and remote ages.’

‘The new noses or eyes that contemporary illustrators draw or paint establish a continuity with those painted by Egyptians, Dürer, and Picasso.’

‘’We can find wonderful solutions to specific problems of composition, perspective, or colour in the history of art. Goya, Grosz, and Masereel are modern artists.’

‘Some illustrators are very proud of, let’s say, the artistic component of their work, and consider themselves painters before anything else. For them, being a painter is the pinnacle. An aspiration.’

‘Yes, they work with supports typical of painting and with materials used by painters.’

‘I do not think that is wrong. Anything is valid. What matters is that they feel comfortable and confident when expressing themselves.’

‘The downside is that many do not take into consideration that their work has to be reproduced through a machine that interprets colours as percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Some use formats difficult to manipulate. Gee, they do not make it easy.’

‘Many professionals are unaware of how the printing process works. Fine art students are not usually experts in graphic arts. And they should be, right?’

‘Some have an aversion towards computers.’

‘Fewer and fewer. One can perfectly make traditional techniques and new technologies compatible.’

‘Sometimes with surprising results.’

‘On the other hand are those illustrators who, fascinated by computers, abuse their tricks. They love the machine because it seems to work on its own.’

‘On occasions, it is true, the machine is the only one who thinks.’

‘And that is essential for illustrators.’

‘As much as modern bicycles are for cyclists.’

‘Some editors reject images generated with computers. They find it excessively cold.’

‘For some, the computer creates a monotonous effect. All images seem the same. I have heard this comment many times.’

‘They are just not used to it. You can also work with the computer in a very artisanal way.’

‘It is a first impression, a prejudice, that disappears with attentive observation.’

‘Sometimes we look but we do not see. We do not use our eyes except to recognise what we have already seen.’

‘To not crash into traffic lights.’

‘Speaking of traffic lights, it has been wonderful that we have met in the street, but I have to go.’

‘That is a shame. We had a good time chatting.’

‘I need to catch a plane to Lisbon.’

‘Do not miss out on the work of Portuguese illustrators. It is worth your while!’

‘That is what I will do. Immediately.’

‘And say hello to Almada for me.’

Vicente Ferrer

Text originally published in the catalogue of the exhibition Ilustraçao Portuguesa 2004, published by the Bedeteca of Lisbon in October 2004. Image: two vignettes by Almada Negreiros belonging from a comic strip that appeared in the El Sol newspaper on 11 November 1927 (extracted from the book El alma de Almada el impar: obra gráfica, 1926-1931, Bedeteca of Lisbon, Lisbon, 2004).