Are the monthly contests conceptual or narrative? (A thought from the Ideation class)

  • SVS OG

    I confess that one reason I signed up for the Ideation class was that I was in a bit of a conceptual crisis, and that was itself based on--I'll admit it--my piece not being chosen for the January contest and then, the following week, seeing all the great ideas coming out for the February one. My problem was less that my piece wasn't chosen out of the 72 that were entered (we have to be realistic!) and more not knowing why. (If someone wants to give their opinion, I've love to hear it!)

    I am feeling especially weak in my conceptual ability right now, and I know the solution is to zero in on that weak spot and work on it, but I want to do so in a targeted, intelligent way. That's the reason I signed up for Ideation.

    The Ideation class is divided into narrative and conceptual assignments. The narrative is storytelling and has to do with entering into the atmosphere of the story, seeing what the characters look like, etc. It's more immediate, relying on mood to take the piece away from the literal and ordinary. The conceptual is more about visual metaphor, symbols, repetition, etc. Listening to the conceptual videos for the week, Sterling Hundley said something very interesting:

    "You're not going to put a whole lot of heavy lifting into developing concepts for narrative work. Your efforts will be misplaced, you'll be frustrated, and you won't be able to figure out why you can't come up with a conceptual solution."

    "Bingo!" I thought. I have been trying to do narrative work. But maybe the contests are more conceptual, especially as they are single pieces, not part of an established story, and there is a lot of emphasis on twists on the prompt. What do you guys think? This is a new way of looking at things for me, and I didn't want to copy the whole content of the course, obviously, but Hundley seems very convinced that this is a known distinction, so I'd like to think about it in terms of our own work here on the forums. We have all different styles here, but which category are we, and why?

    I'll looking forward to hearing your answers!

  • I'm not sure I get the difference not being in the class. Do you have any visual examples of the difference?

  • Pro SVS OG

    Not knowing the content of the class, I don’t know if this is relevant. In my experience in my previous career (when I commissioned illustration for websites and magazines), conceptual illustration is a big thing in editorial work. There’s a lot of visual metaphors going on there, capturing the whole complexity of a theme in a single and often controversial image (and there are some artists that are just geniuses at that).
    There’s not a lot of space for conceptual illustration in kidlit, apart from a few niche books that go more into a literary space. Most of kidlit illustration is narrative, and storytelling and character are much more important.
    Does that make sense?

  • @carlianne I think Lee explained this topic in one of his and David lectures. I was kind of halfway understanding what they were saying. I try my best to chip in my understanding from the class here (please note: the examples I used here are not the same examples they use in the class):

    Example of conceptual illustration for the little red riding hood.
    Art by David Hohn

    Example of narrative illustration for the little red
    Art by Gyo Fujikawa

    A conceptual illustration is like a visual summary/gist of a story. A narrative illustration is a specific moment of the story. So to me, these two approaches tackle with 2 different types of problems, and they have different purposes. For example, book covers, theater posters, advertising, and editorial illustrations tend to be more conceptual, and picture book interior and illustrations for storybooks tend to be more narrative.

    Hope this makes some sense.

    I also find things are not always neatly fit into the 2 boxes. For example, I found the little red riding hood book by Adolfo Serra is something in between. Here are some spreads from the bookimage.png

  • Pro SVS OG

    @xin-li That’s right - cover art is often more conceptual. Beautiful examples!

  • Interesting thoughts and examples—all of you.

    Some of the contest prompts seem to lean more in one direction or the other, but I've seen both conceptual & narrative pieces praised in the monthly contests.

    The main goal of the contests is to inspire people to create portfolio pieces and improve their skills, so something to consider is to ask yourself questions like:
    What type of pieces would you prefer to do for work?
    What kind of work would you like to be known for?
    What type of art would help you meet your goals?

  • SVS OG

    What you guys are telling me fits with what I thought I knew from Turbocharging: Narrative is about a prolonged story with page turns, characters and a consistent environment (which seems especially fitting for children's books) while conceptual seems more fitting for editorial and book covers, or maybe really clever children's books or reworking of tales like LLRH that have already been done many times traditionally. I think your choices are perfect, @xin-li. I remember that wolf/flower image from the class. And the wolf/forest one is just genius! But when I was a child, I would have been drawn to the narrative one.

    @smceccarelli That makes perfect sense. I'm just trying to figure out where all this fits into the contests, because the last critique I watched put so much emphasis on concept that I wondered if I got something off. I'll keep listening and drawing, and will eventually figure it out, but wanted to ask because concept feels like my weak spot at the moment and I wondered how important it was in children's books. I certainly have nothing against concept, but yes, it seems more editorial/book cover to me too. In general I'm trying to think more outside the box, though sometimes I just think there's nothing more comforting than an old-fashioned scene of children playing, done well, and it would be nice to have a place for that too.

    @carlianne I was going to look for some of Sterling's own work to illustrate the difference, but I didn't find it easily on his own site, so Google his Treasure Island if you want. That's narrative. I'll have to search more for his conceptual work, because that's where I got stuck in my search. Most of what is on his site right now looks more like gallery work. BTW, Hundley's narrative work is very visually interesting! Just because it's not conceptual doesn't mean it's ordinary at all.

    @Miriam I prefer narrative work, but I was starting to wonder whether I was just too traditional in my approach. I tend to like a lot of older, more traditional artists. At any rate, it never hurts to stretch!

    Thanks everyone!

  • SVS OG

    @Miriam Here you go with some examples of Hundley's own work:


    Narrative, Treasure Island

  • @LauraA I loved your Foxtrot piece. I honestly think it wasn't picked based on the personal preference of the judges not because it was not a beautiful piece both narratively and conceptually. I didn't see any major flaws with it. I am not the expert but I can usually pick the top 15 or so and I have only been surprised a couple of times. This was one of them. From my observations they tend to pick the trending styles and yours is different. It does look more old school. I struggle with the same thing. My line and wash was popular in the eighties and nineties but not so much now. My goal though is to BE different. I love the pieces that were chosen but stylistically a lot of them look like any of the artists could have done them. I think the only reason I ever even had a work chosen is because it was inked in October and inking is my thing. I would be really surprised if my latest works will be chosen for anything because they are line and wash and people seem to want a different look. I think you should be true to your style whether it is conceptual or narrative but look for other outlets to get it published because I think it is beautiful. Again. Good job on the Foxtrot.

    I hope I didn't ramble and I am not faulting anyone here. I love the variety and styles I see in the contests (oh and a line a wash was selected as the winner this month so what do I know!!) Happy painting!

  • I think your foxtrot piece had a really good concept and it was well worth the time you spent on it. Personally, I do think you could have pushed in certain ways to make the concept shine through even more, but if you look at the contest thread it had one of the higher vote counts. Why wasn't it chosen? It's just the nature of these contests that some really good pieces don't make the cut. I know some of my favs weren't chosen.

    For what it's worth, from what I've seen of your work- you come up with good concepts. It's great that you are exploring and trying to develop your ideas, but you should give yourself some credit and make sure you continue to produce work with concepts that feel satisfying to you personally.

  • SVS OG

    This whole discussion also relates to a question I have had for some time, namely, who should be the primary audience for an illustration? Is it the kids who will be reading it, the parents who will be buying it, the librarians who will be evaluating it, the art directors who will be helping publish it, etc.? Those audiences are often going to judge things differently. I know from my own experience as a mother that some of my son's favorite books had what I would consider to be pretty mundane art while the books I wanted to spend a long time looking at, my son might not take a second glance at. Moreover, we read books from all time periods so "style" was all over the place and didn't seem to enter into either of our evaluations. On the other hand, anyone trying to get an illustration gig, certainly must have to assume that their primary audience is the art director and/or agent.

    I really like your illustrations @LauraA because I too, like the old fashioned sweetness of your style but I've definitely noticed that it's often novel, creative, or stylized illustrations that grab people's attention. Maybe it's because when artists judge other artists they are always looking for things that they haven't seen before, or approach something in a new way. I've always felt that the contests are a double edged sword for me -- they stretch me and challenge me but at the same time, they can cause an awful lot of doubt and angst! I hope you can stay with your style and get published because I personally, love it.

  • Yeah what @TessaW said!

  • @LauraA Thanks Laura! That was a super helpful explanation. I guess I sort of see conceptual illustrations as "editorial" illustration and narrative illustrations as picture book, but I can see how you can use either approach in either medium.

    For the contests, maybe I'm still not understanding the difference, but they final 16 look pretty narrative to me. Are there some pieces you feel are more conceptual that won or were in the top 16?

    I prefer to work narratively (is that a word?) because that's what I love about illustration. I love telling stories and characters and making the viewer feel the emotions of what I've put on paper. Mostly I prefer happy, but when it's sad, I want people to know they're not alone in that feeling. I think conceptual illustration is cool, but I don't connect with it in the same way.

    I'm curious do you find that you connect to one approach over the other?

  • SVS OG

    @chrisaakins and @TessaW, Thanks so much for your encouragement. My head tells me that you are right. My emotions are all over the place, probably because of isolation, but that's something I'm going to have to learn to handle. I thought that taking the Ideation class was the right way to go this month because it would give me another perspective. And when I look ahead I see that there are going to be more lessons in the Ideation class on the difference between the two.

    I'll be back soon for another contest, though! And I certainly don't fault anyone. My thought process is, "Whether I have particular weak spots or whether my style just doesn't grab attention, it's best for me to get honest feedback so I can decide what to do about it." I may decide to persist with a particular style or not to use a particular tool in the aesthetic toolbox, but it never pays to be willfully ignorant.

    @demotlj I do think my taste was formed as a young child because I was a very avid listener and then reader, and the illustrations in the books I read were a big part of the experience (also the smell of the paper!). Plus, I am one of those people who is very drawn to certain moods and not to others. As a result there are some very popular styles (I think of the Carson Ellis "primitive plant" one, very cartoon-based ones, and the very realistic science fiction matte painting ones) that I admire objectively but would never imitate because they don't move me personally. And with all the styles I admire, it's actually a relief to be able to eliminate a direction or two!

    @chrisaakins I liked your Inktober mouse pieces a lot too! I think perhaps the reason is that in them the forms look very defined, more so than the other piece you recently asked for critique on.

    @carlianne I definitely prefer a narrative approach, although I really admire a good concept as well. For the conceptual I just stand back and say, "Wow! That's really clever!" But I agree with you that the connection is often more intellectual than emotional (if that's what you mean by saying it's cool but you don't connect with it in the same way) and that I prefer an emotional connection. Anyway, you ask a really good question about the contest and it deserves a good answer. When I have time I'll go back and watch the whole critique video again and then hopefully I can give you the answer your question deserves.

    Ok, back to work for today or nothing will get done! Thanks everybody!

  • SVS OG

    @carlianne I listened to the critique again, and the explicit criteria were 1) overall concept and take on the prompt and 2) technique. The most frequent comments were on composition (especially), unique take on the prompt, color balance, and either character or overall design.

    They don't look like editorial art for sure, so I see your point. But there's definitely a conceptual factor.

    P.S. Your owl mountains were adorable and original!

Log in to reply