How to Combine Concepts in Illustration

Some of the most interesting and clever illustrations set themselves apart by combining different concepts in unique ways. In this post, we’ll be exploring the creative process of connecting seemingly unrelated words or ideas into one illustration. If you are into problem-solving, like I am, you will love this process, as it leads to many delightful “ah-hah!” moments. Learning this process is a great way to push yourself creatively and produce work beyond the obvious. To give you some fantastic examples of results of the process, we can enter the world of Conceptual Illustration.

Conceptual Illustration

Conceptual Illustration is all about communicating an idea in a uniquely visual way. This type of illustration, often found in editorial work, is used to make a statement, to make the viewer laugh, think, or view something from a new perspective. Conceptual Illustrations have the power to communicate very complex topics. At the end of this article, you’ll find a Pinterest board I made for you that is filled with a ton of inspirational Concept Illustrations, like the ones below.

Artwork by Iker Ayesteran
Artwork by Joey Guidone
Artwork by Davide Bonazzi

Step-By-Step

1. Brainstorm each word or element

Look at each word or element individually. Make a list of ways you could interpret that thing. Write down these words in a list. Start with the most obvious ideas and keep going. Do not edit your ideas at all! Whatever comes to mind, just write it down. This exercise is called “free association,” and the purpose is to let your mind wander and imagine. This is about quantity, not quality. 

Some ideas to help you generate words for your brainstorm:

  • Be literal: write down the most obvious ideas first
  • What are alternate definitions of the word?
  • Think of metaphors
  • Use the senses: what does it smell like? Taste like? Sound like? What are the physical characteristics: color, texture, shape, size, etc.?
  • What are the parts that make up the thing?
  • What is the purpose of the thing or what kinds of scenarios can it be used for?
  • How could the thing be manipulated? Can it be squashed or broken? Cut apart, exploded?
  • Can it be used to make something? 
  • What problems can it solve…or create?
  • Think of how the word relates to history or pop culture? Is it found in any idioms or common phrases/sayings?
  • Do you have any personal experiences related to the thing?
  • What would be the complete opposite of this thing?

For our example in this tutorial, I’ll be using the two words “lemon” and “eye”.

More Tools to Help you Brainstorm

 A resource I have found to be helpful in this exercise is the Visual Thesaurus // visualthesaurus.com 

Similar name, different site
Visual Thesaurus // visual-thesaurus.com
GraphWords Visual Dictionary
Graph Words // graphwords.com
A normal thesaurus can be handy as well: Thesaurus.com // thesaurus.com

2. Look for Relationships

Once you have spent time brainstorming on each word, look through your separate lists and identify any relationships between the two. If there are any words that repeat in both lists, that is a great place to start generating concepts. Circle items in the one list that might relate to things in the other list. 

Make a third list of these relationships. If any new ideas pop up, write them down as well!

3. Sketch your ideas

Look over your relationship list and visualize what these new concepts might look like in your head. On a blank canvas or sheet of paper, make small, loose sketches of the different concepts. Start with the most obvious visualizations, then think about other angles or perspectives your could use to depict your concept. 

Keep these sketches simple and avoid adding too many details. The point is to get the concept out of your head and onto paper. Don’t judge or critique any of your ideas. Something that seems like it could never work could inspire a whole new idea. Be weird and wild. 

4. Choose a Concept Idea!

Choose a concept idea from your sketch page that you’d like to make into a finished piece. I decided to choose my “cucumbers on eyes, but lemons instead” concept. As I started to work on my sketch, I thought it would be funny to have the woman be confused about the beauty procedure she was doing. She could be peeling a lemon up with a worried face and asking if she’s “doing this right.” I was drawing on personal experience — I’ve never put lemons on my eyeballs, but I grew up as kind of a tomboy and often get confused about beauty products. How can your art relate to your personality?

On a new canvas, make a larger rough sketch of the concept. Reduce the opacity of your initial sketch, then draw a more refined sketch, adding in details you’ll be using in your final art. During this process, begin to consider the color palette you’ll be using.

5. Render Final Artwork

Finish your artwork in whatever visual style you’d like. Reduce the opacity of your sketch layer and use it as a guide as you work. For my piece, I decided to do a flat, painterly look with simple line art to depict the details. This meant blocking in large areas with flat color, each color being on its own layer. I made a separate layer for all the line art details.

Tip! Look up reference photos as you work on drawing the different elements of your piece. For mine, I did Google image searches for things like “towel on head,” “green beauty mask,” and “lemon slice.” I also took a selfie of my own hand, pretending to hold a lemon slice. Below you can see the final piece as well as a time-lapse of my drawing process. 

 

Final Artwork

Here is my final artwork, which I created by combining the words “lemon” and “eye.” I decided to title this piece, “Beauty is Pain?”

Additional Resources

I’ve created a board of conceptual illustrations to inspire you. Look through the artwork and try to identify what two (or more!) concepts the artist has combined together. Notice how the artists play with scale, juxtaposition, shape, negative space, and other art principles to more effectively communicate the idea.

4 thoughts on “How to Combine Concepts in Illustration

  1. I really liked the blog about concept illustration. I never really knew what it was before, now I know!! I love the idea of combining two concepts into one illustration. You make everything look so easy:) Thank you for all of the hard work that you put into everything to help us all!!!!!

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