Key Steps in Illustration: Abstract Illustration

This exercise asked to choose one song from a Jazz musican or classic composer and create an abstract illustrationwhile listening to this piece of music.

Before I began, I looked at abstract art in general. The BBC has a great website which gives an overview of how abstract art has developed over time. I find it quite interesting what different styles can be considered “abstract”. The Tate also explains abstract art on its website, as well as the ArtistNetwork. What I understand of abstract art is that it does not reflect any “natural” objects – in contrast to realistic art -, but mainly works with shapes, colours, and possibly surpriese, and experiments to express emotions.

BBC’s Matthew Collings also presents a nice series “The Rules of Abstraction“, which I also watched. The documentary says that abstract art is all about experimentation. There are different types of Abstract Arts, for instance, Art that is all about Colour Theory, i.e. based on scientific ideas on how colours work together. There is also art that is all about accident, and chance, all reflecting the artists’ ideas about reality.

When I think about abstract art, the first name that comes to my mind is Kandinsky, who is also included in the BBC documentary briefly. According to the artists, feelings, are full of nature’s impressions, and are put on the canvas. To me this is quite interesting, and I believe it is true. I think there is always something personal that every artists adds to a piece, no matter how realistic or objective the style is. Kandinsky’s art is based on his visual instinct. When he places the line on the paper, he doesn’t know what will come out of it. I think this is quite fitting to what this exercise asks for.

What I enjoyed about this BBC documentary is that it covers different angles of abstract art, different artists, and explains concepts, and historic background in an easy-to-understand way.

The CreativeBloq has some great examples of more recent abstract art, which I find quite interesting to look at, especially after reviewing abstract art history. I think contemporary illustrators tend to experiment, and often brands/festivals/bands ask for a new, fresh and abstract concept to illustrate e.g. album covers, posters or books.

I then started the actual exercise: I chose Miles Davis, and in particular his song “So What” to create an abstract illustration. Watch the video of him playing here, or listen here for better quality.

To start off I listened to the song, and only noted down the highlights (sax lines) with pencils. You can see it’s quite an up-and-down in the song, even though the overall feeling is very smooth and relaxed, with certain excited moments within the song. As you can see, it seems quite exciting, although the movements are more or less equal with some highs and lows, when the music got more exciting or more quiet.

I then tried out several other materials and techniques to get a feeling for the song. I kept listening to it over and over again, and used a new way to illustrate it every time.

You can hardly see it on this copy, but I used pencil as well ad did some etching with a needle on the paper here for the quieter sound and rhythm lines. I think compared to the inital pencil scribbles, it’s already a bit calmer to look at and captures the mood slightly better.

kat-illustrates-abstract-illustration (3)
Pencil and etching

I then went on to use coloured pencils and illustrated one instrument or line per colour. I think that makes it more confusing than intended, but I feel the colours are quite fitting for the song.

kat-illustrates-abstract-illustration (7)
Coloured pencils

I did the same thing with brushed pens and used one colour per line. The one on the right hand side is actually the sax lines only, so it seems more powerful. However, it also disregards the smoothness of the song and the background lines that create the song’s feeling. The version on the right hand side is calmer, and the repetition of lines creates a certain relaxedness of the song.

I then continued with watercolours, and first tried a colour blend going from the unexcited grey to the excited red throughout the song, and then back again.

kat-illustrates-abstract-illustration (4.1)

I also created a blend of watercolours and added the sax line with coloured pencils. I think this fits the mood of the song quite well. However, I also find it rather boring, without any higlights in the illustration.

kat-illustrates-abstract-illustration (4)
Watercolours and coloured pencil

I went on to experiment some more with watercolours, and tried to use different papers. I first did the one on the right hand side, where I put colours that expressed my feelings to the paper, and then pressed it together to create this particular shape. I couldn’t know whtat would come out of it, but I think it works somehow. The majority of blues make it quite peaceful, as well as the roundish shapes and the fact that it is symetric. The red highlights add some excitment to it.

The version on the right hand side is watercolours on heavier paper that soaks them in better. I dropped colours into the water, and had no idea how they would go and what shapes they would create.

Overall these to images reflect the gist of this excerise best for me. Without knowing how something will turn out, I only selected colours and brought them to the paper. And the results, I find, are quite striking. Both of them have no handmade shapes, it all was created by chance.

kat-illustrates-abstract-illustration (12)

I selected a square from the version on the right-hand side and went on to experiment with recreating this square in different techniques.

First I tried out different techniques, materials, styles, and colours in my sketchbook. All of them were done quickly. My aim was to get a great variety of options for the same abstract illustration, and see how they might differ.

At first I kept to the original colour scheme of blue and red because I thought it was fitting. Then I also tried out different colour schemes. I think the grey/yellow version works well for the song, too, whereas the green version does not work at all because it is too harmonic.

I also tried to create the image upside down to see how it might be best to look at. However, I think it will be determined later how the piece will be set up.

I then went on to create four versions on heavier paper. One with guache only, which I found too “heavy” for the song. Two others with watercolours in a blue/red scheme, one also including coloured pencils, and a fourth one with watercolours and coloured pencils in a grey/yellow scheme. I find the grey/yellow one the most interesting version, so I’m going ahead with some further experiments with this one. I think it is quite interesting to note that my inital colour scheme was something different to my preferred version here. However, I feel the grey version captures the notion of the song best. The grey being the relaxed backdrop, and the yellow shapes the excitement created by the sax lines.

I then scanned the illustration and did some experimenting with Photoshop. I tried out different options, e.g. totally different colour schemes, increased the contrasts, inverted the image, and more. A selection can be seen here:

Out of this selection my favourites are still the grey/yellow version, followed by the grey/blue version, as well as the two purple versions. I think these catpure the mood best. My least favourite ones are the inverted version, the green one, and the ones with very high contrast. They don’t seem to be fitting for this song.

The exercise also asked if my design would it work as CD Cover? To be quite frank, I’m not sure.

I looked at examples for Jazz music covers. I found a rather wide range of examples, some more traditional with black-and-white band photographs, others more artsy with more abstract music instruments. However, I found that the majority includes in some what realistic elements or typography only. See examples here, here, here, here, and here. Hardly any are totally abstract with only shapes and colours. Some more experimental examples, which often also include photograph or collage-style designs, can be found here, here, here, here, here, or here.

Most of Miles Davis CD covers are more traditional, showing the artists, often with a black-and-white photograph and a blue colour tone, and the musician’s name and title. See examples here, here and here. There is also one more abstract example.

I played around with Photoshop a bit to include the name and title in my piece, which you can see here:

Overall I prefer the blue colours, because I find them more fitting to Miles Davis’s music. My favourite is the one where the title is included on a small black rectangle, which is kind of an extension and an additional shape to the layout.

kat-illustrates-cd-cover (9)

I think this version could work, if a producer was experimental enough to be convinced to go for a new approach for a CD cover. However, I feel that Jazz tends to go for more realistic, only slightly abstract designs. Overall I could imagine an abstract piece like this better in different musical styles, for instance classical music, or electronic music.

Key Learnings: 

  • Experiment! I tried to take up my tutor’s feedback as much as possible, and try out different materials, different materials, and then develop an idea with different approaches extensively. I did not only experiment with different materials, but also digitally. I find working with Photoshop quite helpful there, because it allows me to try out e.g. a different colour scheme within seconds, and it makes it easy to compare it to the original version.
  • I enjoy working abstractly, and only use colours and shapes. What strikes me most is that using certain materials like aquarells will turn out into results that you cannot predict. Simply because of the material’s nature. You cannot control how the watercolours will turn out the same way you could with a pencil, so I find them more suitable to experiment.
  • I think it is a good exercise to do occassionaly to just express your emotions on a certain piece of music, and then compare results, what kind of emotions the different songs trigger.
  • I think looking at Art History helped me understand the context where abstract art is coming from better, and I was also inspired by watching the BBC documentary, and reading about it, to try it out myself. I think, abstract art often generates the thought in people “oh, I could do this too”, which to a certain extend might be true. But it is the artists’s feelings and way of working that can only be copied, and will never be original. So I guess it is important to find your own way of interpreting nature and reality, and find your own style when working abstractly.

References: “10 awe-inspiring examples of abstract art”. Published on Feb 27, 2014. [Accessed on Feb 3, 2018]. URL “What is Abstract Art?”. [Accessed on Feb 3, 2018]. URL

Tate. “Abstract Art”. [Accessed on Feb 3, 2018]. URL 

BBC. “Abstract art timeline: colour and shape”. [Accessed on Feb 3, 2018]. URL

BBC. “The Rules of Abstraction With Matthew Collings”. First broadcast in Sept 2014. [Accessed on Feb 11, 2018]. YouTube URL.

Google picture search for “Miles Davis CD Cover”, and “Jazz Music CD Cover”. [Accessed on Feb 11, 2018]. URLs see within text.

YouTube. “Miles Davis – So What”. [Accessed on Feb 11, 2018]. URL and URL 

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