BY TOM WATSON
When an assigned word count limits the amount of information you can present in an article, most of us rely upon photos, the picture’s-worth-athousand-words, space-saving solution for presenting visual details that describing might consume too many column inches.
But sometimes not even a photo can do it. An image might not be available, practical, or really show what a reader needs to see understand the story.
Illustrations can come to the rescue.
You don’t have to have the talents of Michelangelo to create illustrations, nor do you necessarily need to buy additional graphics software.
Not to say that an artful eye doesn’t have its advantages, but even the basic drawing programs that come standard on most computers can be used to create illustrations that clarify, instruct and reveal information that would take hundreds of words of text to describe adequately.
I did an article on making emergency fishing lures out of common materials. I felt I could describe the steps more concisely and space-efficiently by illustrating the process. Using a few key instructive graphics that were created by using photos, clip art and basic geometric shapes from the computer’s drawing options, I offered my readers a visual guide to create a makeshift lure from a ballpoint pen tip cap and a Pepsi can.
Sometimes an illustration presents the information in a more concise and colorful manner. While writing a story on falling through the ice, I couldn’t find an image of a victim and the different rescue gear options defined in the article. My solution was to create the scenario and its components graphically.
Such infographics are often used to rely highlights of information with short bullet points and instructive graphics. Creating your own version to supplement information in a story saves space while enhancing the overall article with helpful visuals beyond — or in lieu of — photos.
I use graphic programs (the style menu in “Pages” on my Mac) in a couple of ways to create the illustrations. I often use a photo as a baseline shape to create an outline image that I can then alter (shape, color, texture) to fit the desired presentation I need. Using such mixed media bases, you can create the desired final image one section or component at a time, and then combine those pieces together for the final working image. Saved as a JPEG file, your illustration can be inserted just as you would a photo or PDF image. It does takes a little practice to learn all the nuances of even a simple “draw” program, and getting the right look is a matter of learning to highlight areas.
Creating publishable illustrations takes practice. I am constantly honing my skills and learning new techniques. I often create cartoons or experiment with shading and textures on different shapes to practice. As you become more comfortable with all aspects of your drawing program, you can start experimenting with combining treatments (colors, gradient fills, layering and effects) to create your own highlights.
You can also use a photo for a background format and enhance it with illustrated graphics overlays on the base image. This is a common technique in articles where graphics are combined with a bird’s-eye photo of the terrain highlighting wildlife habitat or hunting areas and also showing game movement.
It’s important to make sure there are no copyright issues with any images you use. Public domain artwork offers myriad opportunities to provide foundational outlines and shapes. Combining those base images into your own visuals is a creative complement to your writing skills and makes an article all the more informative — and appealing — to the reader. ♦
Tom Watson, an active member since 1988, is an award-winning freelance writer and columnist specializing in a variety of outdoor topics, including self-reliance/survival, sea kayaking and camping skills.