Using drawings to enhance your articles

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A fundamental skill most of us mastered in first grade can be a handy tool to enhance your articles when photo support is not readily available.
Creating a drawing or illustration using various color rendering mediums (water color, chalk, colored pencils) can often give you the visual information you need to support your copy. These don’t have to be elaborately detailed works of art to convey information to the reader. The most important prerequisite for using illustrations is, of course, your knack for sketching, creating clean, defined lines and staying inside those lines when you “color.”
I find the most practical opportunity for using hand-rendered art is in online how-to articles when I am unable to find or create the photo I need. A piece I did on river hazards cautioned the reader about the hydraulics at the base of a dam or other big water drop. Showing the circulation of the water, the path of objects (and paddlers) caught in that turbulence and escape routes via the bottom or side current outflow were all possible by creating a colored graphic with all those components composed into one illustration.
Another article on natural remedies for poison ivy meant finding a good picture of Jewelweed. Stock photos were too expensive while public domain pix were not adequately composed to suit my needs. I decided to create a simple but true-to-life colored drawing of the leaves and blossom of the plant that anyone could use to identify it.
Granted, not everyone is an artist. Some can only sketch stick figures that look like they were drawn by Salvador Dali after way too much wine. However, if you have even a marginal knack for drawing you might be able to create publishable illustrations. I once considered becoming a commercial artist and have enjoyed drawing all my life. I’ve used illustrations to complement many articles — artwork depicting everything from kayak repair to bird watching. Some were done with colored pencils while others, especially those requiring a broad wash of color (blue skies, water, expanses of greenery, etc.), were rendered with watercolors or artist’s chalk.
Once an illustration is complete, it can be scanned or copied (using a tripod and digital camera) and saved as an image file. If you use your digital camera, use natural lighting. Interior lights tend to give the paper a yellow cast while flash almost always caused a glare to appear on the image. I know there are probably ways to mitigate these problems, but using sunlight (even coming through a window on overcast days) will keep your background white.
I enjoy being able to produce a drawing to help illustrate key points in my writing. It offers a creative break from the keyboard and gives me a chance to describe an aspect of my text visually. An illustration can provide the reader with instant instruction. It can save a writer literally dozens of words by showing information instead of telling it.
If you keep a field journal, you probably already fill the pages with sketches. Honing your drawing skills and using them to create instructive and informative illustrations can be another way to enhance your articles.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Stay tuned for next month’s “Illustrate this” by Bruce Cochran, who provides advice on how to deal with editors and art directors when submitting illustrations for publication.
A member since 1988, Tom Watson is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in Alaska, tourism, outdoor destinations and product reviews. He is also a guidebook author. Contact him at

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