An Encouragement to Visual Storytellers


I’m frequently asked for advice by illustrator hopefuls, and my constant response is: “Keep drawing. Keep drawing like you draw. Don’t repeatedly reinvent yourself. You will naturally evolve if you just keep drawing in your own style. Then, once you’ve convinced yourself to draw naturally, focus on telling a story through your illustrations.”

The main character in a scene doesn’t always need to be visible, or their face shown, or a full frontal shot. Try to avoid drawing the “cover image” with each illustration. Can you imagine the mess that Star Wars would be if every scene was a Drew Struzan movie poster? Holy cow! Tie Fighters in miniature scale, zooming past the giant, disembodied heads of Luke or Han. Awesome movie poster—but that’s no way to tell a story. That’s just intended to draw the audience in. When you are visually telling a story within a particular scene, try telling the scene from the teller’s eye-view, or from different perspectives. The “fly on the wall,” an ant on the floor, what does he see in the scene? Think like a movie director.

Our characters are not always walking directly toward a camera. That would make a terrible movie. Look at the scene of Bonifer Squoon as a spider (“Spidifer”) in The Warden and the Wolf King. No faces are visible. The boys are narrowly escaping out a bright door so we see only their silhouettes. Squoon himself is scarier as a mysterious, spidery hulk, without focus. There are implications of his appearance, but no clear view to be seen. Give the reader details they need, and give them room to imagine as well. Thats not always the plan or what is needed, but its a great step in learning how to tell a story through illustrations.

Create opportunities for mystery and wonder in the mind of the reader. The great Charles Vess once told me, about my illustration of John Carter and Woola for Under the Moons of Mars, that the strange multiple light sources and shadows made him wonder what was beyond the frame of the illustration. What was causing that outside the hut? Honestly, that wasn’t on purpose, but it made me want to do that on purpose from that moment on. Thats what I believe we need to strive for in visual storytelling. Make them want more, in a good way. Make them think beyond what you share by the clues you provide.

You are a storyteller, in pictures.


  1. Haylie Allcott

    This is super encouraging. I’m supposed to illustrate my first real, the author-is-actually-trying-to-get-it-published book this coming year, and it’s hard not to think dark thoughts about my “style”- copying others for practice and improvement while trying not to compare myself to where they are, but also striving to remember that somewhere in there I do actually have my own style… I think. (Ha. It’s funny but it’s not.) So anyway, thank you for this practical advice!

  2. Matthew Sample II

    Thanks, Joe. Well put, and a great reminder, even for guys who have been around the block a few times.

    For the next week or so, I’m going to remind myself: “Create opportunities for mystery and wonder.”

    Thanks again for the great advice.

  3. Joe Sutphin


    Haylie, Thats wonderful. Just be yourself. And a word of further encouragement. I spoke on the phone with author/illustrator Loren long a few days ago concerning a book I am getting ready to start illustrating. For a guy just really getting his start in this crazy field, this book is a great doorway for me, but I get nervous about deadlines and such.
    Loren put it like this: relax. Dont try and make a masterpiece with each drawing. They saw your work, and based on what they saw, they chose you. You’re not going to drop the ball.
    He said this all relating to the same way he felt when he was chosen to illustrate Madonna’s Mr Peabody’s Apples. That was his breakthrough project and one that had weight, as mine does right now, and as yours certainly does. But the other thing he said was, this may be the most important project for (you) to date, but in 10 years it wont be. Perspective is important.
    So dont stress it (Im talking to me too, because Im sweating bricks some days) You wont drop the ball. Be you. Your client thinks you’re good at that 🙂

  4. Joe Sutphin


    Matthew, Thanks man! And Im poking myself with these words too. A lot of these thoughts stay with me because Ive written them down over years of phone calls with mentors and heroes. Eventually they start to sink in, but it helps me to get all those thoughts together, even in a RR post, and go back and read it all again myself.
    Most days I need reminded to create mystery and wonder, and not just take the first image that comes to mind. 🙂

  5. Peter B

    For what it’s worth, this is encouraging even to those of us who aspire to other artistic disciplines. Thanks, Joe.

  6. Haylie Allcott

    Wow. Your response was just as encouraging and practical as the post! “Just be yourself.” That could be an entire blog post in and of itself. 🙂 And perspective- I hadn’t even thought of that. I’ve been so consumed wrestling with where I am as an artist right now, but thinking about 10 years from now mercifully sucks some of the hype and drama out of the present.

    P.S. Just finished The Warden and the Wolf King last night- among other things, the illustrations were absolutely wonderful. (My copy is extra-awesome because it was signed by you and Andrew at a Behold the Lamb of God concert last November.)

  7. Addy Hawthorne


    hehe. I finally discovered this years after it was published, but I just wanted to say that this was sooo encouraging! I am an aspiring artist, and this was very helpful!!

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