What is an illustration? In the simplest sense, it’s usually a 2d representation of some sort of 3d form. To be even more reductive, it’s typically a series of marks on some form of canvas. The types of marks you make at the beginning and the marks you leave at the end can dramatically shift the sort of ‘representation’ you end up with. From a production standpoint, it can dramatically effect how long it takes to make your illustration in the first place.
William L. Maughan, in his book The Artist’s Complete Guide to Drawing the Head, states ‘Line is an artistic invention. It does not exist in nature.’ He goes on to expound the value of learning to draw using value, or blocks of tone, and letting go of the childhood fallacy of ‘the line’. I don’t think many people would argue against Maughan’s observation. Even when you see a ‘line’ in real life, what you are seeing is an abrupt and pronounced contrast in two adjacent values. Plenty of classical artwork was created with such considerations, and many digital artists today seek to continue in such a vein.
However, most people who’ve ever picked up a pencil have, no doubt, constructed their imagery from lines. And for good reason. It’s faster, and easier to alter in the (inevitable) likelihood you make some mistakes that need alteration. You can put down very few lines and get a sense of the overall composition of your image, without worrying about accuracy per se. You can use values (even just one) to get a sense of a composition too but when one has limited tools to work with, you can construct values just from using a cheap biro pen.
That’s a bit of general knowledge, now let’s talk about my personal experience working with and without lines. Let me preface this my acknowledging outright that I’m a ‘line guy’. Some of my favourite illustrators are ‘line guys’. And that’s why they’re my favourite illustrators. I’ve spent most of my life constructing images from lines and I like it. However, my recent foray into airbrushing digitally has shown me how cool it can be when the illustrative construction lines are hidden sometimes.
I find it difficult to build an image without at least an under drawing. I’ve attempted several times to use blocks of colour or value in lieu of an under drawing and I’ve had some marginal success, but not really. This is more a reflection on my lack of expertise in the area more than an indictment on the process itself. Usually, I create structures from line use, apply value or colour in ‘flats'(base colours/values representative of local colour/brightness), then apply shadows and highlights afterwards. Very similar to how comic book art is constructed, since that’s where I’m trying to get. The line work allows me to get away with very poor lighting or colour work, since forms of the objects/people/places are independently defined by said line work. Ultimately, lines are my crutch that allow me to operate with incomplete knowledge of my subject material and still produce something modestly acceptable to the eye.
Something to really make note of is the eye’s remarkable ability to simply ‘know’ if something in an image is incongruous with the rest. We’ve all seen artwork where the proportions are off or there’s something wrong with the shape of the hand or the feet are too small, or whatever. This is directly proportionate to how ‘realistic’ the image is supposed to be. This means that, when I airbrush, I’m being held to a standard I can’t typically reach in terms of accuracy and competence. Well, not yet, anyway.
This is a subject one could go one about forever, but let’s just summarise and call time here. For me, I’m better with lines, but I like the potential results of not using them. The better I become at using reference materials and my tools/techniques, the more I suspect I will come to value working without lines. That said, constructing images from lines is very fast, and I like fast. ‘Gotta go fast’, like the hedgehog says. Realism isn’t always the desired outcome. I just read From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, which was illustrated entirely with ink. It’s very appropriate for the Victorian setting. So, basically, whether one chooses to use lines or not is a choice made in relation to available tools, desired outcome and personal preference. I’ll be continuing my experiments across the board.