I struggle making art sometimes. Especially art that’s outside my usual area of interest. I like to try new things, especially new tools, but sometimes it’s the approach to art, the conceptual side of things, that makes me struggle. The difference between art and illustration is one thing that can give me difficulty.

Art and illustration are closely related and may appear to be about the same thing but they’re not. Illustration literally means “To show” and that’s what it’s all about. It’s main function is to clearly show you something. So if you’re doing an illustration of a can of Coke for the Coca-Cola Company they want you to show how great the can is. If you don’t then you’ve failed. If you want to make art using a Coke can then it’s up to you to say whatever you want about that can. The sky is the limit and passing and failing is up to you.

With illustration it’s all about pleasing the client you are drawing for. If the client is yourself then it’s all about pleasing the audience. Meaning that if you want to make a drawing of Batman then you want people to look at it and think, “Oh, that’s a nice drawing of Batman.” If they think, “I wonder who that is a drawing of?” then you’ve failed. You were unclear in showing them Batman.

Related to that is another important part of illustration. The most important part of the “To show” part of illustration is to be on model. If you are going to draw a picture of Batman, a jar of peanut butter, or a horse then people have to be able to recognize the subject with no confusion. You can’t draw a guy in a pair of green swim trunks, long blonde hair, and a skinny build and say it’s Batman. Batman needs his cape, cowl, and costume or it’s not Batman.

Making art is different. If you want to make art with Batman you can start with a drawing of Batman and then make him unrecognizable. As long as you’re pleased with the outcome it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t look like Batman anymore. The point wasn’t “To Show’ everybody Batman. The point was to make an interesting piece of art.

When making art, as opposed to illustration, the audience you want to please is often yourself rather than a client or audience. Sure you want other people to look at your art and like it but they’re not part of the process like that are with illustration.

I’ve read successful artists complain about being trapped. They painted a certain way and their work got very popular and now that’s what people want from them. If they want to make money they have to paint in their famous style but if that style no longer holds any interest to them it makes them miserable. Those artists feel they’re not making art anymore they’re just pleasing their audience with paintings. That’s the rare case of and audience being part of the process of making art but I can assure you it doesn’t happen very often.

There are also artists who are pretty good at pleasing an audience. They make something halfway between art and illustration. They use some pop culture characters but put some twist on them or mash them up with another pop culture character. They mix up Darth Vader with Sherlock Holmes or some such. I’ve noticed with a lot of people who are good at this kind of art that pleasing other people is what pleases them. It’s what drives this kind of art.

I bring up this topic because this week I started a project that is giving me trouble because I’m not an illustrator. I draw comic book covers all the time. They’re one of my favorite things to do. I invent comic book titles, do the graphic design on a logo and trade dress, draw a “Cover to a comic that doesn’t exist,” color it, and make a print out of it. But all those covers are my own invention. I never make my own Spider-Man cover for example. Except this week I decided to make my own Spider-Man cover.

It’s a different beast making a Spider-Man cover. First of all it has to look like Spider-Man. Not only that it has to look like a really cool Spider-Man. Spidey is one of the most popular characters in the world and a lot of people have drawn him. A lot of people have drawn him well. There are thousands of Spider-Man comic book covers and a whole bunch of them are really good. Not to mention the classic ones. That’s what I’m up against.

“What can I bring to the Spider-Man table?” is the big question I have to ask myself. It’s tough to answer too. One of the reasons I’m not a good illustrator is that I’ve spent so much time making art that pleases me that I’m not great at pleasing others. Just thinking about pleasing an audience can paralyze me and make me do poor work. I’m not a pop culture guy and I don’t have my finger on the pulse of what people what. So I constantly second guess myself when trying to make this hypothetical audience happy and that leads to me doing mediocre work. It’s frustrating.

That’s where I found myself in trying to make this Spider-Man alternate cover. I did a bunch of mediocre sketches trying to come up with ideas. They were all derivative of other Spider-Man work (how could they not be?) and none of them were any good. For some reason I’m not the kind of artist who can take a popular character, put my own illustration spin on it, and make it into something cool. I can only make it into something mediocre. I can make a third rate illustration out of a first rate one.

So I decided to go back to my strength. I’m good at composition and making images. Original images unlike the ones others make. I took one of my recent spontaneous marker drawings and used that as the basis for a composition. It’s totally unlike a normal comic book cover. I’m still working on it as it’s taking a while but with this approach I have a chance of making it good and pleasing myself. Maybe then other people will like it too.