3.1 You are what you eat

The purpose of this exercise was to illustrate a proverb using symbolism and lessons learned from the previous research exercise Beer Street & Gin Lane.

Key words from the brief:

  • Choose a proverb to illustrate and produce two different versions, one implying the ‘good’ and the other the ‘bad’ meaning implied by the advice
  • Think about how you use the two images in relationship to one another
  • How do you create a comparison between the symbolism of the good with the bad?
  • Think specifically about which elements in the illustration you need to tweak to make this work successfully


A definition of proverb: A short, well-known pithy saying, stating a general truth or piece of advice.

I’ve always liked the title of a book written by Idries Shah ‘A Perfumed Scorpion’. This was a reference used by the great Sufi teacher Shah Bahauddin Naqshband to symbolise the hypocrisy and self-deception in both individuals and institutions.

So the proverb I chose to illustrate is ‘You can’t perfume a scorpion’.

I struggled quite a lot with this and spent a couple of weeks working on the research projects with my ideas for this exercise bubbling in the background. On reflection I think this had to do with the mind shift of moving from reportage drawing, where the challenge is using tools and techniques to capture more or less an impression of what’s in front of you, to narrative illustration that requires a very different approach. Research exercises 3.0 Beer Street & Gin Lane and 3.2 The Metamorphosis got me thinking about the use of metaphor and symbolism as ways to invoke a different and sometimes more powerful reaction in the viewer than a purely literal interpretation.

I was also keen to push the overall image design by exploring different points of view and composition.

This resulted in a few pages of thumbnails and notes.


A5 Moleskine sketchbook page 01
A5 Moleskine sketchbook page 02


A5 Moleskine sketchbook page 03

The brief asked for two illustrations, one showing the positive and one showing the negative.

The brief asked to consider how to use symbolism to make a relationship between the two images. I came up with the following concept that uses a dramatic use of lighting to show the different aspects of the same figure – high contrast and dramatic for the bad interpretation, and well lit for the good.

I thought the concept was good but then, through my research for The Metamorphosis wanted to push the use of symbolism further.

The ‘bad’ interpretation

I started with my fairly literal interpretations for this illustration, albeit with a giant sized and angry scorpion rearing up in front of a tiny screaming figure. I thumbnailed many variations of this from different points of view and using different lighting to give more of a sense of drama. None of them really felt right. My research for The Metamorphosis demonstrated how different illustrators had been inventive in how they approached creating a single image to sum up the narrative of an entire book. I thought that using symbolism in a more allegorical way would be interesting.

Quite by chance I noticed how similar in shape a perfume bottle is with a hand grenade. There was the concept. A perfumed scorpion – dressing up something for the opposite of what it is. This is this concept I developed.

I liked the visual style of this book cover illustration because of its combination of ink pen and mark making and decided to see if I could reproduce something similar.

The Metamorphosis book cover 21
Fig 1 – The Metamorphosis

The artwork was made using a fountain pen and Indian Ink on smooth white Bristol Board.

Perfume grenade – Fountain pen and Indian Ink on Bristol Board – A4 sized

The ‘good’ interpretation

For the ‘good’ interpretation I created an image that showed a scorpion dressed up to appear attractive. I wanted to make this look absurd and over done to highlight the meaning of the proverb i.e. a scorpion is always a scorpion however much it’s dressed up to be something else.

To achieve this I built on some of the techniques I’d discovered in 1.4 Mixing & matching that digitally combine collage, painting and drawing.

I created a number of black and white layers using paint and pencil.

Additionally I used one of my library textures from Illustration Sketchbooks, 2.2 Investigating a process to create additional background texture.

The collage elements were all completely digital and cut from several different images.

All the elements were layered and coloured using multiple overlays and layers in Photoshop.

Perfumed scorpion collage
Perfumed scorpion – Pencil drawing layered with painted patterns using Photoshop


What went well

  • I kept pushing the thumbnails/image design until an interesting idea (the perfume grenade idea) formed.
  • I think the black and white ink pen mark making used for the perfume grenade image is something I’d like to develop in the future.
  • I benefited from doing my research for 3.2 The Metamorphosis in parallel with this exercise because it started me thinking about more inventive ways to interpret the brief.

What I would do differently/better

  • In the second layered image I experimented using a pencil drawing to create a tonal drawing of the scorpion. I think the pencil marks look a bit clumsy against the cleaner digital elements of the image.
  • I really don’t know whether the second image works or not. On balance my feeling is that doesn’t.
  • It did make me think about how I can objectively test the effectiveness of an image on different viewers. I have a small number of trusted people I can share work with which is helpful but I’m not sure how objective that is.

List of illustrations

Figure 1 – The Metamorphosis At: At: feedly.com/e/5u2q6Syt (Accessed on 23.10.19)

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