Assignment 1: Invisible cities

The purpose of the assignment was to produce an illustration that visually responds to [an] extract from Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Invisible Cities

Key words from the brief:

  • Reflect the visual depth portrayed in Calvino’s writing
  • Explaining why you chose your particular image making approach
  • What effect you were trying to create?
  • Illustrator’s work that has influenced your thinking


I found the brief an excellent challenge. In keeping with most of the book, Thin Cities 5 is an evocative description of a made-up world that is open-wide for visual interpretation.

The first thing I did was to read the novel. I found it a strange slightly surreal book. It’s centred around a conversation between two characters, the Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. The Khan is overseeing rapid expansion of his vast empire, and as part of this he listens to accounts and descriptions of faraway cities from his officials.

The book contains a description of 55 different cities, each one described in a mini chapter. These are occasionally interspersed with dialogue between the two characters.

Octavia, the name of the city that is the subject of this brief appears about two thirds of the way through.

Although the dialogue is between two characters from the 13th Century the description of the cities include contemporary reference, so the time location of the book in time is ambiguous.

After the reading the book I had two lines of enquiry.

My first area of research was to briefly review the lives of the two characters to see if there was any information that would help frame the work. I wondered if there was a way to include some aspect of the overall framing narrative of the book into the illustration.

I doodled some thoughts in an A2 sketchbook.

Illustrated frame sketch
Initial sketch and collage using an illustrated picture frame in the style of an illuminated manuscript from 13th century to introduce the two protagonists in the book to the viewer

An important aspect that framed my response to the brief was the need to reflect the visual depth portrayed in the writing which is why I chose to create an image with a visual space using conventional perspective. An alternative approach would have been to use a more allegorical or abstract method to describe the city.

My second area of research was to look for other illustrators that used their work to describe abstract or imagined worlds.

I spent a bit of time looking at the work of illustrators creating work for science fiction and fantasy subjects but that didn’t grab my attention. I then came across the work of Jim Kay in Understanding Illustration, Derek Brazell and Jo Davies published by Bloomsbury.

There are so many things I like about the illustrations he did for A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. The images have a print like quality, a mixture of monoprint and etching and have a raw dark energy. Like Invisible Cities the artist is having to illustrate and communicate an abstract or imagined subject.

Part of the power of the images is how they play with the idea of scale. The huge threatening monster and the small innocence of the child.

Ideas development

In parallel with my research I doodled ideas in an A5 sketchbook of anything that came to mind referring to my iPhone for googled reference materials/images.

The key descriptive words and passages from the test I was responding to included:

  • Spider web city
  • Precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void
  • Ropes and chains and catwalks
  • A few clouds gilde past
  • Glimpse the chasms bed
  • Suspended over the abyss



This phase was an interesting and fairly slow process that happened over a couple of weeks alongside other exercises and reading the book.

Design development

I decided that I’d meet the ‘sense of depth requirement’ in the brief by creating an epic scale view.

The reason for choosing this approach was threefold:

  1. I wanted to create a sense of height and precariousness
  2. The huge sweeping scale and visual hierarchy leads the viewer from the clouds in the foreground, across and along the sweeping curve of the rope bridge and up to spider web city hanging between twin peaks
  3. It meant that I didn’t have to tackle visually describing too much of the city itself which I would choose to do in a completely different way.

I assembled my visual research, reference and doodles and started to collage and draw a thumbnail of what I was trying to achieve in response to the key words and phrases in the text.

This was a very fluid and creative process, and trying out one thing led to another.

Collage layout
Collaged thumbnail – work in progress, A2 sized

My objective was to produce a ‘to scale’ image that I could work on top of to produce line art.

Final artwork

I thought the overall composition worked but I needed to create a character to sit on the precipice in the foreground looking down into the void. The visual appearance of the character reflects the non-distinct/fluid reference to time used in the book i.e. not someone from the 13th Century.

I glued the new character into the image.



I started creating line art by working on top of the collaged sketch using a lightbox.

The line art was created using ink pens of various sizes. The black strip under the rope bridge was painted in Indian ink.

Octavia work in progress
Work in progress – creating A3 line art on a lightbox using the collage as reference

Before adding colour I did some final research referencing an exercise I completed during Key Steps in Illustration, 3.3 Image development, where I used a travel poster by Edward Purser Lancaster from the London Transport Museum website as a inspiration for use of colour.

I looked at the travel posters from Norway as a starting point to create a limited colour swatch because they included the epic scale I was trying to reproduce.

The final artwork was created by scanning the A3 black and white line art and adding colour digitally using an overlay in Photoshop. The artwork was created at 300 dpi so could be print ready if required.

‘Octavia’ the spider city – black and white artwork digitally coloured in Photoshop

One area that has potential to explore further would be the use of a illustrated frame to add more context and narrative to the central image.

I’ve mocked this up below using my rough sketch as a demonstration.

Octavia with Illustrated frame
Mock-up to demonstrate how an illustrated frame could provide the viewer with a sense of the overarching narrative/dialogue between Marco Polo and the Kublai Khan.


What went well

  • The use of collage to create a thumbnail sketch was an interesting way to compile/use visual research.
  • Doodling ideas over a fairly long period of time in parallel with other exercises and reading the novel allowed my ideas to slowly evolve.
  • I like the sweeping composition and epic scale of the final image.
  • I enjoyed the challenge of the brief.

What I would do differently/better

  • With more time I would have explored the use of an illustrated border and perhaps incorporated some of the written text into the illustration.
  • I wanted to use areas of flat colour in line with the travel poster research but I found that using a gradient, for example in the blue of the sky gave a more effective sense of depth.

Assessment Criteria – self assessment

Assessment criteria How my work meets the assessment criteria
Demonstration of technical and visual skills – materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills One of my objectives for Illustration 2 is to continue the experimentation with materials and techniques started during Illustration sketchbooks.

1.4 Mixing and matching and 1.7 Visual depth and Assignment 1 Invisible cities all demonstrate the use and combination of a range of techniques. For example, the use of collage/mixing found images with drawing is something I hadn’t used in final artwork previously.

Exercise 1.5 Less is more is a good demonstration of taking a visual problem, working in two or three colours, and applying this to a subject.

I’m actively developing my observational reportage skills by attending Urban Sketching events and workshops and working on location independently. I’m attending a weekend workshop in Prague run by Veronica Lawlor and Melanie Reim where I’m hoping to pick up tricks and tips; this will feed into the next Reportage section of the course.

I generally think I’ve got a good level of technical skill in a number of areas and will continue to develop these throughout the course.

Quality of outcome – content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas I pay particular attention to how I present my work, particularly the structure and content of my learning log.

I’m careful to understand the requirements of exercises and assignments and to link back to these in my learning log reflections.

Demonstration of creativity – imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice 1.1 Personal voice reflection is a carefully considered review of my work to date, what I enjoy, areas I’d like to develop and the direction I’m taking as a developing illustrator.

The exercise is evidence based and demonstrates my thoughts through examples of work, mostly created during Illustration 1.

I make three observations that remain true:

1.     My image choices say that I’m interested in developing work that has narrative and includes storytelling; whether fiction or factual/documentary.

2.     I’m still developing a visual language through experimentation with new media and techniques. Currently I seem to alternate between loose expressive mark making using ink pens, marker pens, paint and print techniques through to more controlled image making using line art scanned and coloured digitally.

3.     I enjoy observational drawing of people and places and currently seem to be leaning towards reportage drawing.

I think the exercise that demonstrates my continued experimentation and desire to try expressing the same subject in new and different ways is 1.4 Mixing and matching, where I explore moving back and forth between analogue and digital to create a number of different visual solutions.

One of my regrets is not making the time to use printmaking techniques more to answer briefs. I’ll try and think about ways to do this but don’t see a need for this until later in the course.

Context reflection – research, critical thinking (learning logs and, for second and third level courses, critical reviews and essays). This is an area that has growing importance and emphasis is Illustration 2 and where I’ve been advised through tutor feedback to pay more attention.

1.4 Mixing and matching is the best example of where primary research (visiting the permanent Goya exhibition in Madrid and sketching from his Black Paintings and photographing Michael Ayrton’s sculpture The Minotaur) combine with secondary research (reading the Greek mythology and visual reference) into the final illustrations.

This continues to be the area I feel I need to pay closest attention to.

I’m excited to go through the process of selecting a subject for my critical essay which forms part of the next part of the course.


%d bloggers like this: