Sweet Vector

Published:  October 7, 2010
Sweet Vector

Each time we interview a creative or speak to a designer, we seem to find there are two fairly set camps when it comes to illustration software: those who prefer the bitmap world of Photoshop, and those who save their love for the vector universe of programs like Illustrator. Of course, there are a number of pros and cons when working in each medium and there’s nothing stopping you from working with both together, but we thought we’d speak to some champions from the vector side to find out what keeps them coming back for more.

So what’s the difference, you ask quickly, before we move on, craftily trying to skip the practical and head straight to the creative. Bear with us then, we’re going to get technical for a second. A bitmap or raster image, typically represented as a Photoshop file, is composed of pixels giving it a jagged look when enlarged above its optimum size. By comparison, vector graphics rely on geometric measurements such as lines, curves, points and shapes to represent images. What this means is that an image can be enlarged without destroying its integrity as it is represented mathematically rather than by a set number of pixels per inch. While both bitmap/raster files and vector files work together nicely, there are a few things to remember, which will stop you from rocking silently back and forth in a corner when something goes awry.

For instance, while it is fairly easy to convert a vector file to a bitmap/raster file, it’s not as easy to go the other way. Also, once you have converted a vector image to a bitmap file you lose the advantage of scaling without distortion that you previously had. On the other hand, vector files are not open to the myriad options available for adding effects and detail that bitmap files are. It’s a bit of a conundrum to be sure, but if you’re clever about the way you work with the two then they should complement each other, leading to amazing illustrations and creations.

Image copyright Nathan Jurevicius

Image copyright Nathan Jurevicius

Nathan Jurevicius

Freelance illustrator and creative Nathan Jurevicius, widely known for his wonderful online graphic novel and game creation, Scarygirl, began working with vector a couple of years after finishing university. Born in Bordertown, South Australia, Jurevicius grew up surrounded by art and design, and admits he was publicly shamed at school for drawing in the margins of his textbooks. Attending the University of South Australia, he graduated with a bachelor in design (illustration) in 1994. Following a move to Melbourne soon after, Jurevicius set himself up to freelance before moving to London (England) and then Toronto (Canada) in 2004. He now uses Toronto as a base between the US and London.

Jurevicius’ fascination with computer art first began when he was still at university, though he advises the illustration students didn’t get much access to the equipment back then. “I ended up teaching myself a couple of years after graduating. My brother had an old Mac and Wacom that I’d play around with and a program called ‘Painter’. I wasn’t really that into trying to replicate real textures that I could paint traditionally, but discovered that Painter could make vector letters and shapes (I had no experience with llustrator/Freehand, so was not aware of pen tools/real vector programs). I used to create scenes using the letters/shapes, print them out and then mess with the images. I loved the smoothness and versatility of using the computer – the repetition and easy way to modify colours,” he says.

Having been around long enough to remember when the standard memory was 32MB of RAM (how did we ever cope?), Jurevicius explains his current set-up is very different from those early days. “After a brief time on my brother’s Mac I bought a no-name PC and some programs with prize money from a Telstra design competition. The PC compared to now was so low-tech (I think it had like 32 meg of RAM and a few hundred meg of disk space, plus a little zip drive). My set-up now is pretty different. I have a Mac PowerBook connected to an Apple  22-inch monitor, lots of nice disk space (including a time capsule) – but strangely (and people generally think I’m mental for doing this) I still use a mouse to draw everything on the computer, just using the pen tool in Illustrator.”

Image copyright Nathan Jurevicius

Image copyright Nathan Jurevicius

When starting an illustration, Jurevicius (like most illustrators) will sketch out the bare bones of his work with pencil and paper first before transferring it to the screen, so what is it that draws him to vector as opposed to bitmap when creating an illustration? “There’s a certain flatness or crispness to vector, and often a stylised feeling… but a lot has to do with the way the artist creates the work too (I’ve seen some quite painterly vector art created in Flash). I also like the ease of being able to resize or distort my work without the quality of the image looking bad. Though I do find getting lighting and atmosphere right harder to achieve, which is why much of my work is imported into Photoshop after Illustrator and reworked.”

Scarygirl, Jurevicius’ brightly illustrated creation, has had a varied life so far, with a popular online presence, various toys and dolls bearing her visage, a game, several animations and now apparently a film in the works. “The character for Scarygirl originated about 10 years ago and was based on a background character that appeared in a magazine I did an illustration for,” he explains. “It didn’t really go much further than a loose concept until 2001 when I was approached by a Hong Kong design firm who wanted to make toys with me. The first limited edition figure (Scarygirl) was created and had greatly evolved from her original state into something similar to what you see now. I had a daughter around that time too and her personality and experiences in hospital were put into Scarygirl’s.

“The project has headed in many directions,” he continues. “October/November saw the launch of the Scarygirl graphic novel, which Allen and Unwin is publishing and earlier this year we launched the online game, which has had over 700,000 plays. Aside from these things the feature film has been in development for quite some time with Sophie Byrne of Passion Pictures (also the game’s producer) and we are very excited with the support that Screen Australia and Film Victoria have been giving us to make it a reality.”

Most of the graphic novel mentioned above was created in the vector world of Illustrator, but Jurevicius advises Photoshop was also used. Similarly, when creating illustrations for his animations, vector is simply another tool in the bag. “I used to play with animating my stuff by importing .swf files into Flash, but now I leave the animating up to people who are better skilled and know what they are doing. Generally for online work I’ll provide vector files to the animator – giving them various turnarounds for them to create the in-between art or to totally redraw it. Most of the characters for the Scarygirl game were done this way, but the trailer was more traditional, with proper sketches created first that were then worked up in various programs – Flash being one of them.”

Jurevicius has some good advice for those wanting to make the move to the vector universe. “Don’t feel like you’re limited to really angular ‘vector-y’ style art – unless that’s what you’re trying to achieve,” he says. “There are ways of making your work more expressive; check out some of the effects or play with transparencies and layers. Incorporate other programs and see what you can come up with. Sketch your ideas first and get something that is close to what you want, and then bring that into your program to use as a template to work over. Usually I put this on a separate layer and lock it – then delete that layer after I’ve finished the piece.”

Aside from working on a very cool side project (Harley and Boss) with fellow illustrator Andrea Kang (see page 28), Jurevicius also has more in store for Scarygirl and a busy few months ahead. “I’m in the process of relocating my life again, spending time in the US and thinking up ideas for a new exhibition (at Giant Robot in New York). I’ve been asked to work on book two (the conclusion) of the Scarygirl graphic novel, which I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into, and there’s a bunch of visual development for the film, which is about to happen shortly.”

Image copyright Andrea Kang

Image copyright Andrea Kang

Andrea Kang

The stylised simplicity of Andrea Kang’s illustrations and character design is a welcome and refreshing change from the loud and brash ‘throw everything in with the kitchen sink’ style approach that can result when one has been up all night pounding down the caffeine and making the hundredth client requested addition to a project, that in all honesty doesn’t make sense anywhere except inside the client’s own mind…

Growing up in Long Island, this New York (US) native graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2004 with a BFA in industrial design before going on to complete her masters in art and design education. Currently, Kang is working as a graphic designer with a local Rhode Island-based magazine, Providence, as well as designing toys, participating in group shows and exhibitions and working on the new Harley and Boss project with Jurevicius. “I also just moved into a new loft space, so now have a beautiful studio set up at home that I can dedicate my freelance work to,” she says.

Kang has always been drawn to illustration, advising that her mother has kept all the little drawings she did from around the age of three onwards, yet she didn’t begin seeing the computer as an illustration tool until really her first year of college. “I started using the computer to illustrate during my sophomore year at RISD in 2001. I actually started off using programs like FreeHand and then Photoshop, which the studios I was enrolled in at the time had us using. My first set-up was pretty basic. I was actually working off a PC, and we were required to buy them in my sophomore year at RISD… I can’t even imagine using [a PC] now. Since then I’ve switched over to a MacBook Pro, with a Centiq 21x screen and a time capsule (everyone should make sure to back up their work).”

Though the usual path through illustration would be to add more detail as your skill set expands, Kang’s simplistic style has instead evolved. “I realised that I like to strip the excess out of my illustrations and focus on the situation at hand. I also came to terms with the concept that sometimes less is more. I want the audience to allude to the narrative and interpret it how they want.”

Image copyright Andrea Kang

Image copyright Andrea Kang

Like Jurevicius, Kang creates her illustrations with pencil and paper first before transferring them to her Mac. “I always hand sketch my drawings first, scan them and then go back and vector them in illustrator. Once I’m in Illustrator I have the option of tweaking the drawing and playing around with colours/patterns,” she explains. “I feel that when I have a base sketch to start with, then the end product is always stronger. I think the pros of this method are that you still retain the qualities and characteristics of your own drawing style. Subtle things like a slightly crooked line or an unsymmetrical shape are details that sometimes get lost when designing 100 percent in the computer. I think the beautiful qualities of the hand drawn look are slowly disappearing with the dawn of the computer age.”

As with any creative outlet, preference is entirely a personal choice, so what does Kang like so much about vector illustrations? “With vector you always end up with a more refined image,” she says. “Definitely a more finished and crisper look. The lines are cleaner and you can retain fine details. You can also resize images and go from a postcard to a poster without pixilation. Plus you have more options for playing with various patterns that can enhance an illustration.

“The pros of working with vector are that you can easily experiment with transforming shapes without being locked into them,” she continues. “Since it’s a mathematical-based program, the images don’t get distorted when enlarging/shrinking them. You also have the option of being able to manipulate different patterns at a switch, which I tend to do often.”

As mentioned, Kang is lending her illustrative skills to a new collaborative project with Scarygirl creator, Nathan Jurevicius. “We just finished customising a Munny that will be showing at a Kid Robot exhibition in NYC,” she says. “His name is Bandit and we constructed him to be really white and fluffy. We are also coming out with mini blind box plush Owlets that will be distributed by Toy Tokyo. They will be coming out in a couple of months, so make sure to keep an eye out for them. We would love to see the Owlet characters and other Harley and Boss designs used in different ways, possibly showing up in prints, children’s books, stationery and vinyl. At the moment we’re also mapping out an exhibition Harley and Boss will be presenting in the spring at Giant Robot (NYC)… and possibly getting some wood toys made.”

Image copyright Shaun Britton

Image copyright Shaun Britton

Shaun Britton

It would be safe to say that Shaun Britton thinks about the world a little bit differently, which is no bad thing of course. A fine example of his lateral thinking is his Snip and Chu project, an online comic about rubbish that comes to life in a cautionary tale about how we ‘treat ourselves and our homes’. It was inspired when Britton had to wade through mountains of trash after leaving a sports match.

Another native of South Australia, Britton moved to Hong Kong when he was 23 to work for Warner Bros and Disney. Four years on, and back in Melbourne, Britton then set up his own studio, Squidinc. With a bachelor of education and a masters of multimedia design under his belt aside from his freelance work Britton also assists the Swinburne University multimedia team with their final year industry projects.

Britton believes he was destined to be creative, despite his family not really understanding the creative process. “I read a lot of books as a kid and I think it was the lack of pictures in those novels that really sparked off my imagination. Trying to imagine characters and environments from the Narnia series, or books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, started me thinking about how I would have designed those worlds. The effects in movies are great these days, but I’m glad I grew up and developed my imagination when I did,” he explains. “I was always drawing when I was a kid and just didn’t stop. I freelanced a little in Adelaide before I left for Hong Kong and a lot more once I was in Asia. It was inspiring to see my work in magazines and on products back then. I remember the first magazine cover I ever designed was for Hong Kong magazine. I drew the image in crayon, pastel and old pens while I worked on a top bunk in a noisy dormitory bed in Kowloon’s infamous Chung King Mansion hostel. It wasn’t until I left Disney and was back in Melbourne that I was able to concentrate on illustration as a career and not just see it as something I did after my design work. Later I finally specialised in character design.”

It was during his time in Hong Kong that Britton began using a computer to illustrate, although it sounds like a rather perturbing experience. “I first started using computers to illustrate in my first job with Warner Bros,” he says. “I was really thrown in the deep end, when I had to design a whole lot of material for some Bugs Bunny calendars for Toshiba in Japan. It was worth a lot of money to them and I had never seen Adobe Illustrator before in my life. My boss believed in baptism by fire and his advice was ‘RTFM’ (Read the @#$*# manual)! When I finally got used to the software, I was really drawn (pardon the pun) to the clean, bright images you could create on those pages. I then used Illustrator at Disney when the company started to digitally ink all the old Mickey Mouse artwork to use on product.”

Britton explains the differences in his set-up today from when he started out with a Mac. “The first set-up I ever used was a Power Mac 8100. I think it had 264MB RAM and I used Illustrator 4. The software was all pretty basic back then. I would design on the computer or draw, then scan and trace my work digitally. Nowadays I use a G5 PowerMac with a Wacom 21-inch Cintiq touch-screen. I use Illustrator in much the same way even now. The pen tool hasn’t changed much.”

Beginning his illustrations with humble pen and paper, Britton then transfers in screen to finish his work in Illustrator, though he advises he is gradually moving towards creating 100 percent on his computer. “The computer is a great tool for precision, measurement and consistency, so that suits the style I’m after for finishing my illustrations,” he explains. “Before the Wacom, drawing, then tracing the drawing to colour and finish the work meant that extra scanning was needed to complete the design. That extra process was worth it though, because I was able to really work through lots of quick thumbnails and ideas before refining the idea on computer. So [with vector] the pros would be a much more creative organic illustration and the con – a little extra work. With the Cintiq it’s even better now, I can draw on the screen and ink on the screen. I can also use traditional drawing skills on the computer as well as clean digital techniques.”

Image copyright Shaun Britton

Image copyright Shaun Britton

Giving us a bit of a rundown on the more technical side of vector, Britton says that the lines between Photoshop and Illustrator are blurring, so to speak. “Though generally vector images have clean lines with solid bright shapes and rasters are more ‘photographic’ looking images,” he says. “Vector images are resolution-independent images, which use paths to create pictures. These images are traditionally lower in file size than raster images and can be scaled with no degradation in quality. Raster (Photoshop) images are resolution dependent and are images made from pixels or dots. Significantly, increasing the size of raster images will cause the image to degrade or to pixilate. The images in raster and vector image software are selected and edited in different ways and both have different uses. The pros are that vector images are easy to work with, have small file sizes, are easily edited and produce great, colourful, and clean results. The cons here are that illustration styles are a little limited to clean looking images. You can use filters and effects to create different looking Illustrator images, but there can be unexpected printing issues, as well as cross platform and cross software issues with the files.

“I love illustrating with vector software,” he adds. “I think it’s a very honest way of working. What you see is what you get. The vector graphic style is so clean and accurate that it’s hard to ‘cheat’ to get a really effective illustration done. Hard work pays off with this sort of image making.”

Britton’s personal project, Snip and Chu, is created almost entirely in Illustrator with the pen tool and has recently also been brought to life as a graphic novel. “Snip is a toenail and Chu is a piece of bubble-gum. They live in Wasteworld and have to fight for survival when their civilisation is threatened with destruction. The story is very tongue-in-cheek, with deliberately silly puns delivering a more serious message to the reader. There are many pop culture references and the characters and environments are bright and colourful. Three years ago I thought I’d control the Snip and Chu project by making an online comic with the aim to produce the book after that. Apart from the day-to-day distractions any person has, the project took time because of the style I chose as well. The whole book is done with the pen tool in Adobe Illustrator. Completely vector-based. The dirty, distressed look to the junk’s environment is made with a few placed translucent, textured images on top of the artwork.”

Finally, Britton has this helpful advice for those in the vector know already. “Learn to draw. Learn about design principles and elements. Get a thorough understanding of your software, especially if you’re going to explore some of the more intricate tools in a vector program. I’d stay away from filters and effects and try to manually create most of your work… Filters and effects have their place, sure, but only after you’ve thoroughly worked out a design or illustration, and only if you don’t mind the possibility of copying, exporting or printing issues.”

From Desktop magazine.

3 Responses

  1. Cool – great to see you here Ms Spurling :)

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