Capturing Essence

okt 13, 2018


I have always admired illustrators who can capture the essence of something with a simple line or a seemingly spontaneously drawn gesture; or on the other hand, with an intricate composition that somehow brings to life the individuals in the drawing and how they relate to each other. It is not easy to define ‘essence’; the essence of a character, of a relationship, of a situation. It is something like the indispensible quality of a thing in its purest and most undiluted form.

In this blog, which I write as part of my master illustration for the module Research and Enquiry, I will investigate ‘essence’ and when and how illustrators and other artists manage to capture it. And also, how I manage to capture it myself!

Quentin Blake and John Cassidy tell us in ‘Drawing for the artistically undiscovered’ that a successful drawing is ‘one which captures (with dead-eye accuracy) something interesting or essential about the subject. This can happen by accident (often does) but you are still allowed to take full credit for it’ (Blake, Q., Cassidy, J. 1999)


Fig.1: Blake,Q. The ferocious mangler (1999)

They are joking about the taking of full credit of course, as they are joking throughout the book, but it is funny, isn’t it? Sometimes when you capture the essence well, you feel like it really isn’t your credit to take, because you just do it without thinking. This ‘without thinking’ will be interesting to explore.

Fig.2: Peeters, J. Xan en Fant (2018)

This is a drawing of me sketching an elephant, made at the beginning of my master studies by Jan Peeters, a good friend of mine. The hard thing in talking about essence, is that you have to use rational words to explain something irrational. I am moved by this drawing because it captures some kind of essence of me, but how to explain that?

It has something to do with the girl sitting quietly in her own space, calmly drawing while her hair is being played with. I have always loved situations in which I can quietly work in my own space and still be very ’together’. The elephant is kind, playful and calm, sitting still quite obligingly to model for the girl; his legs are in a positon that tells us he isn’t going anywhere soon. His playfulness is expressed by the tusk and tail pointing upwards and by the long snout playing with the hair;a funny way to use the typical vacuum cleaner quality of an elephant’s trunk. The way the characters are in their own space and still very much together, is emphasized by the two green patches of grass. The spaces are connected by the trunk reaching over the gap, playing with the hair; and by the elephant appearing on the girl’s drawing.

So all this I can explain when I think about it. Of course, I did not think about this before writing this blog. I just loved the drawing and I thought: this will be an important reminder during my master, that playfulness in drawing is most important to me. So the word ‘playfulness’ actually describes the essence of this drawing best. Rational thought can help me expain things around the essence, but essence itself is another thing. I am pretty sure my friend did not think about all the separate elements I just described, while drawing. He followed his impulses and drew what came to his hands, turning his attention to the essence of the characters. So this will be one of the interesting things to investigate, what balance illustrators find between working rationally and irrationally.

We have a beautiful word in Dutch, ‘ontroering’ which does not really translate well into English. It describes a state of being when you are moved, touched; when your heart stirs, because something is awakened that is as close to tears as it is to joy. When you understand something that is individual as well as universal. When a drawing captures the essence I am usually very ‘ontroerd’ so in the next few blogs that will be my guide in picking some inspiring examples!

Blake, Q., Cassidy, J. (1999) Drawing for the artistically undiscovered. London: Klutz