Bad Illustrations:

This article was written in response to reviews of several books with poor quality illustrations. This article is primarily for the authors of these books and authors of future books in hope that they avoid these mistakes.

When a book has illustrations their quality is as much a part of the book as the writing or photography. Poor illustrations are the equivalent of poor spelling and grammar or badly framed out of focus photographs. If you believe the old saw that a "picture is worth a thousand words", then a bad picture is a thousand misspelled words.

Proper illustrations are just as much a part of the craft of producing a good book as is the writing, the printing or the binding. When I see this poor craftsmanship in books about OUR trade where craftsmanship is everything then I MUST speak out.

F shadow ROM THE time of the first hand copied manuscripts illustrations have been an important feature in books. At first they were merely decoration as illuminated capitals introducing each chapter. Then illustrations became part of the information with portraits and allegorical scenes. Over time as technology developed the words became less important than the pictures in many books. Then the invention of photography changed everything. Today we have books that are nothing more than images with just enough text to give credit to the artist or photographer.

In manuals and how-to texts illustrations are important to show the shape of tools, materials, their arrangement and how they are used. Early coarse woodcuts gave way to engravings and then to photographs reproduced in half tone. In technical manuals the finest illustrations were the crisp mechanical ink drawings with stippling or line work for shading or the fine quality copper plate engraving. In the 1940's and 50's this was raised to a high art which has set the standard ever since.

Today numerous methods can be used to produce an illustration for a book. If it can be cut in wood or linoleum, engraved, drawn with ink or pencil, painted, photographed or created digitally in a computer, then it can be reproduced with the printed word. Black and white line drawings and illustrations are still popular due to the low cost of reproduction compared to color and the ease of including them in digital manuscripts "ready to print".

The Problems:

Today I commonly see four problems in book illustrations. They are:
  1. Lack of drafting (mechanical drawing) skills.
  2. Unskilled use of CAD
  3. The illustrator not knowing what the item really looks like or being capable of rendering it.
  4. Quality control. Not knowing or caring that the above problems are unacceptable.
The first problem:   Lack of skill in simple drafting.

Now, anyone that has studied mechanical drawing will know how to take measurements and make drawings by the projection of views. Anyone with practice in mechanical drawing knows how to produce a true representation of almost anything including isometric and perspective views. They do not need to have great artistic skill, they merely need to follow the steps they were taught to produce the drawing. These are skills that used to be taught in high school drafting classes to thousands of teenagers. Almost anyone can be trained in mechanical drawing and there is usually a glut of people with these skills in the job market.

Anyone with practice in mechanical drawing has projected the sides of a hex or octagon and knows that they are not even divisions when viewed from the side. Anyone that has spent any time using mechanical drawing templates will have also observed this. Even so, I have seen many published illustrations with hexes and octagons improperly proportioned. This shows a VERY basic lack of skill and education in mechanical drawing. It is bad craftsmanship for which there are NO excuses.

The second problem:   Unskilled use of CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) to produce drawings.

Now, there is nothing wrong with using CAD for black and white line line drawings. It can even be used to produce color 3D renderings. It is a wonderful tool when used by a skilled draftsman. The primary problems with many CAD drawings are:
  • Line width.
  • Lack of drawing skills or education in mechanical drawing.
  • Over simplification.
CAD Line width: The first problem with CAD is that many of the programs have poor line width control. The most popular "standard" program, AutoCAD, was among the many programs that had no line width control and poor hatching capability and substituted color in early versions. In exchange for the ability to make changes and easily produce new originals the industry gave up important drawing standards and accepted drawings with fine spindly lines where there was no difference between a object line, a center line or a leader.

NOW. . in the machine shop and on the engineering table this MAY have been an acceptable trade off, but it is NOT an acceptable drawing standard for illustration. To make matters worse, systems designed to output to plotters where the pen determined the line width, were adopted to output to laser printers where the default was spindly lines of an almost invisible .003" wide. These wispy lines make drawings hard to look at and harder to reproduce. The opposite problem of too fine a line weight is a consistent HEAVY line. This makes illustrations look like street or public facility signs and are equally hard to look at.

For the past decade or so there have been numerous CAD programs that allowed the setting of line widths with beautiful crisp output to Laser printers. Using these programs requires first that the illustrator understand when to use heavier line and just how heavy to make them, then the illustrator must learn to USE the program to create the desired results. Drawings, especially illustrations made without the use of proper line weights using CAD is no longer excusable. It is just plain laziness or lack of skill in using the software.

The greatest advantage of CAD drawings is making changes then output of new original prints with crisp "inked" style lines. If you are going to use CAD illustrations then they should be as good as ANY ink drawing including line weights and hatching, stippling or other shading methods. It is possible to create wonderful drawings with a fine uniform line weight in CAD but this requires careful use of shading lines such as in fine engravings.

CAD Drawing Skills: When using CAD the draftsperson needs to FIRST know how to draw a proper mechanical drawing WITHOUT CAD. The software does NOT make the drawing. The only thing CAD replaces is the craftsmanship or hand skills necessary to make a clean crisp drawing. In fact CAD is harder and more time consuming than to make the drawing by hand. Using CAD skillfully has a long learning curve, it is NOT the easy way out. A person with no drafting skill should not start with a CAD program.

CAD users need to learn all the methods and techniques of drafting THEN learn the right way to use CAD. There is a right way and a wrong way to use CAD and most people learn the wrong way as well as thinking the CAD system will make the drawing easier. CAD drawings are not just made by setting points with a mouse. Points are set mathematically and by what is known as "snap" or "gravity" in CAD terms. Points not set using gravity will not align exactly and when the image is rendered the lines may not join correctly. Fillets and radii must have their centers set mathematically or by layout. If not done correctly they will not align properly at both ends. Like anything else it requires time and practice to learn to use it skillfully.

CAD Over simplification is common in CAD drawings for a variety of reasons. In some cases it is the prescribed style. However in illustration work it mostly breaks down to laziness.

When drawing threads it is easy in CAD to copy a section and move it to make a thread any length. But to make a tapered pipe thread it requires laying out the taper and carefully copying or drawing each thread on that sloping line. It takes just a few more minutes or looking up the taper to make the drawing RIGHT.

Illustrations are intended to convey information clearly. Over simplified, stylized or symbolic representations often do not clearly communicate what they are supposed.

The third problem: Lack understanding of the parts or products.

I mentioned the problem with hexes and projections as a simple drafting related issue. But the problem is even worse when the draftsperson has not even SEEN an example of the item to be drawn. People without exposure to mechanical items often make gross errors in trying to illustrate them. I remember seeing an illustration on the cover of Design News illustrating hardware for the feature article. There was a BIG five sided bolt threaded into an seven or eight sided nut! It was a beautiful illustration but the artist had absolutely no knowledge of standard mechanical items.

In the field of blacksmithing this problem is aggravated by the fact that most blacksmithing tools are relatively rare and few people, including artists are sufficiently familiar with their appearance. Anvils are particularly poorly drawn due to their complicated shape.

The fourth problem: Quality control

Before the modern computer era and the low cost of self publishing the publisher or book editor controlled a lot of the production of a book including the illustrations. They had graphic artists in house OR hired draftsmen to do the work. Then the editor and the author or art director proofed the images. It was almost unheard of that the author would produce the illustrations unless that was their field of expertise. Illustrations were created by professionals and judged by professionals.

Today many authors are self published OR they provide the finished electronic document to their publisher "ready to print". In many cases the publisher has just become the middle man for the printer and does little to guide the production of the book. The authors provide the ready to go illustrations, good bad or indifferent.

So now the author has the burden of producing the illustrations or paying someone else to do them. In many cases a friend or acquaintance does the illustrations even when they are not qualified.

Other Issues:

Images that are not sized correctly for the book (too large OR small).
Images that have two much white space between multiple items.

THE SOLUTION: Hire a real artist, illustrator or draftsperson and get input from a book editor.

It does not take a great artist to produce clean accurate drawings using standard mechanical drawing techniques. Be sure to provide photos, accurate sketches or actual hardware so there are no excuses for inaccurate results.

THEN, have an editor or art director familiar with your field examine and approve the illustrations. If you produce your own drawings be sure to have them looked at as well.

There is ABSOLUTELY no excuse for images the wrong size in this era of copy machines and digitized images.

I would personally rather see rough pencil drawings or charcoal sketches by the author rather than poorly executed inaccurate amateur ink or CAD drawings.

Click for enlargement
Figure from Metalwork Technology and Practice by Ludwig, 1943. The apodeme of the art of mechanical drawing. Probably taken from a photo and rendered in isometric style. Hand inked.
Click for enlargement
Figure from Hasluck's Metal Working, 1907. This is a typical illustration probably taken from a tool catalog of the time. Due to taking images from multiple sources the style and quality varies greatly in Hasluck's. Some are simple outlines and others finely shaded engravings.
Pen and ink, Alex Bealer, The Art of Blacksmithing.
Pencil drawing, Jack Andrews, The Edge of the Anvil.

Today many authors use pencil drawings to illustrate articles and books. Properly rendered they photograph or scan well. High quality printing results from digital files scanned as low as 100 DPI (300 is best).
Four different methods were used to produce the illustrations above. These as well as other methods, including CAD all produce suitable illustrations for mechanical subjects.

The first drawing above was probably created using a photograph as a reference. The mechanical parts are drawn isometrically, with no perspective. It is not a tracing but a standard mechanical drawing in ink. The parts were measured and laid out using a 30/60 triangle or on a 30/60/90 grid. Isometric ellipse templates were probably used for the circular sections of the shaft and the clamp. A photograph MAY have been traced to put the human hand in the illustration. The only artistic skill required to create this drawing was to do the shading and this may have been defined by a standard or formula.

The engraving and the pen and ink style illustrations have been in use since the 1400's and still hold up today. The exact same results can be produced using purely digital methods but require training and practice. Pencil drawings can even be created digitally using a graphics pad but this is where the drawings stop being craft and become art.


Since the invention of the camera obscura in the 1400's (possibly earlier) it has been possible to make perfect drawings with no artistic skill. Today there are a variety of more sophisticated techniques that are available to anyone illustrating a book.

Below I show step by step the method to make line drawings using a digital image and a low-tech PC photo editing program.
Kohlswa anvil photo (c) 2003 Jock Dempsey
1. A digital image of dubious quality.
Kohlswa anvil photo (c) 2003 Jock Dempsey
2. Cut out the background for clarity (optional).
Kohlswa anvil photo (c) 2003 Jock Dempsey
3. Lighten then trace the image at high zoom.
Kohlswa anvil drawing (c) 2005 Jock Dempsey
4. Remove the image by lightening again.
The anvil drawing above took about an hour not including taking the photo. It required no artistic skill, just technical knowledge or a little practice. The last step included lightening until the image was very faint then adjusting the contrast to finish the job and make the lines darker. The work was done about four times larger than displayed here. If you use this method note that the photographer still owns the copyright to the image. So use your own photos.

The same method can be used in many CAD programs that allow a traceable background image. In the CAD program the image is a separate layer that can be easily removed as needed. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages but they both produce drawings without artistic skill. In both cases the simple line drawing can have stippling, hatching or shading added.

The Photographic Method:

A similar method has been used by artists for over a century using photographs. The artist can trace or draw on a black and white photograph using India ink, then wash the image off using a common iodine solution. The result is a beautifully crafted ink drawing without a hint of the photographic print. The only disadvantage is the loss of the original photo. Copies should be used. Some of these drawings are simple outlines like the anvil above and are even produced using drafting tools to produce clean straight lines. In other cases they are detailed works of art with fine texturing, shading and detail taken from the photo OR added by the artist. Although it helps to have artistic skills these are more of a matter of CRAFT not drawing skills. It is fast and produces easy to reproduce black and white line drawings.


Today's technology makes it easier for authors to write and illustrate a book than ever. It also allows the author to become the book designer and publisher. But the same technology that allows authors to skip the publisher, editor, art director and designer also creates the opportunity for the author to screw up in ways they never could in the past.

When the author takes on the responsibility of doing it ALL they must consider those specialized jobs and services provided by the publisher. A publisher with editorial control of a book would NEVER let the problems enumerated above get to print. Book editors are the publishing industry's quality control and the author's safety net. When the author takes on this responsibility they must be willing to critique their own work, to hire professionals when needed, and reject substandard work including their own. AND they must take responsibility for the final result.

On top of the computer revolution making writing easier it has also made professional illustration much easier. However, computer graphics wether done in CAD or an illustration suite is a technical process that requires special skills that take time to learn. The computer software does not replace the vision of an artist or illustrator. At a minimum, composition, angle of view and the visual message still needs that critical eye.


Before and After Images Repairing images for publication

Copyright © 2005 Jock Dempsey,

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