Illustration, Visual arts and Graphic Narrative


Inertia and momentum in the boundaries of contemporary illustration.

In addition to this increasing momentum of artistic creativity, the concept of the comic book was finally changing and being redefined. While it is true that the definition of Graphic Novel was coined in the decade of the 60s, it was works like Will Eisner’s “A Contract with God (1978)”, Frank Miller´s “Dark Knight Returns (1986)”, Alan Moore’s “Watchmen (1986-1987)” and Art Spiegelman´s “Maus (1991)” that turned the media into a completely artistic and not necessarily commercial media.

In spite of these unique examples of how the interpretation of and the content expected in the Sequential Art (12) was changing, there are also artists that changed the standard of visual expression and traditional storytelling.

 Alex Ross (13) (1970) is an American illustrator who became known in the mid-90s in the comic book mainstream. He has worked for the biggest editorial companies (Marvel – DC Comics) illustrating titles of the most emblematic characters in each editorial house, and sometimes co-writing some major plots for special events. He is also, together with other artists, co-creator of Dynamite Entertainment a comic book company that publishes licensed franchises of adaptations from another media.

The technique of Ross is based on the traditional fine art tools using pencil, ink, water color, acrylics, airbrushing and all kinds of similar analogue artistic media. However, it was the astonishing and hyper realistic expression of his work that was in dramatic contrast to everything else done before (figure 5) that had such great impact on the mainstream.

During the last 20 years, he has been working in the mainstream on super hero comic books, doing interior art, covers, writing, concept design for movies, posters and packaging design for video games and action figures.

He is known worldwide for his dynamic interpretation of several comic book characters often stylized as a typical characteristic of the superheroes comic books.   The result of his artwork has been compared with Norman Rockwell but with the prolific expression of George Perez, using a vivid color palette, dramatic compositions and focusing on to the detail of his characters giving a strong and almost godlike expression to each one of them.

This particular vision of Ross changed forever the visual look and the image that the audience had about superheroes, transforming the former linear expression into a new dimension of color and depth in the composition of each page and cover, moving the artistic but often commercial practice of the comic book industry closer to the fine arts.

It is clear that Ross had a strong influence from the comic books in his childhood. However he developed his own visual language, changing the paradigm of the expression and narrative of the superhero´s graphic novel. This personal visual approach, detailed, alive and completely vibrant was a visual revolution that extended to other genres and media.

As can be expected, this artist worked under strong editorial guidelines and scripts because the illustrated themes were commissions about representative characters of Marvel and DC Comics, Marvels and The Kingdome Come (Figure 6), and of course already had an inner existing content in the plot. However, the way the storytelling was established and how the creation and the final graphic composition was made, was the absolute authorial decision of the artist.

Alex Ross is a master of his own language, working with traditional media and using models and photographic references, but in spite of that not with less effective results. His technic works on the basis of a strong drawing and sense of volume, with the combination of detailed brush-strokes and a dynamic sense of the depth in each composition.

The big breakthrough for Ross was produced in the middle decade of the 90s, where the politics of the creative and artistic freedom and the copyright for the artist were changing. One example of that was the creation of Image comics (1992), where a group of high-profile artists of Marvel Comics and due to consecutive editorial, copyright, and creator-owned properties differences, decided to create a new editorial company to explore the possibilities of commercial authorship. Nevertheless, and according with the now changing politics of artistic creation, Ross had the liberty to design and applied his aesthetic and personal expression to the biggest franchise in the Graphic Novel “Kingdome Come” for DC Comics and co-wrote and designed the concepts for “Earth X” for Marvel comics.

If with Ross super hero Graphic Novels reached a graphic hyper realism never seen before, Ashley Wood (1971) worked in the extreme opposite way, developing a hyper stylized visual language and crossing the barrier between traditional and digital media.

Wood is an Australian Illustrator who has worked in the last 20 years for most major entertainment companies including Dreamworks SKG, Warner Bros., Random House, Marvel Comics, McFarlane Entertainment (Figure 7), IDW, and Konami among others.

His characteristic illustration technique is a combination of traditional painting techniques, coupled with digital photography and graphic software, which gives him a particular and recognizable personal style as result of this use of mixed media.

Wood is an artist who has worked in the field of graphic novels and comic books during the last decades in the British and American market. However, he has also been working in different forms of entertainment media, designing concepts for movies, TV, video game industry and toys and is well known for his cover art, concept design and his work as an art director.

The personal expression of his art can be described as a fantasy illustration, nevertheless his expressionist approach, the regular utilization of elements of technology and the contrast with the female figure in hedonistic gestures in his composition and obscure and enigmatic places (14), puts him in a field between science fiction and the concept illustration with an expressive and particular atmosphere.

In addition to his dynamic style where the combination of energetic line, the ink, and the utilization of a specific color palette sometimes monochromatic but dramatic at the same time, the most distinctive characteristic of his visual language is the approach to his usual theme which is a combination of military robots and  nude females. This diversity in media, style and genres puts his practice between the field of fine art and illustration. This fertile body of work was in the end what has given him the opportunity to develop his authorial practice (figure 8) through self-publishing and personal design projects at the same time as the development of commercial commissions.

Probably the essence of the creative practice of Wood and the chosen content in his work, is intimately related with the nature of his style, which is in constant movement, looking for new boundaries and expressions and in continuous experimentation with new media.

To understand the inclusion and exclusion of the artistic content, it is necessary to separate the commissioned work from the authorial practice, because in the former the editorial guidelines strongly direct the content. However, the personal practice permits the author to include those themes that usually are restricted to the audience or at least are not necessarily commercial from the point of view of the audience.

Nevertheless the relationship between the content and form are mostly based on Wood´s approach to his creative inspiration and motives, the style of his art being the vehicle to transmit his lively and personal vision of the world. Working on a daily basis as a compulsion, using practically all the available graphic media from traditional painting to digital photography, he transforms ideas, concepts and stories into a prolific visual language.

Like many other artists, illustrators and creatives, his earlier professional practice was developed at first through commercial commissions, in which case the alternatives for creative decisions were often restricted by editors and the entertainment companies.  Despite that, in the commercial context of the 90s in the American market, the tendencies to control and restrict artistic creativity were changing little by little giving more freedom to the expression of the art outcome. As a result, he found the right publisher who believed in him to produce licensed material with his particular style, which allowed him in recent years to produce and develop his own copyright material.

Due to his particular style and technique he was able in the last few years to take creative decisions establishing his own entertainment companies but at the same time dividing his time between producing creative materials for film, comics, books, toys, commercial projects, and commissions from the advertising- and entertainment industry. An example of his own personal project and with full creative control is the graphic novel “Popbot” (Figure 9) but also his company “ThreeA Toys” ( also produces the fine-detailed sculptures that take on realistic representations of the work in his books.

Alex Ross defined his own language pushing the visual boundaries of an established genre and become a specialist in his field, Ashley Wood on the other hand changed the traditional look of the comic book in a way that perhaps only Dave McKean had explored before. Both of them shook up the conventions of their own fields and developed their practices on their own terms (11).  However Wood transcends the field of comic books and graphic novels and moved into a new field, changing into an Intellectual Multi-Tasking (15), covering diverse artistic fields from the commercial up to the authorial.

Related with the artwork of both artists, my own practice can be located in middle of a quest to discover and master my own personal language as did Ross. Not, as can be expected, with the same style but strong enough to transmit the same feeling and visual impact in my artwork, discovering in the process my own artistic niche. Nevertheless it is impossible not be aware of the active conditions of the contemporary artistic field, where the internet and the dramatic rise of technological developments are influencing constantly the interpretation of the meaning of art, which demand the ability of creative adaptation. In this context Wood shows almost an organic capacity to work with a plethora of visual tools, combining digital and traditional media, but also with the aptitude to cross different genres and creative fields. Clearly this creative liberty that Wood has shown is a constant inspiration to experiment and to overcome my own barriers, even leaving the field of comic books and searching for new horizons in the illustration field, facing the new changing conditions of the creative challenges.

In addition to the ability of A. Ross and A. Wood to overcome their own artistic barriers, to define their own artistic niche and to develop their own language, we also have the experience of other artists like Adam Huges, Adi Granov, Drew Struzan and Genzo among others. They have become like a compass to guide my practice in a technical way but besides providing the understanding that the impact of my visual language has to be strong enough to reach many audiences at the same time.


  1. Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art. New York: Poorhouse Press, 1985.
  2. Alex Ross, [Online] [Cited: November 28, 2013.]
  3. Ruiz, Varenka. “Recap: Ashley Wood “Machine Sabbath” @ Jonathan Levine, Nyc”. [Online] October 23, 2012. available from [Cited: November 15, 2013.]
  4. Alan Male, “illustrator of the Future: Coloring-In Technicians or Intellectual Multi-Taskers?”, (lecture, Falmouth College of Arts, 2013).