Services | 12.08.2009

Technical Illustration through the ages

Tim Mowl, The Translation People’s principal Technical Illustrator reflects back on how illustration has changed through his time in the business.

The week before I completed my illustration course at Blackpool College they bought their very first Apple Mac. This was the first stage of a mini-revolution in the illustration world.

For the next six years I continually worked on illustrations for the aerospace industry. These were produced on a drawing board using a set square, ellipse guides, a ruler, pencil and Rotring ink pens. We sorted through piles of engineering drawings in order to find and draw all the relevant parts. After a pencil illustration had been produced on tracing paper, by measuring directly from the engineering drawings, you would put a piece of see-through ink film over the top and using the ellipse guides and an ink pen would copy over the pencil illustration below to produce the final artwork.

Producing full colour cutaway illustrations was even more time consuming. After a pencil illustration was produced you then had to cut out acetate sheets and place them over the relevant area. The illustrator then used an airbrush, attached to a compressor spray, to paint and slowly build up the colour layers. My sister in law and her business partner produced a full size colour cutaway illustration of the Ford Sierra when it first came out. It took them four months to complete and ended up in the foyer of the Natural History Museum in London. If the client had asked for another one from a different viewpoint it would have taken another four months.

Since the development of computer illustration software processes have definitely changed. Initially, you still had to interpret and draw from the engineering drawings, but gone were the ellipse guides and ink pens, which obviously speeded things up enormously. Today, as designers draw in 3D you can export these files directly into illustration packages and use them as a basis for your final illustrations thus almost completely removing the need for hard copy source information. I must admit to a sense of disappointment, as there was a certain satisfaction in producing complex illustrations the old traditional way.

The most dramatic effect was the change in producing colour artwork. You can now import a 3D model and, with a reasonably small amount of work to clean it up, rotate it to produce the view you require and set the colour rendering running. A few hours later you have a full colour high quality illustration. If another illustration is required from a different angle, the illustrator just rotates the model and re-renders. Gone are the weeks required to produce these manually, but with them also goes the skill of the airbrush artist.


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