Illustration is dead to me

May 31, 2023


Reading Time: 6 minutes

20 Oct 2023

i am gerard thomas and illustration is dead

This issue captured my imagination as a kid… ‘Science Fiction Modelling’, didn’t get much better than that.

This has been a long time coming if I am being honest with myself. While being busy with the day job has prevented me from putting the proverbial pen to paper for months, it was the complete lack of desire to do so that signified the writing was on the wall. So I’ve finally accepted that after many years, my time pursuing the art of illustration had come to an end.

I can’t say that advent of machine learning or neural net (just don’t call it AI) powered image creators has not had large part to play in my pondering the whole pursuit. From the beginning I saw interesting possibilities the technology offered creatives, and to a large degree, I still do; in the right hands, these systems are extremely powerful and useful tools. I’d spent a fair bit of time with Midjourney, creating background images for montages that would have taken me weeks to do by hand and still not been as good as what MidJourney spat out (keeping in mind that using MJ is not a quick process and there’s significant post editing involved). But the more recent images I’d been seeing really made me question the evolving dynamic a lot deeper; the images were good, too good, and if I remove the whole abhorrent way these neural nets have been trained, for the first time I could see the machines wiping out a whole tier of illustrators in one foul sweep. If I were a mid tier concept artist I’d be angry, upset, and completely pissed off. In less than a year, these systems were producing images as good if not better than I could ever hope to do…

I’ve always said that the minute the creation of art went digital it was the beginning of the end.

But despite what the techbros, or their sad little fan bois think, machines will never replace a good illustrator. Mimic, yes, but replace? No. A good illustrator is more than someone able to create a nice image. They are able interpret a mood or feeling from the context or brief, they can develop a look and feel that enhances the story and they can pull it all out of nowhere. But I am not a professional illustrator, I have no ambition to be and some, many, of the images coming out of the latest versions of engines like Midjourney… well, I’d be more than chuffed if I did them. The reality is, if I was not a designer but solely interested in making cool images without caring about the designs contained within, tools like Midjourney offer a tantalising way to achieve what might have been otherwise impossible.

But I am a trained designer… and I do give a shit about how what I conceive looks like.

For the past few years now I’d been pursuing my little corner of the science fiction illustration thing, cumulating in starting to illustrate a book of short tales set within a universe I’d been constructing. In the visual journey I’d taken over this time, I’d explored a variety of tools, techniques and styles, finally settling on using my previous skills of 3D, montage and composition to put together images like this…

kreiger driver


And this…

A Roll Of The Die - Gerard Thomas Illustration

And for the most part, I enjoyed the technical aspects of creating the images and the work I was producing achieved the kind of late 70’s retro feel I had been working towards. But even though I liked results well enough, feeling they represented my developing style, I did not feel satisfied and I’d be lying if I said the process as a whole, unlike sketching, was something I truly enjoyed. Simply, other than some very specific instances, I’ve always found illustration tedious and have continually struggled with any illustration project I’d set out to accomplish.

base ships 1

Happy place

Sketching and drawing though are a different matter. As an Industrial Designer, sketching is the language of communication, so to me it’s a natural extension of the thought process. I love sketching. And drawing, at least to me, represents the finished sketch. It’s more final, cleaned up, presentable but it’s not an illustration, it’s a communication tool whose purpose is to communicate an idea, rather than to create ‘art’.

And the machines can’t sketch, or draw, because to do so is an expression of the abstract process of independent ideas.

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Abstract science fiction in graphite – ‘illustration’ that I actually enjoy doing, probably because of the very analogue and technical nature of it.

So with all this in the back of my mind, having stopped illustration completely and with little desire to pick it back up, I started to paint miniatures again, after a very… very long time. As it turned out, having something in my hands that I could hold and manipulate was refreshing, grounding, but more importantly it reminded me why, after many years working in the digital space, I chose Industrial Design as a profession – I like the physical.

moto 6

Bread and butter work for an Industrial Designer. I don’t mind this sort of work too much as it’s a single point focus.

If I am modelling something up I can get all fancy like as well, though this is just the same as the image above, only the tools have changed.

As a kid I loved making models which progressed into scratch building – creating models from imagination rather than instruction. I liked miniatures gaming because I could hold and manipulate the playing pieces and at 16 or so, I developed a sci-fi war game that I created an extensive tiled urban terrain system for. While I enjoyed putting stuff down on paper, it was the conversion of my sketches and drawings into something physical that interested me and the pages of sketches and drawings were simply a method of developing an idea that could then be made. Industrial Design, it turned out, was a natural pathway to turn an idea into a physical reality.

But it was the miniatures painting that helped make the connection go click…

iamgerardthomas 2022 09 04 06.16 cidshuiv uj 1 1 302511542 1129301891335265 3775487637740408038 n

My interest level in illustration these days stops at about this level. This was an ‘isometric’ I worked up from a thumbnail and can use a drawing at this level to hop over into a 3D application.

From simply painting, I began to think about making little 1/285th scale dioramas (yea, small) from the miniatures – a physical manifestation of an avenue I had already been pursuing with my illustrations. My long lived fascination with dioramas has always been based on the notion that no matter the scale, dioramas are the true ‘original’ 3D illustrations, telling stories that can be viewed from any angle. The ‘click’ though came with realising my illustration process utilised 3D models, models that because of the process itself, were fully realised designs in digital form, yet the output was always non dimensional, flat, and ultimately a source of increasing frustration. Why was I doing all this work just for an image? It explains the lack of satisfaction with the end results.

So I bought a 3D printer…

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