An Illustrator’s View of Story

As someone who was reading books entirely too old for me at an age when most of my peers were still thumbing through chapter books, I’ve always loved when I flipped a page to see a map, illustrated chapter head, or even a full illustration hidden in pages of text. As an artist and life-long book geek, imagery in stories has remained important to me as I grew up. I think that’s why, when I got to a point where most of the books I was reading no longer boasted any art past the cover, I found myself going back to world or city maps placed at the front of fantasy books over and over.  

Having direction, a concrete visual of where characters are and how the world is situated, was always something that helped to ground me in a story. I love world building, and when I started writing my own stories, maps are where I started when I was trying to flesh out my own worlds. 

Once I graduated from Art Center College of Design with a degree in illustration, I started adding my own paintings to my stories to give them something a little extra, and eventually offering the same to other writers when my freelance business started to expand.  

Out of all the aspects of world building, map-making is one aspect of that process that always strikes me as especially enjoyable. To me, map making is like solving a puzzle that can have multiple different answers. 

When I’m trying to think of something interesting for a city, I look at where it’s placed on my map. Not near a water source? What prompted someone to build a city there? Maybe it’s on a mine. A diamond mine, that sounds cool. But it’s in a part of the world that’s known for being less than amiable to the law – maybe it used to be a diamond mine, and now the city is divided into two sections – the surface, and a criminal underbelly that uses the abandoned mining tunnels for their various dealings. Or maybe the mine dug up something dangerous, and the miners sealed off the mines – now the only people who go down there are foolish treasure hunters or criminals sentenced to a fate worse than death, etc. And from there I can build a story, or at least a hook and a few sentences in my world building bible for one if I ever choose to drive my characters there.

Generally, I use this method of self-questioning when I world build for my own world, but for clients I usually go off of a list of cities or a rough sketch that they’ve put together themselves. Everyone has their own story to tell, and as a working illustrator when I take on a map making, fan art, or character art commissions, my job is to help someone else’s world come to life with pen, ink, and watercolor.  

 That said, while I stay true to the artist’s vision, so much of illustrating a commission is about bringing your style to someone’s imagination. Part of what I love about my job, especially with some of the character/fan art projects that are a little more open to interpretation, is the amount of freedom I have to put my own interpretation of an author’s vision into a piece. Nothing is better than seeing how excited an author gets when I send them a finished illustration of their writing brought to life.  

I work most often with watercolor, but I also accept requests for digital work or pen and ink work. I am currently (As of June 2021) open to commissions and can be reached via the contact form on my website, http://www.mariaoglesbyart.com.  My digital work and most recent projects can be viewed at https://www.instagram.com/mariaoglesbyart/

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