Illustrators on Two Visual Artists Share Their Tips

Two illustrators, Thomas James and Mark Armstrong, talk about how they use their blogs to display their work — and how suits their needs as visual artists.

This November, writers participated in month-long projects, such as NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo, which pushed them to write more and often. Illustrators and artists were also busy sketching away for NaNoDrawMo, which challenged participants to produce a minimum of 50 new works between November 1 and 30.

We highlighted some artists in our community in an illustrator showcase at, and also talked to two illustrators, Thomas James and Mark Armstrong, about how they use their blogs to display their work — and how suits their needs as visual artists.

Illo Confidential

About 20 illustrators contribute to Illo Confidential, a group blog managed by Thomas James. Thomas has other illustration sites on (Illustration Age and Thomas James Illustration) so we asked him why he decided to make his blogging home.

Why did you decide to use for your illustration blogs, given the other options out there?

I tried out other blogging platforms, but was never satisfied. Other options seemed limited — I was looking for something I could make more like a professional website, with individual pages and other bells and whistles other options were missing. On top of that, I was excited by the high level of customization allowed without needing to learn about web design, hosting, or other technical things that might slow me down. (Since then, I’ve learned quite a bit of CSS to take things to an even higher level of customization to make my blogs really feel like my own.)

You’ve chosen Imbalance 2 as your theme for Illo Confidential. As an illustrator, are there features you especially like about this theme?

Illo Confidential is a collective of professional illustrators who came together to share ideas, insider tips, and career advice. Once we decided to start a blog where we could post our work and attract a larger audience than we could individually, I searched for a theme that would allow an equal amount of exposure to each of us — especially on the home page.

The layout of Imbalance 2 is a perfect fit because visitors see a nice spread of our recent posts. And, since we create visually oriented posts, the featured images on the home page create a perfect gallery of eye candy to browse. Imbalance 2 is simple and clean — with its layout, our illustrations take center stage.

If you’re interested in seeing how another artist uses Imbalance 2, take a look at drawer and architectural historian Joanna Moore’s blog, The Town Mouse.

Mark Armstrong Illustration

We guarantee you’ll enjoy poking around Mark Armstrong’s blog — he’s worked hard to create a site that not only showcases his portfolio of work, but provides engaging tutorials, like this Photoshop how-to on bending text.

Why did you decide to make your blogging home?

I hadn’t really thought about blogging until I came across a discussion in a LinkedIn group. The person who posted the discussion said he’d recently started a blog, and the beauty of it was the blog could also double as a portfolio. I did research, looked at a number of blogs on both WordPress and Blogger, and WordPress made the better impression.

You’ve chosen Vigilance as your theme. Are there features you especially like about it?

I like Vigilance because it’s simple and straightforward. I started with Vigilance and, after blogging for two-and-a-half years, I’ve never been tempted to change. Vigilance offers the option of both left and right sidebars, but I chose to go with a right sidebar only. I like the simplicity of a roomy central posting area, and a single sidebar that displays the same info on every post and page.

Sidebars aren’t unique to the Vigilance theme, of course, but they’re one of’s best design features. Why? Because they’re always there. That means that my portfolio thumbnails and other clickable sidebar elements are permanently displayed no matter where visitors go on my blog — it’s a tremendous feature that some bloggers take for granted.

In Vigilance, I can structure a post any way I want to show the material to best advantage. I also like that I can change my header whenever I want — but I haven’t done it too often. I read a post that spoke of the advantages of familiarity; rather than constantly changing the elements of your blog, you strive for a consistent structure, which boosts your credibility. So while I’m always trying to come up with new and inventive content, I keep the context familiar: I always invite readers to subscribe at the end of the post; I ask a couple of questions and invite comments; I include links to older posts readers might find interesting; and I include a footer with some info about myself.

You’ve done a great job designing your blog. Can you describe how your design came about?

I’d like to say I spent many hours roughing out design concepts for my blog, but alas, I’d be lying. As a commercial illustrator, I do a lot of rough sketches, but design is more elusive for me, and requires a more hands-on approach — more trial and error. It’s like trying to lay out a flower bed, or work out the blocking for a stage production. I always have a general idea of what I want, but I have to jump in, move things around, see what works, and what doesn’t.

In the case of my blog, there was an awful lot I didn’t know how to do when I was getting started. Just putting things where I wanted them was a challenge, which was another strong argument for a trial-and-error approach. There were two things I was absolutely sure about going in: I wanted clickable thumbnail images in the sidebar, and I wanted a very clean, uncluttered design.

The first time I changed my header, I did a post about it. I hadn’t given any thought to whether the new header would be compatible with my existing background and border colors. A web designer left a comment saying she thought different colors would better complement the new header. She even offered specific suggestions, which I immediately tried out. She was absolutely right. I still use the same colors today.

How did you create your portfolio thumbnails in the sidebar?

I was able to create my thumbnail tables by a stroke of good fortune, and a lot of googling and trial-and-error.

My great good fortune was meeting Time Thief in the very early days of trying to set up my blog. She blogs about blogging at One Cool Site, and she’s my favorite WordPress resource. She also answers a lot of questions in the forums. Spend some time on her blog exploring her custom menus, especially Basic Blogging and Popular Posts. The latter contains her tips on HTML tables.

After getting a good working knowledge of HTML tables from Time Thief, I turned to Google. I was amazed at the HTML tutorials and posts out there, including examples of actual code for HTML tables.

I had no knowledge of HTML, but I started lifting code and experimenting with it. Every time I thought I might be getting the right idea, I’d go into my dashboard, click “Posts,” click “Add New,” click “Text” on the posting window, paste in my experimental HTML table code, then click “Visual” on the posting window to see how my HTML text translated into an actual table I could see.

I made countless mistakes, but I learned from them all, and little by little I patched together the HTML code that gave me my portfolio thumbnails. The final step: pasting the HTML table code into a text widget, and moving it into the sidebar.

I conducted a lot of experiments with the size and number of the thumbnails themselves. I finally decided on five thumbnails to a row, and the size of my thumbnails is 55 pixels square.

Inspired to search for more illustrators and artists like Thomas and Mark on Dive in to the illustrationdrawingcomics, and art topic pages in the Reader.

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    1. Good question, and I don’t know the answer to that. I gather one challenge was so successful, and perhaps more stemmed from it! (I mean, there’s Movember too, and more…)


  1. Cool! It’s like everywhere I look, some new National-something-something-Month pops up. I wonder what it’d be like to do more than one… Anyway, I’d better finish this comment so I can go finish my NaNo novel; only a few hours left! 🙂


  2. It is always interesting to read about how people decide to create their blogs. Mark is a very talented illustrator. I checked out the site. It is robust and colorful. I like it. 🙂


  3. Who’s this Cheri Lucas person, and why does she seem to have such exquisite taste in illustrators?? She’s certainly right about Mark Armstrong– the guy’s a major talent! Nice chap, too… : P

    Many thanks for giving me such a nice plug, Cheri– very sincerely appreciated.

    Also wanted to say thanks to Lizforaday for her very gracious comment. Thank you, Liz! : )


    1. No, thank *you* for taking the time to chat with us about your blog. You’ve worked hard on creating and designing an active illustration blog. We’re glad to have you on!