A very specific organism

Eric Lobbecke looks at the digital evolution of the opinion page illustration from a single graphic to a collaboration of social media

The opinion page illustration is a very specific organism in a newspaper. Its purpose is to convey, in one image, the ideas contained within the surrounding wall of grey words, and to make the reader focus on the topic at hand.

A detail from Eric Lobbecke's Ice Pigeon

A detail from Eric Lobbecke’s Ice Pigeon

Its alternate purpose is to present another viewpoint with humour, pathos and hopefully intelligence.

The illustrator’s stock in trade is the use of cliché, popular culture and referencing history with current issues, and imagery that presents itself in the news cycle from television, photojournalism and film.

A normal day starts by reading the article around 2pm and doing a rough in pencil. It is discussed with the editor, and then rendered in colour to be finished by deadline, around 7.30pm, on a daily basis.

As long as there is an opinion written or expressed, there can be an accompanying drawn image to help describe the idea and entertain the eye with a visual representation of that thought.

The challenge for the opinion illustrator is not to be able to replicate this way of working in the new media, because illustrations already have proven to work very well in visually driven electronic formats of phones, tablets and laptops. Readers are attracted to articles with visual impact. So a very intelligent, well-drawn image will always stop the finger from flicking on to the next thing. We used to say that we had less than 15 seconds to grab the attention of the reader in newsprint, now I would bet on it being less than five seconds before the next finger flick.

The task of moving the opinion illustrator’s job into a new orbit, the internet, is to bring the idea of interacting with your readers by soliciting thoughts from them, much like we do in a blog or letters page.

But this time they are contributing to a “big picture” idea that is building up into what then becomes a community of visual opinions, drawn by the artist and added to the main picture daily.
The image becomes bigger and also morphs many ideas into a description of the news as seen and described by the subscriber, which essentially becomes a visual diary of a moment in time.

This idea was used initially in my blog hirethehandthatdraws.wordpress.com to “grow a garden”, where readers were asked to contribute suggestions that made a “cybergarden” grow. Prints were sold from the end result and income was produced from the final product.

The new cyber picture is growing a picture of the happenings at Bondi Icebergs, and icepigeon.wordpress.com is receiving hits by lots of different people all over the world.

Illustration by Eric Lobbecke

Illustration by Eric Lobbecke


Journalistically, the potential for illustrators is limitless, and very exciting. We can set a topic and ask the reader to contribute to an image that becomes a visual for a community of opinions. This engagement with the punters is done by directing the readers to the website via social media, and then subscribers can watch the art evolve.

So what does this all mean for the opinion page illustrator? It is taking the skills that have been employed doing the job in traditional media and evolving them so that the artist becomes a visual conduit for the subscribers or readers. This can be done for any organisation hungry for content and in need of the elusive “clicks” for their online presence.

The use of illustration in the intelligent debate of topics and the daily commentary can evolve from a static image produced by an illustrator with one image, to a growing organism that might find a specific home on any interactive website interested in analysing news.

Eric Lobbecke is the opinion page illustrator for The Australian.

Click here to see the Ice Pigeon illustration growing online; follow Eric on Twitter here.