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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Iconic Things

The pursuit of simplification of a drawing or a concept is a very useful tool. You can get to the heart of an idea really quick by distilling it into its purest form. This is one dependable way in which you can tell if its a good or a bad idea.

An Iconic Knot

I was writing a blog post on knots when I began thinking about how simple a depiction of a knot could be. For me, the simplest knot is the overhand knot. I don't think a knot can be simpler than that one.

So the first thing I did was to draw it in several forms. The one I preferred was the pretzel format used by bakers in Europe. This presents it in the most readable format.

Here is my initial sketch of the overhand knot. Aside from some clumsy shading and a few thick spots, this one seemed to have the right proportions at least.

When designing a logo, the first thing is to make the figure into the simplest line art you can get away with. This meant removing the extra space of the loops (really this is tightening the knot). And it also meant losing the shading, but not the essential feeling of intertwining. So I used some tracing paper to make a crisp black-and-white version of the knot.

Here you see the second iteration of the knot. All elements of shading have been removed. The only thin lines are the ones that lead us to believe it is intertwined. The lines lead us to feel the overlap and the 3D precedence of the rope. But only that. There is nothing else left. A uniform thickness is used for the rope, and the outline is carefully moulded to give the impression of a smooth figure.

Even the place where the strands touch, in the center, has been simplified into what I believe is its simplest form. This iconic knot is a perfect stepping stone for other depictions.

For instance, I can color the knot to give it a playful design. Like the logo for a yarn company, this piece really exudes creativity and simplicity. Perfect for a crafts company.

Another possible departure from the clean logo-form is the woodcut, shown at the top. This one was inverted from the hand-colored logo form and then shading lines were cut into the form to give it a rough feeling of a linoleum cut.

For the original knot, I used a Sharpie on thick cotton bond paper, scanned it into Preview on Lion, and left it unmodified so you could see what I actually had to work with. For the logo form in black and white, I used another think piece of cotton bond paper and a sharpie to trace it. Then I scanned it into Preview and color corrected and rotated it. Then I brought it into Painter as a .jpg file and hand-edited it into the form you see here. I didn't do anything to clean up or flatten the black areas. They still had various shades of black in it from the Sharpie.

To color the second version, I used a New Layer set up with the Screen layer method in Painter. And then I drew into the black areas. The white areas are essentially left untouched by this method even if you intrude into them.

The woodcut was inverted in Painter and this produced the dirty white you see, which I liked and kept around. I added the tiger-stripe shading using lots of handwork with the goal of making it feel like a woodcut or a linoleum cut. I used my clever techniques from my scratchboard days to get the feeling right. In some cases I had to work and rework the shading stripes when they didn't fit. But I was going for an informal, hand-made look.

Iconic Forms

I like to investigate form in 3D, and the knot is certainly a way of looking at 3D forms in a new way. After all, with some slight modifications, the knot could be made into an iconic trefoil knot as well. Perhaps in my next post. A class 3D form is the cuboctahedron.

Here you see I drew a cube in perspective and then inscribed a cuboctahedron, bounded by squares and triangles. This form has 14 faces all made up of regular polygons. And since it is regularly convex, you can see seven of them here.

Shade it and you can see the form more clearly. But I think I will have to remove the lines of shading in order to simplify it more.

I love these forms. For a more complete exposition of them, see this link.

Iconic Sayings

I have noticed a lot of bands with the word One in them. In particular One Republic and One Direction, to mention just two. But it reminds me how easy it is to create iconic sayings by using the word One. As for me, I have only one eye that really works properly. But the catchphrase One Eye would not be truly great for a band. But One Vision would. Also things like One Leg would similarly not be good, being less preferable than One Step Ahead, or even One Step Behind.

In the iconic image category, One Vision leads to the all-seeing eye. This symbol, used on the dollar bill, is the symbol for vision in the larger sense. Rather than depict it as a pyramid, I have removed the third dimension and so I show it inside a triangle. Once again, it is black and white with hard edges: line art.

The eye is shiny, of course, and this is indicated by the triangular divot taken out of the iris form. The rounded form of the eye is reversed out from its triangular enclosure. Size-wise it intersects the edge and so leaves its full extent to the imagination. A clever design trick. This image may also be colored. I would suggest the iris. But this may lead to the pupil becoming colored, which will be wrong, since it must be left black. So I have left this logo form completely uncolored. Or, you can color the whole thing in a Pantone shade.

Also along these lines, the phrase One Lie occurred to me. And immediately a symbol occurred to me: a hand with the index and middle fingers crossed. Kind of a white lie, a fib.

Even such simple concepts can be iconized into a line art form, as seen here. It probably couldn't get much simpler without losing something.

Still, iconic catchphrases such as One Voice don't immediately bring an image to mind even though it is a good kernel of a thought.

Iconic Hand

The symbolic hand reaching up for help is another icon I have sought to create. I like hands, so this one seemed like a good choice.

To create the symbolism of reaching up, I wanted the hand to shadow itself and have light leak through the fingers. The light from above symbolizes hope.

The hand reaching symbolizes need, and desperation. Grasping for straws.

Here I took a photo with my iPhone, imported it directly into Preview, and saved it to a .jpg file for import into Painter. Once in Painter, i cloned it and created a line drawing. This line drawing was adjusted again and again until it seemed reasonable to my eyes. Then created a New Layer, made its layer method Gel, and used a shade of brown to add shading to the hand, using the original photo as a reference.

I did this again with a slightly redder brown, and created a darker shading layer on top. Finally, I processed the original image into a set of grainy splotches using soften and equalize. I did this repeatedly, adjusting the equalize levels so I got just the right amount of flecks of texture. Then I edited the texture image so it only covered the hand. I placed it on top as another layer and used the Darken layer method with a very small opacity to make the texture subtle enough so it wouldn't detract from the theme.

This piece is intended to be expressive, and gritty. But really only the hand form and position is iconic.

Iconic Texture

When John Derry and I used to talk about textures, one texture he liked to draw was what he called the Good 'n' Plenty texture. This was made up of lozenges placed in such a pattern so they avoided each other in a pleasing visual way.

These kinds of textures get even more interesting when the figure has a direction to it, like a triangle. So even a texture can be shown in a basic, minimalist way. The ultimate minimalist texture is the speckle, introduced and explained in the post Texture, Part 1.


In short, the boiling down of an idea into its component parts, the exclusion of the unnecessary ones, and the most economical depiction of what's left forms the entire process of iconization. Sometimes all you have left is a silhouette. Sometimes it is a clean rendering. But always, it evokes a single iconic idea.

Iconic Bestiary - More Like This

In this blog, I have presented many iconic items. In Interlock, Part 2, I presented the iconic three intersecting rings, the atomic rings.

The post An Anatomy of Painter's Brushes, Part 3 contains a very nice iconic brush stroke, complete with grain.

In the post New Ideas, Old Ideas pretty much every picture is an iconic depiction of something.

The entire post Drawing On Your Creativity is about iconic depictions in 3D forms, many of them impossible figures.

My post on Color is filled with the iconic color overlap diagrams. Most of the figures in Interlock (the original post) are extremely iconic, and especially the Valknuts.

My post The Things We Throw Away has the iconic floating mountain.

It is clear that Art From Deep Inside The Psyche draws on all my inner troubles to produce the most interesting of all the iconic figures, some with variations, that I produced in the 90s.

My article Where Do Ideas Come From? contains a wealth of iconic imagery, from lightning bolts to letterforms.

In Patterns, Part 3 I explore the iconic looping structures and show a grammar to construct them.

In the post The Most Useful Painter Feature, the whole concept of X2 is iconized and presented in many ways.

My post on Three-Dimensional Thinking has some very clean, iconized items.

An interesting iconic item, the burning ice cube, was covered in extenso in Creativity and Painter, Part 3.


  1. Your eye logo reminded me of the AOL logo, but I like your triangle divot much more. Clever.

    As you know, I wanted to inject that a design issue with scalable line art is that the thinnest shapes are not too much thinner than the thickest, e.g. the spacing between the components of the second iteration of your knot. Otherwise these features are lost at low resolution and small sizes.

    I am impressed that the grasping hand expresses distress. I don't think I would have thought of the direction of reaching up. I would have probably thought of a hand grasping for an outreached hand. You were able to remove the other hand, using orientation. Clever minimization.

    1. To me, the AOL logo does not appear to be an eye.

      The knot logoform was designed with very thick "separation lines" so I could make it much much smaller.

      The grasping hand is like a hand reaching out of a lake. Drowning. Reaching for something but perhaps never being able to grasp it. In a good depiction, it would have the water ripples around the base. I didn't have time for that.

      The hand is not minimalist, but it does have some of the issues boiled down to just the position of the fingers.

      Outstretched fingers seem to mean freedom, creativity, or openness. It's really tough to symbolize desperation. I don't personally think I did a very good job. It often takes a long time to boil something down to the *really* minimal requirements.