Category: Illustration for advocacy

Practice and research

Investigation and research through practice

Practice-led and practice-based research

What is practice-based research?

In context of creative arts, practice-based research is an approach to research that involves creative practice and the reflection on the outcomes of that practice. For example, the outcomes may involve art and drawing, music, poetry, performance, or other creative making. Inquiry and observations are critically documented and combine with the artefacts, the outcomes of practice, to help prompt new thinking, help generate new ideas and new insight. This knowledge and understanding may implicate new creative practice for researchers and for others. In practice-based research, the outcomes form part of the research.

What is practice-led research?

Candy (2006a) describes the main difference between practice-based and practice-led as the latter can be documented wholly in written language, documenting investigation into practice, where the practice does not form part of the final documented research. However, the phrases practice-based and practice-led are often interchangeable and both are about practice informing inquiry that informs further practice. Practice-led research is about gaining new knowledge about a given practice and that practice is a component of the research.

Christopher Frayling (1993 p8) comments that creative research is beneficial, it is, ‘nourishment for the practice and teaching of art, craft and design’. He is enthusiastic about practice research but qualifies the difference between research for personal practice and professional academic research. He continues to define three categories of art practice research; research into art and design, research through art and design, and research for art and design

It is also relevant to distinguish between personal research and academic research. Academic research is for sharing, being critiqued; it will be a transferable contribution to knowledge for a professional community rather than personal motivation, and expression.

Candy (2006b) summarises, ‘If a creative artefact is the basis of the contribution to knowledge, the research is practice-based. If the research leads primarily to new understandings about practice, it is practice-led.’


Candy, L., (2006a) Practice based research: a guide [pdf] Available at: [Accessed 18 April 2019] p2

Candy, L., (2006b) Practice based research: a guide [pdf] Available at: [Accessed 18 April 2019] p3

Frayling, C., (1993) Research in Art and Design [pdf] Available at: [Accessed 23 April 2019]


What is a picture?


As image makers and advocates, it is important to understand what we say when we draw, when we make an image. Intent to make a positive piece of work, with positive messages may not be enough. To demonstrate, we can choose to make images with closed messages, unequivocal in meaning yet an audience may not see what we intended. If, as an animal advocate, an illustrator wants to make positive work, then it can be helpful to critically examine illustrations to try to understand them, what they are and what they say, and how they operate on the world. If we have something important to say in illustration, one step to doing that well, is to learn the language of images.

This post is motivated by the book Visual Methodologies by Gillian Rose.

It can be difficult to define exactly what an image is. In her introduction, Rose (2001, p.1) cites W.J.T. Mitchell’s 1994 book, Picture Theory. She quotes him as saying, ‘we still do not know exactly what pictures are, what their relation to language is, how they operate on observers and on the world . . .’ .

Rose writes about looking at images, she describes ways, methodologies, to investigate them and come to interpret and understand them. She writes about methodologies that can be used as tools for decoding images and gaining insight into the work of others. In turn, a creative practitioner can use these tools to examine their own making.

Visual Methodolgies by Gillian Rose



Rose doesn’t specifically mention illustration; she relates analysis to photography and film, advertising and painting and other media. This omission of specific reference to illustration, especially picture book illustration, is common, but the methodologies for analysis can be applied just the same. An illustration is more than a visual descriptor, more than a repetition of its accompanying text. An illustration is an expression, a response, it is an interpretation, it translates and supplements words and experiences into visual form and that visual communication exists in the visual stimulus that is the world around us.


Meaning, what is understood within an image, is always in context – in the context of who is seeing the image and where and when they see it. And the reader may not be aware of everything they perceive.

Gillian Rose’s book aims to teach her readers how to better understand pictures, how to analyse them and to become aware of what is seen, to understand what is perceived. She introduces a set of methodological guides that used together can deconstruct an image and help discover its meaning and then justify that interpretation.

“The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe” John Berger (1972) Ways of Seeing. p15





Methodolgies for image analysis

Rose (2001 p188) describes the analysis of meaning as working on three levels, in three places or sites, the production of the image, of the image itself and when an audience responds to the image. These sites can be broken down into processes. She describes these as technical, which is concerned with craft, the artist’s materials for making and display, the compositional, which is about the visual qualities of an image and finally, social analysis is concerned with cultural contexts.


Rose, G., (2001) Visual Methodologies London:SAGE



Berger, J. (n.d) John Berger [image online] Available at:
[Accessed 2 May 2019]


Creativity and Critical thinking

Why think about creativity, why think about anything at all?

First, let’s consider, what is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is about asking questions, it is about taking an analytical approach to thinking about what to believe in; it’s about thinking about what you think, what you hear, what you read and what you see. It is a way to illuminate bias, stereotyping, to quantify and qualify ideas and hypotheses. These ideas can be scientific or ideological, mathematical or philosophical, scholarly or everyday; everything benefits from a critical thinking approach. Critical thinking is a tool, a skill that makes us ask questions about the world we know, the culture we live in and existing belief systems. This is all too significant in today’s world of ‘fake news’.

Is critical thinking being negative?

No – in this instance ‘critical’ does not mean to criticise or to find fault with – it means to examine and enquire – it is an analysis, a self-directed enquiry or one’s own or others’ work, ideas, and actions. It’s about thinking clearly and rationally, it is about thinking what to believe, it is about thinking about thinking. This is called metacognition.

Cosmologist and philosopher Carl Sagan, calls it bullshit or baloney detection. In his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the Dark, he writes, about how we can all be lured in to thinking in certain ways through traditions, deceptions and advertising or product endorsements. In the chapter, The Fine art of Baloney Detection he writes his rules for thinking critically. If you read them, don’t forget to question them!
A photograph of Carl Sagan. he is resting his face on his hand and smiling.
Cosmologist and Philosopher Carl Sagan

But what about creativity and critical thinking?

If we want our work to be impactful we will do well to think critically about it, reflect on it, consider it, what worked well, what less so, what feedback did we get and so on. This is beginning to think critically about what we make, what we write and what so what we say. We are questioning and testing our making and our ideas.

This inquisitive approach encourages observation and experimentation, cornerstones for creativity and originality. The artist or illustrator can apply their growing knowledge about form, line, and colour for example. We can examine connotations, in context of history, the politics that surround us, activism and what we want to say. We can combine critical thining with semiotics to explore meaning.

Why is it relevant to creativity and illustration?

Through critical analysis and self-reflection, we can develop our practice, develop our skills – our technical aptitude and artistic imagination, our practical making and theoretical interpretations. Through critical thinking, we set ourselves creative and intellectual standards. Critical thinking sets us free, it is liberating and allows to make free from unpercieved bias and hidden assumptions – it unshakles us.

Through critical thinking, we can examine our society and its beliefs. We can examine these phenomena through the creative work of others, in historical and political contexts, and we can ask if, through our work, we perpetuate cultural ideas that we discover to be untruths.

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