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The Process Behind Good Illustration (Part 1)

“Art” is something philosophers have spent centuries trying to define, sadly with no satisfactory result (a debate that is far beyond the scope of this article). But illustration, while it covers a broad range of image-making, does have very distinct meanings, and it is very different from just artwork. [Links checked March/10/2017]

Illustration is not the same thing as art.

This is not a tutorial. It’s not about how to make a glossy Twitter icon, how to replicate that anime pic step by step, or how to make 30 awesome heavy-metal texture effects in Photoshop1 (linked is an article that inspired me very much). While studying illustration in college and exploring it on my own, the biggest lesson that I’ve learned so far hasn’t been how to vector the best darn shiny things you’ve ever seen. What I learned was that to be good at illustration means to first understand exactly how it differs from just putting down nice-looking doodles on paper, and that the rest just flows from there.

In this two-part article, I’d like to share some tenets behind what I think good illustration is, and what I learned about the process and technique behind how to execute it. Hopefully some fellow aspiring illustrators out there will find some of these helpful — or maybe even identify with some as part of their own process, too!

If any of my professors are reading this: I hope I didn’t disappoint you, please don’t fail me in your classes.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Part 1: What is illustration? Link

A picture is worth a thousand words.

You see art around you all the time. No doubt your attention was once seized by an interesting editorial graphic, which offered an intriguing metaphor to a drab politics-related story you’d never dive into otherwise. You’ve certainly encountered visually compelling band posters, and storybook pictures that are much more rewarding to peruse than the text itself. But yet, comparatively, the idea of looking at an equally visually lush oil still life makes some part of your brain yawn. Why is that?

The type of art we call illustration has a two-fold purpose. The first and foremost is that it speaks to you. It tells you a story, visually represents an idea, conveys a message, delivers information, offers a visual accompaniment to text, etc. — it does something. Second, but certainly not least, it presents that “something” in an interesting and engaging fashion.

…So, that’s pretty vague, right? Hmm. Well, let’s first try to place “illustration” in context of the general term of “art” and see if we can’t pull out some of its defining characteristics. After all, something makes that oil still life so much less engaging for our brain.

1. Illustration is taking art, and putting it to work. Link

What we think of as “fine art” tends be focused on the aesthetics of its craft and its visual — tangible paintbrush strokes, interplay of colors and values, the juxtaposition of different media, the expression of technique, for instance; the most primitive visual elements of execution that in and of themselves are meant to be appreciated, beautiful, or evocative.

Claude Monet, Haystacks Kenneth Noland

Often, it’s meant to go beyond just being visually provoking, which is where it approaches the illustrative realm. For instance, Monet’s haystacks were meant to be a visual documentary of light-rays upon hay at different seasons and times of the day; but until that is brought to the forefront, fine art is marked by the fact that the subject tends to be less important than how it looks.

And Kenneth Noland’s circles look pretty neat, but, as the painting sits there now, it doesn’t illustrate anything except… well, itself. Nor does it do anything aside from expressing its aesthetic. Illustration, by definition, must always have representation intent that goes beyond merely its looks. It must not express, it must communicate, and it cannot be evoking form alone. That is, “looking pretty” cannot be its only function.

Article at Discover Magazine7

Sometimes you’ll really need context to help, and that’s okay. For instance, what if those circles were to accompany the article on the left? You wouldn’t be able to resist reading psychological meaning into those rings of color, without which the art was silent. In this simple example, we’ve taken the art and put it to work.

Article at Discover Magazine8

So, is that it, it’s an illustration now? Definitely. Is it the best we can do? Perhaps not, since the painting wasn’t optimized for this particular interpretation when it was being painted, which suggests we can do better.

On the right is the graphic that accompanied the article. Which one you’d prefer is subject to taste, since arguably both visually address the article in compelling ways. But it’s clear that the brain illustration on the left is loaded with much more communicative symbolism because it can tell its story even when it stands alone. It’s an image that must be designed, and nothing that can be arrived at just by sticking your brush onto the paper and letting your love of colors take over.

2. Illustration is clear, empirical, and intentional. Link

It would seem that perfection is attained not when no more can be added, but when no more can be removed.

— Antoine de Saint Exupéry

To reiterate: as an illustrator, your job is not to demonstrate your painting techniques, color mixing, or your mastery of the male nude — only to find the most efficient, clear, and direct way to make the viewer feel and know what you want them to feel and know. Do nothing extra, because extra stuff (be it extra details, people, trees, colors, lines, etc.) in your illustration could only hamper this process. Just like writing an overly wordy essay or an instruction manual with too many details makes information difficult to digest.

Keep in mind also that “clear” is not the same thing as “simple.” A complicated drawing can communicate an idea very clearly, and a simple drawing can be hard to understand. But the best illustrations, be they simple or detailed, are clear — that is, they have the fewest unnecessary things in them. And what they do have in them is there for a reason, and it all has the function of manipulating your focus, attention, and emotional response to what the illustrator intends you to get out of it. They have been stripped down to the most empirical essential colors, shapes, lines, etc. needed to get their point across in the most efficient manner.

3. An illustration’s visual style, colors, etc. are not random either. Link

I find that a lot of young artists (including myself only mere months ago) tend to think of style-selection backwards. They look at some awesome illustrations, and think about what about it makes it look so awesome, dead-set on replicating the awesomeness in their own works. And it’s great that they’re out looking at stuff. The worst thing you can do is sit inside your own head and “scrape your brain” for ideas, as Jillian Tamaki put it9.

Unfortunately, what they usually arrive at is something like this:

“Okay, I’m going to do my entire piece with acrylics in these reds and oranges like that second one, do my highlights just like that first one in Photoshop, and, oh yeah, maybe do something in a paper-cut-out style to have a bold shape in the background like that third one, and it’ll look as cool as those do.”

A noble pursuit, to boot! But the problem with such reasoning is that looking “cool” should only be a byproduct of its being functional. Else we’re just making art.

Two candles.

The way I think is best to go about it is exactly the opposite — first thinking what you want your illustration to do, then what techniques could make that happen best, and then how to make those techniques visually compelling. Finding the most effective medium/colors/ style/etc. usually will take some experimenting, but the most important thing is to go for “brains over looks” and not the other way around (much more on this later).

You might find you don’t even need to be a staggeringly skilled painter to pull it off. For example, which image on the left communicates “shiny candle” in the fastest and clearest way?

Note: This is not to impugn the importance of artistic skill, however! While you can certainly find your niche in illustration even without intimate familiarity with many subjects and mediums, it definitely helps. Sloppy execution or inaccurate detail will hurt illustrations, even if the idea behind them is sound; so the more artistic sensitivity you have, the fewer stumbling blocks you’ll face. Artistic skill alone, however, does not a good illustrator make.

4. ____________? Link

There are plenty of other ways to define illustration that many hold close to their hearts. For instance, some of my peers have defined it as:

  • art that is purposely made to be displayed to or be meaningful to someone else
  • art that stands in for a concept
  • designed artwork
  • art with communication value

Somewhere in there is a good definition; yours may be different still, but they all hover roughly around the same idea. Illustration is making images that have more purpose than merely expressing their aesthetic and expressing you — they have value beyond mere visual expression, whether it’s offering a visual component to text, telling a story, representing a concept, et cetera.

In fact, if you’ve ever thought that you can never venture into the image-making realm because InDesign and beautiful typography is where you hang out, think again! The better designers — rather than the better artists — tend to make the better illustrators.

In The Process Behind Good Illustration (Part 2)10 we’ll look at how all this rote textbook knowledge can translate to specific process and technique in your work, no matter your skill level, preferred medium, or strengths.

Footnotes Link

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Hi! I'm Natalie, an aspiring illustrator, designer and web developer. Which means, I'm an art & computer science dual-major who spends her free time drawing, designing layouts, and then coding them up in XHTML/CSS/PHP/MySQL/JS/AJAX/etc. to make nifty websites. So, basically, I'm kind of a geek. Go ahead and visit my online portfolio and you can follow me on Twitter here.

  1. 1

    I always think “hate” is a very strong word and shouldn’t be thrown around so easily. I think you have some very good points Michael, but then again I agree with some things that Natalie said.

    But I’m not here to argue.

    I think it was a very well written article from ONE perspective of an illustrator. Maybe I don’t completely “get it” since I am not an illustrator, but I am an artist/designer. Looking forward to part two.

  2. 3

    Michael Fields

    June 10, 2010 5:20 pm

    I hate this article. It belittles everything I stand for.

    • 4

      Jad Limcaco

      June 10, 2010 5:23 pm

      Hello Michael, thanks for letting us know, but can you kindly elaborate on why you hate this article? What does Natalie belittle?

  3. 5

    Joshua Wold

    June 10, 2010 6:27 pm

    Natalie, great article. As someone who tends toward this direction myself I can appreciate the work you’ve put into this. @Michael, if you’re coming from the direction of fine art [?], or a medium in which you convey your artistic preferences through the medium without a clear sense of purpose, that’s ok, and I don’t think Natalie was putting that down. There’s a place for each.

    • 6

      Jad Limcaco

      June 12, 2010 1:15 am

      I completely agree with you Josh. I don’t think Natalie was trying to tear anybody down.

  4. 7

    I can understand the point being made, but having studied fine art, as well as doing illustration I do find some points inaccurate. The fact that you seem to state that art just needs to ‘look pretty’ and that is has no message. It is stated that illustration speaks to people and conveys a meaning, by stating this as a difference, it is therefore implying that ‘Art’ is meaningless, which is just not true. Any good piece of art has something to say and can speak to the viewer on many different levels, not just on the aesthetic plane.

    I’m sure that this is not what the author wanted to say, but that is the message that comes across.

    • 8

      Norman Rockwell [although this can be argued] was considered an illustrator. I agree Sam, art can speak to the viewer, but is what art conveying as direct as an illustration? I’m glad to see this topic opening up, it’s a good one. I appreciate Natalie being willing to bring up such valid points.

      • 9

        Jad Limcaco

        June 12, 2010 1:17 am

        It’s interesting to note that I interviewed a very famous artist/designer and I asked him to tell me the difference between art and design. He gave a good explanation which I won’t share now but when I release the interview. ;)

  5. 10

    Michael Fields

    June 10, 2010 7:04 pm

    Logically, I hate this article because Natalie attempts to separate illustration from art. While this concept is touched upon multiple times throught the article, I believe that the headline states Natalie’s intentions very clearly: “Illustration is not the same thing as art”. She drew a line, an imaginary one where art is on one side and illustration is on the other. This is fundamentally incorrect as illustration is a form of art.

    Personally, I hate this article because Natalie keeps belittling me as an artist. The tone this article is written in is unforgiveable. Some quotes:

    Natalie: “…illustration, while it covers a broad range of image-making, does have very distinct meanings, and it is very different from just artwork.”

    Me: “just artwork”? Please explain how illustration is different than “just artwork”. “just artwork” encompases a range of visual expression including what is found in the dicipline of illustration.

    Natalie: “to be good at illustration means to first understand exactly how it differs from just putting down nice-looking doodles on paper”

    Me: “nice-looking doodles on paper”? Is that what I have been reduced to in your mind? Is that all I or any other non-illustrator is to you? The whole realm of art encompasses much more than the supperficial. I hope that you can see this.

    Natalie: “Illustration is clear, empirical, and intentional”

    Me: Are you saying that these concepts are intrinsic to “illustration” and “art” has none of these qualities? Is “art” clouded, impractical and unintentional? I’ll tell you that my art is clear, empirical, and intentional. I stand behind what I create. What you imply here is unforgivable.

    Natalie: “The worst thing you can do is sit inside your own head and “scrape your brain” for ideas, as Jillian Tamaki put it.”

    Me: At this point i just WANT TO SCREAM!!!!!!!!!!! Natalie? Are you really saying that the worst thing for me to do is to use my imagination? FOR REAL!?!?!? When I use my imagination, I typically “sit inside your [my] head and “scrape [my] brain” for ideas” That’s a very raw definition of creativity. Are you saying that illustrators are not creative? Now I’m angry and confused…

    Natalie: “…Else we’re just making art.”
    Me: …again, “just”? what do you mean by just?

    Natalie: “There are plenty of other ways to define illustration that many hold close to their hearts. For instance, some of my peers have defined it as:

    – art that is purposely made to be displayed to or be meaningful to someone else
    – art that stands in for a concept
    – designed artwork
    – art with communication value”

    Me: I don’t know who you hang out with, but I hang around a bunch of artists – some of which are also illustrators. Honestly, all four points that you outlined would apply to what we do. Are you trying to tell me that my art is meaningless because it is not illustration? I’ll tell you first hand that what I make is meaningful to not only me, but others. it stands for more than one concept – or feeling as I would state it, I designed it, therefore it was “designed” Whether or not my art communicates “something” is really up to debate, but from the response that I have recieved from others indicates that I have succeeded in communicating “sonething” or else there would be no feedback at all.

    I’m very worried as to what you will write in part two :(

    • 11

      Hi there Michael,

      Thanks for your comment. I can see how what I wrote might have come off that way.

      My intention was never to belittle art-makers, only to provide a response to what I noticed is a very common train of thought in beginning illustrators, which being a student myself allows me to see frequently. So when I make distinctions between illustration and not illustration, it is less so between illustration and art, and more between illustration and the type of art that beginning illustrators usually find themselves diving into. I hope that clears up my perspective a little!

      On that note, “Artistic expression,” etc. are terms sometimes terms I hear used to describe general ways of thinking that might suggest one is thinking too broadly about what they are ndimaking, so I apologize if you interpreted them as an attack on the entire art world. The qualities I pull out as being definitions of illustration versus art are not exclusive to illustration (aka, I don’t meant to imply art is everything opposite). Merely, again, they are in response to what beginning illustrators sometimes have in their heads. As Lourens pointed out below, illustration is an artform, which is indeed true. But when I refer to “art” in this article I mean what only I wrote in the very first sentence — something without concrete definition whose lack of one could hurt you in this particular field, especially as a beginner.

      Again, thanks for reading. Part 2 will be much more technique-oriented, so perhaps you’ll find it more agreeable.


      P.S. “Nice-looking doodles on paper” — that’s neither art NOR illustration, but that’s what sometimes happens along the process. ;)

  6. 13

    Any definition of art is elusive and therefore meaningless. Your child’s crayon scribbles could just as easily be called “art” as an original Rothko.

    Illustration, however, is a distillation of the real and complex into something universal. In most cases, illustration has a distinct, specified purpose. It is a form of explicit communication with an intended audience in mind. In other words, illustration typically MUST convey meaning, whereas art doesn’t have to.

    I think Natalie is very brave for writing this piece—and she’s clearly smart as hell. If you don’t agree with her opinion, fine. But don’t attack her with words like “hate”. Leave those words for politics and religion.

  7. 14

    Thanks a lot, Brandon! Definitely hear you on that first sentence. To be honest, the debate between what is or is not “art” or “illustration” is far from what I meant to address head-on — except insofar as how it has guided along my personal understanding of how what I do sits inside the larger realm of image-making. (And, maybe how it can help other budding illustrators!) But as much as I didn’t mean for this article to incense the larger debate, I’m happy to read some of the views on it.

    P.S. Love your portfolio very much!

  8. 15

    Natalie’s portfolio is sick!!!!

  9. 17

    Jad Limcaco

    June 12, 2010 1:20 am

    And Natalie agrees with that statement. :)

  10. 18

    Jad Limcaco

    June 12, 2010 1:24 am

    To me personally, art, design, illustrations have been very hard to define as I don’t have an education foundation/background in these. That’s why I’m always happy to read articles and discussions that pertain to what this article is talking about.

    Also, for some great discussion and reading on Art vs. Design, you can read these.
    Artist, Designer or Hack
    The Difference Between Art and Design

  11. 19

    Jad Limcaco

    June 12, 2010 1:28 am

    I completely agree with you. There definitely needs to be a balance between the “how” and the “why”, especially in the field that we are in.

    Too many people are jumping into the field by just reading tutorials but not enough theory, they learn the technique and not the thinking that goes along with it.

  12. 20

    While I agree with most of the ideas expressed in this article, I think there are some points to clear out lest you end up enraging artists and illustrators alike. To put it bluntly, illustration is a form art that have clearly defined objectives. Nothing more, nothing less.

    This reminds me of an article I wrote not so long ago on my blog in which I talked briefly about design and art:

  13. 21

    There’s an interesting dichotomy between design and art. I think the argument is more about context, rules, and process than separation.

    I suppose if you wanted to draw a venn diagram — art, design, illustration (etc.) would all overlap significantly. And the best of the work that falls into these categories is more in the center.

    There are many arguable qualities that *often* separate art, design, illustration, etc.. I say etc.. cause people do a lot of things and apply their own labels. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it comes down to rules and context — and *sometimes* process.

    When I work a piece of art, I contend mostly with my own feedback and internal critique. I deal with this with a piece of illustration as well, but there are other conditions and factors that impact the outcome.

    Perhaps these are true:

    * Art can follow rules, but doesn’t have to follow them as often as illustration to be successful.
    * Illustration is more often an accompaniment or complement to something else than art. But that’s not to say that art cannot be an accompaniment, even to itself.

    Bottom line, I think nothing is that clear cut. Nothing is always true. But often… that’s a pretty good word.

    Any good article has a dose of decipherable controversy. Like a good piece of art, it gets people thinking and talking. In that respect alone, there is evidence that this is a good article:)

  14. 22

    I loved it.

  15. 23

    I totally agree with Micheal Fields! AND natalie, your post wasn’t written well enough. It clearly differentiates illustration from art.

    And doodles on a paper? that’s what i believe everyone does before they create the digital illustration O_o

  16. 24

    I agree with a lot of the objections to the tone re: fine art. Especially because the way Natalie’s discussing fine art doesn’t really adequately relate. It could easily be because you’re referring to sort of making decisions based on aesthetics and shininess, which is a mistake whether you’re designing or artmaking. For me, I think it’s easier to work shinypretty into illustration and design than in art because of the different kinds of things each communicates. For me, that’s where the real difference lies — but of course, I might not adequately address all forms of ‘art’ either — particularly those that I don’t like.

    But here’s where I think the difference really lies: art and illustration are communicating ideas in different ways and with different goals. Illustration is (normally) trying to explain or clarify an idea (as, Natalie, you said). Art’s experimenting with an idea — playing with it, teasing it out of you, seeing what it will do with you. Sometimes it works great and it’s really compelling and not quite graspable. Rothko (and I am NOT a huge fan of modernist art) is trying something. Seeing how people respond, based on a powerful reaction he has, hoping he can get it rolling in you too. But it’s not a experience he can give you by explaining it to you. Another example is Rachel Whitereade’s Ghost — — to give an example that’s not 2D or figurative in the traditional sense or abstract in the traditional sense. Art is (IMO) experimental philosophy.

    Illustration is a bit more direct and a bit more concrete. Illustration communicates an idea by showing it. Because maybe words don’t show the relationships in the best way, or they don’t help you see the picture in your head as well as a picture. They take an idea and make it easier to understand, explain it, pick it apart or put it together clearly — just as Natalie said in her article.

    Both of these are necessary aspects of visual communication. They’re just different levels and kinds of communication. And since they both require a high level of intention and deleting and attention and refinement to do well, most of the things you said are necessary for illustrators art necessary for artists to do too.

    And that’s both why artists make good illustrators and bad illustrators. Come artists try to make illustrations but communicate the same way — the more experiential, inarticulable way — the way a Rothko makes you sort of feel — as they would in art. Doesn’t actually end up meeting the “actually explaining something clearly” goal of an illustration. But when artists know that that’s the way they need to communicate in illustration, some of them can use the skills the use to decide how to make an experience and apply them to how to make an image communicate clearly and concretely.

    • 25

      John LeMasney

      June 17, 2010 2:41 am

      While I disagreed with Natalie’s presentation of some of her ideas, I really enjoyed the raising of the topic. In fact, I was inspired to post a graphic response based on this post. I have to say though I enjoyed Kathryn’s informative, balanced response more than anything else here. I agreed with Michael’s response, though maybe not the use of the word hate. Great post for the emotional stirring, and great responses and arguments defending the arts. Cheers.

  17. 26

    I really enjoyed your article, as I relate it with graphic design and how it must communicate information and ideas within design instead of just looking pretty (I use “pretty” as specifically talking about visual communication, not relating it to the broader fine arts). I don’t feel like you belittled fine art, you were focused on illustration which, while it is a form of art, does have a slightly more defined role to play. Thanks for you post!

  18. 27

    Even though, whether or not something art or an illustration can definately cross over on many plains, it is a fact that an illustration is what the word itself means: it illustrates something that already had received some sort of “direction” (ie directing).

    Art however can also convey a message if the artist behind it wants to do so, sometimes it can be got by the viewers, sometimes it cannot.
    anyhow, keep up the good work round here ;)

  19. 28

    As a Fine Artist who started out years ago by drawing comic books and then coming back around years later and learning Graphic Design and applying my Art to Illustration I an tell you the simple way that I see it. Fine Art I make for myself first and foremost, what everybody else thinks of the artwork is something I don’t really care about, I make the Artwork to keep from going mad, because ideas pour out both night and day. :D

    Illustration is made for someone else to serve their purpose ultimately, and so I care what they think of the finished piece, it is somewhat dictated by another than just being dictated by myself.

    With Fine Art I get to be King, with Illustration and Design I let someone else share the throne with me. :P It’s simple really.

  20. 29

    Very nice article. I do have to say that both Natalie & Michael are correct in their own right. In my opinion the primary function of illustration is to support an article or a story that appears in a paper or a magazine or a book. It has to be clear & should use the metaphors that the target audience can relate to. If it tries to be too clever, you have lost your audience. At the same time, it must be executed well. A badly drawn illustration, regardless of the medium used, is neither good for the illustrator, nor for the illustration industry in general. So technique is as important as the idea.

    As far as fine art is concerned, I always think of it in terms of where its supposed to be used – on the walls in your home, in a museum, printed on calendars & sold, etc. It does not have to support any article or story written by a third party. It has to make the audience feel a certain way and the artist spends a lot of time exploring & working on it and designing that feeling on canvas.

    So art & illustration both are important for the soul & for the brain and the only way they end up being bad are if they are either executed poorly in terms of technique, or are unable to make a connection with the audience, or both.


  21. 30

    This ‘art’ versus ‘illustration’ debate is an old chestnut. The clue to illustration is in the name – it’s artwork that illustrates or adds a layer of explanation to usually some text – an article in a magazine or the cover of a book. It used to be called ‘commercial art’, viz art that has been commissioned and paid for to fulfill a brief, albiet in a novel and illuminating way. OK, commerce is also at work in the fine art world. A gallery owner may say to an artist that the blue paintings are selling better than the pink ones, so maybe produce some more blue ones, and a portrait painter may be commissioned by a patron to create a likeness, but mostly an ‘artist’ is left alone to produce whatever he or she likes with few constraints laid down by others.

  22. 31

    Roman Sharf

    June 11, 2013 8:18 pm

    This interesting for me to read because I had done both fine art and illustration. I think anyone who has spent time making artwork that wasn’t commissioned or done simply to study or learn or artists who know and understand some art history will generally find most of the article frustrating to read.

    Going to art school was strange because fine artists and illustrators would always be bad mouthing each other. Having said this I am so glad I did fine art before I did illustration. it gave me so many more tools to work with. I wasn’t stuck to plastic looking soleless artwork which plagues so much illustration. I think if Natalie spent more time doing “fine art” her views might change. I hear what she is saying but I’ll be honest, there is a lack of practice and knowledge of art history that prevails through the article.

    But it’s ok! We are all learning and fine artists and illustrator will always disagree. I will give you a secret though, don’t choose one or the other, just choose to make your art and open your mind to inspiration form your life and the least likely places. The best illustrators and fine artists do that.

  23. 32

    As an artist, I find this article to be quite what I was looking for – clearing the term “illustration”, and separating it from just nice looking doodles. All the comments about art that are said here – I just skipped in my mind that it might be offensive, I believe it is not meant to be that way, but just to clear the point. Something like saying “Oranges are so much bigger than tangerines, like melons they are.” – oranges, tangerines, and melons all differ in size, and there can be huge tangerines, small oranges and tiny melons too. Anyway, thanks for the article :) I want to do illustrations that are as much detailed as possible, and this one puts me to think, where to draw that fine line between fine art and illustration (and I believe both are forms of art, just like architecture is a form of functional art (in which I majored) – without functionality, architecture is not architecture). I am interested mostly in illustrations for books, be that fairy tales or heart breaking novels, and I don’t want to overload the viewer with my personal preferences and love for fine detail. In other words, after reading this article I start thinking like “Hmmm, the illustration should not take the main focus away from the book, but let the reader know how to “dress” what they read in more solid form”. Thanks again :)


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