Alphabet Road Trip | the blog of Iskra Design

Category: Calligraphic Illustration

The Lion and the Lamb Deconstructed: Illustration Development for a Christmas Card


During the holidays an illustrator can lose a lot of sleep over how to do something original. A few years ago I had the “nothing new under the sun, so get over yourself” realization and dared to attempt a holiday card for my own business. For a baseline, it had to avoid offending Christians, Jews, Muslims, Janes, Hindus, Atheists, Mormons, Feminists, etc. etc.– yet it had to be recognizable as a holiday greeting. Ideally it would make even a grumpy person smile.

The idea evolved from looking at a collection of illustrators from the ’50s, including one of my great heroes, Ben Shahn, and just thinking purely about the beauty of different kinds of line. Somehow I got from playing with scruffy lines and curly lines to the lion and the lamb, and eventually they met at the office watercooler under the misteltoe. This is a selection from dozens of drawings, demonstrating some of the intricacies of rendering as well as the design questions that can go into something that may look very simple. I start by working with pure ink and paper, and then test color and reversals and various printing ideas before I go back and revise.




The fluffier the friendlier, but perhaps too cute. And the lamb isn’t really looking at the lamb, he seems to be blinded with adoration for Jessica, in the red satin sheath over by the eggnog.



Kinda like these guys, and how the misteltoe showed up. Not sure about those scrunched up legs. Will this offend someone if it looks like they are about to kiss?



Okay, more formality, more tension. but this looks way too much like the Lion King, or Aslan. Wrong Lion.


Back to pure iconography and brush strokes. In the top one the lion has too much of a bed-head, the lamb is too prim, and in the second one she may be too needy, while the lion looks like a corporate sponsor. How many times am I going to have to re-cut this paint brush to get a consistently inconsistent “mane” stroke?? I think I’m tired already.



Working on relationship. Red? Maybe. Definitely gold.



It’s always good to switch up techniques. Speedball nibs on newsprint. This is a study of the difference between eyes open or closed. They look so peaceful with eyes closed, but the audience is sort of left out. Newsprint, by the way, is one of my very favorite papers to draw on. 100% non archival and very cheap, which means you can do a master-work and watch it turn brown in about a month…..but very liberating.



Many many rounds of refinements later, this was the final card. Gold ink on Karma Cover. Both actors are looking at the mistletoe, which creates the best tension: an elegance and restraint that could lead to something else. Like Universal Love and World Peace.


Maybe we could petition to hang mistletoe at the United Nations. Could it be that simple?


All images © Iskra Johnson and may not be reproduced without permission of the artist. You can see more of my greeting card designs here.

Inspirational Quote of the Day: The Doubt Sandwich

Doubt Sandwich quote by Amy Sillman, expressive calligraphy by Iskra


This Sunday the New York Times had a wonderful interview with artist Amy Sillman. When you are trying to do a creative project that has you on the edge there is no way to really conquer doubt. Her advice is beautifully practical: just manage it. And eat it.

Yes, for those wondering, I did try this in the shape of a sandwich, with lettuce and tomato. It seemed very silly. I settled on a solution that shows the sandwich inside one’s mind. I chose a style bordering on ugly, in keeping with the opening line of the interview:

“I don’t care about beauty at all,” said Ms. Sillman, who is forthright and friendly, offering some cool watermelon chunks to a visitor. “Not one tiny bit. In fact, I don’t like it. I’m interested more in ugliness.”

Go here to see more calligrams.