An old man sits up in bed, startled by a noise from downstairs. He reaches for the door, listening.
Even in a simple spot illustration, Frederic R. Gruger (1871-1953) tells a story by showing only what he needs to show: the rumpled bed, the modest bedframe, the doorknob, the key, and the lock. He leaves out unnecessary details, like picture frames, lamps, or windows.
What he does show, he understates. The forms and edges of his left arm are swallowed up by a simple shadow shape that leads us to the even darker dark of the open doorway. The virtues of economy and understatement are one of the benefits of working solely from the imagination. Gruger rarely used models.
A close look at the head, which is only about an inch high, shows that Gruger defined the form gradually, tentatively, erasing and blending until it emerged in his mind, and then adding the more definite lines of the Wolff pencil last.
As Joseph Pennell said in 1925, “All art is illustration.” And a good illustration is like a good novel or a good movie: it tells a story as much by suggestion as by definition.