Scott Balmer’s Bold Illustrations

By Charles Purdy

Scottish illustrator Scott Balmer creates bold, strikingly colored images, often with a retro feel—working for clients and contributing to exhibitions around the world. He describes his work as being primarily about solving problems, and he has recently begun applying those problem-solving skills to creating stock illustrations that he makes available as a premium contributor on Adobe Stock

Balmer hails from, and currently resides on the outskirts of, Dundee, Scotland—a city he describes as being an interesting mix of old and new. “I haven’t moved far,” he says with a laugh. “And a lot has been going on in Dundee. The V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum] made it their base for Scotland…and there are major design agencies and gaming companies. Also, it’s quite a nice-looking city, with a lot of Victorian buildings, right on the River Tay.”

Balmer takes inspiration from popular culture and contributes pieces to thematic gallery shows—for example, these illustrations inspired by the films Big Trouble in Little China and A Clockwork Orange were both in shows at Gallery 1988.


An artistic nature that manifested itself early in his life led Balmer to Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art & Design, where he studied illustration and printmaking. And although—nearly ten years into his career as a professional illustrator—he has moved to a fully digital process, he says he hopes to return to the medium of his school days at some point. And it’s clear that printmaking continues to inform his aesthetic, which is frequently defined by simplified shapes and unique combinations of vivid colors. 

“I remember an old lecturer I use to have at school, when I was doing all that printmaking; he used to say that it comes down to choosing one color, and that color chooses the next one, and so on,” says Balmer. “So I might have a idea and think, ‘You know, I want this piece to feature a nice yellow, and then this green will sit nicely with that….’ That’s how I work with color. It feels almost instinctual.”

Balmer describes his experimental approach to using color in his work as “instinctual.” 


In addition to editorial illustrations, packaging, and advertisements, Balmer frequently contributes to gallery exhibitions—many with themes related to popular culture.

And pop culture, especially from the recent past (the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s), is a source of inspiration for Balmer: old science fiction paperbacks, record covers from the 1960s, hand-drawn magazine advertisements from a couple of generations back—he says he is drawn to these eras’ stylized drawings or illustrations with stylized backgrounds, and again mentions color. “It’s the way that the colors have been put down on the paper,” he says. “It’s how they work together. I also like when you see pictures where they’ve used colors you wouldn’t expect for the sky or the ground or a feature like that. This was something that you used to see in Disney films, for instance.”

He continues, “And frequently there is that vibrancy, but I like to also look at the subtle colors. It just depends on the type of work I’m producing and, for instance, what the brief is.”

And depending on the effect he’s after, Balmer uses both Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.  For his more painterly images, he uses Photoshop. For his more graphical illustrations (including most of his Adobe Stock contributions), he uses Illustrator—working with negative space, carefully placing shapes, and making sure the images contain no superfluous information. He says, “Working with vectors is like working with stained glass, as someone once described it to me.”

Balmer takes a problem-solving approach to creating his editorial illustrations and his stock images. 


Balmer likens his work as an illustrator to solving a problem—or a jigsaw puzzle. “You’re kind of piecing shapes together to make the final piece, even though you might not know what it will be…. Of course, it’s tailored to whatever the brief is.”

His process when handling editorial-illustration briefs is relatively straightforward: it comes down to reading the brief and reading the text if it’s supplied, and that usually jumpstarts his imagination. He creates multiple thumbnails very quickly—just to shape his ideas—and then he chooses the ones that he feels have potential and refines them a bit before sending some selections to the client for approval.

Balmer adds, “I’ve kind of changed the way I do roughs now. I’ve been using Adobe Photoshop Sketch on the iPad a bit more. I can open the files in Photoshop afterwards and tidy things up, and then just send them off.”

This spot illustration appeared in an issue of Monocle magazine, accompanying an editorial about the Philippines deploying a submarine fleet in a disputed area of the South China Sea. 

Balmer’s approach to stock images involves a bit of a conceptual balancing act—between creating images that are one-of-a-kind and creating images that express an understandable concept. He says, “You want to have an idea that feels unique but also would work in many kinds of publications…you’re creating something that’s ‘one size fits all’ but that feels tailor-made.” To that end, he has added some images he created in the past (including some illustrations that ended up not being used by art directors), and he’s creating new images as well. 

To enjoy more of Balmer’s work, check out his portfolio site, find him on Behance, or check out the work he is making available on Adobe Stock

December 11, 2017