I’m a bit of a process junkie. I can’t get enough of learning how artists do what they do. Everyone has their own way of doing things and it’s interesting to see how different people attack similar problems.
Since I get asked from time to time about my process, I thought it might be time to do a quick write up about how I do a typical illustration. A word of caution. The way I do things is no where near the best way to do things. In fact, in some ways I’m probably making things a little more difficult for myself than I need to, but it’s just the way my process has developed. I have a certain comfort level with it, so that outwieghs the wonky parts of my process. Also, keep in mind that my process typically varies from illustration to illustration. That aside, the process detailed below is a decent overview of how I work.
Alright, time to get started. Let’s look at how I created the Spacehawk illustration I posted a little while ago. All my illustrations start with dozens and dozens of doodles. I do all of my doodles with good ole fashioned pencil (or pen) and paper. Since the rest of the process will be entirely digital, I really enjoy the tactile nature of working in the “real” world.
The doodle phase is loosely divided into two parts. The first part is all about idea generation, coming up with the overall concept. For me, idea generation is the best part of the whole process. It’s fun watching ideas take shape and grow. The second half of the doodle phase is all about settling on the rough drawing of how that idea will look. Things getting a little bit tougher at this point because reality starts to set in. Can I do an idea justice? Does the idea hold the same appeal now that it is now becoming a bit more tangible?
The doodle stage ends when I have a rough drawing that will form the foundation for the digital illustration. How well refined the rough drawing is varies form illustration to illustration. Sometimes, if the illustration is particularly tricky, I’ll refine the rough drawing to the point where it is pretty close to how the final illustration will look. Other times, the rough drawing will be a mass of loose scribbles. In those cases, much more of the “drawing” will be done in the later stages. Keep in mind, that this rough drawing will not actually be seen in the final drawing. It will be completely redrawn digitally. So when settling on a rough drawing, I am not looking for the final drawing, just something that has some looseness and vitality that can carry over to the final drawing. The image below shows a page from my sketchbook that has the rough drawing for the Spacehawk illustration.
Once I have a rough drawing I like, I scan it in to Photoshop and clean it up a little if necessary. Occasionally, my rough drawings will actually be a composite of several doodles. In those cases, the separate doodles are stitched together in Photoshop.
Now the real work begins. I import the rough drawing into an Illustrator file. The rough is placed on a locked layer and I begin laying in shapes in layers above it using the pen tool. Illustrator’s pen tool gets a bad rap because, by nature, it’s such a mechanical tool. To me, that’s one of it’s greatest strengths. Since it is different than using a pencil or brush, I can really focus on the shapes that are making up my illustration. My stuff is all about reducing things to as simple shapes as I can, so being forced to really focus on this is really helpful.
I trace all of the shapes in the rough drawing with the pen tool. I try not to trace the rough drawing. Rather, I am continually looking for ways to improve the illustration by finding areas that need simplified or smoothed out. One of the advantages of working in vector format, is that I can continually massage the shapes to get them where I want them. The image below shows the SpaceHawk illustration after I drew in all of the shapes.
As I am laying in all the shapes, I also starting to make initial color choices. Going into this phase I’ll usually have a pretty good idea of what color scheme I’m going to use, but sometimes, the plan changes as the illustration starts to take shape. Before I am finished with the Illustrator phase, I try to get the colors in the general ballpark of where I want them (with the understanding that I will tweak them once I get the illustration into Photoshop). The basic color version of the Spacehawk illustration looked like this:
Eagle-eyed readers will notice that the image of the female alien photograph is not in this stage. I drew that in a separate document and added it to the illustration during the next stage.
Now, we’re entering the home stretch. I export the illustration from Illustrator as a layered PSD file and open it up in Photoshop. At this point, the illustration doesn’t look too bad, but it needs some tone and texture to really give it that classic children’s book feel I’m going for. Using a wacom tablet, I start adding in a little shadow to help give the shapes some form. I also add in some texture to some of the elements and the background. Usually, the colors need some tweaking at this point as well so I usally add some adjustment layers to give the illustration a little extra pop. The final step is to add a little dash of the Spatter effect to help tone down the ultra-hard edge that comes from working with vectors.
And that’s it. Apologies for the long post. I hadn’t expected to ramble on so long. And despite the length, I think I still may have glossed over a couple parts. Feel free to drop me a line if you are looking for any more specific information.