My illustration process – Part 1

illustration process


Many of you may not realize you have an illustration process. It’s just an automatic thing. I mean, how complicated can illustrating be?

I don’t need to refer to my notes when I start work on a new lettering piece. However, I do follow a process in my head. It’s something I did when I was doing graphic design. It’s now hardwired into the way I work.


“The only difference between science and screwing around is writing it down.”

– Adam Savage

Before getting into the list, it’s important that you’re ready to get to actual work. Don’t sit down cold. Always have a list of topics ready to go.


1. Research

I like to spend a decent amount of time researching a topic. I need that time to digest things in my head. It also lets me develop interesting combinations.

The amount of research will depend on what I’m working on. For example, I wanted to make sure my Alan Shepherd piece was technically correct. His space suit, the Redstone rocket, dials and mission control screen are interpretations, but they’re pretty close to the actual thing. I geeked out—and that was my goal.

For Rusty Staub, I researched photos from the time he was playing for the Montreal Expos. I wanted to make sure I got the uniform and logo right.

I may also research certain typefaces to develop a “look”. However, I need to be mindful it doesn’t become derivative.

Other pieces may require no research. My Want to Do piece started at the thumbnail stage, as I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to do.

I put all my research—visuals, notes and links— into my Apple Notes app. I’m not doing any sketching, yet.


2. Thumbnails and rough sketches

When I feel I’ve done enough research, I’ll start to put things together in my sketchbook. Things at this point are very rough. I’m rapidly going through different combinations of ideas.

The sketches are small, and not too detailed. I’m not concerned with getting things exactly lined up, or have every detail figured out.

I know I’m done the sketching phase when I start re-drawing the same idea over and over.

Perfection isn’t progress.


3. Scale and clean up

In most cases, I’ll snap a photo of my chosen thumbnail with my phone and print a larger version. I wrote about working larger here. This is where I’ll work on my light table and move things around, re-draw, and erase a lot. This is the process that works for ME. I know many who jump right into Procreate (or another app). I just enjoy this part of the process right now to completely give it up.

I should add that I’ve have jumped right into Procreate on occasion, especially if I’m pressed for time.


4. Final Art

When I have a comprehensive pencil “linear”, I’ll import this into Procreate to use as a template.

Sidenote: Consider adding a work location into your process. I like to work on the sofa with my iPad when I’m doing research. When I’m writing, I prefer to be at my work desk.

Does that mean you should never deviate from your illustration process? Of course not. You want some flexibility, and not every project may allow you to follow things exactly the same way. That’s why it’s important to document your work. You can get quite granular with your notes (ie. “The XYZ brushes didn’t work very well for this project …”).

In the next post, I’ll talk about my client illustration process.


Links in this post

Don’t keep ideas in your head

Light this candle

Rusty Staub

How to (mostly) not be derivative

Want to do

Size matters when solving design issues

How do I know if I’m improving?