There is a lot of talk in illustrator circles about “defining your unique style” and “finding your voice”. As artists, we experiment a lot with different mediums and techniques naturally, and sometimes you can start to feel like you don’t really have a style or one way of working. Or a look that you like, that feels like you.
It’s taken me about 2.5 years to figure mine out – my illustration style, that is – since I first started taking my illustration seriously in 2017. I finally think I have developed a process that enables me to achieve something I like, while keeping things fresh and fun. Of course, I hope to keep improving and growing my art style, but this is where I am at right now.
So for anyone who is interested in my illustration process, here it is, broken down into steps, with links to the materials I use:
1. Research and sketches
I always start by doing a quick Google search for reference. This is usually just to help me get poses right, or to research a certain animal, item or landscape for its features and characteristics.
Two references below which I used for this piece.
I then make a bunch of sketches on cheap A4 (or A3) printer paper to play around with ideas and layouts, or sketch out and develop characters. For this I use my favourite pencil, the Blackwing Pearl (the white one) which I first tried a year ago, and haven’t looked back from. It just feels smoother to draw with and the lines are nice and dark.
Once I have a sketch (or sketches) that I like, I scan them. I recently bought an Epson Perfection V370 A4 Flatbed Photo Scanner when my old 3-in-1 Cannon printer-scanner started failing on me. It’s definitely the best scanner I have ever owned.
Scan quality and DPI is extremely important to capture an artwork professionally and not lose finer details and small variations in tone. This Epsom has 4800 x 9600 dpi. It is A4. It is not top of the line but it is pretty decent. Ideally I would want an A3 scanner so I don’t need to “stitch” scans together but a good A3 art scanner is extremely expensive.
Below is my initial sketch after it was scanned. You can see how the scanner picks up even the faintest grey lines, and even some of my erased lines. This is what I look for in a scanner. (This was actually my sister’s scanner which is also an Epsom, not as good as mine or as user friendly, but it was good enough for this.)
3. Edit digitally
I then open the scan in Photoshop CC on my Microsoft Surface Pro which enables me to draw directly on the screen with a digital pen. First I change the image dimension to match the requirements of the final artwork and make sure the resolution is at least 300ppi at actual print size. I also move elements of the drawing around to adjust the composition, and add to the drawing or delete things to get closer to a final rough sketch.
The Microsoft Surface has been a game changer for me. Many artists use the iPad pro and Procreate to the same effect, but I am not a Mac person. And I understand there are limitations to what you can do with Procreate vs Photoshop.
(A note on purchasing a Microsoft Surface – you want to get the highest specs you can afford. Mine is mid-range and sometimes struggles to keep up with my painting when I am using a very textured brush so I have to pause and wait for it to catch up.)
4. Print at actual size
When I am more or less happy with my sketch, I then print it out at actual size. Any printer will do, but once again, an A3 printer would be ideal as often I need to print the image in sections on A4 and then tape them together, to have the correct actual size.
5. Colour test
Back on my Microsoft Surface, I then roughly colour my sketch to find a colour scheme that I like. This is very rough and usually flat colour, nothing fancy. I may do more edits and adjustments to the layout too, like here I removed the space helmet because it looked a bit weird there once I coloured it, and the balance was off.
6. Use lightbox & paint with watercolour
This is a fairly new step for me and has made a world of difference. Instead of painting directly into my original artwork, I lay my printed black and white sketch (from step 4) on my lightbox and then on top I place a clean sheet of good (aka expensive) art paper and then paint my colours in with watercolour using the image below as a guide. My watercolour painting step is pretty rough and loose – I’m not too fussed about “staying in the lines”.
I use this awesome A3 lightbox which I love! It came with a really great travel bag that is the perfect size to carry my art paper in too! Bonus!
I use Fabriano Artistico 140 lb. Hot Press paper . It has taken me some time to find the perfect paper. This may just be it – its doesn’t have too much texture to throw shadows in a scan, and it doesn’t buckle too easily under layers of watercolour.
For the actual painting, I used my cheap old, hand me down, children’s watercolour sets (gasp!) for this specific piece. I have just splashed out and bought myself the Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor Studio Set, 45 Half Pans because I wanted a greater range of colours and also felt it was time to upgrade my materials to professional grade stuff now that I am more comfortable working with watercolour. (Note: I have a VERY expensive pocket size Shmincke watercolour set too, but it was soooo expensive that I tend to avoid using it. Also it has only like 8 colours. I’m saving it for a special occassion ;-))
7. Scan again
I then scan the watercolour piece to keep a copy of it for later.
8. Draw details in with colour pencils
After that, I go back to the watercolour artwork and start drawing in the details with coloured pencils, using my printed pencil sketch for reference, and maybe my lightbox too, depending on the difficulty of the details ad proportions.
I am now using Prismacolor pencils, but really any old colour pencils should do. Sometimes I still use my old Aquarelle watercolor pencils and a stash of random loose pencils I have collected over the years, in combination with the Prismacolors.
9. Scan again
Then I scan it again.
Scanning gets it’s own step every time, as it is tedious and time consuming especially when a piece is larger than A4 and has to be scanned in parts.
10. Stitch scans and layer them in Photoshop
I then open all the scans in Photoshop and stitch them together so I have 3 complete version of the artwork – one pencil sketch, one watercolour-only piece and one watercolour and coloured pencil piece.
One day, when I buy an A3 scanner, I wont need to do this “stitching” step – it feels like a massive waste of time and I also need my other computer (my Dell laptop) to do it, as aligning/rotating images to the pixel is almost impossible to do on the Microsoft Surface touch screen (and my laptop screen is also bigger).
Once I have all the scans stitched, I layer the 3 versions of the drawing precisely on top of each other (in Photoshop).
11. Digtitally edit and fine-tune
Now I open the layered Photoshop file on my Microsoft Surface where I edit, fine-tune, add details, and adjust colours – basically working the image until I am happy with it.
If you are wondering why I use all three versions of the image on top of each other – it’s because in some areas, I will want only the watercolour paint to show, and none of the coloured pencil marks, in other areas, I may want some of my original loose pencil sketch to show; so I layer, and erase what I don’t want. It gives me a lot more flexibility with the final look of the piece and allows me to control the level of “sketchiness” in a piece.
Finished piece below.
Complete list of materials used and their cost:
Blackwing Pearl Pencil (the white one) – $24.95 for a box of 12
Epson Perfection V370 A4 Scanner – ZAR2251.00 (approx $153.00)
Photoshop CC Subscription – $49.99 per month for full Creative Suite
Microsoft Surface Pro Tablet – ZAR23386.00 plus ZAR2000.00 (Surface Pen) (approx $1730.00) at time of purchase
A3 lightbox – $53.99
Fabriano Artistico 140 lb. Hot Press paper – $38.30 for 20 sheets approx A3 size
Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor Studio Set, 45 Half Pans – $50.24
Prismacolor pencils – $56.00
One Drive Cloud storage – ZAR89.00 per month (approx $6.00 per month)
Ream of printer paper
Variety of paint brushes
Old coloured pencils
TOTAL OUTLAY FOR MATERIALS: $2162.47 (approx ZAR31 707.00)
TIME SPENT: probably about 10-15 hours on this one piece
Some of my other pieces created using these same steps: