NOTE: There’s a lot of video in this post, so it may take a while to load for you!
Since quite a few people who read this blog are illustrators and because I love reading other illustrators’ blog posts about their process, I thought I’d start a series of posts about being an illustrator, to intersperse with the posts about the different things that I tend to illustrate. I am fascinated at the glimpses we can get into different illustration processes and love seeing timelapses popping up on my Instagram feed or watching some of the videos other illustrators share on their Patreons or blogs.
This isn’t for the purposes of copying them, but just to get an insight in different ways to go about things, I think. Sometimes you’ll see a really useful shortcut or tool you’ve not fully explored. Other times you’ll just appreciate the differences and understand that, while you love a certain illustrator’s work, their process is not one you’d want to explore – perhaps because it takes too long, or because it feels too repetitive, or because it doesn’t give the opportunity for looseness and embracing mistakes, or because it’s too digital, or too messy and requires a bigger working space than you have…
So, when I’m sharing my process here, it’s for the same purpose – perhaps you’ll spot a neat little trick that you hadn’t tried before, perhaps it will help you understand that you prefer proper paints and pencils, perhaps it will make you try out Adobe Fresco and find something you love in there… Or perhaps, you’ll just enjoy a little glimpse into another creative mind. How lucky we are these days to be able to see into so many different creative minds around the world.
I almost always start with sketching and I almost always do that sketching on the iPad. I work on an iPad Mini (5, with Apple Pencil first generation), which is really very portable (it fits in my small bag along with a notebook, mini sketchbook and a pen and pencil – and my purse, phone, a couple of masks, a reusable tote bag with a beautiful pattern on from the V&A, my inhaler, my house key, and usually a hair band or two!). I might one day by a bigger iPad and possibly a Pro, but for the moment I can do everything I want on the dinky one.
And I do the bulk of the work in Adobe Fresco (sometimes absolutely everything, in fact). When I sketch in Fresco, I sketch with the pixel pencils and my favorite is the charcoal pencil, which I *think* is one that comes with Fresco, but it *might* be a Kyle Webster brush as I do have a bunch of them downloaded. If you didn’t know this already, Adobe Fresco allows you to work in both pixel and vector and you just have different layers for each. Some illustrators make great use of this by drawing flat vector style work and then adding pixel texture in. I just use the pixel for sketching and the vector for final. It might be that I’ll explore using pixel texture in the future, but for now I prefer a flatter style and adding any texture with pattern or mark-making (but still vector).
I used to draw directly into Photoshop on a Microsoft Surface or Wacom Cintiq, and I do still sometimes use both to draw in Fresco, but rarely to draw in Photoshop anymore, just because Fresco and the ability to draw in vector and have a loose hand -drawn look that is still a non-destructive vector is far preferable to me. It’s very likely I’ll adjust my process and style down the line as I think we tend to always be growing and adapting our processes and styles. But for now Adobe Fresco is perfect for me.
So, I’ll start with sketches:
Some sketches are super quick to draw, some take a few iterations (especially if it’s client work, where they might realise they need some extra bits, or to change the composition, and so on, though I also like to sit on a sketch for a few days if I have time, because then I will often spot tweaks to make or potential for rejigging the composition) and some take quite a while, especially when they incorporate a whole scene. My sketches are almost always in layers, so that elements can be moved around. Sometimes I merge a sketch down before starting to colour, especially if it’s very complex, as it can slow down the iPad if I don’t. But I prefer to keep the sketch layers, if I can, as then I can hide everything I’m not currently drawing in color so as not to distraction.
Here are a couple of sketch process videos:
Sketching is almost always the part of the process that takes the longest. It can often also include researching reference images, too. Sometimes I’ll gather a number of photos of people in a particular kind of pose or, if I need to draw a specific flower or an animal, I’ll gather a number of photos and then draw based on a combination of what I see in those photos. I would very rarely draw directly from a photo without making a good number of changes. Often, when sketching a scene, I will mess around with the composition and scale quite a bit before feeling happy with it. I tend to do sketching with silence or a particular music that fits the feel of the piece. It’s concentration work in a similar way to editing (with my educational publishing hat on).
I then usually group the sketch and put it on top with a multiply blend mode, so that the sketch will appear on top of what I’m drawing. And then I go in and draw all the elements bit by bit – again, everything is kept in layers, and I group the layers together, so that each person will be a whole group (and they probably have their head and hair as a group , their legs as a group, etc.
I use flat color and I tend to draw with a customised vector brush (sometimes I use the new manga brushes too, which can be quite nice), but mostly I use my default customised brush. (Roundness = 50%, Angle = 90°, Taper Mode = Velocity, Begin and End Taper = 0%, Pressure dynamics = 100%, Velocity dynamics = 0%)
I have a library with my go-to colours, which I update now and then (I recently added quite a few more pinks and blues, but I’m feeling the need for a few more greens, too). Keeping a consistent color palette (which tends toward a lot of bright colours, as you may have noticed!) is definitely a part of my style. I will sometimes pull out a handful of colors for a limited palette, but they will still come from my default color library. And, as it’s a Creative Cloud library it’s available to me within Adobe Fresco, whether I’m on the iPad, my Surface Book or on my desktop and using the Cintiq. (And it’s also available in the desktop Illustrator and Photoshop apps, so I never have to guess or eyedrop.)
Here are a couple of process videos showing the coloring stage:
Coloring is usually less time-consuming than sketching, though for some particularly complex pieces it can take longer. Sometimes you can cut some time by duplicating elements – for example, in the garden scene above a number of the flowers are used multiple times. Coloring can be quite a mindful and calming part of the process, but it’s also a less brain-heavy one, which means I will often do it in front of the TV or listening to podcasts. Sometimes the colouring can get a little tedious, so having something else to concentrate on helps.
Going straight to colour
Very occasionally I will draw straight to colour, using the vector tools, without sketching first. I’d really love to be able to do this more, as it would speed my process up a lot, but I’m not sure I’d want to let go of the sketch stage for client work, because so much can get decided there.
Here’s a process video of one that I went straight to color on. I do like this one and can see the potential, so may try to do this a bit more often with personal work going forward to see if I can’t streamline my process a bit more. And I do think it retains a bit more looseness that sometimes is lost with the sketch and then color process.
Notes about finalizing
One thing to watch out for in Fresco is that you might end up with what looks like a single piece of flat colour, but it’s actually got multiple fragments of the same colour. While it’s not a huge problem, I try to consolidate them as I go, because it can keep the file size down and helps if you are going to take the final files into Illustrator to tidy up and finalise (eg if you’re going to be uploading to a stock site you would be best doing that or it might get rejected and, for client work, the in-house designer may well need it in as clean a state as possible).
The other thing to watch out for (though note that I haven’t this in a while, so it might have been sorted in a recent update) is that if you use clipping layers on vector Fresco will spit them out as pixel layers rather than vector. Which is why I manually delete the edges of texture etc. rather than just clipping it (which would be way quicker and easier!).
Currently, you can’t name your layers in Fresco, and I’m very big on properly organized and labeled final files, so my preference, if there is time, is to finalises in Illustrator (or Photoshop, depending on client requirements) and tidy up and consolidate and group everything and name the layers. Note that currently you can save as PSD or PDF (but the PDF is an Illustrator-compatible file). There’s an annoying thing that all the layer groups, when you open in Illustrator there’s always a weird empty clipping layer that serves no useful (that I can see anyway – any Adobe Fresco experts, do tell me if there is a purpose!) purpose. If you find one of these and select it and then select all with the same appearance you can get rid of them all in one go.
If I’m just supplying straight from Fresco (either saving out as PSD or the Illustrator-compatible PDF) I’ll still do a certain amount of tidying before handing the files over. I’ll usually remove the sketch layer(s). I’ll make sure that all the elements are grouped sensibly (as I usually do this as I go along it’s just a case of checking I haven’t missed anything out). I’ll check for any hidden layers and see if they should be visible and, if not, delete them. I’ll also check for any stray color elements (see above) – if you try to fill with a different color and it doesn’t fill the whole space you can tell it’s not consolidated. If you fill it all with the same color and then double-tap with the fill tool that usually does the trick. If it’s a single motif or element, rather than a full scene, I’ll make sure to remove the background layer.
And then I’ll file everything away in the right folders and save the final files to a specific folder in Creative Cloud, which I’ll then send a link to the client so they can pick up the files from there. I usually have folders for roughs, final sketches, colour, final color and final files. I’ll keep all the in between folders and files in Fresco (Creative Cloud saves them in the cloud anyway) and just put the final files and JPG/PNGs of the sketches in the main project folder. I try to keep Fresco organized into folders, though I do often just pick it up and create a new file without putting it in the right place, so do have tidy it up every so often. (I haven’t got to the point of archiving old Fresco files, but I imagine I will run out of Creative Cloud space at some point and need to do that, at which point I’ll have to decide whether or not I want any of those in between files.
Thank you for reading and watching!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into my process. In the future I might do a screen recording of me drawing in Fresco on the Wacom and talking through it as I go. But I need to sort out the right software and also have some time where I can sit recording with no-one else in the room, which is not something that can happen very often, due to sharing my office space with my husband.
If you’re an illustrator and have shared your process in a blog post or YouTube video, pop a link in the comments. I’d love to have a nosy!