I use the same process for most of my illustrations. They start with quick concept sketches in a sketchbook, followed by a composition sketch on vellum. Then I scan the composition sketch, make value roughs and color roughs in Photoshop, and finish the illustration with a WACOM tablet and stylus.

Here’s what the process looks like for “I love this show!”

I love this show - demo gif


Step 1: Quick Sketches

This illustration started as a daily practice sketch. I liked the idea and thought it would make a fun portfolio illustration.

The setting and props are pretty ordinary. The chairs and table are just fancy boxes, and the lamp is a pair of cones stacked on top of each other. But I wanted some quick sketches to help me understand what a real TV room looks like. It’s one of those things we see every day, but we don’t really analyze unless we need to. A 30-minute sketch session in my living room helped me figure out how the objects should be arranged, and it let me test out a few compositions.

I also did a few problem-solving sketches to figure out the robot’s hands, and designed a superhero. She’d appear on a poster and give the viewer a hint about what the robot is watching on TV.

Usually, this step requires a few more sketches. During painting, I ran into trouble and solved it by going back to the sketchbook. You can find the sketches in the second half of this demo.


Step 2: Composition Sketch

I like to do my composition sketches in two layers: a non-photo blue layer to work out the layout and the basic shapes, then a black layer to lock everything in. This step isn’t pretty. You can see a lot of construction lines, false starts, and corrections. But it makes the painting go much faster.

Vellum is a great surface for these drawings. It’s smooth, which gives me nice, clear lines, and its surface can handle a lot of erasing and redrawing. Since it’s expensive, I recommend taking a page out of the pad and working on a vinyl mat or a small stack of printer paper. That way you won’t carve grooves into the pages under your drawing.

I usually prefer a smooth black pencil (either a black colored pencil or soft graphite) for this step but since I’m practicing ink drawings right now, the black lines in ink. It turns out a thick layer of non-photo blue pencil can clog up a technical pen very quickly. I was able to unclog the pen by soaking the tip in rubbing alcohol for a minute or two and wiping it with a paper towel, but the process was slow, messy and frustrating. If I use ink on another composition sketch, I’ll probably trace the lines on a fresh sheet of vellum.


Step 3: Scanning and Cleanup

When the composition sketch is ready, I scan it, remove the blue lines and set it up for painting in Photoshop. Here’s the cleaned-up sketch:

When I set up the sketch for painting, I add several layers. The initial group of layers looks like this:

The top layer is for perspective lines and changes to the sketch. It gets hidden or deleted when the illustration is finished.

The sketch layer is in “multiply” mode. This makes the white parts of the layer transparent but keeps the black lines visible. This layer is masked so I can hide parts of it without destroying them. It’s also locked, to keep me from accidentally working on the wrong layer. The sketch layer usually gets hidden or deleted when the illustration is finished.

The bottom layer is where I do most of my work. I may add extra layers here during painting.

The background is 60% gray. I don’t like working in the background layer, but I find it’s easier to manage values and colors on a medium gray background than it is on a black or white one.


Step 4: Color Roughs

This illustration has a blue-ish light source. That’s unusual for me, so I tested out several color schemes.  To keep the colors bright, I decided on a mostly cool color scheme. The blue light will make the cool colors richer, and the warm-hued robot will stand out from the objects around it.

What’s Next?

Steps 1-4 took about 4 hours, spread out over a week. I make better decisions when I give myself time in between each step. Since this project happened during the school year, I spent the off time teaching classes and doing other work. When I’m illustrating full time, I try to schedule several projects at once. That way I can work full time and still give my brain a chance to reset between each step.

The rest of this tutorial will be ready later this week. You can find part 2 here.