5 Basic Tips for Illustrating

Tips and tricks that most people wouldn’t highlight when illustrating. They’re probably no use to anyone but me…

So, I’m not going to use this article to show you how to use certain techniques or tools to create the perfect illustration. The reason being is that everyone has different way of approaching their process. There is no such thing as the perfect process. I’m going to use this article to highlight some pretty obvious, but probably not the most highlighted tips that people would talk about when they’re trying to illustrate. To me, consistency is key to a holistic illustrative styleguide, and without the following tips, you’ll struggle to create consistency.

The one piece of advice I will give you towards becoming a better illustrator though, and you can use this in any aspect of life, is to practice. It’s a time consuming process, but it’s the best way to learn. It’s the only way I learned. I gave myself personal projects over and over again. All the way until I had a portfolio of illustrations that started to attract potential clients to my illustrative work.

Anyway, back to the point of this article. I wanted to pull out a few key little tricks I learned along the way that should help speed up your flow, as well as help create a consistent illustration, consistency is key.

Note: The majority of the advice here is aimed towards creating a pretty basic stroked product illustration within Adobe Illustrator. When I say that, I mean a generic illustration that uses strokes to dictate the core shape of the structure. See below.

A stroked product illustration

1. Creating a Colour and Stroke Palette

Usually, before you start creating an illustration, you’ve probably outlined a collection of colours based around the brand guidelines that you are working from. It will generally inherit a set of primary colours and various secondary colour. There should be another couple of colours that you should consider too. The stroke colour and a colour for shading. I’d recommend to try earmark exactly what colours you’re using by keeping the palette up to date at all times.

Creating a consistent colour palette with consistent colour usage

Key takeaway: Always create a small colour palette just off the artboard, that has the correct fill and stroke colours as well the correct stroke weights and stroke capping. This will allow for speed when keeping consistency across your illustration.

An example of a colour palette outlining all available styles

2. Shading your illustration

I like to use shading to add depth to my product illustrations. Its not an easy thing to do when you’re generally using flat colours across the palette i.e no gradients. I use a consistent collection of ‘colours’ as my shading options. The stroke should always be the darkest colour used in the illustration, so the shading should be an opacity of the stroke, so that its consistent when sitting alongside the darkest element.

An example of shading within a product illustration.

Key takeaway: When choosing a shading colour, always use an opacity of the colour that you’ve chosen for the stroke. The stroke colour should always be the darkest colour used on the illustration.

Shading should always be an opacity of your stroke colour

3. Keeping control of stroke widths

Keeping control of your illustration is key to keeping consistency. Identifying what your stroke width is critical to keeping a smooth overall feel to the illustration. Depending on the level of detail, you can choose various stroke sizes, but its really important that you keep them consistent as the illustration develops. One thing I found was turning off ‘Scale Strokes’ was key to keeping control of the stroke widths. It meant I could scale objects and the stroke would remain consistent with the other strokes in the illustration.

Key takeaway: Go to Preferences and make sure that you have ‘Scale Corners’ on and ‘Scale Strokes & Effects’ off. This will allow you to scale up or down the illustration and keep the consistency of all strokes.

These two settings are key to a consistent illustration

4. Learn how to use the Pathfinder

When I’m illustrating, I very rarely draw objects using the pen tool. Its usually made up of circles or squares that I’ve manipulated into shapes. Then I use the pathfinder tool to cut out or merge shapes in the direction I want to move towards. Its not an easy thing to do, and it takes time to understand, but once you get comfortable with the tool, its extremely powerful. I don’t draw illustrations, I manipulate shapes to create illustrations.

Key takeaway: Learn how the pathfinder tool works. Understand how you can manipulate objects into shapes that you feel move you towards the final outcome. The pathfinder tool can be the most powerful tool in the box.

5. Use shortcuts

I’ve gotten to the stage that I don’t even realise I’m using shortcuts as they’re key to how I work within Illustrator. To be honest I can’t even really remember how I learned how to do the majority of the shortcuts, I just seemed to figure them out along the way. Nudging objects whilst holding ‘alt’ to duplicate the them, or holding ‘shift & command’ and pressing ‘}’ to push a layer to the top of the layers, I don’t even realise I do it but I’d recommend you learning some. I’m not sure what you should learn so this is a kind of pointless point, it will all become apparent the more you practice…

Key takeaway: I’m sure you’re used to reading articles that highlight a list of shortcuts that you should use to help you advance in a program. I’m not going to do that. All I can recommend is play with the program and figure out what shortcuts are useful to you by yourself. The shortcuts I do are all probably totally wrong for how they’re meant to be used anyways…

Heres a small run-through of how I’d go about creating a fairy basic illustration:

A short illustration run through

So that’s about it. I’m sure I left out a huge amount of really important tips and tricks. These are just some of the ones I felt might be handy to people who are trying to get their head around illustrating. Like I said, there is obviously a huge learning curve in understanding how to illustrate, and it can be pretty daunting. My only piece of advice would be to just suck it and see. No one is going to punch you for trying it out. If you enjoy it, why not keep pushing yourself. Sure it’s only a bitta craic….

Feel free to pick my brain (or whats left of it) over at:

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Illustrations from article used for PrivateVPN.com branding.