How to illustrate when you can’t draw to save your life
A personal tale with practical tips
You don’t want to look at anything I draw. Trust me. And rightly so — my abilities are just a step above stick figures. But when I was a design intern my senior year in college, my agency was in a pinch: we needed some vector illustrations fast and didn’t have anyone available to make them. Determined to prove myself, I volunteered to give it a shot. (Yes, the girl who can’t draw.) It soon became clear that the process was not actually as difficult as it externally appeared. My end result not only solved the needs for this particular Fortune 500 company, but gave me the entry point into creating countless more that would be used across the nation.
It wasn’t sheer willpower, nor did the stars just magically align that day. While the artistic principles of graphite drawing and vector illustrating can be similar, the tactical approach for beginners is wildly different. With traditional drawing, you’re essentially attempting to mind-control a chiseled stick to move according to your will. As someone starting out, this can be intimidating. When it feels frustrating to make even a circle look halfway decent, making anything “good” seems insurmountable. You must deeply understand fundamental principles, such as lighting and perspective, and it takes extensive practice.
It doesn’t mean that these skills aren’t valuable (or that vector drawing is easy), but with the latter, the learning curve is incredibly less steep. We’re talking a mole hill instead of a mountain.
One tool to rule them all
Before diving into the techniques, you first must understand the program. While this isn’t an Adobe Illustrator tutorial, there is one particular beast of a feature — the Pen Tool—that is crucial for creating vectors. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard groans at the utter mention of its name. While it can feel discouraging after just clicking around with it, it doesn’t have to be excruciating to learn. I fully attribute my quick success with it to a single thing: mazes.
Dating back to college days, the assignment was to complete the labyrinths similarly to how you would with a regular marker, only instead with points and curves.
After one week of pen-tooling mazes, I never had any difficulties with the instrument again. If I could shout one thing from the rooftops to beginning illustrators, it would be to conquer mazes.
Rapid growth from imitation
A huge factor that allowed me to quickly pick up illos (my preferred pet name) was that I wasn’t starting from scratch. Rather than dreaming up every little detail—shape, color, perspective, message, texture, and so on—I was just both rebuilding and adding to an existing set. Copying is the fastest way to get inside the mind of an illustration, and truly understand how it came to be.
Breaking it down
One of the illustrations my agency requested didn’t have a native file, so my task was to perfectly recreate it.
I started looking at the components it would take to rebuild—a circle for this, a modified rectangle for that. With the exception of some unique paths here or there, almost every part stemmed from the simple shapes we learn in kindergarten.
In fact, it actually turns out that most flat illustrations are either based upon these basic shapes (which Illustrator perfectly pre-sets), or an organic shape (for which the mazes serve as preparation).
I use the pre-set shapes as much as possible. Since we’re human, we simply can’t draw a circle as perfectly as a computer can. While it might feel like cheating, it just ensures that the final results look neat and tidy. (Psst, check out Pathfinder, Corner Widget, and Scissors Tool to boost your efficiency.)
Extending a style
The other task at hand was to make more illustrations in the same style. Although not as easy to validate perfection, the flip side was that there was a lot more wiggle room, while still within comfortable boundaries.
At first it seemed overwhelming to create shapes from my own head, but I applied the same logic as before—creating and tracing paths. Only this time, looking at other illustrations as a jumping-off point. Of course, it’s extremely important to not copy someone else’s work, but base upon a technique done right. For example, I might find three different existing illos of hair. I could combine the body of waves from one, bangs from another, and angle of the head from a third. Once that underlying shape was created, it was easier to then change up the points until they became all my own.
Five years later
Now I’m illustrating multiple times a week, without thinking twice about the building blocks or how to set up my Bézier curves. I still can’t draw. But I do sketch to ideate and communicate rough ideas quickly. I don’t call myself illustrator—I’m a designer, who also illustrates. This distinction is important because there are a lot of masterful illustrators out there that I don’t even come close to touching. Maybe one day I will, maybe I won’t (though catch me ever-practicing on Dribbble.)
Nothing worth doing comes easily, the most important thing is to just start somewhere… and sometimes, starting isn’t quite as hard as you might think.