How I Use Photoshop to Create Illustrations
I get a lot of questions from young & aspiring illustrators that ask me what software I use to create illustrations? How do I get specific textures? What brushes I use? What are the specs of my computer? Whether I recommend taking online courses? And so on.
To be honest, I am an extremely lazy person! So I reached to the conclusion that it would be a better use of my time to just write these things down once, in an organized way, and share it with you.
Today, I almost exclusively use Photoshop in my everyday work. The only exceptions are hand drawn illustrations in ink and acrylic paintings.
So Here's a BASIC Technical explanation of how I Draw on Photoshop:
1. Free Hand Sketching
When I illustrate, I almost always start working in my sketchbook. I like the freedom it provides, and the feel of pencil & paper. So old-school! I know :)
But I don't like sketching directly on to the computer, it's not as fast and direct as a pencil. In my sketchbook I can doodle lots of ideas and go back to old ideas and sketches I did in the past, so I really like it.
BTW, I don’t have a Cintiq, I use an old Bamboo Wacom model. I guess that's part of the reason that I still sketch in my sketchbook.
Maybe if I had a Cintiq I would be sketching with it. But I don’t and I don't mind because this way I get to step away from the monitor’s glow every once in a while.
2. Photoshop Sketching
Ok, so after I mess around in my sketchbook—and I actually have a sketch that I like—the next step will be to just snap a picture with my smartphone and to move to Photoshop. This allows me to redraw the lines of the sketch on a new layer, and to clean things up.
The main advantage of moving to Photoshop at this stage is the ability to check a bunch of different compositions without wasting time and drawing them 20 times over and over again in the sketchbook.
I can check different formats, sizes, compositions, fonts. I can do all this quickly and efficiently without committing to any component in particular.
I can also fix or tweak specific parts of the sketch which I didn’t quite like, or modify the positions of parts of the original sketch.
Awesome, now we can get to the fun part!
But before I rush to paint the sketch, here are a few rules that I learned through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears:
DON'T move on to the next stage until you feel like the sketch is truly complete.
DON'T move on to the next stage until you are satisfied with the general composition (including elements which may not necessarily have to do with the illustration itself, e.g. logos, titles, text, etc…).
DON'T tell yourself, “it’ll be alright, I’ll fix it later” …because it will probably suck.
DON'T move on to the next stage until you drew all the annoying little things like hands, feet, paws, just because you hate drawing them (I know I do) and you just want to start painting. Trust me it’s a mistake.
I try to stick to these rules but you know, no one’s perfect :)
3. Creating the Larger Shapes
After I feel like I locked down the sketch, I start creating the larger shapes of the illustration in different layers for each shape.
There are people who like that hand drawn feel and will do this stage with a brush. I, personally, prefer to do it with smooth, vector like shapes, so I use the Pen Tool most of the time. Once I have created a certain shape, I usually erase the sketch lines above it, so that they won’t get in my way later on.
4. Working with Layers and Brushes
You’re still here? Damn! Well, congrats for sticking with it!
Now we get to fun part:
Once I have the base shapes, I can add highlights and shading. This is where things start to get interesting. I think that everyone can and should try a bunch of different brushes, textures, and different shading techniques. Everything goes, so don’t try to necessarily copy what I do, give it a whirl and see what works and feels best for you ☺.
In order to add light or shadow in a convincing way, it’s important to practice sketching, and to learn some drawing/painting/sketching theory. Practicing and sketching still life, human figures and how different materials react to light will boost you're illustration quality. I’m not the best person to teach this type of things, I always hated the sketching classes as a student! But the truth is that as time passed I realized it’s a super important skill that you should practice frequently.
So how do I add light and shadow? It’s very simple, I use Clipping Masks:
Create a new layer above the base layer that you’re working on.
Place the mouse in the space between the two layers, hold ALT on the keyboard, and then right click on the mouse which leads to the following:
Now, the upper layer (Layer 2) is connected with the layer under it (1) like a mask. This way you can add shadows/highlights without overstepping the border of the base layer.
If you got confused, just google “Photoshop clipping mask”, it’s simpler than you think.
Now all that’s left, is to add shadows & highlights with the brush tool. Look closely, it's a GIF:
One of my favorite brushes is the spray brush tool. This brush paints small dots like in the example above. It’s a free default brush that comes with Photoshop. It's not the only brush I use, I have a 2-3 other favorite brushes, and I also use textures from time to time (maybe more on that in another post?). As I said before, you should test lots of brushes and texture and after a while you'll know what's working for you and what isn't.
*By the way, I was asked about this several times: In order to control the amount of “paint” or pixels that comes out of the brush, you need some sort of a drawing tablet & pen, like a Wacom tablet. Otherwise you will not be able to work with different pressure levels and the end result will be pretty shitty. You will not be able to create smooth gradients as shown below.
This is not an advertisement for Wacom. Use whatever tablet you want ☺.
And if you are just starting out, just buy the cheapest model you can find. Trust me, it’ll still get the job done and it’ll still definitely be worth the cash investment. In my opinion, this is a mandatory work tool for any aspiring illustrator. After a year or two, you’ll figure out whether you need something fancier. I am still working with my cheap ass model which I bought in 2011 when I was a student (did I mention I'm lazy?).
So that’s it. That’s the process that I go through with pretty much all of my illustrations: a hand drawn sketch, a computer sketch, creating base shapes, adding shading with brushes.
Hope you found this useful!
Please feel free to Email me to firstname.lastname@example.org with questions and ideas for what I should write about next.