Taking Digital Illustration to the Next Level

By Stephen Gabryk


Read Time: 4 Minutes

Learn about what our top illustration tips are, to assist in perfecting the art of illustration:

What is illustration?

Illustration is the art of creating an image. But being an illustrator involves much more than that. An illustrator needs to captivate an audience and give meaning to what was once nothing. Philosophical, I know, however, this leads to my next point.

Finding a concept for your illustrations

In order to find a concept, you need to get philosophical (in a sense) and question everything about your illustration. From the moment you start, everything you do has to build up to your final illustration.

The first step in the process is to find a reference. Look at other illustrations to gain some inspiration, this will help you to determine which direction you’d like to take. Don’t forget to question every illustration along the way, too.

Once you’ve decided on a direction, you need to start doing thumbnail sketches (tiny sketches to hash out any problems in a very short amount of time). Do a few of these with different compositions. Create strong silhouettes to create an impactful illustration.

Once you’ve found ‘the one’ create a more refined version to flesh out the details. Do a couple of these that vary, that way, you can pick and choose the best parts of each sketch.

The sketching process is very important. It will save time and give you a stronger composition at the end.

Top 4 tips for creating a solid concept:

  • Remember to tell a story and to create something meaningful.
  • Add tiny details into the illustration to ensure that the story is told in more than one element.
  • Adding emotion and atmosphere is a big part of illustrating as these will set your illustrations apart.
  • The art and the story should work together. However, important concepts like lighting, depths, and texture should all be taken into consideration to make the illustration more meaningful.

Doing your illustration

Digitally, the two main programs to illustrate is, Photoshop and Illustrator. These two programs stand out from other programs as they are much more versatile and feature rich.

Photoshop gives you a traditional approach to illustrating, it involves extensive ‘painting’. Illustrator involves working with shapes and forms to illustrate your concept.

After hashing out your ideas through your sketches and finalising your concept, you’re ready to get into the meat of the process. Do follow your concept sketches, but don’t feel obliged to commit to them. Add to them or take away elements if you feel the final version needs it.

Top tips for doing justice to a solid concept:

  • Keep your style consistent.
  • Do research for your colour palette, this could make or break your illustration.
  • Ensure that your design choices aids in telling your illustration’s story.
  • Don’t add detail if it does not add to your story.

Finally, taking your digital illustrations to the next level

Your illustrations will look complete at this point, but it doesn’t feel as powerful as you’ve imagined. Take it to the next level with these industry-kept illustration tips.

  1. Texture

A texture is one of your greatest powers. Texture can make your illustrations stand out, it’s just about deciding whether to incorporate subtle hints of texture, or bold ones. Texture brings the illustrations to life and will allow you to make certain elements more pronounced.

How to use texture to bring your illustration to life:

If you’re using Illustrator, you can overlay a texture and change the blending modes. Alternatively, you can add a gradient with a layer style. On Photoshop, you could add texture from existing images by changing blending modes and adjusting the opacity. Or you could simply use a textured brush.

illustration tips

  1. Lighting

Lighting is another secret weapon you can use to add depth and awaken that ‘wow factor’ in your illustrations. It’s as simple as swishing any random brush over your canvas and changing the blending mode. There are so many different lighting situations that we could write a whole new blog on lighting alone, so watch this space!

illustration tips

Finally, don’t forget the little details. Adding fireflies to a forest scene or adding crumbs to a plate will add that element of realism. In contrast, remember that the best artists know when to stop. Rest your eyes and have a look at your work with a fresh perspective from time to time. There’s no recipe or guide that will work for every design. Each illustration requires a case-by-case approach and your story will decide your illustrations’ level of detail.

I can’t say every illustration gets better from here, but small tweaks and practice make all the difference.

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