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Pacing illustrations

My illustrations take time to make. Compared to the professional BG Design work I started doing in animation last year — which usually takes 8 hours or less to rough out a full scene — my personal work can usually take up to 40 hours to complete from start to finish, often spanned out over the course of a week. Sometimes this lengthy process is due to the fact I have a day job, sometimes it’s due to trying new techniques, sometimes it’s just because I’m exploring ideas with the artwork as I go along. Either way, working on a single piece over any span of time requires planning stages and meeting goals so each work session gets you closer to a finish.

If you’ve ever had problems working on something for longer than one day, or even one sitting, but have always wanted to make something bigger — I suggest trying to train your brain to recognize certain progress goals being met as the satisfying reward it is, and suppress the urge to overshare works-in-progress.

Here’s some insight as to how I span out my work and stay on track —-

stages of illustration

Like countless other artists, I never just start drawing something and hope it all comes together in the end. My work is always built-up through a series of stages that refines the work on every pass. For my personal workflow, here are the stages I take:

  1. Thumbnail / 3D Model / Reference Composite
  2. Sketch / Rough
  3. Value Studies
  4. Clean
  5. Paint Rough
  6. Paint Clean
  7. FX and Mastering

Let’s take a look at these steps with a little detail:

1. Thumbnail

Thumbnailing is the literal foundation of the artwork you’re planning, and will serve as the continuing foundation of the entire image from thereon. Most of the time, thumbnailing is a faster, looser stage for figuring out the major compositional elements of the scene, the basic positions and scale of characters, and even some basic values to establish lighting and mood. Thumbnails can be drawn, modelled crudely in 3D, bashed together using reference materials, or a combination of all these together — whatever helps you take the image in your mind and begin translating it to canvas.

I always finish a thumbnail in one sitting, usually taking no more than an hour when exploring, then walk away from it for a bit. Since it often takes me several attempts to find what I want, its rare the first is what I end up going with. Coming back later that day or the next, I’ll probably see something I’d want to change or redo entirely. Better now than in a later stage!

2. ROUGH SKETCH

Happy with the thumbnail? Time to dive in! In the rough stage, the goal is to work out the scene with detail, but still keep it loose. Use THICK or sketchy brushes during this stage, this helps you focus more on the overall form and contours of objects and their general contribution to the greater composition rather than focusing on smaller less important details too early.

I’ll usually work on a rough sketch for one sitting, at most two (cumulatively probably between 5-8 hours.) Usually compared to the thumbnail, further changes are made to the image as I discover more specifics about what it is exactly that I’m drawing, that’s OK to do, just make sure by the time you’re satisfied with the look of your rough that it’s pretty-well locked in — because it’s going to be increasingly harder to make big changes after this!

3. VALUE STUDIES

Since I also color my own illustrations, this is a stage I find necessary to do early on before I begin cleaning the line art. I’ll attempt to work out the lighting scheme using simple grayscale values — light and shadows are compositional tools, after all, and if I find some tweaks to the environment are needed to achieve the lighting I want, this step will let me know! I’ll commonly do two to three studies for what I may want, spending no more than about 30-40 minutes on each. Note how much different each of these three studies below are:

Value studies aren’t always for planning direct light and shadows too, sometimes it’s just about figuring out the value hierarchy of the scene so you can work out which areas should be light and darker early on.

Rough values can help give the objects in your sketch depth and weight, informing even more about what’s working in your art or not at such an early stage. Paint in grayscale only during this step because you’ll be able to work out the value structure in a fraction of the time compared to full color. (Not to mention value contrast is more important to the composition of images than color contrast.)

4. cleanup

Once I’m happy with what I have, I place all the rough line art and value study layers into a group folder, name it “Rough”, and drop its opacity to about 35%. With a new layer on top (outside of the Rough folder,) I can now begin drawing new, final, clean line art following the Rough as a guide.

This part can often take the longest, since I’m no longer holding back. Depending on the artwork, redrawing everything with detailed refinement can often take longer than a full day, (especially as was the case in the example above, which was two full work sessions over two days probably totalling about 12-14 hours.) Compared to the rough, I’ll work with a smaller, tighter brush, usually a 3 or 4px hard round with (especially more recently) little to no pressure expression — but this is because I’ve adopted more of a monowidth line aesthetic lately. If you’re going for a more expressive inking style, you can still be sketchy and expressive in the Cleanup stage — the term “Clean” here has more to do with the refinement of characters, objects and environment details rather than literal impeccable cleanliness of the line art.

Here are some comparisons of the detail level change between rough and clean stages in my work to show what I mean:

ROUGH

CLEAN

As you can see, the cleanup has much greater thought and definition drawn to every object since I’m only using the underlaying rough drawing as a guide. Some smaller details still change from the rough to the clean — the artwork is still evolving from stage to stage — but no major elements are really changed by this point. The rough sketch has done its job by pre-planning the majority of everything I need to draw, saving me time and trouble in the cleanup. If I were to try to make this illustration from scratch starting at the Clean stage, it would probably take me at least four times longer and the final image would feel disconnected as I slowly move from section to section hoping it all matches up in the end. But, since everything was pre-planned as a rough, I’m free to really make refinements and draw with accuracy without losing the overall artwork in the process.

5. PAINT ROUGH

(Above: planning color blocking for different material types using bright colors to differentiate.)

Just like the rough sketch, the rough paint is simply trying to get as much color generally filled in and set up as fast as possible. I usually start it off like the example above, where I just try to fill in every logical element on different layers. By the time I finish a rough paint pass, nothing in the scene should be white anymore, and ideally every object should have local color fills. I may even explore some early lighting solutions based on the earlier value study.

I’ll usually spend one work session (4-8 hours) on the paint rough. Usually my layers are a complete mess in this stage. Unlike the rough sketch and cleanup stages earlier, the rough and clean paint stages aren’t separate — they’re just two halves of completing the paint phase in entirety. My goal within the rough stage is to simply get the majority of the color mood figured before I’m done — to leave with enough progress made to feel good about returning the next day to get it all finished up. You know you’re in a good place mentally toward your work if you find yourself thinking about how you want to approach the cleaner paint details while you’re away.

6. PAINT clean

Above: Despite cleaner paint, the exact character art in this piece changed in each stage, oops.

Coming back with fresh eyes, I’ll spend another work session (or two, depending on the scope — 8-15 hours,) getting into the finer details with color, refining the lighting and shading, making sure the colors are working with each other, painting reflections, etc.

By this point few stones are left unturned. The lighting is solidified, all objects colored and receive appropriate rendering etc — I’ll even consolidate layers during the phase. Once I’m happy with everything, it’s time for me to do the final stage of the illustration, which can often be the most fun stage for me: adding effects and final mastering.

7. FX and Mastering

As a finishing touch in the same session as the paint clean, on top of everything I’ll add new layers for special effects such as light glares/glints, godray shafts and atmospheric effects, special textures, vignetting, even going back and coloring line art if it needs it. After this, I’ll then either use adjustment layers on top of the stack or make a flattened copy of the artwork to use Adobe Camera Raw on to do a final value and color balancing mastering. Sometimes the mastering can be slight or seriously pushing the feel of the final piece.

As a final touch, I may also duplicate the line art, reduce opacity to 50%, and give it a small (3-5px) gaussian blur to give the lines a little bolder softness.

Check out these comparisons before/after FX Mastering:

PRE-FX MASTERING

pOST-fx mastering

And lastly, here’s a little comparison of what the line art looks like with/without the line art blur! (Again, this is achieved by duplicating the line art layer(s), dropping opacity to 50%, and applying a 3-4px gaussian blur.)

I do these parts of the illustration process last because they often cover or more greatly affect parts of the artwork making it harder to work on if implemented earlier, especially since special effect layers go over line art layers.

share work with friends

Oversharing WIPs on social media, (twitter, instagram, etc,) especially the whole artwork in an incomplete state can lead to reduced desire to finish the piece because gratification of putting it out there has been fulfilled. If you can, share progress of your work with friends or small groups — Discord is great for this. A small close-knit group of friends can be massively beneficial to cheer you on from stage to stage, and letting the excitement of showing new work grow as you get nearer to the finish line is fuel to make it all worth it.

Of course, what happens on social media when you upload new work is a crap shoot, but remember it’s not about the likes and shares. I hear more often from more artists that they get FAR more gratification from sharing work with a smaller group of mutuals than getting thousands or more of likes or whatever. Plus, let’s not forget the priceless feeling of having made something big and complex.

Conclusion

This is how I’ve been making my core art for the last ten years. It changes a little based on the specific needs of each piece, but if I didn’t divide-and-conquer the production like this, I’d never be able to make this kind of stuff. Over time as I honed my particular process, I got faster at it despite my art becoming more complex as well. If you’re new to working this way, you’ll have to practice it, learn and grow as well. Each new piece you make pushes you further to do better the next time. Keep it up and you’ll be amazed at how much you can grow in just a few years, nevermind ten!

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