Design Time #1

Adobe Illustrator Design Process

I wanted to take a little break from the traditional blog posts, and instead, talk about how I approach my designs when I work with Adobe Illustrator. Now I won't go into detail about how to use the program, but I've linked a nice video here, here, and here. There are a ton of great resources out there, and hopefully those will be helpful to anyone looking to work with Illustrator. What I will focus on, is a brief overview on how I actually work in the program from the start of a design to the finished product.

It all starts with the sketch pad

Unlike other digital artists, I don't do my sketching in a computer program like Photoshop. Eventually, I may want to get to that point, but I enjoy working on sketches on a traditional pad. This is what I am currently using here, but I may want to start going with a larger pad as I am having problems doing some images with the limited space. Any time I want to draw weapons on a character or do detail work, I find myself trying to draw finer than my pencils are able to go. Once I sketch out my drawing with pencil, if I am feeling fancy, I will go over it with a Sharpie pen. This doesn't always happen because the sketch inked or not is only a vehicle for what will be the final image. I don't import my sketches with the goal of making that original line work the final line work, instead, I use the sketch as a map for what my final image will be.

Oftentimes, I will sketch half an image or a rough outline, knowing this will get reworked in Illustrator. I am trying to move away from this habit as it has made me a lazy sketch artist, and it has hindered me with progressing in Photoshop sketching. So don't be like me, take your time with your line art no matter the method you use, it will make the later stages easier to do.

In the sketch below, I took the time to ink it so the initial lines are more clear to follow in Illustrator. As you can see, there is still some pencil there and the lines aren't perfect - they don't need to be for my current workflow.

Moving to the digital sketchpad

The next step is moving into Illustrator. I have a scanner, but I will take a picture of my image, send it to myself through messenger, and then move that camera shot into Illustrator and work from that. I am usually on the go, so when possible, I am looking for the best mobile options to continue working, and lugging around a scanner is unnecessary for this method. Now if you are planning on using your sketch line art as final line art, then by all means scan and make the imported image as nice as possible. Once the image is in Illustrator, I set that layer as the "Sketch" layer, lower the opacity to about 50%, and make the following layers sitting above the sketch:

  1. Symmetry

  2. Above LA

  3. LA

  4. Fancy

  5. Flat

  6. (Sketch)

1. Is a literal line of symmetry I put on the image. If I am working on something that is supposed to be symmetrical, that line helps me make sure the image stays that way.

2. Above LA is where I put art above the line art. This is typically reserved for glow effects or textures that I want to overlay, but I have used it as of late as a way to mess around with the shape of the line art to make it feel more organic and less perfect.

3. LA is my Line Art layer. This is where all my line art goes. My lines are almost exclusively done with the pen tool, but sometimes I will make an occasional shape on the LA layer.

4. The Fancy layer is where I put all the light shading, gradients, detail work, anything that gives the image some depth.

5. The Flat layer is where I put a mid-tone of the color the image will be.

6. This is where the sketch goes for reference.

If it's complicated....

If the image is more difficult than what I normally do, I will make another set of layers to compensate for this as follows:

  1. Symmetry

  2. Above LA

  3. LA2

  4. Fancy2

  5. Flat2

  6. LA

  7. Fancy

  8. Flat

  9. (Sketch)

Layers 3-5 are a set of repeat layers for more complicated drawings where it is easier to have a second set of the line art layer. The workflow is the same, it just makes the image more manageable. Any time a layer is getting full of shapes to the point of it being difficult to select what you want, I think it is best to make a new layer.

This is just a rule of thumb for myself, and if you have background images or pieces of an image that sits on top of other pieces, you can always throw those on new layers. Ultimately, get into the habit of naming your layers so it is easier to find the shapes you are looking for when your image gets unruly.

Line art complete

Once I set up my file and have completed the line art from my sketch, I get something that looks like this by using the Illustrator pen tool.

In my more recent Illustrator images, I have made an effort to play with the weight of my lines and their shape to make the image look more interesting. Here you can also see the line art on the Te'Kesh's earrings overlap with the earlobes. This is because I made a second line art layer to make this image easier to work with. Anticipating the difficulty of your image is super helpful instead of waiting until you start to work on the details. Finally, I adjust the sketch to make the image work better in Illustrator and look nicer overall.

Working on the flats part I

Once the line work is done, I go through the image and color it with a flat mid-tone throughout, which gives me something like this.

This gives me an idea on the color palette of the image, and what should be tweaked before adding a ton of detail. For me, this is the most jarring part of the process. I really don't like black line art in my finished work, so working around the black is a chore. Also, monitors tend to have trouble with pure black sitting next to color on Illustrator, giving the image an aliased look. You don't notice this when you print of course, but it is definitely not ideal. If you zoom out, you will also see a small gray line outlining your black line work, which is visually odd.

Working on the flats part II

Once the flats are done, I change the line art colors to a shade of the mid-tone I have chosen as you can see below.

Sometimes this changes at the end of the image, but as a rule of thumb, this is how I start my line art to mesh with the flats layer. By changing the line art from black to a shade of the flats, the image is much easier on the eyes.

I'm so fancy

After all the flats and flat-inspired line art is done, I get to work on the Fancy layer. There is a done of work that goes into the fancy layer, and needless to say, this is where the bulk of the labor goes. There is no right or wrong way to approach this, but what I will typically do is work in gradients, expand the line art into a shape and play with gradients there, add harsh light, add details, texture, and finally effects.

Perhaps in a future post I will go into narrower detail on how I approach all of this, but I can give some pointers on how to make your vectors a little more punchy.

  • Stay away from using black in your line art if you are looking for a softer-looking vector.

  • Don't use black to signify shadow. Use a darker desaturated color of the shape getting a shadow cast on it.

  • When doing highlights, do an upwards hue shift from your mid-tone to create depth (staying in the same hue makes things look flatter).

  • When doing shadow, do a downwards hue shift from your mid-tone to create depth (staying in the same hue makes things look flatter) .

  • Gradients alone are oftentimes not your friend. You will need to stack multiple gradients with opacity tweaks and hard light shadows/highlights to make gradients look nicer.

  • Use the blur tool to help soften hard light that looks out of place.

  • Textures can help break the perfection that comes with Illustrator.

Rules set in sand

Now nothing I have said is set in stone, but this is the process I have set up for myself that seems to work the best. I'm continuously changing and improving the way I do things, and I'm always looking for new ways to approach an image. There are cases when I break my own rules and stay in the same hue because it visually looks nicer than a hue shift or use a more saturated color for a shadow instead of the other way around. Nevertheless, there will always be exceptions to any rule, and knowing when to break them just comes from experience and gut checks. I hope this has been helpful.

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