A beginner’s guide to illustration, by a beginner

images of a person working on a digital illustration
images of a person working on a digital illustration
Credit: https://treesforanya.com/beginners-guide-to-illustration/

One trend that I love to see in the apps I use is illustration. I love the use of illustration in UI design because it injects a ton of personality and makes the app more enjoyable to use. I believe it enhances the brand aesthetic and feels fun, personal, and unique.

While working on my own projects, I’ve been really into the idea of creating my own illustrations but hadn’t had any experience with doing so. Quite honestly, I made some excuses to not even start — I wanted to focus on other skills, I didn’t have a specific style, I didn’t have a tablet that worked for illustration, etc. But after a few weeks, I decided illustration sounded too fun to put off until I had the “right” skills or “right” set-up.

So recently, I challenged myself to dive into the world of digital illustration. My first project? Creating a custom portrait of some members of my family as part of their Christmas gift. Unfortunately, having chosen a fairly high-risk first project, I couldn’t allow myself to fail spectacularly. I was not trying to turn these into caricatures.

image of a photo of a person next to a bad caricature of them.
image of a photo of a person next to a bad caricature of them.
Credit: badcaricatures.com

As a beginner with truly zero experience in illustrating, I was a bit confused about where to start. So I decided to first pull open Adobe Illustrator and pull in my favorite image of each of my subjects. Since I had no idea where to start with a blank canvas, I started by tracing the outlines I saw in the photo. I figured if my level of skill didn’t allow me to start by memory, why try to push it?

My biggest advice to get a helpful and detailed outline is don’t just use one brush point weight. I needed to use 5 or 6 different weights to catch the level of detailing that I wanted, and I wasn’t even making something that I’d consider super detailed.

After completing a good outline to serve as my guide, I moved into coloring the areas with their primary color, saving all the detailing and shading for a later step. I would suggest before moving into colorwork that a beginning illustrator group the lines that create the overall outline as long as you are creating something that you want visible outlines for. This way you can easily bring the outline to the front to keep the image looking clean if you’re like me and just use the paintbrush tool for all the coloring (as I said, I am a beginner).

This is a very obvious tip, but if you have an image you are using for reference for your illustration, become besties with the eyedropper tool for picking up the most accurate color. Of course, you are free to experiment with how you want your image to look. But since I was trying to make my illustration slightly more realistic, the dropper was my most useful tool.

Animated image of someone using the eyedropper tool
Animated image of someone using the eyedropper tool
Credit: https://gifs.com/gif/eyedropper-OMxZLg

Finally, moving onto detailing and shading. As a total beginner, this was probably the hardest part for me. I’ve been to some drawing/painting classes, so I have a general idea of how to create depth and shadowing, but I am very thoroughly amateurish at this. To help me with this, I tried looking at each photo objectively. It helped me to view my reference images in terms of their parts, rather than as the whole image. By doing this, I was able to see where the light hit the face and where it was more in shadow, and then I could place my colors appropriately to create that effect digitally.

I’ll be real, this part was fun, but sucked. It was the part where it became most evident how new I was to this. Like, I never want to relive the nightmare of my first attempt at illustrating teeth. Truly a horror show. But I have always been so intrigued by the skill required to create some of the most beautiful digital images I’ve ever seen, and it really does come down to the detailing.

Here is my very first “completed” (nothing is ever really completed) illustration:

Once again, I am a full-on beginner, and I didn’t want the image to look completely realistic. I wanted it to look like an illustration. But still, I would make some changes.

I would change some brush point weights, I’d work on exploring Illustrator even more to see what tools I could utilize to improve, and I’d definitely polish up the coloring and shading. I would see how I could more easily create and replicate detailed patterns, how I could make hair/teeth/hands look more realistic, and how to make shading in fabric look more realistic. But for my first EVER attempt working like this, I’ll call it a win.

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