How to learn digital illustration by yourself

January 30, 2018

Hi guys, welcome back!


As I said in a recent blog post, I'm changing. I've been experimenting with digital illustration behind-the-scenes for about a year now. This is as in completely digital from initial draft to finished product, whereas I was still professionally showcasing half traditional, half digital (digitally coloured graphite) works.


So now I'm going full digital. And I have to say, it's pretty fun.


But I don't want my stuff to be DIGITAL digital illustrations. You know the ones, a few thick swirly bright blocky colours that are meant to represent a person holding a banana riding a go-cart on the moon... I still like a traditional looking piece, I just want the editing freedom, cleanliness, getting away from graphute, colour! and not having to scan all the time would be nice too.



Here is a personal piece I finished off this morning, I was watching Alice in Wonderland last night (the more recent movie version with Mia Wasikowska) and thought it would be cute to draw the young version of Alice before we really get into the story. I added a rabbit, because, well, where would we have been without the White Rabbit?


I'm starting off quite simple, no background imagery, no really complicated layering, but I wanted to be able to apply my new skills to human faces, and also I'm finding animal fur hard, which used to be the most easy thing for me!


The brushes from the latest Photoshop update have been amazing, I'm using lots of Kyle T Webster's brushes, because I wanted to first try out a textured style. When I first started drawing digitally, I found it quite difficult because I didn't have any of these brushes and so everything looked very cartoony with outlines and solid fills. I might go slightly more that way than at the moment, but for now, I'm liking all the textures.


If I can give any tips for those wanting to know how to start illustrating digitally:


1. Experiment with a small amount of different brushes (the most recent ones are awesome (Oct '17 update I think) but there were still some great textured Photoshop brushes with the old version). Only pick at most 5, save them as obvious names (mine are something like "really rough paintbrush" and "rough pencil") and stick them in a new folder named "favourites" or "experiment", etc. This means you can get really comfortable without losing the brushes you decided to play with, and when you're comfortable with the uses and limitations of these, go out into the world (Photoshop brush world) and see if you can find others that would work better with how you're creating illustrations


2. Don't try for a style. And, while being aware of other people's styles that you are drawn towards, don't copy other people. But instead draw something basic, a face, an apple, no pressure. Draw it again. And again. And again. And again. What do you get sick of? What do you wish you didn't do the first time because now you're having to keep doing it and you're over it? You're going to have to do this each day for your career, so get comfy. What do you like? What are you doing differently, perhaps without even realising? The things you want to keep are your style. Congrats.


3. Ditch colour. If, like me, you had minimal digital illustration experience and are teaching yourself, life is complicated already. Make it easier on yourself and just use grey scale until you're happy with your digi skillzzz. Or just block in each colour on different layers (no texture/pattern/shading yet) and change each layer with hue/saturation to make things match. (tip: in Photoshop, hue/saturation up the top menu will change a layer without possible future edit, whereas selecting hue/saturation in the layers pop-out thing will create an editable layer mask. Press alt on that layer mask to only apply it to the layer below, then you can keep editing it. Or just use the top menu when you're more comfortable so it's less messy)


4. Take breaks. Don't force anything, because it won't work. It was through these breaks that I could think things over about what I had just done, vent my exasperation that it wasn't working ("I hate that it's not working! And yet I want to keep doing it! This sucks! Life is awesome! How do other people do it?! I love illustration! But I can't do it!" etc) and also when I went back to it I had new ideas or had looked at how other people had done a nose in a more realistic style, but maybe I could make mine more round like they have, etc. It's not about copying others, but realising how you can do things different. This is why I find it better to look at styles completely different, because you both wont want to and be be unable to copy them, but see new ways of doing things.


5. Watch YouTube. Ahh, the internet's free teaching platform. Be wary, there are some stinkers out there, but I found watching others speedpaint was really helpful. I couldn't exactly see what they were doing, it was very fast, but I got to know the overall method and see how they kept going past a point where I would have thought things were going wrong, or how they would enlarge and rotate whole drawn objects, which I couldn't do in real life, or how they blocked in colours and changed them sixteen times throughout the process, or how they really roughly drew in the draft first and made it lighter with the opacity slider to fill in over the top. It all helped and made me feel more comfortable with the idea of transferring my practice to digital.


6. It will change. Don't think that the first thing you produce is in an indicator of your future digital portfolio. It might be great, but if you're unsure, don't worry. It will change and your style will change depending on whether you realise you like outlines/don't need outlines/sometimes do and sometimes don't, etc. It's about becoming confident and comfortable with a new medium, which may make your style look different or may be quite similar to what you were doing before. Take it easy, take your time and try some different things to see what is right. 


So there you go, I'm still relatively new at this but I'm enjoying it so far and I'll keep you updated with new works, videos, etsy listings and so on when they come in!


Thanks for reading :)


instagram: siobhan.mcvey

youtube: Siobhan McVey





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