Getting Started with Illustration

Photo Credit: Chris Metcalf

Last year I shared a page in my sketchbook on how to be a good illustrator. It took me a few years away from drawing professionally to really see the forest for the trees, capsule so I’m sharing some high level wisdom here, expanding on that page, I think will benefit both aspiring illustrators and casual doodlers.

Fledgling artists frequently focus on style, but style won’t mask awkward anatomy or poor perspective. The art you like will certainly influence your own, but that influence should appear organically, not be applied heavy handed. Ray Frenden, an illustrator I respect tremendously, has some wisdom about style on his blog: “Style wise, try not to think about it. If you’re drawing all the time, that will come naturally. You will make the marks that feel right to you. The ones your muscle memory has absorbed and saved and cataloged are the ones that add up to a style.”

Since my time in art school a decade ago, the most meaningful thing I’ve learned about illustration is that successful illustrators are not always the best artists, they are the most consistent. The best thing you can do to improve is to draw as much as possible. Forget being shy, you’re going to throw away a lot of drawings before you get a few you love. Practice can be casual or serious, I recommend a healthy blend of the two to keep things from becoming a chore.

Try checking out some figure drawing classes. Start with classes offering short poses. You’ll find figure drawing at your local college, art school or sometimes even community center or area art studio. It seems like most towns these days have a Dr. Sketchy’s once a month. If you’re a parent who can’t get out of the house, draw your kid stumbling around the living room, they won’t hold a pose for longer than 10-30 seconds so it’s not all that terribly different. Instead of trying to draw everything you see, start with some basic lines and shapes approximating the skeleton. (Spending a little time reading about anatomy will go a long way here.) You can also people watch at the park / mall / subway and draw. After the first few drawings your lines are more fluid and confident, so it’s always a good idea to start any drawing session with a few warm up drawings.

You’ll burn yourself out if you don’t include some fun. Try practicing by doing some stream of consciousness doodles in your sketchbook. Carry a sketchbook everywhere you go! Draw the first things that come to mind, and don’t spend more than a few minutes on each doodle. Draw your dog, your breakfast, your favorite book, a funny outfit someone wore. Fill up a page. You can make it a game and have a friend name random things for you to doodle. Grab a few magazines lying around the house and draw what you see inside. Old National Geographics are great for this! Try to do it without erasing any lines. Do some drawings where you never pick your pencil or pen up from the paper. Get some grey paper and experiment with using the paper as your middle tone, while drawing shadows with a dark pencil and highlights with a white one.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with technique. Maybe you don’t like markers, but you like pencil. Try colored pencil, charcoal, watercolor, pens and different types of paper. Try using a combination, maybe something that makes soft lines and something else that makes hard lines. Don’t avoid a medium just because it’s difficult, I hated gouache the first few times I used it, but once I got the swing I found it to be the most versatile paint for my color work. Try different textured papers.

Scott McCloud said “Do you know that WHAT you put in your panels is potentially far more interesting than how well you DRAW it?”

Drawing and illustration are not the same. An illustration tells a story. Picture two drawings, a baby in its crib, and a baby in its crib with a spider dangling above. These are almost the same image, but change one element and you tell a very different story. Color can change a story too, imagine a family portrait bathed in blue light. Now imagine the same portrait bathed in red light, the feeling and tone of the story changes. Try telling stories with some of your practice drawings, you can draw stories you observe when you’re people watching, or stories you already know.

Lastly, absorb as much illustration as possible! Maybe you like comics, I enjoy anthologies because they offer a wide range of styles and storytelling by artists I may not have seen before. Visit your local comic shop and tell the proprietor what you’re into, they will likely appreciate your enthusiasm and recommend all kinds of relevant books. Start reading some web comics. Illustration Magazine can teach you about the golden age of illustration. Check out some propaganda posters online. Follow some illustrators on Flickr or Dribbble. You can see how different artists solve problems, and get some ideas about line and color.

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About beth

Beth Dean is a designer and illustrator living in San Francisco. At various points in her career she's been a visual designer, a front-end developer, illustrator and user experience designer for both small agencies and global brands. When not drawing on things she's not supposed to, she collects skulls and hangs out at the beach. You can find her at

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