Illustration Process

By Rocky Roark

Those who follow the Focus Lab team on Dribbble may have seen therecent shot I posted that showcases my current illustration process.

Illustration Header

(I distinguish “current” since every process I undertake, whether design or illustration oriented, is ever evolving over time.) The shot’s popularity led me to this post, step-by-step, the methods behind my creative madness.

Step 1: Brainstorming & Ideas


When beginning an illustration project, I start by creating a “sketch dump”. This is an industry term for the action of stream-of-consciousness sketching, which is usually done in a quick and haphazard manner. This action helps me clear my mind and gets the ball rolling on pinpointing that great idea, which may manifest on the first sheet of paper or reveal itself many sheets in. During the brainstorming round, there is no limit to how much or how little you should sketch. The primary function of this exercise is to build momentum.

Step 2: Sketching


I get a little more detailed in the next step, where I gradually build up loose and fluid lines from the initial sketches until something more concrete takes shape with heavier strokes and defined lines. Like Step 1 before, there are no hard and fast rules on how much time and detail should be dedicated here. Sometimes first round sketches are almost ready-made for Step 3; other times exhaustive renditions are required.

Step 3: Color Exploration


Now it’s time to debut that sketch on the computer. I usually start by scanning the image or photographing it with my phone. There are instances where I need to tweak it slightly so that the lines are more defined, but I’m quickly on to the next process: color exploration.

I alter the sketch using the curves and levels in Photoshop, and then set the layer style to Multiply. I create a new layer, where I begin to add color. Sometimes multiple layers help with layering certain elements in the foreground as opposed to the background. My main objective at this stage is to pinpoint the best combination of complementary colors so that I am not slowed later by color choices for the specific components of the illustration. (I read in a blog post that Andrew Kolb, one of my favorite illustrators, initiated this step relatively early in his overall process, which prompted me to modify my approach.)

Step 4: Building the Shapes

Once I have the basic color scheme negotiated, I import my sketch into Illustrator to begin creating basic shapes and adding initial detail. Here, many alterations are made to improve the illustration and make it more visually appealing, so this is usually the most time-consuming of all steps. It is made even longer for those who haven’t made friends with Mr. Pen Tool.

Step 5: Details & Tweaking

It has been said that “the Devil is in the details,” and that is true for this round of the illustration process. This is where I begin adding more details to bring life to the illustration, taking care to decide how much tweaking is still needed. Much is determined by trial and error. Sometimes there are too many small details, or maybe this color is too bright or overused; you get the idea. If something doesn’t quite look right, it is either deleted or re-tweaked.

Final Step: Presentation

This last round is more an extension of the previous, but I sometimes find it to be a different ball game altogether. Presentation is key. Sometimes the illustration will fill the entire page, other times it is dominated by white space, or includes text. I’m a fan of either surrounding my illustrations in white space or bleeding them over the entire artboard. And I only add text when necessary. When in doubt, go back to the beginning, as presentation is ultimately determined by an illustration’s original intent.

In conclusion, the illustration process is an ever-changing process that is frequently influenced by the styles of others. I love trying new things, so let me know how your process differs from mine. Thanks for reading!