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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Illustration Process: Traditional Work

For this post and the next I will take a break from shameless self-promotions to share some process work.  
Over the years, my process has mutated from the clear and straightforward approach of my early childhood:

Step 1: Tear page from coloring book.
Step 2: Turn page over and apply crayon directly to back of paper.

..And turned into an overly-complex and technically absurd mess that it involves hundreds of extra steps and expensive, new-fangled products.
So, I will break this into 2 parts to keep things more manageable.
Today's post is the traditional side, the place where I begin most of my work, and my next post will focus on the digital side, the place where I end most of my work.

Ink on napkin

The conceptual stages are generally just exploring ideas to help find a compositional arrangement that seems pleasing. The tools used for this change from image to image. For concept-work I go with whatever works.

Rough Drawing
#7 pencil on copy paper

Once I establish a rough drawing that I like I do studies of most of the faces and figures. I will try to really nail the expressions that I am after. I always consider this one of the most important elements of the image. As Rockwell pointed out, "if you get the face and hands right, they'll forgive you for the rest." So if I have a face in the image, I try to make sure I have it established in a study somewhere.
And if it hasn't already been determined, these studies will help me to decide which lighting arrangement will be the most advantageous for the characters.

General's HB Pencil on Strathmore Vellum

Tight Drawing
Pencil on Strathmore Bristol

For the watercolor stage I stick very close a process laid out by Peter De Seve in his excellent Step-by-Step Graphics article (Vol.10, no. 6) about his technique. (I highly recommend it if you can find it.)
De Seve's overall method in the article carries a great emphasis on preserving the drawing, which is one of the most alluring aspects of it for me. You can see from his work how well it allows him to play up his characters expressions and designs.
I will sometimes (and this is one of those times) apply workable fixative to the drawing before starting the watercolor. Fixative will leave the surface a little less workable for the watercolor, (the surface tends to be less absorbent) but will keep the drawing much more intact. Since I weep bitter tears to see the drawing slowly disintegrate, I am generally willing to risk it.

Watercolor over Pencil

The watercolor process begins with washes of earth colors to tone the paper, applied wet into wet. Then after this has dried color and value are slowly worked up with about ten thousand tiny washes applied wet into wet or wet into damp.
One of the nice things about this approach is that it allows folks like me, who have a foggy command of color at best, to experiment a lot as they work. If a color doesn't look right it is really easy to adjust.
After this I panic and then throw all the old illustrator tricks at the piece in a last desperate effort to save it.
These tricks include, but are not necessarily limited to: Ink, pencil, acrylic, markers, badgers, lawsuits, incantations, harsh language, oaths, gouache, threats and even blows.

Final Traditional Painting


  1. I love your work, Justin, and this step by step is great. One question:
    How do you transfer your pencil sketches to the final paper to start painting? Or do you redo all the drawing using your sketches as reference?

    Thanks a lot!

  2. Hi Tayete,

    If the paper is not too thick (as is the case here with bristol) I will use a light table. In previous years I have used an artograph. Both are good, but I prefer the lighttable since I won't have to deal with potential mirror distortion when using it.

  3. There's a link to the article you're talking about on this ConceptArt.org forum:


    Awesome article!