Hey, you guys! I recently had the pleasure of creating a cover illustration for an upcoming issue of Ramen Music. I must say, Ramen Music was truly one of the most pleasant clients I’ve ever worked with. A freelancers dream! The entire job was basically non-stop delight.
What’s that? You want to know how I made this amazing illustration? Really? Well… well okay! I’ll tell you!
FIRST: I made a snack. The snack stage is extremely important. Never skip it.
OKAY NEXT: I drew a ton of thumbnail drawings. These are basically just little scribbles. It’s okay if they don’t look like much. This is where the ideas are born, where they go from being weird foggy ghost things floating around inside your cavernous head to being tangible things scribbled on a piece of paper. And the more thumbnails you do the better! Try to get as many ideas down on paper as you can. Give yourself lots of options, explore every little glimmer of an idea. I don’t end up using 95% of the thumbnails I draw but I think of this stage as an opportunity to just hand the steering wheel over to my imagination and get both the good and the bad ideas out of my system.
As a freelance illustrator/cartoonist I’m forced to spend most of my time cooped up in my apartment by myself, splattering ink and paint all over the dang place. But to work on thumbnails all you really need is some scraps of paper, a pencil, and a brain. No mess, no hard to transport tools needed. I like to use the thumbnailing stage as an excuse to get out of the house and work at a coffee shop whenever I’m able to.
AND THEN: Once I settle on which idea I want to develop I’ll scan the thumbnail in and flesh it out a bit more in photoshop using my drawing tablet. So we go from this…
I like to do this step in Photoshop because when working digitally I have the power to move things around, re-size them, or redraw them as many times as I want without having to use a new sheet of paper or an eraser. I can really get in there and turn my vague little scribble of an idea into a sturdy skeleton for my illustration. Often the drawing will still be pretty vague and sloppy after this step, but that’s okay. The important thing here is really the composition. In this particular case I knew I wanted some pretty crazy details (THE CHANDELIER) so I went ahead and created a fairly detailed skeleton. I like to call this step “digital pencils.”
AFTER THAT: I print out my “digital pencils” at the size I want to final drawing to be. Sometimes that means printing the image across two separate sheets of paper and taping them together (I like to work BIG). I’ll then get to work on my final line drawing using ink and a light box.
With the light box I’m able to stick the print out of my rough digital drawing under my sheet of cold press water color paper and use the rough drawing as a guide for my ink drawing. I do most of the ink drawing with a crappy little nib pen that gets dipped in india ink. Once I’ve got all my lines down I’ll often go back and augment certain spots using a beat up old brush. Lots of ink and a few episodes of Radiolab later and we’ve got our inked drawing all ready for the next step.
You don’t need to follow your rough drawing exactly when you’re inking. As I said before, the “digital pencils” are really just to figure out the composition. Small details will often change as I’m inking and if I’m doing a less intricate illustration I like to save a lot of the actual drawing for the inking stage. This time around I just happened to be working from a fairly detailed rough.
AND NOW: It’s time to add some color to this baby! But I’m not going to dive right in and start dumping watercolors on just yet. That would be NUTS. With more elaborate illustrations like this I almost always jump back on the computer and throw together a quick and sloppy color map for myself, again using Photoshop and my tablet.
Sometimes I’ll scan in the finished inks and do the rough digital colors with the actual finished drawing, sometimes I’ll just open the sloppy digital pencils up again and color those. Either usually works - the lines aren’t super important at this point. All we’re focusing on here is colors. And even the colors don’t have to be perfect! They’re likely going to change a little as you get into the painting anyways. But having at least a rough idea of how I’m going to paint the thing makes the process go a heck of a lot smoother and faster.
OKAY AND NOW FINALLY: Let’s start painting!
I know a LOT of artists, even some really amazing artists, who are either terrified of painting with watercolors or who’ve tried them once and decided that they just “suck at watercolors.” Thing is, like almost everything in life, you’ve gotta practice! It takes time to get comfortable with how watercolors work, or with any tool you use. The only way to learn how to manipulate them and make them do what you want is to play with them a lot.
When I was in school as an illustration student I found myself becoming increasingly drawn to the work of several illustrators and cartoonists who mostly use watercolors. I decided that *I* wanted to be able to apply that sort of a look to my own work. So I spent my entire final year of college playing with watercolors, hoping I could eventually make them work for me too. If you want to learn how to paint with watercolors the best advice I can give you is to simply start painting and don’t stop. Additional advice would be to always keep a roll of paper towels within arm’s reach.
AND SO FINALLY: After lots of paint and water and a few episodes of My Brother, My Brother and Me we arrive at the end. A finished painting! Sometimes watercolors don’t scan very well so you might have to do a little color adjusting in Photoshop still. But basically that’s it! Time for another snack!
Good job, everyone! That was fun! I’ve actually already agreed to do another cover for Ramen Music. So we’ll have to do this again soon!