Make It on Mobile: Gemma O’Brien’s Hand-Drawn Type

By Charles Purdy

Australian artist Gemma O’Brien specializes in hand-lettering and illustrated type in both digital and traditional media—her artwork has been exhibited in galleries around the world; she has been commissioned by brands such as Qantas, the New York Times, and Smirnoff; and she’s led workshops and presentations at conferences such as TYPO and Adobe MAX. In this easy-to-follow tutorial, O’Brien demonstrates how she uses Sketch to draw an illustrated number, sharing some of her tips for creating balanced, dimensional forms.

O’Brien fell in love with hand lettering when she was a university student; today, she describes herself as “obsessed” with drawing letters. She frequently starts with calligraphy brushes on tracing paper, which she scans or photographs to create a digital file. Then she refines and enhances the digital image in Adobe Photoshop CC. During the past couple of years, she has worked on many murals and other large-scale projects. “It’s exciting to work digitally and then move to a larger scale,” she says.

O’Brien used Adobe Photoshop Sketch to create two versions of this illustrated 25.

She has also recently incorporated Adobe mobile apps into her workflow—specifically Adobe Photoshop Sketch—which she appreciates because it allows her to create while she maintains a very busy travel schedule. “I've really started to enjoy working on the iPad,” she says. “The Adobe mobile apps have changed the way I do my initial sketches and concepts: I can quickly mock up ideas on-the-go and then bring them to life on the desktop when I'm back at the studio. I've also started playing with color a lot more since I started working on the iPad, so that's an exciting new direction for my work. I’ve been enjoying using Adobe Capture CC to create color themes.”  


O’Brien wanted to create a playful illustrated number for this project. She says, “Working so much with letters and words, it's often refreshing to play with numbers, as they have interesting graphic shapes without being limited by language and meaning.”

She chose the number 25 because the two digits are well balanced—“It was an aesthetically driven choice,” she says.


O’Brien started by opening Sketch and drawing a thumbnail sketch of her number. She says, “Starting off at a smaller scale allows you to see the interplay between positive and negative space and to easily refine the shapes.”

She recommends using Sketch’s ruler to draw guidelines that will help you maintain consistent angles in your drawing (tap the Shape icon and then tap the Lines icon to see Sketch’s ruler).  

Tip: After she was happy with her basic shapes, O’Brien added volume to them by duplicating the layer, moving the duplicate down and to the right, and using that duplicate as a guide for drawing dimensional lines.

Click on the image to watch a six-minute snippet of O’Brien’s initial sketching process.


When she was happy with her thumbnail sketch, she duplicated the layer and transformed it to fill her canvas (tap on the layer while it is selected to see these controls).


O’Brien says, “Now we have the skeleton of our number, upon which we can build movement lines and detail.”

Drawing freehand (but using Sketch’s ruler as a guide), she added dots, elongated ovals, and fluid curves to her image. Filling the dimensional areas of her number accentuated depth and made numbers pop.


O’Brien’s last step was adding color to her image (using a different layer for each color). She suggests selecting between three and five complementary colors and adding them to your library so you can easily access them while you draw.

She adds, “I like to use the pencil to fill in color, to retain the texture and direction of the stroke rather than just a flat fill.”

Click to watch a time-lapse video of a portion of O’Brien’s coloring process.

If you want to learn some Photoshop Sketch basics before you start, check out this tutorial!


We invited Create readers to follow part of this tutorial and make their own nature-inspired Illustrator Draw creation—with the winner receiving an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. And that winner, chosen by O’Brien, was Fiona Skipper! Visit the Make It on Mobile landing page to learn more, and to stay up-to-date on the new contests we will be hosting throughout 2016.

November 14, 2016