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Bringing an Illustration into Focus

Illustrator and Adobe Creative Resident Anna Daviscourt is just over halfway through her residency year, and in that time of focused work on a passion project—a children’s book based on an original story and filled with her charming, whimsical illustrations—she’s had time to hone her creative process. In this article, Daviscourt shares five workflow steps that she follows when creating an illustration. She’s using Adobe Photoshop Sketch, but her tips will help visual artists working in any medium.

Daviscourt’s final illustration, which she took from sketch to finished piece using Adobe Photoshop Sketch.

1. SKETCH

This stage usually starts with an idea, anything that I want to put on the page. After I’ve put something down, I look for reference material. I cannot overstate the importance of reference in my process—both for finding subjects and for inspiring art. 

For this piece, I looked at plants, profiles, and even elf ears to try and understand what I was drawing. (For me, reference really makes the difference between an OK piece and a brilliant piece. You don’t have to know exactly what you’re looking for, but I’d recommended keeping your favorite images somewhere accessible. I’ve been loving Pinterest lately because it leads me to artists I’ve never seen before, based on their similarity to artists I already love. I used to be lazy about reference, but it’s made such a huge difference in my work that I have to stress its importance.)

2. COLOR

I start by blocking in the subject. If I were painting in a background, each major element would have its own layer. Then I lock the pixels (in Photoshop Sketch, select the Paint Inside option on a layer—this allows you to paint only on that layer’s existing artwork, not on the background) and get messy with whatever colors catch my fancy. 

This piece was pretty straightforward because I knew that I wanted the skin to get rosier around the nose, cheeks, and ears, and that the leaves would have an analogous green color scheme. For some pieces, this stage can take quite a while, so once again—reference is your friend! To push yourself, do color studies of other artists, or use their colors in your piece.

3. LIGHTING

Some pieces use lighting to define the composition, reveal a story, or lead the eye around the subject. This piece—not so much (if you want to see some great examples of lighting, check out Pascal Campion’s work). I used really straightforward top-down lighting with a soft light layer and shadow with a multiply layer. Starting with a mid-tone piece and then pushing the lights and darks is a pretty foolproof method for creating depth. This is very evident in the leaves of this piece; each pops out from the next, thanks to the values.

4. EDGES

Another way to say “edges” is rendering. This is the step when you like what you see, so you sharpen the painting. I start by sharpening the focal point and defining fewer of the edges as I move outward. This way, the viewer’s eye is always led back to the focal point. When you have the viewer’s eyes right where you want them, you should provide some sort of payoff. The reward should be beautiful detail—so that when a viewer zooms in, the image doesn’t lose any of its appeal. 

5. LINEWORK

To add visual interest, I added additional linework. This is a specific style technique that I’ve been developing this year. I love the look of textural linework, it gives illustrations a handmade quality. I’ve found that my favorite kind of line to add to leaves is light, bright gold. It gives extra visual appeal and gives a fantastical feel to images. This step is very much up to your taste, but I’d recommend stepping away before adding any final details to make sure that your work is looking how you want it to look.

A final tip: Keep editing throughout the process! Just because you have a good sketch doesn’t mean you should rest on it. At any point, you have the ability to make your piece stronger—all it takes is seeing what to change. To do that, I recommend taking breaks (sometimes long ones), flipping the image, and asking for outside opinions. This is another guaranteed method to improving your work. Not everything is about grinding through to the finish. Part of your job is quality control, so remind yourself to edit.