Illustration Step by Step

February 26th, 2008 | Posted in Freelancing

Here’s an entire illustration project from start to finish. The steps are not frequent enough for this to be a “how to”, but it does illustrate the process pretty thoroughly.

The client is “The Marlin Company”, which produces workplace and employer communication subscription materials. Part of their products are posters that communicate important workplace ideas and concepts like “Teamwork” and “Quality”, etc. I do art for a humorous line of these posters almost every month. I get the concept and description of the ‘scene’ I need to illustrate. My job is to create an image that is humorous yet gets the message across clearly. This is a typical project for them:

1. The Initial Project Concept-

I get an e-mail from the art director describing the project for me, including the text and any specifics they want to make sure are included:

( 12 x 17 (horiz) Cartoon showing an office of five to six older workers ?¬¢‚Äö?ᬮ” men and women, diversity in race, please. Enthusiastic types who are concentrating intently. Sign on the wall says ‘HighTech Enterprises.’ They all have flat-panel monitors, and jazzy new computers ?¬¢‚Äö?ᬮ” everything shiny and modern. But there’s one young geeky-looking white guy in the middle. He’s got a Royal-style manual typewriter and is typing away. A few dozen pieces of crumpled-up paper are on the floor. His desk is an old gray metal one, propped up by telephone books in one corner because a leg has been sheered off. He also has a crank phone attached to a post. He’s sitting on an old straight-back metal chair.):

Text: Got the right tools for the job?

For us to work at maximum efficiency, let’s correct any deficiency. Please take the initiative to speak up if you need something ?¬¢‚Äö?ᬮ” as soon as you notice a hiccup, rather that waiting until we develop major heartburn. You’ll keep the work ?¬¢‚Äö?ᬮ” and your blood ?¬¢‚Äö?ᬮ” flowing at a healthy pace!

2. Roughs-

I read over the initial direction and read the text that will be on the poster carefully,and think about what the message is and how best to “sell it”, or to reinforce the message visually. I draw out a scaled down layout box and start working up a concept. I used to work up three or so different ideas, but after all the years we’ve worked together I know what they want, and just do one I know they will think is effective. Here’s the rough:

Click for a closer look…

This is obviously very rough and is meant only to establish the basic layout and concept for the piece. The client never sees this stage… it’s too rough to show them. I do this stage for myself as the basis for my pencil sketch.

3. Pencils-

Once I have my rough worked out I scan it and enlarge to art size, then sketch it out on the illustration board (in my case Strathmore 4ply 500 series bristol, kid finish).

Click for a closer look…

Here I do most of the drawing, working on the characters and environment, getting the details figured out. When done scan this stage and send it to the client for art direction.

4. Revisions-

The art director and client review the pencil and get back to me with any changes or direction needed. There is usually something small that needs adding or changing, but again my familiarity with the client keeps that to a minimum. In this case they just wanted me to add an old fashioned green visor and armbands to the central figure.

If necessary I would have made those changes and send the revised pencil to them for final approval. However in this case they just said “go for it”, so I went straight to the next step:

5. Inking-

In this particular case the style they wanted was my ink and color, MAD type style, so the next stage is inking. First, I “knock back” the pencil a bit by rolling a kneadable eraser over the top of it like I was rolling out bread dough. This lightens up the pencil image so it’s easier to “draw” with the ink rather than just tracing the line. Then I get busy with the ink. See my inking tutorial for more details. Here are a few intermediate steps, click any for a closer look:

Starting with the foreground/boldest lines

Working on background

Adding in spot black and solid shadows

6. Scanning-After I thoroughly erase the pencil lines I scan in the inks. I scan as grayscale, 350 dpi at 100%. Then I bring the scan into PhotoShop and prep it for coloring. See this blog post for details of that process. Once it’s prepped up and ready, it’s on to the color. No need for the client to see this stage unless they want to.

7. Coloring-

I have two tutorials on my digital coloring technique. Check them out here and here for all the details. Here are some intermediate steps, click any for a closer look:

Starting by laying in solid colors

Changing some colors and adding some textures with filters like “noise”

More textures and adding some shadows…

More base color in foreground and main figures…

Rendering the faces and other objects, making adjustments…

8. Final- I flatten my file and save as a CMYK compressed TIFF, upload it to my FTP site and send the client the host URL, user name and password to retrieve it.

The final artwork.

9. Invoice-

Self explanatory, but pretty important. It’s very easy to forget to send an invoice if you do no do it immediately.

That’s a typical job from start to finish. As in most things, communication is the key. The client needs to see in that final piece of art what they expected to see, or you will be doing revisions after the fact… not a fun thing to do.


  1. moyse says:

    Thanks for sharing Tom, loved seeing your process.

  2. Eric says:

    How great to see a process thread bring us in on the ground level. Thanks for the insight into your communication with the client, even the way you are “interpreting” their email…thats great stuff, thank you.

  3. You’re an absolute genius Tom.
    Fantastically awesome – as always.
    Read the blog every morning, couldn’t live without you these days … !

    Jessica (UK) x

  4. Bucky says:

    Thanks, Tom. Fascinating to see your stages and process. __ I know many of us are amazed at the amount of work you produce and how, seamily, quickly you create your art from start to finish. Can you give us a rough idea, on this project, what kind of time frame you were looking at from start to finish? Just curious.

  5. Philbert says:

    I’m also addicted to your blog, I visit at least once a day. This stuff is great. Thanks for being so generous with your time.

  6. Tom says:

    Thanks, everybody. I do enjoy the blog and coming up with topics and ideas for it.

    Bucky- I’d say that illustration took about 12-15 hours.

  7. SteveH says:

    Wonderful Tom! This is a great inspiration!

  8. Bucky says:

    Thanks, Tom, I was just curious.

  9. mrexcite says:


    I just registered today but have been reading your blog daily for a year now. I want to thank you for taking the time and effort for this blog, but more than anything, thank you for your tutorial posts. They have completely changed my workflow in the digital world and have been a tremendous help to me as I transition from the board to the PC. Your latest tut again sheds some more light on some problems I’ve had doing certain tasks, and it was just a pleasure to read and absorb. Hope St.Louis was success for the NCN !!!



New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

Workshops Ad

Dracula ad

Doctor Who Ad

Superman Ad

%d bloggers like this: