Sunday Mailbag

November 30th, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I’m curious about how your creative process has evolved since you were a newbie. I’m fresh out of school myself, and I’ve landed a few low-profile illustration gigs, but I’m often pretty clueless about how to proceed after I’m hired. How do you go about working up your initial roughs? What processes are involved immediately after you get the greenlight? How much time do you spend brainstorming, looking up references … how much work do you put into your initial roughs? And how has this changed since you were as clueless as someone like me?

A: My process from beginning stage to final art of any given job remains basically the same since my first illustration job… it only changes when the dynamics of my relationship with a given client allows it to.

I’ll give you a rundown of my typical process. Let’s take for granted that the client I’m working for is either a new one or one I haven’t worked with very long:

1. Conversation with client about job- This is most productive after I have received a copy of the article I am illustrating and if possible the layout of the article (or specs on the ad or other job, as the case may be). We discuss the objective or message of the illustration and possible ways to convey the message visually. I take notes and be sure I have any questions answered.

2. Thumbnail roughs- It depends a lot on the client’s desires and how specific or clear they are on what they are looking for as to whether I start with thumbnail roughs. If I am unclear about the direction or the client ambiguous about what they are looking for, I will do 3 or more rough thumbnail drawings first. These are done at 1/2 or less print size, and are very rough. Basically this is just to get the basic concept agreed upon. It’s important to get this clear before going to even basic rough pencils, because it saves you time and trouble. Drawing takes time, and you will waste it if you have to redo more detailed drawing down the road because the basic concept was not established clearly. For clients I have worked with often, I usually skip this step as i know what they want and they know what to expect.

Here are some thumbnail roughs I did for a job this past summer:

3. Rough Pencils- Once the concept is clear, I move to rough pencils. This is done at print size, and is more clearly defined than the thumbnails. I still do not spend much time at this stage, I am looking to get a basic approval or revision requests before I do all out on the final pencils.

Often times I skip this stage if the thumbnail roughs are tight enough in the first place, or I may just tighten up the approved rough with any requested revisions to fulfill the “pencil rough” stage. In the case of the above job, I just did some revisions on the approved design and placed in in a mocked up layout.

4. Final Pencils– Here I spend a fair amount of time really penciling out the illustration so they can see all the details and full intended image. When still in pencil, changes at this stage are still pretty easy to make. Yes, I can waste some valuable drawing time if radical changes are needed, but it’s still possible to do it without a major time commitment. Besides, if any radical changes are needed, it will be because the ball got dropped somewhere along the first three stages.

5. Final Art– By this stage everything should be decided upon and all that is needed is the work to do whatever finishes are required for the final image. In this case it’s an ink and color job.

The stages change depending on the dynamic. For some jobs and clients I go right to the single pencil rough without doing multiple thumbnails searching for a concept they will like. Other jobs need that step. No matter what it’s always pencil rough (multiple thumbnails and/or single concept)> final pencil> final art.

It does not matter where you are in your illustration career… your job is always the same: to produce an illustration that fits the needs of your clients. That requires a process that is 50% communication and 50% illustration.

Thanks to Ryan Cole for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Wow, thanks for taking the time to write this up. It’s very inspiring.


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

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