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How I Mixed Up Illustration: Combining Analog And Digital Techniques

In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits! Your hands are the original digital devices

Lynda Barry1

People often ask how I arrived at a finished illustration. Honestly, it’s different every time, but it always starts with a hand-drawn sketch. Sometimes, I paint it completely by hand; sometimes I’ll scan in a pencil drawing. Many of my pieces are 100% analog that I’ll show only at shops or galleries. Use anything you can; if the illustration would work as a wood carving, go that route. There are concrete steps one can take, but they certainly don’t have to be the same every time. My goal is to take a sketch or idea as far as it can go — and also, to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself with every new job. For this article, I’ll use handcrafted brushes and Photoshop as my tools.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Sketching It Out Link

Concepting for me always starts with pencil and paper. If there is one consistent element through all of my pieces, it’s sketching. I love to draw. If I could establish and execute everything with a single pencil drawing, I would. The best thing to do is keep some type of sketchbook or journal with you as much as possible. Milton Glaser said it best: “Drawing is visual thinking.” Drawing creates many possibilities for any idea you might have. It’s then when the character’s personality starts to emerge. Then, I’ll add some volume to the sketch to show where the textures should really come through.

Sketch It Out

Researching Link

This is the most underestimated part of the process, but one of the most important. Here, we’re assessing the sketch. What textures would work? What colors would work? It helps to look at your influences.

Some artists who always inspire me are Mary Blair, Alice Provensen, Charley Harper, Maurice Noble and Eyvind Earle. And there are so many ways now to catalog and bookmark historical artwork.

Also, if I’m drawing an elephant’s skin, or wood on a camera, or a band on a helmet, I’ll want to take a close look at the real thing. Google Images is quick, but if I have time I’ll run to the library. Sometimes I do this as soon as I have an idea. Really seeing what you’ll be working with helps.

Researching It image5

Crafting Your Own Brushes Link

I do this because I want my brushes to be my own. Many great websites out there offer textured brushes for Photoshop. For me, the more unique these brushes, the better. Based on my sketch and research, I will have some idea of what I want to capture. I’ll use oil pastels, paint, paper towels, charcoal and anything else. It’s all about being resourceful — use everything. One more thing: when making brushes, the grittier the paper, the better. The more tooth it has, the more the marks will scan. It is for this reason alone I have to clean my scanner all the time.

Tools for Making Brushes6

Crafting the Brushes7

Pastel Marks on Paper for Brushes8
Some rough crosshatching for the elephant’s skin, with an oil pastel on drawing paper.

Scanning It All In Link

Scan everything: the initial sketch, the textures, anything you’ve made to this point. I’ll keep anything that I don’t use at this point in a library, possibly to use for something else. I’ve set the scanner to 600 DPI at “Millions” of colors. If your scanner has a “Sharpen” setting, crank it to “High.” You can scan the sketches in black and white at 1200 DPI, or in grayscale since the brushes will be black and white. I’ve set the colors to “High” so that I can archive the files and use them for something else. Once everything has been scanned, let’s open the images in Photoshop.

Here is a scan of my original sketch. I scanned it in at 300 DPI because I will eventually be printing this piece.

Original Scan9

Initial Brushes10

Up the Levels11

If you scan as black and white, you won’t need to worry about adjusting the levels. I’ve scanned in color, so I’ll increase the black and white values in Photoshop. The levels can be found in Images → Adjustments → Levels.

Defining Brushes In Photoshop Link

I recommend making each one of these brushes a separate file. For the resolution, you can go up to 2500 × 2500. It really depends on what the finished piece needs to be. For this exercise, I’ll select a portion of the scan and define a brush from it.

Selecting the Brush to Make12

Define Brush in PS13

From the menu drop-down, go to “Edit” and then “Define Brush.”

Name Selected Brush14

Now that we have created a brush, we can name it. It will be added to our Brush palette.

Brush Added to the Palette15

You can view the Brush palette by selecting the Brush tool. Look at the options toolbar, and you’ll see a thumbnail of the brush; you can pull this down to view the entire palette. From the menu arrow in the top right, you can save brushes you’ve created. Brushes are saved in Photoshop’s Presets/Brushes folder. You can also load brushes from this menu as well.

Selecting A Color Palette Link

Now that our brush set is in order, let’s start painting. For the color palette, I’ve researched my idols. Mary Blair16 and Alice Provensen17 are masters of color and shape. I always look at their use of color and design. Again, this is why research is so important. Study the people you admire, and analyze why you admire their work. I really like a somewhat muted palette, with some small areas of intense color. In my scanned sketch, I’ve added another layer and sampled the colors I’d like to use.

Color Palette18

Making Shapes And Painting Link

Let’s go to the Paths menu and draw the shapes that we want to paint. From here, we create a “New Path” using the Pen tool, to define the shapes that we established in the sketch. So, let’s open the sketch that we scanned, select the Pen tool from the toolbar, and select “New Path” from the Path menu. Once the Path is saved, we use the Path tool (which is the Pen tool), and start tracing out our shapes. The image below shows all the paths I’ve created that I intend to paint.

Creating Paths19

Let’s start by painting the shape that will be the background. From the toolbar, select the Path tool, and select a specific path.

Selecting an Individual path20

Now that we’ve selected a Path, we can create a selection from that path. To do this, select from the pull-down menu on the right in the Paths menu. You’ll see an option named “Make Selection.”

Make Selection from Path21

Once that’s selected, a dialog box will pop up asking for a radius to feather the selection; 0 is fine. Also, enable “Anti-aliased” and “New Selection.”

Make Selection from Path22

Now that we have a selection, we can “Create a New Layer.” This layer will be specific to this shape. We’ll end up with many layers for each shape, but they will give us the flexibility to edit down the road.

Create a New Layer23

Now that we have a new layer, and the Path is a selection, we can use a brush from the brush set that we created. Also, I’m still using the colors from the palette that I created earlier.

Painting Shapes24

Here’s where the research, brush creation and painting all come together. Let’s paint the path on a “New Layer,” using the steps described above.

Painting Shapes25

Painting within the shapes you’ve defined is a chance to experiment. You can try all kinds of things, like making the brush more transparent or painting over other textures. For me, it’s a lot of trial and error. This image below is a close-up of the brush I’m painting with.

Brush Close Up26

After many painted layers, I end up with a piece that is digitally painted with hand-crafted brushes.

Finished Illustration27

Other Resources Link

You might be interested in the following articles and related resources:

  • Illustrations of Alice and Martin Provensen28
    Alice and Martin Provensen were a husband-and-wife illustration team. They wrote and illustrated numerous children’s books, including many little and giant golden books from the ’40s until Martin’s death in 1987. Alice continues to work as an illustrator.
  • How to Steal Like an Artist29
    An excellent article on creativity and life by the brilliant Austin Kleon.
  • The Drawn Blog30
    A daily source of inspiration for illustration, animation, cartooning, and comic art.
  • Today’s Inspiration31
    A great source for inspiration and the history of Illustration by Professor Leif Peng.


Footnotes Link

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I’m an illustrator and designer living in Ohio. I grew up in a blue-collar hardworking household. I’ve carried that philosophy into my life by working hard on every project I take on. To get to create for a living is a blessing and is something I don’t take for granted. I truly love what I get to do for a living. Thanks for checking out the blog.

  1. 1

    Love your self-created brushes! Do you have a bigger view of the final product? Would love to see more detail.

  2. 3

    Thanks for this one, David. It is nice to know that not everyone is switching to vector graphics or does strictly analogue graphics just to stand out.

  3. 5

    simply the wow factor. i am a designer myself. but i cant draw. any suggestion for me David?

    • 6

      You’re wrong, anyone can draw, simply practice.

      • 7

        Molly By Golly

        December 7, 2011 4:07 pm

        Yes, drawing is a learned skill that improves with practice. Similarly, it is also true that nearly anyone can learn to play football, dance ballet and make fantastic reduction sauces with practice. The statement “anyone can draw, simply practice” reduces lack of professional competence to lack of effort. This is disingenuous.

        • 8

          @Molly By Golly
          You’re exactly right. Saying ‘anyone can [insert activity], simply practice’ is a sleight to those who have dedicated themselves to becoming professionals in their field.

          Would you say the same to architects or engineers? To a degree it’s true (with enough practice I could build a bridge) but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever be a professional bridge builder, that my bridges will be well-constructed or even that I’ll understand what makes bridges well-constructed.

        • 9

          Thank you.

      • 10

        Like Remi (from “Ratatouille”) : “Everyone CAN, it doesn’t mean everyone SHOULD.” No, seriously, everyone can learn how to draw, but the difference between mediocre (or even just good) and great drawer will always be in the amount of talent. This is applicable to almost anything.

    • 11

      Best way to learn is to just start drawing from life. I went to 4 years of art school and got a BFA in Illustration, and though they did teach a lot, most of what I learned just happened on my own while practicing and creating projects.

      The one thing about any kind of art, is that it takes A LOT of dedication, especially if you don’t really have an abundance of natural talent to begin with. I would say that dedication is way more important than natural ability, though. In my 4 years of school, I saw many of my peers start from what looked very “high school art class” and progress to professional. At the same time I saw a lot of people finish exactly where they started, some of whom had an enormous amount of natural ability. The difference is dedication.

      Try to do a drawing from life every day (IMHO you don’t learn as much drawing from your head), and keep that up for years and years. Good luck.

    • 12

      design: from signum “a mark, sign”… designer means one who draws.. your pencil doesn’t necessarily have to be a pencil

  4. 13

    Interesting Post, nice to see the process of your work, thanks David for sharing. Agree with @Marlou, please let us see the fullsize work.


  5. 14

    Nice tutorial. I’m a big fan of the rendering style you used!

  6. 15

    John Mindiola III

    December 7, 2011 3:10 pm

    Stunning. More proof that if you can draw, you can do anything.

  7. 16

    great tutorial, thanks!
    but why such a horrible colonial image?

  8. 17

    Incredible & inspirational. Thank you David.

  9. 18

    love those brushes!

  10. 19

    Nice informative tutorial.Great brushes!.

  11. 20

    Great explanation of nice technique!

  12. 21

    Wow! Great! thanks!
    It was a lot of help.

  13. 22

    Fantastic resource, thanks for sharing your technique.

  14. 23

    This was definitely helpful (and well done). Thanks!

  15. 24

    Awesome! I’ve been trying to do some more analog art work and this is just a great article of how to combine both analog and digital art.

  16. 25

    Great tutorial on how you go about creating your illustrations! I only wish I could create some awesome pieces like this. Good job!

  17. 26

    Barbara Johansen newman

    December 9, 2011 5:01 am

    Much enjoyed this! After more than 25 years as an illustrator I just completed my first picture book in Photoshop. Wish you had an e-tutorial showing this so I could understand more clearly how to create and save brushes; I am technically challenged on this!

  18. 27

    This is what I call proper illustration. I love your article!

  19. 28

    Wow! Wonderful demonstration, thank you. I’m a painter who’s just learning digital tools, can’t wait to learn learn enough to paint with Illustrator!

  20. 29

    pretty awesome n confident booster

  21. 30

    What a pleasure to watch creatives work. Thanks!

    More about quality design on SM pages would be nice to see.

  22. 31

    George Coghill

    December 12, 2011 9:07 am

    Great Photoshop illustration tutorial Dave! I like the mix of brushes & vector.

  23. 32

    wow… This is a very interesting technique… Being a Mixed Media artist myself, I never thought of this… Gotto try this in my next artwork

  24. 33

    Wonderful illustration..I like so much the study behind a realization. Good work. Really impressive

  25. 34

    All I wanted to say is – Great! :)

  26. 35

    Thanks for the neat illustration. It is something that adds a personal touch.

  27. 36

    It is possible to download your custom brushes?

  28. 37

    Dale Coykendall

    February 28, 2012 5:17 pm

    Thank you so much, this solved a few mysteries for me.
    Kind Regards,

  29. 38

    Dale Coykendall

    March 1, 2012 3:45 pm

    Thank you this really opened up a totally different approach for me many thanks Dale

  30. 39

    Very nice. :)

  31. 40

    The Boys done good.

  32. 41

    Thanks very much for this really useful tutorial. I’ve been hoping to find instructions and step-by-step tips like this for a looong time. Great insights and really well supplemented with pictures to illustrate. Thank you! :)

  33. 42

    The technique for the sketched brushes is pretty helpful. To me, I am still consider the way Photoshop handles vector drawing is not as smooth as Illustrator, and illustrator can’t handle pixel texture as well as photoshop. How does everybody handle this?

  34. 43

    Like it :)

  35. 44

    This is exactly what I have been looking for, as I much prefer my real drawing results to my poor, novice digital efforts, sadly though, you lost me at “select path from path menu”….couldn’t find a path menu. Also, I made a brush but I don’t see how to re-size it to a sensibly small size. Gave up feeling demoralised at my inability to get anywhere with Photoshop or Illustrator yet again, despite the high quality and clarity of your tutorial.


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