Dear Ueno: How do I learn illustration? Dear Ueno is an advice column for people who for some weird …
Carolyn Zhang, designer at Ueno NYC, replies:
First of all, thanks for asking this question. I had worked on writing and illustrating that post for over a month, and after I finally published it, I just felt empty and directionless. But now you’ve given me renewed purpose! (Until I finish writing this too…)
I definitely consider myself a n00b at illustration. I doodle in my notebook and have taken a few drawing classes, but this was my first time actually illustrating anything: drawing to communicate ideas. I was learning as I was going along, so I’ll share how all that went down.
Back up, back up. What *is* illustration?
Illustration is a means of communication, and it’s more about designing different solutions rather than expressing yourself. (Of course, bringing in your own point of view is still very important.)
In my case, I wanted to add illustrations to break up the wall of text, add some visual interest (without being distracting), and make the whole blog post feel just a bit more special. And above all, I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and develop some new skills.
There’s a couple of parts that make up an illustration:
- Concept: What you are drawing. Does it play the appropriate role in the story? Does it communicate your ideas effectively?
Example: some concepts that could work for “growth”
- Style: How everything looks. Does it convey the appropriate mood? Is it appropriately simple or complex? If you’re drawing multiple illustrations in the same style, do they all match?
- Composition: How everything is arranged. Do the placement and proportions establish the appropriate hierarchy? Is your eye drawn to the right places?
Example: some different ways to arrange three shapes. In #1, there’s no guidance for your eye; everything is randomly placed everywhere. In #2, there’s a clear focus on the circle, and you notice the square and triangle later. In #3, your eye moves vertically from the top to the bottom.
And on top of all that, there’s the skill of using your tools to properly execute your vision — whether that’s pen and paper, or in my case, Adobe Illustrator. For lack of a better word, I’m going to call this “artistic skill.”
Like everything else in the world, these components are all connected. Better artistic skill expands your visual vocabulary so you can draw more complex things, certain concepts constrain your stylistic options, the style you picked can affect the compositions, and so on and so forth.
My meandering process
A professional illustrator working with a client usually works in a structured, methodical manner—sets of sketches, color palette references, rounds of review, etc. They’ve developed their own styles and can draw exactly what they want, how they want it, and fast. Since I was just doing these for myself (and for the first time), my process was a lot more organic.
I started doodling on my iPad Pro…
I was going for a lightning bolt kinda thing here. Wanted to caricature myself and also convey a sense of frantic energy. Made with Procreate.
Traced it and modified it in Illustrator, playing around with color and line quality…
Ditched the chair to keep the focus on the typing.
OK cool, so I’ve figured out a rough style I’d like the rest of the illustrations to follow. (I would later come to regret deciding this early.) Back to the iPad for more concept sketching.
As you can see, I played around with lettering-based ideas for the section headers. My comfort zone is lettering, so I decided to push my limits and focus on the illustrations. I laid out some type on the computer and sent it back to the iPad…
I had defined a geometric style for people/faces with the first illustration, which had boxed me in a bit too much. I kept trying to make another geometric-looking person that had the same style but was a distinctly different person. Then I tried some more organic lines, which looked like it might work in this sketch.
Psych! The organic lines looked too blobby. Mixing straights with curves was much clearer.
Eventually I decided that sketching by hand wasn’t helping me all that much, so I tried blocking out my compositions directly in Illustrator.
I asked for composition feedback on Twitter this time around. Super helpful!
By now, I had been working on the illustrations for so long that the style had changed to something more expressive. There’s a lot more variation in line weight, and there’s lots of little squiggles that look handmade. Without realizing it, I had brought in some qualities of my past lettering work.
Some of my old lettering pieces with similar line quality variation
Great, but shit! I had to go back and redo the other 5 illustrations! It was a lot less painful this time around, since I had improved over the course of the last few weeks.
Getting better at illustration
Obviously, there’s no substitute for time and practice. But there are shortcuts and smarter ways of using your time. Here’s what I’m trying to do right now.
This post by Jillian Tamaki, whose work I really admire, is pretty helpful.
Honestly, my concepts are pretty literal and not terribly clever. I’m trying to get better at coming up with more imaginative and provocative ideas. Anecdotally, I’ve also noticed that people who come up with clever concepts also tend to be great at acting, storytelling, or personifying inanimate objects. I’ve got a hunch that taking improv classes or hanging out with young kids can help.
Look at lots of different images. Illustrations, paintings, photos. Collect the ones that resonate with you. Research the illustrators you like, and who they were influenced by. Keep going down the rabbit hole.
Then copy them to study how their styles work. (But don’t post your copies online! This is purely for practice.) The broader your range of references, the more likely it is that you’ll end up with something fresh and different. As I was working on these illustrations, I was either consciously or unconsciously getting influenced by Al Hirschfeld, classic cartoons, Roman Muradov, Gizem Vural, and probably more. Hopefully my stuff looks different enough from theirs.
Draw lots of small thumbnails for quick comparison. Squint while looking at them to make sure the focus is placed on the right objects.
I’ve done an exercise where you draw thumbnails evoking different moods and concepts using only a thick black marker. So, for a concept like “escape,” you can draw:
I’m still pretty bad at making compositions that aren’t centered or symmetric, so I don’t have any other tips. If anyone reading this has advice, please let me know!
Draw from life — figure drawing, animals, street scenes. To warm up, you can draw quick (under a minute) gesture drawings and try to capture the essence of your subject. Then move into longer drawings where you focus more on accuracy, or shading, or composition.
Drawing faces accurately is super hard, but I’ve found that trying to get better at portraiture improves my accuracy and eye for detail in general. It’s a punishing but effective way to learn how each mark you make affects the likeness you’re trying to achieve.
Sometimes I draw from reference photos, step away from it for a while, and come back to it with fresh eyes to see what’s off. (Honestly, this works for most things.) When you’re using photo references, you can compare both of them — even overlay the photo on top of your drawing in Photoshop — and see exactly where your proportions and placement are off.
These exercises are just to help train your hand get better at drawing what you have in mind. Of course, illustration isn’t about depicting exact likenesses; removing unnecessary details and exaggerating the important parts is key to making an illustration read clearly. Gesture drawings can help here. You can also try drawing something and progressively delete/erase details until you’re left with the bare minimum of marks needed to depict the subject. And yet another exercise to try is taking a shape blob and adding marks inside the shape, until it looks like something else.
So what are you waiting for?
That’s all I got! Now I feel empty and directionless again.
I hope this long-winded response was helpful. Feel free to ask questions, suggest additions, or tell me everything I said is crap. But first, go forth and draw!