On Monday I posted a new drawing of a sheriff on the main site. I wanted to use that drawing to give a peek into how one of my pictures progresses from sketch to main site.
Might as well get this out of the way. I am not an artist, though I play one on the Internet. This is how I draw pictures circa March 2005. I am sure my style will change as I improve, experiment, and learn new techniques. I eagerly welcome any critiques you may have on how to make the drawings or the whole drawing process better. You can either leave them in the comments or contact me directly.
I start out with a very rough sketch, usually a particularly promising notebook doodle. Because I do not have, nor particularly need a flatbed scanner, I take a picture of the drawing with the macro setting on one of my digital cameras. I do not have to worry about quality because I am going to be tracing over the lines anyway.
I take the digitized picture into Photoshop where I crop the image and play with the contrast to make the lines more visible. Again, quality is not the issue. I save the modified picture in a dedicated directory where I keep all the files relating to a particular drawing. By the end, I usually have seven or eight files in the directory: the "scan", the Illustrator line art, the high-resolution TIFF of the line art, the Photoshop document with all the layers of the final drawing, the high-resolution TIFF of the final drawing, the web version, and the web thumbnail.
I open the sketch in Illustrator and resize it to fit the page. I then make the layer a template, which lightens the drawing and makes the layer uneditable.
Finally, I make a new layer above the template layer to contain the line art.
One annoying quirk of Illustrator is that it does not save brushes between sessions (as far as I know). Every time I trace a drawing I have to create a new brush. Here is how to do it:
Click the Brush tool
Click the "New Brush" button in the brushes palette
select "New Calligraphic Brush" on the dialog that pops up.
I use a circular brush set to 4 points with a variation of 2 based on the pen pressure.
I have found this size scales well and offers the best balance between the cartoonishness and detail that I want. I have heard of professional cartoonists using multiple pens per drawing, but I have not tried that yet.
With a brush in hand, so to speak, I can start drawing. I have found three main benefits to tracing in Illustrator:
It automatically smoothes lines. This makes the drawing look very clean and precise. Illustrator adjusts the smoothing and number of waypoints based on the speed of the stroke and the zoom level.
One can adjust lines with amazing precision using the direct selection tool .
Undo, undo, undo! No need to erase or worry about ruining a drawing with a stray pen stroke.
I use the original pencil lines only as very rough guides. I will often depart from the lines or hide the sketch and completely redraw a portion. I tweak continuously throughout the drawing process. That is the key to drawing in Illustrator. Move a line, scale entire sections, tweak a pose. For example, I moved the sheriff's head to the left and made it slightly larger than the original drawing.
I switch to the pen tool when drawing inorganic objects such as the sheriff's badge and shotgun. While the brush tool allows one to make sweeping freehand curves, the pen tool is perfect for hard, machined edges. The pen tool takes some getting used to, but it is very powerful once one gets the hang of it.
I initially draw angled objects horizontally then rotate them into place. It is much easier to make horizontal rather than angled lines parallel. I use Illustrator's "Smart Guides" to further assist in aligning the parts of the drawing. Smart guides allow one to snap objects automatically to lines extending from another object. They are a huge help. You can turn on the guides by going to "File" > "Preferences" > "Smart Guides".
Once I think I have finished the line art, I select the entire drawing and flip it horizontally. This gives me a unique point of view on what I have made. More often than not, subtle misalignments or skewed lines seem to appear. They were there all the time, of course, but looking at a drawing in a different way helps me discover mistakes that I would have missed otherwise.
After some final tweaks, I go to "File" > "Export", and save the line art as a TIFF file. I used to export at only 300 DPI, but since I started printing drawings, I have moved up to 600. I do not turn on antialiasing because I need crisp lines in which to add color. At that resolution antialiasing is invisible anyway.
This part is easy compared to the line art. I open up the TIFF file and right away save it as a PSD. Then, I use the wand tool to select all the black lines. This is easily done by unchecking the "Contiguous" option at the top of the window. I cut the lines and paste them into their own layer. I choose the paint bucket tool and fill the background layer with the blue (CCCCFF) I have used in the background of many of my pictures. I create another layer below the line art layer but above the background. This will be the color layer. Using the bucket tool again, making sure the "Contiguous" and "All Layers" options are checked, I start coloring the drawing.
I use colors from the "Web Spectrum" color set. It has a good variety of bright colors, and they are organized nicely. To use a color set, open the "Swatches" toolbox by clicking "Window" > "Swatches", click the little arrow at the top left, and choose a set that you like.
After coloring, I have three layers: background, color, and line art. The drawing looks very plain. Time to add shading.
If drawing the line art is the hardest and coloring the easiest, then shading is the most fun. I really enjoy seeing the drawing progressively take on depth.
I break out the pen tool once more and set the foreground color to black. I draw the first shadow, in this case the top of the sheriff's hat.
The pen tool will create a new "shape" layer. I move this layer below the line art but above the color layer. I right-click and select "Rasterize Layer". This creates a normal layer of pixels where the shape used to be. This will be the shadows layer. In the dropdown box at the top of the layers box, I click "Soft Light" as the blending mode. This allows the base color to show through.
As I draw more shadows, I merge them down ("Layer" > "Merge Down" or ctrl+e) onto the base shadow layer. For additional depth, I usually add a second layer of shadows in the same manner. Finally, I add the shadow on the floor.
The sheriff looks better at this point.
There are two types of highlights: specular highlights such as on shiny metal and normal highlights on the bright side of clothing. I make both in the same manner as shadows, except using white instead of black. Specular highlights have a normal blending mode while normal highlights use "Soft Light".
The drawing is complete, but there are a few small matters to fix before it is ready to post on the main website. First, I had reversed the drawing without reversing the buttons on his shirt. A hard-bitten sheriff of the Old West cannot be seen wearing a woman's shirt. I mirror the drawing horizontally. Second, I tweak the opacity of the shadows and highlights until they look right. This usually ends up being 50-75% on shadows and 45-50% on highlights. Finally, I save a high-resolution TIFF for posters and a resized version with a border for the website. The thumbnail is just a section of the drawing that I have resized to be 80 pixels on a side.