Simplified, clean and minimalistic illustrations have grown in popularity. In editorial projects, they have the ability to clarify ideas and captivate audiences. Successfully achieving an editorial style is less about rendering skills and more about designing elements and principles such as balance, harmony, color, proximity and contrast. The thing to keep in mind here is simplicity. Illustrating something simply, but with character, or personality, is the desired outcome.

If you don’t have experience illustrating or you don’t have a process to follow, it can become tedious. Sometimes it’s tough to know when a sketch is ready to go digital and how to convert it quickly and painlessly. Fear not, I’ve listed five simple steps below to convert the sketch you’ve been working on to a digital illustration.

Sketch illustration

Step 1: Brainstorm & Sketch

When beginning an editorial illustration project, I start with a basic idea in mind. Something I can picture, feel, or at least begin the process with.

What is it for? Which industry is it for? Is it in the day or night? Where? Time period? Realistic or futuristic? Etc.

This exercise helps me clear my mind and inspire ideas. The final concept may manifest on the first sheet of paper or reveal itself many sheets in. After I pick a direction, I get more detailed by defining the composition, dimensions and intent of the piece. I do this by sketching in pencil.

Outline illustration

Step 2: Outline

Now it’s time to debut that sketch on the computer. I usually scan the image or photograph it with my phone. There are instances where I need to tweak it slightly so the lines are more defined, but I’m quickly on to the next process: outlining.

I turn my sketch into a vector outline by importing it into Adobe Illustrator and tracing the lines with the pen tool. After I’m done tracing, I start to adjust the composition and put different design elements or shapes on separate layers so I can experiment and quickly change color palettes later.

Adding color to the illustration

Step 3: Color

Once I have the basic outlines done, I start filling in the color. As I mentioned previously, I use multiple layers to help organize certain elements in the foreground as opposed to the background. I am flexible with the colors and take the time to explore and find something interesting and fitting for my illustration. My main objective is to pinpoint the best combination of complementary colors so color choices for specific components of the illustration don’t delay me later. When deciding on a color palette, I recommend using Adobe Color CC or Flat UI Colors.

Adding detail to the illustration

Step 4: Details & Tweaking

Once I have a base color palette, it’s time to add additional details to bring the illustration to life! This is the most time-consuming part of my illustration process and much is determined by trial and error. There can be many small details, or maybe a color is too bright or overused. If something doesn’t quite look right, it is either deleted or re-tweaked.

There are a few rules and considerations I keep at this stage. Where is the light source coming from? Do all of the shadows match? Are the appropriate colors used in each situation? Again, this is the most tedious and time-consuming step; however, adding these details takes illustrations to the next level.

Adding texture to the illustration

Step 5: Texture

Even after adding details, some flat illustrations can seem a bit dull. Adding textures can breathe extra life into them.

The easiest way to add texture to vector illustration is to use the grain effect in Illustrator. However, that is not the only way to add texture. Some illustrations benefit from a customized effect that can be created through a layer mask or textured brushes in Photoshop. For more customized textures, I use free resources such as 50 Free Distressed Textures for Designers and Kyle T. Webster’s Brushes.

Final illustration

Closing Thoughts

My illustration process is an ever-changing process that is frequently influenced by the styles of others. However, every designer has a different process, and it’s important to figure out what steps work for you. If possible, it’s nice to take a step away to let your head clear and then re-look at the illustration with fresh eyes for any last tweaks.

Throw in 1,000 layers, 5,000 saves and 15,000 undos and there you have it!