Becoming an illustrator
By Brian Tucker • Apr 3, 2019
When I started at Industry Dive a few months ago, I had an idea firmly in my head: I don’t illustrate; I lay out editorial spreads. They are two very different creative spaces. In fact, drawing is a skill that has eluded me my entire life, so I was shocked when my boss assigned me an editorial illustration. Thankfully our team gives us room to push our creative boundaries, and I trust my boss, so I took the plunge. What follows is my journey from start to finish.
Smart Cities Dive needed an illustration for an article tracking the deployment of e-scooters across the U.S. Inspired by the shadows cast by the sun at sunset, I had an idea. The concept was simple: a car, a bike, and a scooter on a city street. I would illustrate that form above, depicting the near perfect silhouette of a vertical object.
I knew what I wanted to make, but I had no idea how to get there. My lack of experience in drawing left me afraid to begin sketching, so I turned to 3D software. I’ve been using 3D software to make art for some time, so I was comfortable starting there. The biggest advantage of mocking up a design in 3D is the ability to reframe and move your object around without having to ever draw anything! I opened up Blender, a 3D software, and composed the scene I had in my head. It worked! I had the shadow effect I was looking for. As a render, it was good! But my assignment wasn’t a render; it was an illustration, so I took my render to Illustrator.
Step one: Pop that sucker in illustrator and run image-trace… just kidding. I pretty much drew the shapes right over the render; I colored the shapes with eyedropped values from the render. The result wasn’t pretty. In my mind, it didn’t look much better than image-trace.
At this point, I thought about scrapping the concept and starting over. Before I gave up, I decided to look at my talented coworkers’ past illustrations (something I should have done before I started). Our illustrations were very different, and the differences were centered on one thing: realism. I was trying to create a realistic image, but the essence of illustration is to portray a topic as simply as possible, and real life is the furthest thing from simple. With fresh inspiration, I set out to salvage my concept. I knew the first thing that needed to change was the color scheme.
It was difficult for me to select unrealistic colors at first, though once I got in the groove it became an exciting and fun process. My first attempt I showed the team for review was colorful and playful. It felt like a completed illustration to me. Looks like I’m done!
But no, the team told me I still had some work left to do. Their feedback included lightening up the colors and making the shadows less realistic and more recognizable. This was tough for me. These were physically accurate shadows! Turns out I was still attached to realistically illustrating concepts. I replaced my realistic shadows with more recognizable features. The result was a much more identifiable illustration.
That version went live! It was good enough, but let’s fast forward a month or so and many illustrations later. Our team is developing a new color palette for illustrations. The purpose of the new palette is to connect all of our illustrations through a cohesive color scheme and style. I went back to try out this palette on my older illustrations. Because this was my very first, I thought it’d be symbolic to convert it to the new color scheme.
The updated illustration approach is a far cry from my original thought process: Throw bright colors at it till it looks good. I won’t go into too much detail on our new color palette (that’ll be its own blog post!), but the red is used to call attention to the most important part of the design. The shades of indigo are also used strategically: low contrast on things that are unimportant, stark contrast on things that are important.
I’ve come a long way since I started this illustration. I have so much more to learn, but here’s my biggest takeaway so far: Simplify as much as you can and make every decision for a reason. I’ve used that ideology in layout design for years, but I never thought that something so seemingly artistic as an illustration would also benefit from these principals.
Be on the lookout for our post covering our new illustration color scheme.