How to Get Started with Illustration (Part 1)

Start with the basics and learn how to draw

Frances To
Aug 27, 2019 · 5 min read
Illustration by Frances To

“I want to learn illustration. Where do I begin?”

You may have asked yourself this question at some point in time. You also may have done a bit of drawing but you might wonder about whether you’re on the right track or not.

Truth be told, starting out in any field is always difficult. I myself struggled with illustration when I first started and I made many mistakes along the way. Luckily, I’ve had mentors and experiences that guided me toward the right path.

Thanks to this guidance, I won an Honorable Mention in the illustration category at the Adobe Design Achievement Awards in 2018. I also had some of my work exhibited at the ninth annual Ateneo Heights Artists Workshop Exhibit last year.

I’d like to share some of the things I did and the advice my mentors imparted on me when I first began illustrating. Thus, I’ve divided this article into three parts:

  1. How to draw
  2. What to draw
  3. How to get your work out there

Each part answers a common question people have when starting out with illustration. In this installment, I’ll talk about some of the best ways to learn how to draw.

1. Read art-related books to gain a good grasp of the basics

Understanding the basics, such as composition, color theory, and form, will go a lot farther in helping you create more compelling illustrations than acquiring the most advanced creative software or following the latest illustration trends. While learning the fundamentals can be tedious at first, doing so prepares you to create more complex illustrations as your skills progress.

Here are a few books I recommend:

Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang
Molly Bang is an award-winning illustrator for children’s books. Her book talks about how subtle changes, be it color, shape, or scale, can drastically affect the illustration as a whole. It’s a short but insightful read that will help you understand how composition works.

The Elements of Color by Johannes Itten
Johannes Itten was one of the first to pioneer strategies for creating successful color combinations. His book provides a detailed analysis on color relationships.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
This is highly recommended reading, especially for beginners. It encourages people to see objects as a sum of their shapes, instead of seeing objects according to our own concept of what they look like.

2. Take traditional drawing classes to improve your drawing skills

Whether taking traditional, in-person drawing classes is necessary in order to learn illustration continues to be a subject of debate. Some people think these classes provide a good foundation in developing drawing skills, while others argue that drawing skills could also be developed by taking drawing courses online.

I believe taking a drawing class is a crucial stepping stone for learning illustration because it trains your hand to get better at drawing what you have in your mind. While traditional drawing may seem rigid at first, knowing the rules by heart will help you understand the limits of what traditional drawing can do and how you can go beyond those limits in your illustrations.

The main advantage of taking a traditional drawing class is that you’ll be learning from a mentor or teacher. This will speed up your progress because mentors not only show you what to focus on as a beginner, but they also give you immediate feedback on how you can improve. And that’s much more efficient than searching for drawing tips online for an hour.

3. Draw in your journal every day to get into the habit

I took a drawing class while studying informational design at Ateneo de Manila University. Every day during class, we had to fill up three journal pages with drawings. The drawings didn’t need to be perfect. In fact, we were allowed to merely doodle and scribble. What was more important was that we were developing the habit of drawing every day.

Our professor pointed out that drawing is a motor skill that can be developed through constant practice. The more frequently you practice, the faster your skills become second nature.

Drawing frequently also helps you discover what you like to draw and the themes you tend to dwell on. This is helpful, especially if you’re thinking of pursuing an illustration career. What you draw and the personal insights you showcase in your works form your identity as an illustrator.

I usually draw in my journal for an hour before I sleep every night, as my mind is more relaxed in the evening when I’m not preoccupied with work. Having a relaxed mind helps me reflect upon the things that happened during the day and translate these thoughts into pictures.

4. Draw 20 hands a day to master shape, form, and proportion

Hans Bacher, an Annie award-winning production designer for Disney’s Mulan, was my professor for an “Illustration for Designers” class at Nanyang Technological University. During class, he emphasized that if you want to draw anything well, you must draw 20 hands a day.

According to him, hands are the most difficult subjects to draw because they are geometrically complex , made up of many bones and muscles. Hands also perform a variety of actions. That’s why it’s not enough to master drawing hands in only one or two poses. Instead, you must master drawing hands in all kinds of perspectives and positions.

Sketches of hands, broken down into their basic shapes

While drawing hands may be complex, deconstructing hands into their basic shapes makes the job easier. For example, fingers can be drawn as rectangles and a palm can be drawn as a pentagon. Knuckles can be represented by ovals.

Rendering hands from life instead of copying a picture is also another good practice. By drawing from life, you are training your eyes to be more sensitive to judging distance, perspective, and spatial relationships among objects.

You can draw from life by using your own hands as a reference, too. I recommend that you keep and number your sketches in a blank journal so you can monitor your progress over time.

Drawing is a skill that can be learned and developed through deliberate practice

Many people believe that they’ll never be able to draw well because they’re not born with the talent. But while drawing well comes more naturally to some people, it doesn’t mean your skills can’t improve.

The more consistently you practice and the more you try to improve your weaknesses, the better you’ll become. You may not get immediate results but you’ll notice gradual improvements in your work over time.

What’s next?

With proper drawing technique, you can expressively convey ideas and immerse people in the world of your illustration. After all, the best illustrations tell compelling stories. But how can you tell a story if you don’t know what to draw? What if you can’t channel your creativity?

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll be sharing tips on overcoming creative block and finding inspiration on what to draw.

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Helping designers thrive.

Thanks to Killian Piraro

Frances To

Written by

Co-founder & Chief of Staff @ UX+ University

Modus

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

Frances To

Written by

Co-founder & Chief of Staff @ UX+ University

Modus

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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