Process: Building An Illustration

I was digging through a hard drive and found a Powerpoint presentation I thought I’d accidentally deleted. It was a pile of stuff I threw together for a talk I gave to design and illustration students at Hampshire College’s DART program a year or two back. This is a sequence of slides (and me trying to recall what I said while giving the presentation) showing some of the process of designing a CD cover for The Starline Rhythm Boys. They’re a cool honky-tonk trio out of Vermont who were looking for a ‘classic’ look for their album Masquerade For Heartache.

When the project started, there was no particular art direction or concept in mind. So I took four stabs in the dark and made some mock-ups for the client:

The purpose of this first round wasn’t to impress the client with my amazing god-like design skills, it was to find some common ground visually, using some quickly sketched-out ideas. I wanted to offer four options that were very different than each other, in order to get us going in the right direction. I already had a favorite (#4), so I pushed that one and that’s the one we ended up going with. #1 had the potential to be fleshed out into a good candidate, too, I think. It fit the ‘classic look’ idea and could be executed in a Blue Note/old jazz album style quite nicely. #3 had potential, too, but was sort of outside the realm of what I actually wanted to be doing. Plus it was based heavily around a stock photo, so I wasn’t super-excited about it. #2 was just sort of a throw-away idea. Now, some of you might ask “Why show a client an idea you’re not that into?” Well, one of the finest pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten in the freelance design world is this: Give the client something to say “no” to. The flip side of this advice is, of course, it might backfire on you and they’ll say “yes.” Ho ho ho! Risk-taking! Doesn’t it make you feel so alive?

So anyway, yeah, the client went for #4. Huzzah! A better view of mockup #4:

That’s a quick/messy tracing job over a live band photo by Jack Rowell:

This project was not a standard sit-down-and-draw-a-picture project. The style approach I ended up taking was more of a multi-drawing collage (the drawing was more built than made, if you get what I mean). I worked out a rough photo collage with everything where I wanted it, which required some heavy tweaking to get the singer in-frame and everyone to fit into a square layout. There wasn’t a whole lot of detail to be gleaned from the out of focus background, so I ended up using a bunch of different photos from the same night as reference (a great thing about a client hiring a professional photographer is that they take a LOT of shots–even the “bad” outtakes can be useful to a designer). I printed the collage out in black and white about 4x larger than final print size, and experimented with a few different inking styles over it:

Upper left: An ultra-fine Sharpie drawn directly onto the collage printout
Upper right: A traced (via light table) brush & ink drawing
Lower left: A Speedball nib pen tracing done on paper towel (Lookit me I’m Andy Warhol!)
Lower right:: Brush on paper towel
Some of this was crappy for sure, but there were a few little cool bits. The important thing was that everything was the same size. I scanned them all in using my bigass Microtek scanner and layered em up in Photoshop. Needless to say, it was a godawful mess that looked something like this:

Sort of a big mushy pile. I decided that what I was lacking was clarity and detail, so I made one more drawing, a vector illustration done in Illustrator with the ol’ Wacom tablet:

It was the clearest of all the drawings, but it was also quite un-fun and sort of sterile. So ensued many hours of Photoshoppery, which I have no screengrabs of. Lots of turning layers on and off, picking out little bits of what I liked and didn’t like. The process was much more about subtraction than addition. There was a lot of winnowing goin’ on. And I ended up here, the final product:

Type got figured out and refined (Franklin Gothic and Garamond something. Classic and uncomplicated typefaces). I knocked the layout down to three colors plus the background paper texture (I’m generally fond of limited color palettes). Out of the four ink drawings I made, the top two ended up being nothing but time-wasters experiments. It looks like the majority of the chunky lines came from the Speedball/paper towel drawing. Maybe a few choice bits from the brush/paper towel ink blot test, too. I might have even layered in a couple contrasted-out bits from the original photo collage, I forget. Some stuff didn’t line up quite right, but I think that made it look a bit cooler and gave the piece a weird little bit of energy. All that grit is layered over parts of the vector drawing to make it look thoroughly un-vectory. Which in my world is a huge success. Essentially, I looked at each weird little mistake in each drawing layer as an opportunity to use something I never would have sat down and intentionally created. I was and continue to be quite pleased with the result. Client loved it. I got paid. The end.

2 thoughts on “Process: Building An Illustration

  1. This is such a great article. Better than a lot of “how to do this” tutorials which don’t explain much in terms of the “thinking process” involved in creating original work. Thank you.