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The importance of sketching in illustration

Many people think that artists just take a sheet of paper with their paint set and boom, they have a masterpiece. It can be true, if you look at the very end of the creative process. But contrary to popular belief, it's the designing and sketching that takes the most time.

The most important part of the design process is clearly sketching. Sketching not only has a role to play in unfolding creative ideas, but also helps to overcome technical and other challenges. Sketching is preceded by thorough research and preparation.

3 pictures of sketching in illustration. In the middle one the artist holds a closed sketchbook in her hands. On the other two pictures you see 2 open sketchbooks with pencil sketches.

In this blog post, we explore the importance of sketching in illustration. In the last chapter, I'd also like to show you how I redesigned the cover of the Jungle Book.

Design basics: the critical role of researching information

If someone commissioned me to do a painting of their car, I probably wouldn't know how to go about it without practice. For one thing, the subject matter itself is not close to my heart, I've only drawn my own car from the front about once before. Also, I have no idea how a car is put together anyway.

Red Fiat Punto painted in watercolour from the front in an open sketchbook. Surrounding it are sets of watercolours.
The first and still the last illustration of my car

If I had a commission like this, I would definitely start with research. I would look at thousands of photos on the Internet, in addition to the ones the customer provided me with. Then I would just start sketching to get a clear idea of what a car looks like.

Piros Fiat Punto típusú autóról három kép: szemből, hátulról és oldalról

You can see from this brief example that the creation of an illustration or any artwork does not start with the chosen medium, but with planning and sketching based on the information gathered. Sketches help artists plan proportions, composition and colours. This provides the basis for the artistic creation.

However, it is important to emphasise that there is a step number zero before sketching, which is researching, gathering information and finding inspiration. I need answers to the following questions: What colors I am going to use? How should the car be drawn from the front? How big is the distance between the two front headlights? What should be in the background?

Of course, in today's world, the internet can help us answer so many of these questions. Looking through and analysing the material that the client has provided to the illustrator is also part of the process.

It is important to note that I did not even hold a pencil in my hand during this part of the design.

Developing creative thinking with sketches: the secret of masterful illustrations

Sketching is not only important from a technical point of view, it also helps you think creatively. Sketches help you brainstorm ideas and give structure to the process. They provide a guide for the artist and help to develop the concept as creatively and imaginatively as possible.

The first sketches are always done in my sketchbook with a plain HB pencil. The lines are messy, but they create the concept and try to capture the essence of the illustration. These first attempts may be difficult for the observer to interpret.

The artist holds an open sketchbook in her hand. The sketchbook contains illustrations of dogs painted with black marker.
These sketches of a dog was meant for the main character of a book I was working on: the model was my own puppy, which I tried to capture in as many different poses as possible.

I usually do 10-15 sketches at a time, not just one. These small images help to create the composition. Where should I place the characters? What should be in the background? What should the format of the picture be? Should I design based on the triangular composition or should I go in a different direction?

At first it may be difficult to squeeze 10 sketches out, but if you do it a lot, it gets easier. Of course, I don't bring them to the client. I give myself time to think and analyse.

I try to limit the number of sketches to about 5-6. Here I elaboratet them a little more so that the client will understand them. This will be the first sample I show him or her.

Process optimization: overcoming technical challenges

Illustration can present technical challenges that the illustrator has rarely or never encountered before. Once you have a thorough sketch, you can reach for your paints.

It is always worth trying out colours. That way you can find the shades you might actually need. Colour mixing is a very important stage in the design process.

6 images side by side, with colour and technique samples for the illustrations in progress at the top and the final artwork at the bottom.
The previous dog illustration was for this book. Above you can see the colour and technique samples, and below the finished illustrations, which I created with pastels.

But the challenges with the technique don't stop there. It's important to know the medium you want to work with so well that the illustration turns out how you wanted it to be.

How do I get these colours? How do I work out the shadows? Do I leave some space for it beforehand or should try to apply it in several layers? Do I paint a base on the paper or leave it blank and white?

Sketching with the chosen medium allows the illustrator to anticipate the technical aspects of the execution and plan in advance.

6 pictures for the sketch in the illustration. The top three pictures are sketchbooks showing the design phase. Below is the finished creation, which was a coffee can with a bear on the front.
The top row shows the front sketches designed for the coffee packaging. On the right, you can also see the preliminary design of the unfolded box, and below that, the finished piece, in this case the pacaking of coffee.

Enjoy the process: the creative self-expression through sketches

Sketching is not the fav part for many artists. In the beginning, I felt exactly the same way. What is good about it? I can barely squeeze three ideas onto the paper. Not to mention the fact that I can't see what will come out of this tiny and messy pencil sketch.

In my experience, the only way to overcome the fear is to practice. After a while, brainstorming can become the most enjoyable part. I wonder what will come out of it? What happens if I move this character to the front? What if I completely remove it and go with a minimalist style?

Sketching in steps: manual sketching in two open sketchbooks, along with technical practice on deer of different proportions. Below, the digital design process, logo designs and label designs for the wine label in progress.
The first two pictures show the sketches for the wine label, the next one shows the technique practice, which in this case was ink. I played a lot with the proportions and antlers of the deer. Below you can see the digital design, where I put the base of the wine label together with the logo that goes with it.

Practice gives you the context and the conceptual insight of your illustration. At first I had a hard time sketching only with a few lines, I’ve always overworked it. But now, thanks to a lot of practice, I know myself and my style well enough to see what will come out of one messy sketch.

In hindsight, I realise that the sketching was the most insecure part of the design process because I didn't give myself the time and patience to practice. Singers are also not born able to sing the highest notes straight away, right?

Two wine bottles showing the label design from the front and back. The label was made with ink and features an illustration of a deer.

The sketch comes to life: how did I design the cover of The Jungle Book?

The importance of researching and sketching is not a negligible aspect of the design process. Sketches are tools that provide the right basis for our creativity and help us to align our ideas with the real world. Of course, they also give us confidence.

There may also be questions about the technique and the medium chosen, which we need to be able to answer before we start. The creation of the finished work itself is only about 30-40% of the process. This of course depends to a large extent on the complexity of the illustration, but if certain points are not fixed at the beginning, they can make the whole process complicated and painful.

No one likes to find out in the middle of the execution process that they have messed up and have to start all over again. These kinds of problems can be solved with proper planning and sketching.

You can see how I made the cover of The Jungle Book. These were the sketches I chose to go with. But even here, you can see how much I've improved the design on the fly. For example, in the end I’ve changed the background colour to a different one.

3 sketches for the cover redesign of The Jungle Book. Two were done in sketchbook pencil, the last one digitally using collage techniques. The illustration shows a snake.

And this is the final peace:

The redesigned cover of The Jungle Book, shown from the front, back and spine. The main illustration is of a snake using a collage technique.

You can follow the process from start to finish in my next blog post on the subject. Click here to read how the cover of The Jungle Book was made!


In the meantime, you can follow me on social media:

Image source: all rights reserved by adriennekoehazi©, Unsplash


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