This is an entirely factual breakdown of the making of "Originally a Moose," one of my illustrations. The aim of this piece is to provide information on my illustrating process to those who may be interested. If you're not interested, I'd suggest skipping this article entirely.
The piece being discussed, "Originally a Moose:"
What you are about to read is not a tutorial. If you're new to vector illustration, it may be mildly enlightening, but I'd look elsewhere if you're you're looking to get educated. In breaking down my process, I'll get into technical details, but I'm not really interested in teaching; other people on the web do a much better job of it. Also, I'm pretty opinionated when it comes to digital art and, well, life in general, so consider yourself warned
Part 1: Why vector art?
I've been working in graphic design in some capacity for a decade at this point and vector illustration has been at the core of much of my professional work. I realized about five or so years ago that I'd become better at drawing vectors than I am drawing or painting conventionally. I also REALLY enjoy the process and I think I personally find it more satisfying than conventional methods. GASP! I'm a heretic! Burn me at the stake while you discuss your love of Mark Ryden and sip your vente lattes.
All methods have their pluses and minuses and, honestly, I really don't care how something's produced as long as the end result looks good and no one's harmed in the process. That said, I can't tell you how many cringes and looks of disbelief I've gotten when I've told other artists how I work. It's pure snobbery, in my opinion, but to each their own. The snobs actually bother me less than the "it's digital so it must be easy" crowd. I'd say a good 50% of the non-artists I've shown my work to have been shocked when they've seen me draw conventionally. "You can draw? I thought you were just good at computers." Swear to God, this happens all the time and it bugs the crap out of me. When I mention that I work digitally, they envision me pressing some magic button that draws my images for me. Anyone who's worked with vectors will tell you that it's just as difficult if not at times more challenging and time-consuming. Unless, of course, you're using Illustrator's Live Trace function to outline something; you're just giving the rest of us a bad name (I just lost half my audience).
Now that all of that's out of the way, here's why I love vectors so much:
1. Mixing and changing colors is super fast and nearly effortless.
2. Nearly-endless levels of Undo help iron out mistakes.
3. Every element is endlessly "wet" and mutable. Nothing's fixed until the image goes to print.
4. The lines and curves can be smoothed to give a clean, precise look that appeals to me.
5. Scalability without degradation!
Part 2: Concept
I usually come up with most of my ideas while I'm running. Yes, running. If you've seen my work, you know it's can be a bit absurd, surreal, and sometimes just wacky. Running allows me to meditate on different ideas and draw them in my mind. No illicit substances are ever involved. Ever. People always assume I'm on all kinds of drugs because I create what they consider "trippy" illustrations. I'm not really interested in putting anything into my body that makes me dumber (and there goes the other half of my audience).
After I have the initial idea, I usually try to do some rough sketches with pencil and paper to flesh out the ideas. When people say, "It's all in my head, man," it rarely ever is. Getting something -- anything -- on paper really helps firm up my concepts and, if nothing else, points me in a better direction. Here are some of the crappy sketches that came in the days before I sat down to complete the piece this article relates to:
Yep, I know, they suck, but quality isn't the point when you're sketching ideas. The idea is ideas and, even though the finished product in this case looks absolutely nothing like any of these God-awful sketches, I wouldn't have produced it without them.
Part 3: Killing your what?
When I was in college, one of our teachers always talked about "killing your babies." It's a horrible term, one I won't use, but the concept is a good one. The idea is that you're willing to take even your most treasured ideas and toss them in the trash if they're working against your goal. In the case of my moose, it wasn't going where I wanted to and it was stifling my creativity, so I decided to change course a bit. I thought, "What if the antler were made entirely of monsters?" and went from there. I actually started drawing swoopy, flowing antlers in Illustrator and when I began covering them with monster shapes, I knew I was onto something better.
Part 4: Let the vectors begin!
The most difficult/depressing part of creating any artwork for me is the beginning. When I'm working with vectors, I always start by drawing and positioning brightly colored shapes, basically the outlines of my finished forms. Usually -- but not always -- I hold off on shading, textures, and color choices until I've got a pretty good idea as to what the composition is going to be. It's really hard to do because color and shading are for me the most deeply-satisfying parts of my process and I often doubt myself until I start those finishing touches. Here's the good ol' moose after the outline/composition stage:
The colors are sort-of close to the finished product. I use bright, garish colors for this part of the process because they help me identify regions of my illustration and sometimes can help ease the final coloring process when used in conjunction with Select->Same, one of the most rudimentary and useful of all Adobe Illustrator functions (more about that later).
One other thing I should mention that goes along with this part of my process is that I use layers -- a lot of layers -- to keep my images organized. I label each layer with a clear, easy-to-understand name (like "moose"). Not only does this help when you're weeding through a complex vector piece trying to find a certain element, it also allows you to hide, lock, or isolate an area if necessary. Usually all of my layers are locked except for the one I'm working on. Here's an example, with a ton of sublayers hidden in the "monsters-right" layer:
What a hypocrite -- I didn't label "Layer 11." Actually, all it contains is my signature, so it doesn't really matter anyway.
Part 5: The good stuff, the fun stuff, the stuff that takes me forever.
After all of the basics are complete, I get to work on the details, my favorite part of drawing. I didn't go to art school, but I've taken a few art classes and one of my best and favorite teachers taught me an invaluable lesson: don't focus on one part of the image; move around and keep balance within the work up until the end. I cannot tell you how much that one tiny piece of advice has helped me over the years. When I move past the basic composition/outline stage of my illustrations, I try to build up the rest of the work in unison without focusing too hard on any one region. It not only allows me to see the entire piece come to life, it also helps my psyche deal with the process. Like I mentioned earlier, looking at the beginning phases in which the work looks patch-work and unfinished is a bit demoralizing for me. Maybe I need a therapist.
Back to the process, this is when I firm-up my color choices, usually opting for toned-down versions of my original, super-bright colors. I try not to "spike" any of the CMYK sliders and I usually use a little bit of all three "colors" (cyan, magenta, and yellow) in each of my mixes to help give the blends a more organic feel. I also try to avoid the stock, pre-blended color swatches (even though the CS2 stock swatches are pretty excellent). Of course, there are always exceptions, and in this piece I used a stock orange-yellow from the CS3 stock swatches because it just worked with the final piece. I also keep one of the swatch folder sets that came with CS3 for what I call "key colors," colors I use specifically to isolate regions of an image that I'm going to change with the "Select->Same" function. Here's a snap of the moose's swatch palette (it may look a little off due to the fact that it's RGB now):
As far as shading goes, there are tons of different techniques and approaches available, but I use a combination of just a few: gradients, transparency/blending mode set to multiply, and masked feathered objects. I think my shading techniques are probably where I diverge most from other vector artists, but I could very well be wrong. After reading this, someone's going to comment and tell me how I could do everything with Gradient Mesh. I really, really dislike Gradient Mesh and I wouldn't recommend it to my worst enemy. Yes, I've used it. Yes, I understand how to use it. It's counter-intuitive, the points used in the mesh have an entirely different feel and set of rules than do the standard AI points, and I really don't like the color blends it creates. If you like to use it, more power to you, but PLEASE, don't try to convince me. I despise the mesh.
First I choose a light source. It doesn't even have to be present in the image, it just needs to provide direction for the light/shading. After that, I usually start by applying a subtle gradient to one of the objects I'm looking to shade. By subtle I mean a low-contrast gradient. High-contrast, extreme gradients usually result in cheap, amateurish images. Of course they're necessary and useful sometimes, but as a general rule, I avoid them. After I apply the gradient, I deepen the dark, shaded area with objects in the shape of the shadow I want to create. I usually use the same fill color that the original object has and then set the transparency/blending mode to multiply. This darkens the area. Then, depending on the type of shade I want (soft or hard edges), I feather the edges of the object using Effect->Stylize->Feather. Sometimes I create two or three of these shade objects to enhance the effect. After this, I copy the original base object, paste it on top, and create a clipping mask. Sound confusing? Here's a step-by-step diagram:
Sometimes vector images look too clean and digital. Different people have different methods for texturizing or dirtying their images. My preference is to keep every element a vector. Also, I enjoy the challenge of coming up with new methods for approximating texture within the confines of vector-based work. I'm only going to use one example, that of the "fur" I've applied to my creatures in this illustration, to explain how I approach texture.
This is where the blessed "Select->Same" comes into play. I use "Select->Same" A LOT. For this image, I created an art brush shaped like an elongated triangle. I made it 100% black, allowing it to take full advantage of the "tint" function AI allows you to apply to your brushes. by doing this, your brush inherits the color you choose for your stroke. I then draw in my textural elements using the brush tool. I use what I call "key colors" depending on the direction each triangle is facing. I do this because I intend to replace the colors with multiplied gradients to give the textural elements a blended-in look. Here's what this image looked like after I drew in the majority of the garishly-colored texture:
You should notice that each "direction" is given it's own color. First, I select all of the newly-colored triangles them (Object->Expand Appearance), and get rid of the leftover empty paths with the clean-up function (Object -> Path -> Clean Up). Then I select one of the triangles of a specific color, do a Select->Same Fill Color, and apply a predetermined style containing a directional, multiplied gradient to the an entire direction all at once! Basically I create one complete triangle for each direction first and add a new style swatch containing their individual attributes (fill color, gradient direction, transparency, blend mode) to the Styles palette. Here's a peek at my Styles palette:
Part 6: Wrapping Up
Aside from all of the color, shading, and texture business, I also add in details (like the eyes, mouths, etc.) and make any final adjustments I feel are necessary. Originally, I had a baby tree sprouting from the cloud former-moose was holding. I changed this to the mustachioed little creature that presently sits atop the cloud. Also, I changed the background color pretty drastically because I didn't think the monsters "popped" enough against the grey-brown background. In all, I worked for a whole day on just the details to get this where I wanted it. It's the happiest I've been about something I've done in a while. Here's a look at the finished product one last time:
Hope this was somewhat enlightening and only mildly to non-offensive. Once again, this isn't a tutorial and I never intended it to be, so please, please, don't ask me to delve too deep into technical specifics unless you're willing to come to Los Angeles and buy or cook dinner for my wife and me. I'm always happy to help people out, but there's some great information on the Internet that's written by extraordinarily-talented people who have put the time and effort into creating exactly what you're looking for in much greater detail than I have the time or patience for. In fact, here's a phenomenal link with tons of great tutorials (they were even nice enough to include two of my pieces in their "best in practice" section!): http://www.noupe.com/tutorial/vector-illustration-60-illustrator-tutorials-tips-and-best-practices.html