Creative Process

How I Use Illustrator to Create Illustrations

How I Use Illustrator to Create Illustrations
Written by Magoz
5 min read 5.1k views 25 comments

In the past, I used Photoshop to create my illustrations, but it has been a bit more than a year since I decided to switch to Illustrator.

I had to switch because creating animations is way easier when you work with vector shapes.

The transition was a bit tricky, but I’m not looking back. My speed has increased, I optimized every single part of the process, and I still can sketch and draw naturally using Procreate.

Here is my new workflow.

How I Use Illustrator to Create Illustrations

  1. Setting up the artboard
    I usually work with one single artboard that has the same proportions as the required image. If the size is small (less than 1500px wide), I double its size to work more comfortably and precisely.
  2. First layer: guides & color background
    I use the first layer to place a temporary color background using the Rectangular shape. On top of that, I create the guides within a click using the GuideGuide Plugin. I always compose my images using my particular version of the thirds theory.
  3. Second layer: basic structure
    I create a second layer where I start creating the basic structure of the illustration using geometric shapes and the pen tool with a thick stroke. This helps as I begin working on the composition and the color palette.
  4. Color palette
    I limit my color palette to just a few colors, and I force myself not to introduce new ones unless it’s absolutely necessary. The process of choosing the colors is very organic and a bit chaotic, and I usually continue tweaking the color palette until the image is completed. I use the swatches panel to store the colors.
  5. Tweaking the shapes
    I start transforming the very basic shapes by moving the anchor points and the bezier curves. I add and remove points if needed. I also use the Pathfinder to merge or divide several shapes. At this point, I start dividing the illustration into different layers, grouping the elements together.
  6. Polishing the illustration: trial and error previews
    As I only use one artboard per document, I save different versions of the image as I keep working on it. I then export previews of each version to compare the changes. I usually go back and forth using this trial and error system to make sure I’m heading in the right direction.
  7. Final image
    At the end of the process, I still do some tweaks to the colors, composition, and proportions to make sure I get the most of the image.

Tips and Tricks for Illustrator

Here are a few tricks for Illustrator I use to improve my workflow:

  • I use shortcuts for every tool and action. If there are no default shortcuts available for a certain action, I create it in Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts.
  • I use a few scripts by Hiroyuki Sato to merge and transform shapes. (Thanks Tommy for the recommendation!)
  • I disable the Snap to Pixel option, but keep the Smart Guides active. They allow me to be more precise and work on details freely.
  • The option to round corners is a good way to refine the shapes and make them more curvy and soft.
  • The Smooth tool is another gem that helps with the refining process.
  • I make the colors global in the swatches panel, so every time I change a color it is changed on all the elements of the image automatically.
  • I also use the Recolor Artwork option to adjust and tweak the colors.
  • I use the following file structure when working on my images. I increase numbers when there is a major and important change on the image, and use incremental letters to track minor advances.
    – illustration1a.ai
    – illustration1b.ai
    – illustration2a.ai
    – illustration3a.ai
    – illustration3b.ai
    – illustration3c.ai
    – …

Conclusions

I still have a lot to learn, but after a year using Illustrator, I feel that’s a more effective tool than Photoshop to create my illustrations.

Illustrator has simplified the process and the involved tools. I no longer need a graphics tablet to create my final illustrations; I only need my MacBook. That adds a lot of flexibility to my workflow and helps me to travel light, but most importantly, it has made working on animations possible.

Long life to Illustrator!

Do you use Illustrator and work in a different way? Let me know your workflow, tips, and tricks in the comments !

Magoz

Nomadic illustrator. Thinker. Seeker.

25 comments

  1. Hi,

    you should check the astute graphics plugins for illustrator, particularly vectorscribe and inkscribe.

    Cheers.

    • Thanks for your recommendation Hugo! I played with the trial a few months ago, but somehow they didn’t make a big change in my workflow. I will give them another chance in the future.

      Which specific functions do you use the most?

      Thanks!

      • I always thought that the point editing tools in Illustrator are a bit hard to work with. Vectorscribe pathscribe tool makes it more effortless and since I use heavily the blob brush tool the vectorscribe smart remove brush is a life saver.
        But i’m kind of obsess with getting the perfect shape with the few points possible. :)

      • Yep, astute graphics plugins is cool but for your style, the sato script is much more productive.

  2. how do you made your video? with after effects?

  3. Great article, as I’m also making the transition to Illustrator (I’m an animator) and so far I’m loving it. Especially the workflow into After Effects, huge timesaver. Thanks for all of the great tips!

  4. Hola Magoz. Mi nombre es Jesús Sanz y soy también ilustrador. Quería antes de nada felicitarte por tu trabajo, que aprecio cada día más, y por el estupendo y generoso trabajo de comunicación que haces a través de tu blog. Tengo mucho que leer todavía en tu blog para entender glbalmente tu proceso de trabajo, y cómo ha ido evolucionando con el tiempo. Aprecio especialmente este artículo pues illustrator es mi herramienta fundamental para dibujar. Comencé utilizando el freehand, hace ya muchos años y me costó un tiempo adaptarme al illustrator, programa bastante más complejo y menos intuitivo que aquel, pero que una vez que se domina ofrece incontables posibilidades creativas. En mi caso el partir de unos bocetos creados a lápiz de manera tradicional es casi siempre necesario y lo cierto es que lo disfruto cada día más.

    • Hola Jesús,
      Yo también empecé con Freehand, lo recuerdo con nostalgia :-)
      Muchas gracias por pasarte por aquí y por tus palabras.

      ¡Un saludo!

  5. V
    Victoria

    Amazing post! Thanks for share your process. Do you use your iPad with some app, for use it with illustrator?

  6. There’s one fun thing that involves using the pen tool. Say, we have the end of a sleeve and a hand. We can make the sleeve first (say, a rectangle), duplicate it, and then delete the edges until we are left with the edge that we need to start making the hand. The only issue is placing the new edge onto the sleeve we created precisely (the shift button helps). Now we have a starting point for our hand, so it makes it easier and (in my opinion, faster). I usually do this technique when creating organic values. You probably already knew this, but just thought I’d chip in. I love Illustrator! Much love, too!

  7. S
    Sara Kaiyala

    Thank you for giving us a look inside your process! I always love learning how other designers work to see if I can gain efficiencies. And thank you for the tips and tricks! I really enjoy your blog. Keep it up!

  8. Are you also using graphic styles? You can set a new default graphic style by hitting Alt and dragging it to the default. Every time you have an object, hit D and it automatically becomes the Default Style <3

  9. It’s curious how our evolution —in terms of tools— is completely the opposite. I suppose that in the end the needs and the general context in the day to day define our choices :-)

    • Hahaha at the end I’m going to end up “coding” my illustrations instead of drawing and you will go back to pen and paper.
      By the way, your recent work is super solid and strong! Congrats my friend!! The iPad Pro is paying off :-)

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