Creative Process

How I Use Photoshop to Illustrate

Written by Magoz
3 min read 25.2k views 66 comments

Despite what it may seem, I don’t use Illustrator or other vector software to create my illustrations, I only use Photoshop.
Why? Because I draw using the brush, the eraser and other hand-drawing tools, and sadly Illustrator drawing tools are light years behind Photoshop.

It took me a bit to feel comfortable with Photoshop, but after some time (and lots of illustrations), I found my own working process.
In this article I will explain the basics of this workflow.

Here are a few rules and considerations:

  • My basic tools: Cintiq 13hd Wacom tablet and Photoshop CC.
  • Everything starts on paper. I find the idea on paper. I use Photoshop for creating the illustration.
  • I don’t scan my sketches. I draw everything from scratch in Photoshop using the brush tool.
  • I always work in 900dpi (or higher if required) just in case I need a bigger size of the illustration in the future.
  • Each element has its own layer (a hand, hair, arm…).
  • Each layer contains one color only.
  • I use a lot of vector tools as the square, rectangle, circle or pen.
  • I use shortcuts for everything.

My digital process:

  1. Right size and proportions
    The document should be the output size. If possible, I work over the final layout, where the illustration will be used.
  2. Guides
    I always compose my images using my particular version of the thirds theory (I will write about it in another post). I create the guides in a click using Guide Guide.
  3. The digital sketch
    I draw the basic structure for everything, trying to compose the elements paying attention to the guides, white spaces and rhythm. I always aim for impact and transmitting the idea well.
  4. A great colour scheme
    I start dealing with colours, looking for a simple but strong colour palette, making hundreds of tests on the digital sketch. Once the colours are chosen, the digital sketch is finished and this is the sketch I send to the Art Directors and clients for approval.
  5. Final illustration
    It’s time to smooth every single element. In this process I use tools like Brush, Eraser, Rotate canvas, Transform, Rotate elements, Zoom, Vector tools, Magic Wand, Selection tools…
  6. Final check
    If it’s not a rush assignment I wait some time before the final check, so I can have some distance from the image. The final check consists of paying special attention to the small details and adjusting the composition if needed.

The most important thing for a workflow is to be flexible and effective.
One that suits the kind of work you produce.

This workflow is deeply settled in my working process after hundreds of illustrations. It allows me to create illustrations in an hour, very useful for rush assignments. And using a very portable and minimalistic tool kit allows me to travel light.

I would love to hear about your workflows and the killer skills you use the most.
How do you guys work? Please let me know in the comments!

Magoz

Nomadic illustrator. Thinker. Seeker.

66 comments

  1. C
    Cristina

    Eres un crack Magoz! Me ha encantado este post.

    • Tú sí que eres una crack! Espero que este verano que vuelvo a Barcelona nos tomemos un vermut? O lo que sea :-)

      Gracias Jefa!

  2. That’s so cool! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Really interesting! I’m willing to see and read more about your process!

  4. Lo vas a petar!!!

  5. Buenisimo. Yo también uso solamente el Photoshop, intenté usar el Illustrator y me perdí con los shortcuts y no me enteré de nada.

    • Jejeje sí, eso es otro tema además. Siendo parte de la misma suite, no entiendo cómo los dos programas tienen comportamientos tan distintos…

      Y tampoco entiendo por qué Photoshop siempre tiene las funciones punteras e Illustrator va a rebufo, llegado incluso a no implementar nunca ciertas funciones de Photoshop que a mí me parecen imprescindibles.
      Por ejemplo el rotar el lienzo o cómo funciona el zoom.

      Un saludo! Intentaremos seguir reivindicando desde aquí :-)

      • Primero agradecerte tu blog enterito :))

        Cómo usas el zoom en Photoshop?
        y otra duda, que se comenta algo más abajo pero no me queda claro…, ¿con qué tamaños de lienzo trabajas cuando usas 900dpi?

        Muchas gracias!!

        • Hola de nuevo Ana,

          Utilizo la herramienta Zoom invocándola con la tecla de acceso directo Z. Desde las últimas versiones funciona genial ya que si arrastras hacia arriba hace zoom in, si arrastras hacia abajo hace zoom out.

          El tamaño de lienzo suele ser el tamaño real en la que la imagen va a ser impresa. Si es demasiado pequeño doblo su tamaño. Si es una imagen que va a ser sólo para web, me curo en salud y parto de algo tipo 5000px.

          Espero que mi respuesta haya despejado tus dudas, para cualquier otra cosa aquí me tienes :-)

          • Muchísimas gracias por responder!!

            He probado lo del zoom y en la bamboo no termina de funcionarme bien (nada que “alt” no solucione ;) )

            Un abrazo y feliz dia!

      • qué razón copón, lo de rotar el lienzo y lo del zoom es una pelea constante en illustrator.
        Estoy empezando a meterle mano al Affinity y bastantes de esas cosas las tiene bien implementadas, pero como puedes imaginar, es como coger la bici de otro…pedaleas…pero no igual de rápido y cómodo.

        • Ya te digo, ¡no entiendo como lo llaman Illustrator!

          ¿Qué tal te va el Affinity?
          Yo usé el Trial, pero me pasaba algo parecido como con Illustrator, el pincel (el básico, el que utilizo yo) no iba tan fluído como en Photoshop y también vi algunas carencias más que me hicieron seguir con Photoshop.

          Me encanta la analogía de la bici, ¡totalmente de acuerdo!

          • La verdad que para dibujar dibujar me sigue pareciendo más comodo el photoshop si, pero en tema de vector cada dia aprendes a hacer una de esas cosas que te hacen reaccionar en plan “aaaaaaaah asiiii…no era tan dificil”
            (supongo que como con todo)

  6. T
    The Cat in Boots

    Thanks for sharing Magoz!
    Would also love to know how you come up with your complex yet simple ideas?

    Cheers

  7. Está increíble este post, Magoz. Y sí, ¡eres un crack!

  8. Hi,
    always interesting to see the work process of other illustrators. I follow you work for a while now and I thought you used Illustrator. Most of my work is done in Illustrator, I don’t have a steady hand so the lines in photoshop are always a mess :) But with a Cintiq I guess that problem doesn’t exist.
    But i’m trying to move away from vector, it can be quite time consuming and i’m looking for a more organic feel.
    Gonna add your blog to my rss feeds :)

    • Hi Hugraphic! Thanks for leaving a comment!
      Yeah! 99% of people think I work with Illustrator / vectors.

      Well, Cintiq has his own learning process as well, and even it works fantastic, it would never be like using pencil and paper.
      Cheer up! Finding a new way of working takes time and lots of trial and error!

      If would very glad to help you on your process with more articles about how I work.
      What would you like me to write about?

      See you in your feeds reader then!! :-)

  9. M
    Marco

    I proudly use a Surface Pro 3! :)

  10. Buenísimo Magoz! Con la de posibilidades que da el software, es muy fácil perderse en docemil procesos de trabajo posibles. Yo arranco de bocetos escaneados, pero el resto de proceso coincido contigo. Antes ponía el color al final, pero estoy viendo que plantear las manchas al principio ahorra tiempo. ¿He entendido bien que tardas una hora en generar una ilustración?

    Buenísimo tu trabajo! Saludos desde Barcelona :)

    • Muchas gracias Javigaar!
      Me alegra leer que coincidimos en este proceso tan particular :-)
      Yo antes también escaneaba los bocetos, pero finalmente lo dejé de hacer para simplificar el proceso y ganar en agilidad.

      En algunos encargos para prensa como para el New York Times, tienes apenas tres horas, por lo que suelo destinar la mayor parte del tiempo a la idea, y luego la materialización es un mero trámite.
      Así que sí, puedo generar imagenes en una hora (o en menos tiempo incluso), si contamos que previamente ya tengo la idea.

      Un placer tenerte por aquí añadiendo valor a los artículos.
      Un saludo!

  11. Podrías hacer un ‘livestream’ :-)

    • Gran idea!!
      Tal vez empiece por algún vídeo y luego me anime a hacer algún directo, así podréis constantar lo particular de mi manera de trabajar jejeje

      Gracias por tus sugerencias Uri!
      40 fakes abrazos!

      • ¡Yo también me sumo a la petición de vídeo! Sería fantastico ver el todo el proceso.
        Me ha encantado el portfolio y el blog me ha parecido super interesante, felicidades por tu trabajo.

  12. Muchísimas gracias por compartir tu proceso Magoz! Me he sentido bastante identificada jeje salvo que yo sí que escaneo los bocetos previos antes de llevármelo todo a Photoshop :P

    Genial iniciativa por cierto! Aquí te has ganado a una seguidora más :)

    Saludos!

    • Gracias a ti Tatiana, por pasarte por aquí y por tus palabras!
      Es un placer poder compartir todo esto con vostros.

      Tal como le decía a Javigaar más arriba, me alegro de que coincidamos en el método de trabajo. Y eso que es bastante peculiar!

      Seguiré desvelando y compartiendo el proceso de trabajo con vosotros.
      Nos vemos por aquí :-)

      Un abrazo!!

  13. hablas de 900dpi de resolución en pixeles, pero hay otra variante del tamaño del papel o área donde se trabaja, ejemplo A4, 33 X 48 cm

    • Totalmente de acuerdo Alfredo!

      De hecho, a veces uso ambos. Subir la resolución y aumentar el tamaño, sobre todo cuando la ilustración que me piden es pequeña.
      Así me curo en salud y la tengo en grande para lo que pueda pasar en el futuro

      Muchas gracias por añadir valor y complementar la información del artículo.
      Espero que nos sigamos viendo por aquí.

      Un saludo!

  14. E
    Edward Lenzi

    Buenisimo su trabajo y estilo. Gracias por todo el contenido de su blog. Ayuda y inspira mucho. Saludos desde Brasil.

  15. q
    qndriqnq

    Thank you! This is great!

  16. Hey hey, so proud of you for putting this together and all that you do.
    Ya sabes que llegaras lejos y que tengo fe en ti!

    Petons.

  17. Really great summary of your process. I’m inspired to do a rebound post on my own blog once I have some time. Like you, I use Photoshop for most of my illustrations — it is far more suited to my illustration style than Illustrator. I find it smoother and more flexible for a vector/raster workflow.

    What I have yet to embrace fully is the tablet. I have a Wacom Intuos, and maybe that’s my problem. It does a very poor job of translating my natural hand movements into digital format. Do you find you draw differently on physical media than you do on a tablet? For instance, I need the friction of the pencil on paper to steady my hand. Even the pen or pencil I use determines what my mark making looks like.

    I wish my tablet worked for me (it would make some of my job less messy and way faster), but in the meantime, I do sketches on paper, scanning, and lots of messy inking and scanning — and rely heavily on luck to give me a good result!

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Hi Tom, Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.
      I’m glad you are another Photoshop user :-)

      Regarding the tablet. I experimented a massive improvement when I switched from Intous to the Cintiq two years ago. Especially in accuracy, speed and refinement. Even if the precision is much better than with the Intuos, and your hand can draw the lines where you brain wants, you still have the feeling of using a tablet. I guess it’s because drawing on a screen will never be like drawing on the paper.
      The best you can do is to try it first and see how it works with your working process.

      Hope you share with us your progress!
      Thanks for commenting.

      • Hello again,

        I’ll have to check out the Cintiq I guess! One more question: what are your favourite Photoshop brushes? I’d love to see a post on how to choose and use brushes in Photoshop. Even though Kyle T Webster has some great brushes, which I do use, I haven’t really found any that really get the results I want. It’s one reason I still normally use real ink.

        • I use the basic one with pressure control most the time. When I need uniform lines I use the same one but without pressure control.
          Kyle T Webster creates incredible brushes, but I don’t need anything special.

          Which kind of brushes do you use then? And how?

          I’m thinking about writing an article explaining how I use the Photoshop brushes. Thanks for giving me the idea, Tom! :-)

  18. P
    Pierre-Louis Anceau

    Its not too crazy to hear you use photoshop. Your work doesn’t actualy have that “vectory” look. Hey Chris Ware draws on paper after all (:

  19. Nice! I have a similar method for Photoshop except I sketch and scan beforehand and use an intuos tablet.

    Watch this video here:http://edclews.com/watch-my-making-of-daft-punk-video-illustration-by-ed-clews/

  20. Its something like cleaver to do for using Photoshop for illustrating the task. Will try this with all your recommended tips. Thank you :)

  21. this was awesome, absolutely love your work, your site and the information you are sharing,

  22. H
    Hanu

    No te culpo por no usar Illustrator :/
    Creo no exagerar si digo que Illustrator ya esta quedando super obsoleto, y es una pena porque Adobe tiene toda la infraestructura para ofrecer una verdadera herramienta de ilustración.

    • Totalmente de acuerdo, Hanu.
      A este paso, Photoshop va a engullir a Illustrator, porque en cada nueva versión va añadiendo más y más opciones vectoriales.

  23. Hi Magoz! Thanks for your article which encouraged me to give photoshop a chance again for illustration and cartooning. Years ago I was playing around with both programs and I decided on illustrator because of the infinite scalability of vectors. Creating vector-formats seemed to me (and may be) more sustainable. At that time, raising dpi to >900 in ps was not an option because the brush was lagging behind the cursor. But today – with much more powerful equipment – this effect is almost gone. (I was trying that again because of your article on a cutting edge macbook pro / wacom cintiq and I was surprised.) I suppose, a more fluid / natural photoshop drawing process covers a handicap of “drawing” with vectors: While drawing, your “natural line” gets continuously rendered / transformed in bezier-curves which leads permanently to a slightly transformation of your line (and style). In some cases this might be advantageous but for me painting in photoshop feels more natural. So my next illustration will be “made” in photoshop. (PS. Do you create your animation in photoshop too?)

    • Hi Philipp! Thanks for your comment.
      Illustrator is great as well; everything depends on the creative process that suits better to us. I totally agree with you regarding the “natural line”. In Illustrator that’s destroyed because the transformation. That was the main reason to use Photoshop instead.

      The animation is created in After Effects using vectorized illustrations.

      Good luck with your next illustration made in Photoshop! Please, come back and share it with us :-)

  24. coreldraw is far superior to illustrator, amazing tools with loads of short cuts. I think easier than photoshop for alot of illustration work, but like everything it is what you are use to!

    • I’m aware many illustrators use Corel Painter. I suspect it works very well when you use different brushes with different effects.
      My process is very simple and I use the very basic brush, so I never invested a lot of time trying to use it, Photoshop had everything I needed.

      Thanks for contributing to the article, Charlene!

  25. Oh NICE! I always get asked if I use Illustrator/vectors in my art but I love using Photoshop to get MY own curves and lines. Nice to see others do the same. Especially amazing artists like yourself. Was great to meet you at -ING fest! I LOVE LOVE LOVE the little concertina BIOMBO :D

  26. K
    KAKO

    Great works ! I thought you are using Illustrator.
    I will try to use Photoshop how it works for drawing.
    And also I will check tablets to compare.
    Thank you for sharing your method !

    • Thank you, Kako!
      Photoshop is a great tool; I’m sure if your working process fits the Photoshop philosophy you are going to enjoy working with it a lot.

  27. Really reassuring and great to read this as I’ve been feeling a bit inadequate because of my lack of enthusiasm for illustrator, my fault, to be perfectly honest I just can’t be bothered to learn it. I did my design degree back in the eighties, when the only package we had a little ‘play’ with was Paint. Everything else was hand drawn and painted. Designs existed in a massive portfolio that you lugged around from agency to gallery. I really like Photoshop. Also I could use Photoshop with my eyes closed, it wasn’t always like this though, I did a course, but mainly kids on YouTube and my young son taught me everything I know, oh, and a lot of trial and error. Ironic really, considering I’m a designer. I find it useful because my work is a mixture of collage and drawing. I paint my own backgrounds and import them, I also sit and draw and then have great fun ‘colouring in’ these drawings..But I also draw on Photoshop and manipulate the vector shapes. I did think I was being lazy, sticking to what I know, refusing to budge as it feels…comfy and like an extension of me, but great to see a designer producing fantastic work with good old Photoshop. Thanks for sharing this.

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