What Is Illustration? How To Learn Illustration? A Guide For Beginners
Illustration describes the use of visual imagery to clarify, explain, express, depict, communicate, or reinforce concepts, processes, theories, and text. Most simply, we can think of illustration as visual communication. Thus, an illustrator is somehow an artist who enhances or brings life to a piece of writing, a concept, or an idea.
Illustrators work in animation, advertising, graphic design, fashion, web design, and many more industries. Illustration is a versatile skill and illustrators fulfill a wide range of roles in those industries. It's a profession with a strong impact on how we perceive the world.
In this tutorial, I outline the principles on how to learn illustration and become an illustrator or start a career in this profession. You may also just take some of the illustration tips on board to further expand your knowledge about design and visual communication.
What Is Illustration? Overview
A line is a dot that went for a walk. — Paul Klee
Illustrators are artists but not all artists are illustrators. To draw a line to distinguish them let’s think about three definitions of the verb illustrate:
- To create or provide images or visual features for a book, magazine, newspaper.
- To decorate or explain something.
- To explain or clarify one’s words, an idea, or concept.
- To serve as an example of something.
Illustrators are a diverse crowd and engage in a wide range of artistic activities anywhere from illustrating comics to creating images for an advertisement.
Skills – An illustrator requires several skills and qualities which can be learned and refined on one’s own or through training and schooling. Below is a non-exhaustive list of some of the skills and qualities we believe are most pertinent:
- Draw – The ability to draw both in traditional and digital mediums
- Creative – Ability to use creativity and imagination
- Thinking – Adept problem solving
- Communication – Strong communicative skills
- Adaption – The ability to understand and adapt to different task requirements
Practice – While good illustration takes a variety of skills, these skills can be honed through steady practice. What is important for budding illustrators is to focus on gaining competence and confidence in the illustrative style that comes most naturally to them.
Style – As a new illustrator, it is important you find and practice your style and not just emulate the style of others. After mastering this style you can work on versatility within your portfolio. In the end, crafting the skills to be an illustrator takes patience.
This Tutorial – In the next section of this tutorial on how to learn illustration, we will look at some of the core principles of illustration that will help you on your journey to becoming the illustrator that you would like to be. Before we continue, I'd like to suggest two tutorials on How to Learn Graphic Design and What is Typography to further expand your knowledge.
How To Learn Illustration – Theory & Principles
Drawing is like making an expressive gesture with the advantage of permanence. — Henri Matisse
Illustration is a form of art that looks to move beyond expression toward the communication of concrete ideas. Still, it is a form of art and therefore will draw from some of the same principles of art and design. This How to learn illustration tutorial is about those principles.
First, we will look at some of the principles of good illustration, and then we will illustrate the principles of art to give you an idea of how to better your illustrations.
Learn Illustration – 5 Core Principles
- Communication – Illustrations communicate ideas, they are artworks with something direct to say.
- Clarity – Illustrations are intentional and should therefore be clear and direct.
- Coherence – The medium, style, colors, scale, design, etc. of the illustration should be coherent with the message being delivered.
- Activity – Illustrations should be active, bringing life to an idea.
- Inspiration – Simple illustrative metaphor and metonymy can be used sparingly to elicit greater understanding only where the illustrator understands that the material is the metaphor, that is they must draw inspiration from the real world.
Because illustration relies so heavily on drawing and artistic skills we must cover some of the basic principles of drawing and art creation. In creating an illustration we must understand the foundations of visual communication that are based on the following seven principles of art and design.
Learn Illustration – 7 Principles of Art & Design
Movement doesn’t describe an illustration in actual motion. Instead, it describes the artist's intended path for the observer to take through the work ultimately leading them toward a defined focal point. Movement can be directed through the use of shapes, lines, shading, scale, edges, and color to help the eyes find a path to the main focal point.
Physical motion might be expressed rather cartoonishly through the use of lines or movement can be implied dramatically through element position, kinetic suggestions, or temporally as with the linearity of a basic comic strip.
Natural movement gives a sense of rhythm to a piece. Movement requires a meditative effort on behalf of the illustrator but should be obvious and natural to the observer.
Balance specifically addresses a design’s visual weight where certain elements are more eye-catching giving them a heavier visual weight and others offer a sense of lightness. Balance is the consideration of the entire layout with these different weighted elements constantly in mind. An artist can employ symmetrical and asymmetrical design strategies.
Symmetrical elements provide equal weight on either side of an imagined center line whereas asymmetrical elements offer different weighted or non-centered elements. Equal balance, or symmetry, isn’t always the goal. Often balance is used as a component of movement within a work.
Emphasis refers to the use of elements to draw attention to a certain aspect of the artwork, drawing, or illustration. This can be achieved using balance, color, movement, scale, and contrast or through a combination of elements such as lines, textures, shapes, or the intelligent use of space.
Emphasis is used to immediately capture the attention of an observer and in illustration toward a specific purpose in communicating an idea.
Pattern is the repetition of specific elements to create balance and provide legibility through predictability. A pattern can build unity in an image giving the observer a sense of wholeness or completeness. It provides an observer with an intelligible sequence which allows them to more easily understand the intended meaning of an illustration.
Contrast refers to oppositional elements such as weights, colors, textures, and shapes. Contrast can be used to provide balance or motion. Without it, an image cannot exist. It brings definition to the various elements of a piece of art.
Too many contrasting elements can confuse an observer. Like in the many other aspects of an artwork the consideration of balance and unity are essential in creating contrasting elements that work.
Variety describes differing qualities between elements that can be used to build intrigue and interest. Utilizing a variety of shapes, colors, weights, images, etc. an artist can grab an observer's attention. Careful considerations need to be made in how much variety is employed. Again seeking a sense of balance and unity on the behalf of an observer.
For example, too much variety might result in confusing the observer, but too little can result in their becoming bored. Variety should be used to reinforce what is being communicated and not take away from the illustrator's intentions.
Proportion is concerned about how the size of elements relate or compare to the whole piece or object and scale is concerned with the size of one object to another.
For instance, we might be illustrating a woman near an old oak tree. The woman is in scale with the oak tree (she is smaller than it and it is a realistic representation of size), but her feet are not in proportion with her body (they are too big).
Proportion and scale give us not only the opportunity to represent the size but can also be used to illustrate the simplicity or grandiosity of an idea or concept.
We can study and employ the theories and principles of art, drawing, and good design but to become a good illustrator we need to practice illustrating. To practice and learn illustration, we need the appropriate tools to do so. The next section will help the budding illustrator find the sorts of tools that are both necessary for and will improve their trade.
How To Learn Illustration – Tools
To learn illustration and get started all you need is a drawing tool and a surface to draw on. A pencil and a piece of paper are the two tools that most illustrators will have started with.
However, advances in the technology of illustration mean that many young illustrators are practicing the craft on graphics and drawing tablets. In this section of the article, we will cover both the essential hardware and software for those looking to learn illustration.
Hardware for illustration can be fairly cost-prohibitive; however, depending on your goals it doesn't have to be. Illustrations don’t always require fancy and high-tech hardware. As mentioned above, sometimes all you need is a pencil and a piece of paper.
Below is a list of some hardware that might become essential depending on what sorts of illustration you are looking to get into.
Notebooks – Notebooks and sketchbooks are invaluable for illustrators to sketch out ideas and take notes. These can be digital but nothing is better than a paper notebook that can be safely carried around and utilized anytime and anywhere. This is the most affordable way to get into and practice and also learn illustration. Old school? Yes. But they are universally used and respected and will continue to be so well into the future.
Pencils – Graphite pencils are essential for illustrators. A variety of sizes can be used adeptly for quick sketching or full out illustration. Non-photo blue pencils allow illustrators to plan sketches by laying down lines freely as they can be left out in the scanning process or easily eliminated using Photoshop. Colored pencils allow for the addition of highlighting and color to a sketch or illustration. Pens of a huge assortment and array are available for all sorts of purposes utilizing a variety of nibs, inks, and colors.
Desks – Artist or drafting desks and drawing boards allow illustrators to comfortably work and help them to create an ergonomic workstation and environment.
Tablets – Tablets or 2-in-1 devices such as Microsoft Surface and the iPad Pro give illustrators both a graphics tablet and a small laptop (or notebook) to work with. As they become more powerful, reliable, and affordable these stylus or digital pen tablets will become increasingly popular.
Laptops – Work from anywhere. However, enough processing power, speed and memory (RAM) are some of the essential specifications to look out for. The laptop's display (type, size, color accuracy) should suit your specific work requirements. There are 2-in-1 convertible laptops that can be both a wordprocessing tool or a drawing tablet.
Desktops – PC computers are the workhorses and come with large processing power and speeds and better internal memory. Designers can connect additional screens to optimize their workflow but also multiple peripherals. Illustrators need to consider the ergonomics of their workstations in that they will be setting up graphics tablets that require space.
Graphics tablets – They range from screenless Wacom drawing tablets for desktop illustration to, again, the iPad Pro and Microsoft Surface. Tablets and the relevant software will allow illustrators to digitally sketch, draw, or paint with ease.
The primary software one thinks of for creatives and illustrators is likely Adobe’s Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. However, these programs can be costly. Furthermore, as the learning curve can be steep here, we generally recommend considering enrolling in photoshop courses or graphic design courses to become confident with those tools.
In the list below, we will highlight a free and open-source alternative perfect for beginners and intermediates to practice and learn illustration. Afterwhich, we will discuss some drawing specific software that can be best utilized using drawing and graphics tablets.
Photoshop is a popular image editor used by photographers and graphic designers. It is based on raster graphics which are pixel-based images composed of dots per inch (DPI) or pixels per inch (PPI). Raster graphics don’t scale well without being distorted.
There are multiple tools to edit and manipulate images. Text editing options are limited. One of the most popular open-source image editors is GIMP which is free and comes with similar tools although much less powerful. Photoshop and GIMP are excellent tools for illustrators to digitize physical artworks and sketches.
Illustrator is an image and vector graphics editor. A vector image is a path-based image that is scalable. Blending drawings, shapes, color, and typography such software is an essential design tool. Inkscape or Graphic (Mac) both offer a free and open-source alternative. Affinity Designer is an affordable premium tool. All of them can be used with a drawing or graphics tablet making them appealing options for artists and illustrators.
InDesign on the other hand is a typesetting and desktop publishing software and is typically used to produce print media such as posters, brochures, newspapers, and books. Affinity Publisher or Scribus are popular alternatives and offer similar tools and options. Illustrators can use InDesign, Affinity and Scribus to prepare work for print such as comics, illustrated books or graphic novels.
Clip Studio Paint is professional software used by illustrators, comic book and manga artists, and 3D animators. It allows for multipage management and is praised for its large selection of editable pens and brushes. It is also available for Windows, macOS, iPad, and Android making it a viable option for desktop or tablet illustration.
Autodesk Sketchbook Pro is superb software for drawing that is celebrated for its wide range of drawing tools and natural feel to the drawing experience. It works both with touch and stylus and is available for Windows, macOS, iPad, and Android.
ArtRage is software designed specifically for painting. It has a wide array of realistic brushes and tools to create digital paintings and illustrations. It is highly praised for its smooth control and mechanics. It is also available as cross-platform software for Windows, macOS, iPad, and Android devices.
Illustration Tutorial For Beginners – 6 Tips
How to learn illustration? Well, as we have seen, illustration takes practice and to get better at it there aren’t any shortcuts. However, developing good practice habits will certainly help you grow as an artist and illustrator. Below are a few tips and tricks to help you construct the right habits and routines to build on your illustrative and artistic skills on your way to becoming an exceptional illustrator.
1. Comfort – Get comfortable with yourself. An illustrator needs to know and be comfortable with their strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, they must be able to exploit their unique qualities and style to set themselves apart from others.
This means developing a personal style in your work that differentiates you from other illustrators. While there is some truth to the ever-evolving adage that good artists copy great artists steal there is more to it than what appears on the surface.
A good artist (a learning artist) will emulate the style of others whereas a great artist (an accomplished artist) will steal various historically relevant artistic elements and give their own voice and expression to them. Our advice is to understand the history of illustration to bring relevance and interest to your own style.
2. Methods – Practice old school methods to learn illustration. Use paper and pencil to practice your craft. While digital methods are becoming more prevalent, nothing beats the tried and tested technology of paper. It will help you orientate yourself and your illustrations in the real world. It's also friendlier on the eyes and is the perfect place to start practicing your drawing on the go.
3. Thinking Process – Liken drawing to thinking and the problem-solving process. Drawing is visual thinking and problem-solving. It can be used as a meditative and brainstorming process. Use it both for ideation and expression. Use it to communicate where it is more effective than written or verbal language. You shouldn’t have to explain your idea, it should be evident in your illustration of it.
4. Portfolio – Build a versatile portfolio that exemplifies your style. A portfolio should highlight your style and how it can be showcased across different mediums and through a variety of projects both analog and digital. There are various services you can use to share your work. You may also create your own website that has a portfolio page.
5. Technology – Get comfortable with technology. Spend time learning illustration and experimenting with a variety of different hardware and software. Build a level of comfort with each tool so that using them increases your efficiency.
6. Practicing – Practice Practice Practice. Draw Draw Draw. Enough said! Not all illustrating requires exceptional drawing skills; however, drawing is core to most illustrations. You need to practice your artistic and drawing skills if you want to learn illustration and wish to be an illustrator. This takes patience and practice. So practice.
How To Learn Illustration – Summary
You must never illustrate exactly what is written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do the work. — Maurice Sendak
Wrapping up this tutorial on how to learn illustration. Illustrating is an extra imaginative practice meaning it needs to communicate clearly but creatively say something more. It is an art form that is more concerned with communication than artistic expression.
An illustration should be able to communicate an idea with clarity and simplicity. It isn’t a problem for the observer to solve, the problem to solve is how the illustrator can say something visually without confusing their audience.
If you enjoy art but have something you want to say, maybe illustration is the route for you. If you are starting the journey towards becoming an illustrator just remember to practice and to be patient but more importantly remember to be creative.
How to learn illustration online?
There are various resources available to learn illustration online. We recommend looking on platforms such as Udemy, Skillshare or CreativeLive to find suitable online classes.
Alternatively, it is always good to further broaden your knowledge by exploring topics related to illustration, art, design, communication, technology, music, photography, etc. This will increase the synergy effects between your skills, experience and knowledge and eventually help you become a better illustrator.
I hope you enjoyed reading my How To Learn Illustration tutorial for beginners. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments below. Have something to add? Please let us know.
Sources: Wikipedia – 1 | What is Animation – 2