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How'd You Do That? Christmas 2010 Illustration
December 20, 2010

In the first of what I'd hope to become a regular series of articles detailing the artistic process of my work, I’m proud to unveil the first installment of “How’d You Do That?” with my most recent digital illustration for Christmas 2010. The eighth in a line of holiday card illustrations for my girlfriend Whitney, the latest artwork features Whitney and I pestering Santa Claus yet again, this time by breaking into his North Pole workshop and – unsuccessfully – helping the elves in their tasks. As with the previous digital illustrations, a combination of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator were employed to create the final image, and I’ve tried to explain the entire process in greater detail below… so, read on!

To skip this long-winded explanation and go right to viewing the illustration in the gallery, click here!

Pre-Production: Research

If you can draw everything from memory, then you’re a much better artist than I am. Personally, I always like to have reference for the things I draw, whether it’s a chair, a tree, or the Wolf-Man, it’s always good to look at something. Research is also good for inspiration, so take the time to browse the web (or go to a library!) and find pictures that will help you get ideas for various people and objects to include in your work.

For this illustration, I did a lot of research on how Santa’s workshop has been depicted, particularly in the classic Rankin-Bass “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” stop-motion special and the 2003 Will Ferrell comedy, “Elf.” I knew I wanted a large amount of blue in my color palette (to evoke feelings of snowy winter), so I stuck with versions of the workshop that matched my intentions. I also looked at imagery of elves, taking cues from the “Rudolph” and “Elf” designs and modifying them to fit my style. With a bit of research and planning under my belt, I was ready to begin!

Step 1: Sketch

Christmas 2010 Step 1

I always try to start with a hand-drawn sketch. I think that a lot of people assume that digital artwork is done entirely on a computer, and while that’s largely true in most cases, there’s still a lot of digital art that includes some level of hands-on involvement in the process. Some illustrators might decide to spend a lot of time on the sketch, bringing it to a detailed and finalized form and only scanning it into the computer for digital coloring, but I chose to work a different way.

My sketches are very rough and used mainly for figuring out the general layout and the look/body language of the characters in the scene. I usually don’t spend a lot of time and energy on them because I know most of it will change or be refined when it gets into Adobe Illustrator. The sketch is most useful in determining the character poses and facial expressions, as those elements are quite difficult to draw in the computer without some sort of hand-drawn framework. You’ll notice that the elves and Santa are pretty close to how they appear in the final product, while the sketch of myself has changed somewhat significantly. I was also a bit lazy and rather than drawing a new sketch of Whitney, I recycled the sketch of her from my Christmas 2008 illustration, but it was enough to provide a basic placement for her character.

Step 2: Vectoring and Coloring in Adobe Illustrator

Christmas 2010 Step 2

Let’s be very clear about something: this process is tedious. It’s not difficult (if you’re quite experienced with Illustrator’s pen tool), but it’s monotonous. I basically trace the entire sketch using the pen tool in Adobe Illustrator CS5, varying the line weight and color based on the object I’m currently drawing. The strokes and fills are kept separate so that I can control them individually later on in Photoshop. The nice thing about using Illustrator’s vector capabilities is that it gives a very crisp, clean look to the entire drawing and allows me to easily alter the scale of certain items if necessary (you might notice that Whitney's head is a wee bit smaller in this version than the airbrushed one below).

During this step, I also determine the color palettes for each character. The color schemes for Whitney, Santa, and myself have already been established in previous illustrations, so that saves me some time, but I also have to figure out what colors to use for the elves and the background objects. It’s not too challenging, but I need to be mindful of each color’s saturation level, as it needs to blend in with the other somewhat muted colors in the scene.

Illustrator gives a nice indication of how the final illustration is going to look, but everything still feels a bit flat and two-dimensional. So, to kick it up to the next level and give it some depth, I export each element as a layered Photoshop file for the next phase of the process...

Step 3: Airbrushing in Adobe Photoshop

Christmas 2010 Step 3

Now that I’ve spit out all my Illustrator layers into Photoshop, I’m ready to begin “painting” or airbrushing every fill layer to give it a sense of form and dimension. To create the “rim-lit” effect, in which the shadow begins after an edge highlight, I select an individual fill layer, contract and feather the selection, and create a mask from this selection on a new layer. I then paint a darker shade of the object’s local color onto this new masked layer, with the blend mode set to “Multiply” to create the shadow. I repeat this process on every fill layer, attempting to keep the shadows consistent (i.e. if the arm has a shadow on the right side, the leg should have a shadow on the right side as well). A Wacom pen tablet is certainly advantageous for this step as it allows for more painterly “brush strokes,” more precise control, and a faster process in general. Again, this is another long and tiresome exercise, but the end result is really worth it and is definitely more appealing than the flat-colored version from Illustrator.

For this illustration, I also attempted something new: adding texture. While this didn’t pose a major new challenge, I wanted to give the background objects a bit more detail to provide an even greater level of realism and visual interest. While airbrushing each fill layer, I also added an overlay of a specific texture to certain objects, like wood grain for the tabletop and wall paneling, an ornate Victorian pattern for the wallpaper, and frosted glass for the windows. I’m quite happy with the result and plan to continue this step in future illustrations.

While this looks pretty good, there’s one more step to really bring the whole thing together…

Step 4: Lighting and Shadow Effects

Christmas 2010 Step 4

I probably could have stopped at the end of step 3, but I still need to go that last extra mile by adding some more lighting effects to the whole piece. For instance, Whitney and I still need to cast shadows on the tabletop, along with the paint cups and badly crafted wooden toy that my caricature is assembling. Santa also needs a shadow under his feet, and both he and the elves should be casting some shadows on the wall and archway behind them. I also added some very subtle radial gradients that darken the outer edges of the image while lightening the center, to help lead the viewer’s eye towards a focal point.

It might not seem like much, but I think this last step is extremely important to finalizing the whole thing. By adding a few extra shadows, it helps to connect separate pieces to each other and make each person and object feel like they’re all in the same space together. The subtle interaction of one element’s shadow on another assists in pulling the illustration together and results in a more unified look for the entire artwork.

Step 5: Rest and Reflect

Now that it’s all done (and I did this one in a mere 6 days!), it’s time to take a rest and reflect on what I did well, what I learned, and what techniques and processes I’d like to use again and improve upon for the next illustration. I liked using the textures and plan to use them again in a greater capacity for future projects, and I think the overall illustration quality is some of my most successful yet. But for now, I’m taking a nap!

I hope you enjoyed my first step-by-step explanation of my illustration process. I’d have gone into more detail about the technical aspects, but I think that would be either too boring or fly over most folks’ heads. If you found this helpful, I’d love some feedback through my Contact form!

Click here to view the new Christmas 2010 illustration in the Gallery!

Happy Holidays!!