Here is a link to the downloadable files for practicing!

Here is a link to the slideshow for this tutorial!


Do you ever feel like your illustrations don’t turn out the way you sketched them? I’ve always thought of my computer screen as a barrier between my ability to draw and my final product. With our illustration contest coming up next week, I thought it would be a good idea to give you guys some tips and techniques to get the most out of your artistic ability on the Adobe programs; in other words, to thin the barrier and make your computers and the tools you have a little easier to work with. This really helps with making illustrations look a little more like you actually drew them, rather than broken down to shapes and strokes.

A word on drawing

I know what a lot of you are thinking: drawing is hard! Sometimes it is, even for people who do it all the time. But just like anything else, if you practice, you will be able to do it! For those of us who are graphic designers, learning to draw really is important; the more you develop that skill, the more you will have to offer in your careers.

For those of you who are really daunted by drawing, I want to offer some tips. First, everything is made out of shapes. If you want to draw something, look at it and figure out how you can break it down into simple shapes. For example, the image below shows how you can draw an elephant, and I don’t recommend that you follow “tutorials” like these step by step, but the point is that whoever made this could break down an elephant into simple shapes. If you can draw a circle, you can draw a lot of things.


Second, you don’t have to draw things the way other people do; meaning that if someone can draw a portrait of another person and its crazy detailed and gorgeous, that’s fine and dandy. But you don’t have to draw like that. Look again at image above this paragraph. It doesn’t look exactly like an elephant, but it communicates the idea. As long as you can creatively communicate an idea, then that sounds like success to me.

That being said, here are the only rules on drawing, according to Emily: first, you have to try. You can’t get any better at drawing if you don’t try. Second, it’s okay if your sketches don’t turn out at first. Most of my first sketches look like junk at first, so my tip to you is to keep drawing until you get to where you want to. Third, don’t quit! You may want to, but if you stick it out to the end of your project, you’ll learn a lot. I know I’ve learned something new from every illustration I’ve done so far.


Sketching is REALLY important when it comes to illustrations, and especially to creating an illustration that looks a little more like a human made it instead of a computer. My recommendation is to not just draw a thumbnail of your composition, but to draw out exactly how you want the illustration to look. It is so much easier to draw everything you need on a piece of paper than it is to draw it up in Illustrator, even if you do have a fancy drawing tablet or something.

Working in Illustrator

Illustrator focuses a lot on shapes, stokes, and anchor points. When we draw, we typically don’t think the same way Illustrator does, which is why it’s really hard to skip the sketching and still pull off a good design. There are tools in the program that can help you out, though.

Brush Tool

Brushes are great for adding a more ink-like stoke to your illustrations rather than throwing a stroke on the shapes you make. And what’s better is that since its a stroke, you can just move anchor points around rather than erase and go back.


Blob Brush Tool

I prefer this to the brush tool because it works a lot more like a traditional pen or pencil. The brush tool makes strokes, but the blob brush makes shapes. They have anchor points on the outside though, so you can still manipulate them in ways other than erasing and trying again, like you would on paper.


Width Tool

This is another great tool for outlining shapes and making it look like you used a a marker or paint brush. You can just use a line and make it with whatever tool you want, then use the width tool to make the straight lines look less uniform.


Imperfect Shapes

One of the problems with working straight out of Illustrator is that it makes perfect shapes for us, and then we tend to rely on those perfect shapes. If you were to draw a circle, it could never look perfect, so if you want your work to look more organic, try moving the anchor points a little.


Digital Painting

Digital painting is a lot like drawing and painting traditionally, except it’s way more forgiving. You can go back later and change colors, warp and transform shapes, and hit command + z instead of start over, because you use Photoshop. There are a lot of different techniques to digital painting, but basically, you sketch in one layer (I just paste a photo of my sketch from paper here), add value or colors in the layer on top of that, then start adding in details the closer you are to being finished. Here are my tips for digital painting:

Stay Organized

When I digital paint, I keep things separated based on whether or not they touch each other. For example, if I am drawing a girl, I keep her skin in a separate layer from her dress. This keeps me from mixing colors that are not supposed to mix. I also don’t paint directly on  my sketch, so that if I have to look back at the sketch or erase, the sketch hasn’t been tampered with.

Mixer Brush (b)

This is great for blending colors and smoothing them out. This is the same shortcut as the brush tool, so when you hit “b” after using a different tool, Photoshop will select whichever one you used last.


Rotate View (r)

When we draw on paper, we can turn the page to better make curves that are difficult for our wrists. With the rotate view tool you can turn the caves you paint on, which can be so helpful!



If you have already drawn something perfectly, but realize it needs to curve more or needs to be moved somewhere else, you can select it with “w” and hit edit>transform, and select what kind of transform options you need to use.


Lock Transparency

This is an option right above the layers. Keeping the transparency locked in a layer keeps you from coloring outside of the lines and keep things neat.


Using Both Programs

I really like creating all the shapes I’ll use in a digital painting in Illustrator and then import them in separate layers over to Photoshop. This way, I have nice, clean shapes, but can mix colors and shade in ways that are easiest when digital painting. You can do this by hitting file>export and selecting PSD. Just make sure that you hit “write layers” so the layers are preserved when you open it up again in Photoshop.


I’ve included up toward the top of this post links to files that you can play with in Illustrator and Photoshop. There is a JPG of a simple drawing that you can place in Photoshop or Illustrator and practice using some of the tools and techniques I’ve gone over. I also have included an Illustrator where you can practice tracing with different tools. I also have included a Photoshop document where you can practice digital painting basics.


Emily Birkmeyer
Emily Birkmeyer

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