Creating a digital ink illustration
In this tutorial I am going to show you a step-by-step process for creating an artwork, and talk about my thoughts and the things I keep in mind when creating an illustration like this. I hope you will get an idea of how to work your way to more confident and expressive lines, as well as how to choose colors and make your digital work look more traditional. Some of these tips can be applied to traditional drawing as well, but if you want to follow along step-by-step I suggest a digital setup for this.
Since I love drawing plants I went for a jungle themed illustration. Choose a subject you are comfortable with and enjoy
Setting up the workspace
I create the drawing for this piece in Adobe Fresco on my iPad Pro, but there are many good drawing apps to choose from so take what you have. Since I want to keep it simple I decide to only go for two different brushes: a pencil brush for the sketch and a scratchy looking ink brush for the final drawing. I choose to work on a 4500 x 4500px canvas so it is big enough for larger prints later on. In this first drawing stage I only use black on my white canvas. I start by adding a new layer to keep the background untouched.
Which brush you use is not super important. Choose one or two that feel good to you
Sketching out the rough idea
This first sketch acts as a very fast note - I make about the idea I have in mind. At this point I am the only one who needs to understand what is going on on the canvas. I do not need to worry about details or correct anatomy or perspective. One thing I do like to indicate already are strong directional lines or shapes, which is easiest to implement as early as possible. This way I can build up a drawing around these strong first guidelines without getting too stiff. Think big and bold gestures for this first stage.
The first lines should depict all basic, but rough information about your idea. Try not to be influenced by anything - I would do this even before collecting reference material.
Refining the initial sketch
Before adding a new layer to refine my initial sketch I turn down the opacity of my first few lines so that I can still see them but they do not show too much. In this step I am trying to make sense of the lines and shapes I sketched before. Big, oval shapes turn into leaves, the figure becomes more differentiated with legs, arms, and a face. The great thing about a bunch of plants is that you are free in how you want to lay them out and can bend them to your vision and how they serve the composition best.
Turning basic shapes into more detailed leaves and blossoms throughout the entire background of my illustration
Defining light and dark areas
To create more depth to my drawing I decide to fill in the areas that are supposed to go deeper into the image space. This will have an impact on how people will read your image, so make sure the contrast it creates does not catch too much attention in less important areas. By filling those shadow areas around some leaves or the figure for example, I can make the scene look more plastic which makes it much more interesting visually. You might have to try a couple of times to get a feeling for where filling such areas works. If you do it on an extra layer you can leave your current progress untouched.
By defining very dark areas you can create contrast and depth in your illustration which generates a more plastic feel
Starting the final inking
After two rounds of sketching I now feel ready to start the final inking. For that I switch from a pencil brush to my ink brush of choice and turn down the opacity of my previous layers once again. I try not to zoom in too much or get too precious or slow with my lines to create a more gestural look. The previous two layers have helped me to figure out what things go where so I do not have to worry about the "what" too much now. This way I can loosen up and focus on creating nice and expressive scratchy lines.
I try to keep my lines rough and imperfect which creates an interesting and raw appeal.
Making sense of the noise
Although there are many things happening in this image I want to make sure that it was readable even without adding color. To do so I create little groups of lines and shapes that the brain will clutter together and understand as a collective. Shapes of a similar look and size that are also placed close together will appear as the same plant and therefore define a new shape together. Similarly if a shape like the rectangle on the figure's shirt is very unique in its surroundings this will stick out as important and catch attention. Knowing how the brain makes sense of visual information can help you increase the readability of your image.
Our brain is primed to recognize figures and especially faces, so the figure in the center has a natural advantage of being noticed
Coloring the lines
After making my sketch layers invisible I export the final ink drawing to Photoshop on my desktop and color it medium to dark red. Of course you could have drawn with red or your color of choice from the beginning and if you would prefer to do so, go for it! Giving your inks colored nuances can add a really vivid, atmosphere enhancing effect on your final image, so try to play around with that. This is especially fun when filling in lots of areas, so the color becomes quite prominent in the final piece.
I gravitate towards warmer colors and love to use reddish colors in my work. Colorizing the linework makes the result look less dull if you want to color your illustration.
Adding a base color
I keep the drawing and the background on separate layers to make it easier to colorize the image without affecting the color of the lines. Since I want to use brighter and more saturated colors for smaller, more important elements of the image, I choose a slightly darker and less saturated color for the background. You can achieve a lot of variety by playing with saturation and relative relations of colors. In a primarily red image for example, a just slightly less saturated red can function as a bluish or greenish tone. Keeping colors closer to each other with maybe some other accents can create very harmonious color schemes.
Adding a slightly desaturated color that reflects the atmosphere you are aiming for creates a good foundation for coloring
Keeping it simple
Since I wanted the linework to be the star of this image, I try to keep coloration rather simple and expressive. Every element in the image gets its own color with the figure as the center of attention getting the brightest color that has the biggest contrast to the background. The overall red/orange tint of the drawing creates a very warm, sunset kind of feel. In order to easily keep colors closer together you can turn down the opacity of the color layer on top and let the base color shine through.
Sometimes less is more. In this case using fewer colors emphasizes the linework you created beforehand
Giving it a paper-like feel
Digital drawings or paintings can sometimes feel very sterile or too clean, so I like to add paper textures that I have collected and scanned over the years. You can build your own library by scanning papers with different sizes or types of grain. In this case I overlaid the final image with one of my favorite paper textures. You might have to adjust the brightness and opacity to not change the values underneath. This will give your digital painting a little bit of a traditional feel.
To make my illustrations look a bit more haptic I often overlay them with scanned paper/graphite textures at the end
Top Tip 1 - Keep it loose and sketchy
Correctness of anatomy and perspective is not everything in my opinion. Though foundations are important, sometimes the motivation to make something as realistic or close to a reference as possible can kill the expressiveness of your image.
Embrace imperfections, include your favorite doodly gestures, and take reference images more as inspiration or guidelines instead of a strict ideal. Make sure you keep the fun in it, this will eventually define your style and will look unique and different from what everyone else is doing.
Many people are attracted by imperfections or the rawness of things. Make sure not to overwork your drawings
Top Tip 2 - Make it flow
Try to guide the viewer through your image by adding and placing elements in a way that create lines towards your focal point. In this example I added a lot of lengthy leaves or branches to do so. Visual interest can also be generated by adding more details in areas you want the viewer to look at. More generally speaking you can increase the frequency of elements towards the focus of the image. Make sure to make good use of the different elements in your image to help enhance the readability of your drawing and guide the viewer through it.
Sometimes elements in an image can look rather randomly organized but actually help to guide the gaze of the viewer. Think about different ways to do so