Illustrating an emotion in Photoshop


Drawing physical things takes time and dedication. Drawing things that aren't physical, such as feelings or sensations can be very intuitive but having representative skills aids the process greatly for me. This project was meant to represent a moment of inspiration, guided by the phrase “My time to shine.” I sketch for composition, study the shapes of my subject matter, take pictures for reference, and add color to finish the image. All this process was done live on Twitch using Photoshop. I hope you enjoy this process!

roughs final line art illustration colour composition render

I find that seeing an image from starting idea to finished, is usually worth more than the finished image itself.

Brainstorm is sketching

We begin our image around the phrase “My time to shine.” The way I like going about starting an image that has a brief is by taking time to understand what these words mean to me. A very personal relation to the phrase: in my case that shine is when I become inspired. That instant when an idea hits and materials and colors come to mind. Basically the brainstorming phase (pretty meta, huh). This stage is the most crucial in my opinion: abstract thought and sensation, that starts making connections and shooting at random places that might just work!

sketching experimentation roughs drafts idea 2d drawing

This is not pretty and it’s not meant to be! Let it flow and get all your ideas out there.

Studying art supplies

After thinking about the sensation of a calm explosion that is inspiration for me, I decide to take the route of materials flying in an empty space towards a sketchbook, like a race. They fly alongside fish that represent ideas and their various sizes and colors while remaining fluid. I sketch a composition that includes a bunch of materials and fish that are not yet clear in my mind. This just means that I need to study them further, particularly, those that are most attractive and visible in the composition. I study their material and their behavior under similar lighting.

art supplies drawings sketches roughs props 2d

These were not imagination. These were all painted from art supplies I had lying around my studio at the time.

Color scheme sketches

Once I feel more confident with the shapes of art supplies, I need a north in terms of color. I start thinking about which colors represent shine the best, and I create a bunch of variations to choose the one that talks the loudest to me. My time to shine is a phrase that describes a lighting condition that implies the breaking of darkness. So the color scheme and light distribution should support that. I usually test a couple of options before choosing a top three. And then those three can be further modified to find the very best one.

colour schemes palettes sketches experiments 2d

This is the toughest part for me. I have always leaned into desaturated colors. Sticking with saturation was very tough!

Studying colorful fishes

After all those colors, I thought about fish and the color they had in the image. That reminded me of how little of a fish’s anatomy was clear in my head. So it was time to study some fish and their colors. I think it’s important for study sessions to transcend the image we are making. It’s good to study in order to understand, not necessarily to draw. These fish are fused with my brain, and the next time I draw fish, I’ll be able to recall at least part of them to be better at drawing every time.

colour study variation fish drawing illustration experimentation

This was also a necessary break from a lot of creation, and just observing. Pausing to observe clears the fog.

Cleaning up lineart

At this point, I needed more clarity to advance the image: having different areas to flood with color will be useful to experiment with different superimposed planes of the image. In order to have those areas defined, cleaning up lineart is useful. This was the longest stage after brainstorming, although brainstorming happened mostly off-camera really. Making a clean lineart is going to save us a lot of trouble down the road. This is also true for more realistic images sometimes, although any other technique that consolidates the image a bit further is also great. Whatever floats your boat!

line art cleaning roughs superimposed imagery 2d

Lineart can sometimes make or break an image. Remember to use it to your advantage, don’t let it control you!

Using photo reference

Even if the phrase “My time to shine'' explicitly defined the subject as “me” I didn’t really think of that up until this point. Smart. So finally, I decided to make this image a self-portrait as well. In order to get the images I needed, I took some pictures of my face at a near angle for what I needed. I turned on a screen with white to maximum brightness, and profusely used the timer setting on my phone. I took more images than I needed and tried to emulate expression, lighting, and pose as much as I could.

referencing research self portrait imagery illustration

Pictures don’t need to be professional to serve their purpose. It’s good if they are, but it’s not really necessary.

Matching and trying out colors

Having those color areas defined by lineart worked! It helped a ton when experimenting with slight variations of colors in order to try to respect our initial color sketch. This was super tough for me: I tend to use muted colors and try to avoid strongly saturated colors. This was not the case. It was a great deal of effort for me to manage such strong colors fighting with each other, but it was super rewarding to get a mix of colors that worked in value and saturation at the same time. I was tired after finishing these color negotiations.

colour palettes line art experimenting 2d illustration

If you have enough time, anything can be a fruitful exploration. Give yourself time to try different approaches if possible.

Adding the finishing touches

After letting the image, my eyes, and brain rest for quite a while, I revisited the image. We can quickly become used to an image and lose the notion of the viewer’s perspective. Taking a break from an image in the last step is one of the best practices I’ve learned over the years. Getting to those final details with a fresh set of eyes, helps us be more focused on what needs to change. I added some extra shine, and modified the colors lightly: I found that muting the blues a bit helped readability greatly. The image is finally done!

2d illustration photoshop colour imagery self portrait

Revisiting an image always means finding new things to tweak. Don’t dwell too much on perfection. End processes wherever possible.

Top tip 1 - Study unclogs creativity

Sometimes we reach the point where an image becomes tough. A specific subject becomes challenging. Study elsewhere, far from your image and unclog your pipeline!

Top tip 2 - Using photo reference is legal

Taking images for reference is a great way to advance an image. Try to help your image in as many senses as you can (pose, lighting, textures, colors) without taking too long on the shoot! Go back to drawing or painting soon.

Top tip 3 - Let the image breathe

I can’t stress this enough. Watching the same image for long stretches of time makes us perceive it differently from how others might. Take a break. One day, a week, months, or even years… although if a client is involved, a good night’s sleep might be enough.

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