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How to tell a story with your illustrations | Creative Bloq

I didn’t always know I wanted to be an illustrator, but I did know from an early age that I loved telling stories with my drawings. I had a composition notebook that I filled with sketches of different characters, and I would write their stories in the margins of the page. I’ve worked with many wonderful clients on some incredible projects, and I’m happy to be able to share some of the tips that I’ve picked up over the years while working professionally. 

Here, I’ll walk you through my process, and show you how to take a passion for character design and building to creating an exciting piece that tells that character’s story.

01. Decide on your story

Ascertain what the mood is in your story

Illustration is a companion to a story. So while a story typically starts with a character, try to think about the tale you’re telling. What kind of setting will it have, what the mood should be, how expressive are the poses, and so on. Think about the situation you want to depict, and if you want, act it out and shoot some photos for reference to help you understand how people move naturally in various situations. Then sketch them out loosely. This is a great way to warm up for your final concept.

02. Create character poses

Study your subject to get to know what they are like

Get to know the subject of your art. If you’re going to be drawing them multiple times throughout, say, a picture book, get a few poses down on paper to look back on as reference when you’ll need to position the character in a certain setting for an illustration later on. 

03. Keep sketches loose

Loose sketches

Create loose sketches to capture your designs

It’s tempting to jump right into your final sketch if you have a specific idea bubbling around in your head, but it’s still a good idea to produce some loose sketches first. These quick gestures will show right away if the pose and composition are right. As such, it’ll be easier to fix these issues in a loose drawing, rather than a final or detailed sketch. This is also a good time to play around with different features for your character, such as facial features, and their clothing and equipment.

04. Consider movement

Adding movement brings drama and an edge to your work

Having a sense of movement in your illustration helps their eyes move around the composition and explore what’s happening. Think about your characters in loose shapes while you’re planning your piece. How are they interacting with the rest of the scene and other characters? How do their postures change? Do their shoulders tilt? Is their back arched? Above all, are the subjects in harmony with each other?

05. Check your shapes 

Contrast and silhouette helps create shapes

For tackling the form of your subject to convey a message to the viewer, think about the subject of your drawing in a silhouette. This helps you understand their shape in the composition, and you can see how you might want to position them in a way that describes the mood and story of the illustration.

06. Do warm-up studies

Warm up practice makes perfect

Study objects when warming up

It’s helpful when mapping out your art to take some time to practise the focal points in your piece before going into the first sketch. I like to do studies of the objects I’ll want to add as details, and do some figure studies to warm up. This is also good practice even when you’re not planning a new piece, but simply want to keep in form.

07. Be expressive

It’s not just facial features you should focus on

Your character’s expression isn’t limited to their facial features. Expression can be found in their pose and movement, and interaction with their environment and other characters. Exaggerating features like wide eyes and upturned eyebrows can express fear, and slightly lowered eyelids and curved lips can show contentment. Note: pulling too far in any direction can lead to your character looking cartoonish.

08. Show weight

Draping of clothing can add drama and a gravitas to your character

Think about the effect of gravity on your character. Are they positioned in a normal setting, or are they floating or falling? How does the drape of their clothing or hair change? If there’s a strong wind, the character’s hair and clothes will reflect that, and if the air is still, the drapery should hang down. 

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