Behind the Scenes Process of a Portrait Illustration

I often get asked how I create my illustrations, so today I’m tearing down that wall of mystery and walking you through my file, layers and process of a recent illustration of mine.

A lot of people warn against sharing these kinds of “illustration secrets”, but helping others grow creatively is what this blog is all about, and I tend to believe that if you’re just going to copy someone else, you won’t go very far. Those you copy from will always be better than you, so there’s no sense in trying to rip any one illustrator off. It’s far better to lightly borrow from many illustrators, designers, etc. when starting out, with the goal of developing your own style.

If you need help with how to find your style and what to do with inspiration, read this, it just might be what you need to hear!

So without further ado, here’s a peek into a recent illustration I did for Sportsnet, a portrait of Bob Cole. Right off the bat, I should explain a few things.

I work in Photoshop for this kind of work, not Illustrator. I do use Illustrator for my design work and certain projects like these illustrative icons, but all of my realistic work is done 100% in Photoshop.

I use a Bamboo fun tablet circa 2010. It’s over 5 years old, and may only measure 4″ wide, but it’s gotten me this far!

The textures I use in my work are either hand-made, where I scan in painted on, inked or found papers, or they are from Blksmith Supply Co. (who recently was profiled)

My colour palette, which isn’t something I cover here (maybe that’s another post) is one I’ve come up with myself. There’s not much use in trying to teach how to select the best colours, it just comes with experience.

A photo was provided for use as reference for this piece in order to get a great likeness of Bob. This isn’t always the case, and, in fact, if you don’t have permission to use a photo, you should avoid copying from a photo or tracing if you plan to sell or make money off the piece. A great source of free-to-adapt and modify photos is Flickr Creative Commons.

This particular piece was used in a print publication, and sat only 3.5″ tall, so a great amount of detail was left out on purpose as it just gets lost in a piece this small, which is good to keep in mind.

The timeline from project brief to final was a few days.

Let’s begin

1. Before I do anything else, I prep my file. This means getting the dimensions right and setting the DPI (resolution) to at least 500, which is higher than print, but large enough that I can export at a larger size if needed down the line. Then I make or customize or select a Photoshop brush. Kyle T. Webster’s are fantastic.

2. Next, I try to establish all of my mid-tones. No matter how great the line work on top, I find it I have sloppy or improperly placed shadows, it can destroy any likeness I’m trying to establish of a person or object. Looking at the photo, squint, use tracing paper on top of the photo, or make a copy of the photo and up the contrast to get a better read for where your shadows will fall. You’ll see I have them all drawn in with a brush pen using Photoshop.


If you do a good job with the shadows and maintain a steady, light hand, at this point it should look “good”.


3. Next, I throw in my lightest skin tone to establish where the highlights go as well as his hair and eyebrows, which I don’t want to be black like the final line work. Bob’s fairer, so dark brown does the trick. I should note that every colour you see in the piece is on its own layer so I can alter the hues and tones later. I also work bottom up, meaning my lightest colours sit at the bottom and I build my mid-tones on top, then my darks on top of that. So my layers looks something like: white on bottom layer, blackest stuff on top. It also means I don’t have to be exact with his hands and arms, as you can tell by the blobs. With my layer system, I know that I’ll be adding his coat layer on top later, and it’s then that I can define the shapes of his hands and arms. You may find you like to do the opposite, where you do your darks on the bottom and draw lights on top, there’s no rhyme or reason, I’m just used to this method.


4. Next I draw in my final line work. Sometimes I am more heavy-handed and make my lines thicker and more plentiful, sometimes not. In this case, the black line work is quite minimal. At this point I also blob in my blues, which sits behind the black jacket so that the texture I apply later will reveal itty bitty gritty blue undertones.


At this point, I have some fun making him look more human and “real”. I do this by using a feather brush to add some rosiness to his nose and cheeks, yellow to his forehead and green to his chin area. The skin tone of the human face changes depending on how close to the bone or blood vessels it is, so as a general rule, from forehead to chin, there’s a slight yellow hue, then pink/red, then green. I also added a subtle gradient to the mid-tone to reflect this as well. (I hid the light skin layer to show this better.) And we’re nearly done, save for some final touches, such as adding more black to the jacket and fussing with the line-work and voila!


To show you a bit behind the layers and how I separate them, here’s a snapshot of some of the layers separated.


Hope that helps! Do you have any insight or tips/tricks on illustrating in this layered style?


Comments (3)

  • I love the first gif! Thanks for sharing your illustration process 🙂

  • Thank you for this – such a useful post as I have often wondered how to gain such likeness in a portrait and it really is down to subtle detail. Can I ask why you use Photoshop instead of Illustrator – is it so you have access to textures and brushes?

  • Wow, that was so so helpful! Thank you! I’m an illustrator also, but I’d been really struggling with doing any portrait work in photoshop and so had been just sticking to traditional mediums. Will definitely experiment with this. x

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