The talented illustrator Tatiana Bischak joins us today to share her creative process from start to finish. Tatiana recently illustrated a series of stamps playing off of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” carol. The illustration she’ll be walking us through in this tutorial is the twelfth stamp in her series, “12 Yummy Doughnuts”. Enjoy!
When I started out as an illustrator, I was lost. The thought of creating something without a roadmap overwhelmed me, and I would often illustrate elements that didn’t mesh well together. My work was lacking, and what I was creating really didn’t scratch the creative itch I had.
It’s ok to be a little overwhelmed when starting an illustration project. What I’ve learned is that if you break down your process into simple steps, it makes the process much more digestible. In this tutorial, I’ll be going over the steps I loosely followed while creating the 12 Wrong Days of Christmas stamp series. Let’s get started!
Step 1: Brainstorming ideas
I like to keep a list of illustration ideas written down. Creative block is real, so when a good idea comes along, I recommend writing it down—even if the execution or end result isn’t immediately clear. Keeping a record of good ideas can save a lot of trouble down the road because thinking of something to create is often half the battle. So when the inkling to be creative strikes, there’s a list you can refer to for help.
My stamp series idea came from a Christmas project where I illustrated the Twelve Days of Christmas carol. The start of this series was rocky because I mistakenly used a quail as a reference photo instead of a partridge. I decided to embrace the failure and deliberately create an incorrect Twelve Days of Christmas. Mistakes can set you back, but once in a while you can roll with them and see where they take you. For my twelfth stamp, I chose to illustrate a dozen delicious doughnuts.
Step 2: Research
After establishing my subject, I start researching imagery. What parts of the piece will connect with people? How will certain parts work with others? What can I use to make the composition pleasing to the eye? Every illustration is like a small window into another world so you have to make sure it frames something interesting in a balanced manner. Brainstorming with that in mind is important.
I typically search Unsplash or Google Images for photos if I need inspiration or reference points. I save photos that generate an emotional response in me or provide very good examples of exactly what I’m illustrating. Once I have a good selection, I occasionally go back mid-sketch to keep looking for images, but I generally work off a few that I really like and try not to rely too heavily on photos to dictate what I illustrate.
Step 3: Creating a color scheme
Usually my colors develop as I create an illustration. It took me a long time to be able to create color schemes confidently without using pre-made palettes (even though I still like to browse them once in a while). When curating my own palette, I start with a single base color and build from there.
Limited color schemes are challenging but worth it. When working with them, you have to remember a few important things. There’s a spectrum of colors in every image, and your limited color scheme has to be able to represent everything conclusively. Creative license will help stretch the imagination, but your audience still needs to make a connection between the colors and the objects so certain colors are needed.
Since this was a Christmas theme, I went with colors that made me think of rustic pine bows, the blue looking shadows on snow, the warmth of a fire burning, and the creamy white color of eggnog. Stamp collecting was a huge part of my childhood, so I wanted vintage colors that reminded me of my favorite stamps which were always old and worn.
For the purpose of texture, I introduce another set of colors. I pull these colors in Photoshop, and generally they’re a darker version with more saturation and a slight change in hue. Their purpose is to round out the color scheme for shadows and highlights and also add pops of color when needed.
Step 4: Sketching it out
I like sketching before jumping into software because it allows for quick changes and decision making. But other times, all of that takes place on the computer. It really just depends on where I feel the most creative, and that can change. The important thing is for the creativity to flow as smoothly as possible from your brain to your medium.
Because this illustration isn’t the first in my series, I started in Procreate with a screenshot of the background that I’ve kept throughout the series. By doing this, I know my constraints and can work within that scale. This method helps me to avoid creating smaller objects that texture will get lost in, and it helps me see how the overall piece will look at that size.
My illustrations work off basic geometric shapes and 45° angles. This means that for the most part, my most basic shapes can be made with circles, rectangles, or triangles. For this illustration, I’m dealing with a lot of circles: plates, coffee cups, and doughnuts. The rectangle and square shaped objects are napkins, a box, the handles to the coffee cups, and a phone.
Pencil feels most natural to me, and it’s a good tool for roughing shapes in. The shapes don’t have to be exact, but they should give you a good feel for how all of the elements will work together and how much room each object will take up. When this gets transferred into Adobe Illustrator, I’ll be able to create more exact geometric shapes there. My sketch works a guide and helps to quickly jot the idea down.
Step 5: Time to vectorize
To recreate the objects in vector format from the sketch, I use the pen tool, the shape builder tool, blend, a really obscure script for an Archimedean Spiral, the brush tool, and offset path. I’m sure there are others I’ve missed, but you can fill in the blanks there. I start drawing paths with a black stroke to create my basic shapes so I can still see the sketch underneath. Since all the shapes are pretty much rectangles and circles, I use those tools to create my shapes and the shape builder tool to clip out negative space. There’s no particular order—just a lot of back and forth between the sketch and the vector to make sure I don’t miss anything. As the illustration starts taking shape, I can begin focusing on the composition by adding things that weren’t in the sketch and removing things that were.
Step 6: Applying the color scheme
Next, I start applying the color scheme. I try to stay true to the colors in my sketch, but I occasionally make changes to balance out the illustration. Color schemes, no matter how much time you spend curating them, tend to contain colors that don’t get along—so I try to put a barrier between those colors or plan on using texture to separate them.
As I’m doing this, I have to be mindful of how I’m going to texturize the final piece. In certain cases, I make objects that are the same color as their background, and I can use that as a guide when applying texture. Additionally, I might add a vector shadow as another guide for my texture in the future.
Step 7: Preparing the file for Photoshop
Once I’ve created all my shapes, colored everything, and am happy with the composition, it’s time to prepare the file for Photoshop. I group the objects separately or together depending on how I want to isolate things for texture. For example, all the dots on my Krispy Kreme box are grouped so I can texture them all at once. However, I want my icing grouped separately from my doughnuts because they are different objects with different colors. After everything is grouped (and I’ve developed carpal tunnel from the repetitive keyboard command), I save the file as a PSD making sure that the “Write Layers” box is checked. This will export all my grouped objects as layers in Photoshop, allowing me to texture individual objects.
Step 8: Choosing your brushes
Once in Photoshop, I start the texturing process. When the file is prepared properly, every grouped object should have its own layer. This way I can edit each object separately or in some cases altogether. I use a Wacom Bamboo tablet, and if I misplace my stylus (I frequently misplace it), I use the Astropad app on my iPad Pro 2. It’s important to have something that has pressure sensitivity because the texture will respond to how hard you press on certain brushes.
When it comes to texture brushes, my favorites are from Retro Supply Co. For this illustration I use a single brush called Woodland Wonderland 02 Heavy Grain . Choosing the right brushes can take some trial and error since different brushes will change the feel and emotion of the illustration. I also use a lot of Kyle T. Webster’s brushes in my work—Adobe offers his brushes for free for all Creative Cloud users. His brushes are amazing and diverse, and I highly recommend them.
Step 8: Adding texture
I generally use texture for shadows and highlights, but I also like to explore how applying a texture can change the dynamics of my piece. I try to keep a single light source, usually coming from the top left. With that in mind, I add highlights on the top left of objects and shadows on the bottom right of objects. All objects should respond to a shadow—so the stripes on a plate should get shading as well as the plate itself when a shadow falls across it. I use the colors from my scheme as highlights and shadows (which is why it’s important to plan for that when you’re creating your scheme). If part of an illustration needs to stand out more, I use a brighter or darker colored texture to pull it forward.
Throughout the piece, I only use one brush size so the details of my texture stay consistent. If too much texture is added, it can overwhelm the object and take away from the 2D feeling of the piece. A lot of this is based on feel, and I zoom out often to see how texture is affecting the illustration as a whole.
Sometimes I have to confine my texture to a certain area—like the holes in the middle of the doughnuts. I didn’t make an object in my Illustrator file for this shadow, and I have to closely control where the texture appears in that small area. For this, I use the Lasso tool or one of the Marquee tools and carve out where I want to use texture. When an area is selected, the brush will only color within that space. So I can make a circle with the Elliptical Marquee Tool and color my texture into it.
Once I’m done texturizing the main image, I go over the edge of the stamp to give it a few highlights and shadows. After that, the piece is done!
Creating an illustration is an undertaking, and it can take a lot of trial and error getting to the finish line. Some days, you’ll follow your normal procedure perfectly, and other times it’s just pure chaos. The creative process comes out in different ways, and sometimes you need to accept it and move in the direction you need to. None of my stamps were created using the exact same process: sometimes I started with sketches, other times I started directly in Illustrator with no game plan.
The more and more you create, the easier it gets to take what’s in your head and translate it into pixels or pen strokes. It’s intimidating to start and it’s ok to make a lot of mistakes along the way. That’s how you learn, and you might mistakenly end up with your own version of the Twelve Wrong Days of Christmas. Thanks for reading, good luck out there, and keep creating!