How to create illustrations when you can’t draw

Personal story with practical tips

Trust me, you won’t want to see my drawings. And rightly so – my abilities are very modest. But when I was a design trainee in my last year of college, my agency was in a quandary: we needed to do vector illustrations urgently, and there was no one to help with that. Deciding to prove myself, I volunteered to try… (Yes, the girl who can’t draw). It soon became clear that the process was actually not as difficult as it seemed. The end result not only met the needs of the Fortune 500 client company, but also served as the starting point for countless other illustrations used by companies across the country.

Sketch and final illustration for the blank state of Envoy

It was not the result of sheer willpower, and the stars did not magically converge that day. While the artistic principles of pencil drawing and vector illustration are similar, the tactical approach for beginners is very different. In traditional drawing, you are essentially trying to control the movement of the pencil according to your will. To a beginner, this may seem daunting. When it seems impossible to draw a normal circle, creating a “good” illustration looks like an overwhelming task. You must deeply understand fundamental principles such as lighting and perspective, and that takes a lot of practice.

This does not mean that these skills are of no value (or that vector drawing is easy), but in the case of vector graphics, the learning curve becomes less steep. It is no longer a mountain, but a hill.

One tool

Before you start practicing a technique, you must first understand the program in which you will be working. There is one characteristic that is critical for creating vectors. This is the Pen Tool. I can’t say how many times I heard moans at the mere mention of its name. While it can be disheartening, mastering it doesn’t have to be excruciatingly difficult. I entirely attribute my success to just one thing: labyrinths.

I did these exercises when I was in college. The task is to go through the maze in the same way as you do it with a regular marker, only you need to use points and curves instead.

How to create illustrations when you can't draw
Complete the maze with as few anchor points as possible

After a week of maze exercises, I never had any problems with this instrument again. If I could choose what to recommend to aspiring illustrators, I would certainly send them to conquer the mazes.

Rapid growth thanks to copying other people’s works

A huge factor that allowed me to quickly master the illustrations (or as I affectionately call them illos) was that I did not start from scratch. Instead of coming up with every little thing – shape, color, perspective, message, texture, and so on – I simply rearranged and supplemented the existing set. Copying is the fastest way to understand artwork and how it was created.

Parsing other people’s illustrations

One of the illustrations my agency requested did not have an editable file, so it was my job to recreate it perfectly.

I started looking at what components would be required to rebuild – a circle for this, a modified rectangle for that. Except for some unique curves here or there, almost every piece was formed from simple shapes that we learn in kindergarten.

In fact, it actually turns out that most flat illustrations are based either on these basic shapes (which Illustrator fine-tunes) or organic shape (for which mazes are great preparation).

How to create illustrations when you can't draw
Popsicle from circles and rectangles

I use shape presets whenever possible. Simply because we cannot draw a circle as perfectly as a computer. While this may seem like cheating, it will ensure that the end results look neat and neat. (Try Pathfinder, Corner Widget, and Scissors Tool to get better performance.)

How to create illustrations when you can't draw
Making pasta using a circle

Style development

Another challenge was to make more illustrations in the chosen style. This gave me much more room to make edits while staying in my comfort zone.

At first it seemed like a daunting task to use imagination to draw, but I applied the same logic as before – creating and tracing curves. Only this time, I used someone else’s illustrations as a starting point. It is extremely important not to copy someone else’s work, but to take a correctly performed technique as a basis. For example, I can find three different hair designs. I can take one image as a basis, and combine it with the bangs on the second, and the angle of the head from the third. After I formed this base, it was much easier to change the points of the curves until they were my own.

Five years later

Now I create illustrations several times a week without thinking twice about building blocks or how to build Bezier curves. I still can’t draw. But I do sketches to get rough ideas quickly. I do not call myself an illustrator – I am a designer who does a bit of illustration. This distinction is important because there are many skilled illustrators who are still very far from me. Maybe one day I’ll become an illustrator, maybe not (although I post work on Dribbble all the time.)

How to create illustrations when you can't draw
Some illustrations from work and side projects

Nothing comes easy, the most important thing is to just start somewhere … and sometimes it’s not as difficult to start as you think.

PS… If you try the maze challenge, we’d love to see your results! Write Envoy Design on Twitter, and maybe we’ll send you a surprise. 💌

Thanks for reading! Be sure to visit envoy.design and subscribe to be notified of new publications.

Thanks to Katie Riley, Jon Rundle and Kelly Wahlstrom.

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