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Article: The Complete Guide to Create Digital Illustrations

The Complete Guide to Create Digital Illustrations

Hey designers! This article contains a free complete guide including great examples for you to learn and create digital illustrations. Check this out!
Created by Ronin 161 |

Nowadays, companies are now cooperating illustration to their product design as it could add unique value to their brand. Most companies prefer to use digital illustration than traditional as complex digital artwork could be done faster and often can be duplicated with precision. This could be a great chance for you if you'd like to start your career as a digital illustrator.

This article will provide you with important tips like essential key tools, keyboard shortcuts, as well as useful techniques that might help you to speed up your work to create digital illustrations. As for applications that we will be discussed in the article, we choose Adobe Illustrator for vector illustration and Adobe Photoshop for pixel illustration as the two are the most popular tool for digital illustrators. Hopefully, the information that is provided would help you to better understand how to create the digital illustration.


What is digital illustration?

Simply put, digital illustration is defined as an illustration that is created using computer software with the help of tools like a mouse or stylus pen. There are many computer software that could help artists to create digital illustrations. However, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator are the two most popular ones as both software provide a great range of tools and a responsive user interface.

It is important to note that digital illustration is different from graphic design. The main objective of an illustration is to represent a text or idea visually in the form of drawings or paintings. Whereas graphic design's main objective is to convey a message to the targeted audience using strategically put design. Both might coincide and overlap but clearly have different usage.

Created by Michael Dziekan |


Vector illustration: Adobe Illustrator

Vector digital illustration is an illustration that is created using software like Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw. The biggest difference in creating digital illustrations using this software is that you can easily resize and modify the pictures without worrying that they will look jagged or blurry.

For artists who are planning to develop digital illustrations using Adobe Illustrator, important tips that you must know first are as follow:

1. Don't hesitate on using Pen Tool

Pen Tool is a built-in tool within Adobe Illustrator that is used for laying anchor points, creating paths or shapes, as well as controlling curves within those paths and shapes. Pen Tool might be too intimidating for those who just learn how to create digital illustrations. However, if you can master it well, this tool will work wonders for creating rich and flowing digital illustrations. Here are pro-tips on using pen tool:

1.1. Know the shortcuts
While using the pen tool, you have to be aware of helpful keyboard shortcuts that Adobe Illustrator provide, which are:

  • Pressing SHIFT to constrain the path to perfect 45-degree angle.
  • Pressing ALT while clicking any anchor point that is not on a curve will turn the corner to be a curve.
  • Pressing ALT while clicking any anchor point that is on a curve will turn the curve to be a corner.
  • Pressing left click to lay an anchor point. Laying an anchor point while pressing ALT at the same time will make it possible for you to drag one handle out before laying another anchor point.

1.2. Know how to add or remove anchor points
As you create digital illustrations, at some point, you will possibly need to remove anchor points. This could be done easily by left click any anchor point using Delete Anchor Point Tool or the Add Anchor Point Tool. These two tools could be found in the Pen Tool selection in the toolbar.

1.3. Use fewer anchors
Less is more. This principle also works on placing your anchor points when you developing digital illustrations. Using many anchors might make it easier for you to draw. However, this also will cause your illustration to look bumpier.

Ultimately, the best way to master using the pen tool is to practice using it diligently. You can simply look up 'Pen Tool Exercise' in your preferred search engine in order as one of the ways to get used to using the pen tool. There are many tutorial videos and courses as well that you can use to familiarize yourself with the mechanics of the tool.

Created by Nuria Boj |


2. Play around with shapes using pathfinder

Creating complex digital illustrations can begin by combining simple shapes like circles and rectangles. Pathfinder would help you tremendously in creating shapes that are made from many simple shapes combined. The Pathfinder panel also provides lots of selection. This could be helpful, especially for those who create digital illustrations that are flat and trendy.

When playing around with many shapes on your illustrations, there are some tips that might be helpful for you:

2.1. Even complex illustration consists of simple shapes
If you're stuck as you developing the digital illustrations, remember that everything could be broken down into a simple shape. You can do an exercise by finding a picture of things you see around like animals or tree and break it apart into basic shapes. Afterward, you can outline the combined shape to see if it works or not. This could also be an exercise for you to get more creative on your digital illustration.

2.2. Harmonize your art
Creating harmony in your geometrical shapes would please the eyes more. Be consistent with your choice of shape. If you choose shapes that have lots of edgy corners in your digital illustrations, then any other details should be in similar shapes. You also have to ensure that your shapes are perfectly matched before you merge them.

2.3. Make your illustration curvy by taking the edge off 
If you'd prefer to create digital illustrations with lots of curves and flows, you can simply turn the edgy corners using the Round Corner Tool.

Created by Estudio Pum |


2.4. Master brush tool if you want to make a freehand illustration
Creating freehand digital illustrations is also possible in Adobe Illustrator. To enrich the texture as well as many types of strokes that you can choose, you should be familiar with the paintbrush tool panel. There are five types of the paintbrush that you can choose, which are:

a. Calligraphic Brush
If you want to draw something that looks as if it's made out of pen ink, this could be the brush that you can use. Using this brush also allows you to define nib as well as pen point.

b. Scatter Brush
This tool can define your desired vector as a brush and scatter it across the board.

c. Bristle Brush
This brush will give you the appearance of a paintbrush ranging from acrylic paint to watercolor paint.

d. Pattern Brush
This tool would help you to create a pattern as you stroke the brush.

e. Art Brush
By using this tool, your vector could be defined as a brush then be stretched along the path.


After knowing the types of brush and what kind of finish they give off, you can utilize this to develop digital illustrations that are unique. If you're worried about making shaky lines as you freehand drawing, you can change your line's fidelity by double-clicking the brush icon for the options panel to smooth the line out.

2.5. Save your artwork correctly
As the vector image is completely different than pixel one, you should ensure that you won't save your artwork in the wrong format. Once you save your digital vector illustration as pixels in the wrong way, the pixel image would have lower quality compared to the vector version. That's why this is a fundamental function that artists must be aware of. If you're saving your vector as a gif, jpg, or png, you should choose the function Save for Web.

First and foremost, you have to ensure that your Artboard is showing all the artwork you want to save. You can easily check this by using Artboard Tool. Afterward, you could immediately go to file then click Save for Web. This way, the pixelized version of your vector art would look as optimized as the vector graphic one.

Created by Ryan Ragnini |


Pixel Based Illustration: Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop is another graphic software that is used to create digital illustrations. The one difference from Illustrator is that this software is pixel-based, which means the graphics used here aren't scalable. Adobe Photoshop works best for photo-based illustration. If you'd like to incorporate your traditional artwork into your digital illustrations, then Photoshop is your best go-to graphic software. Here are some tips that you can apply when you create digital illustrations using this software.

1. Get used to the layer system

The most basic feature that you have to get used to when it comes to Adobe Photoshop is the layers feature. If when you draw your illustration, Photoshop isn't doing what you desire, chances are you have chosen the wrong layer. Here are some tips that you can apply when you manage your layers:

1.1. Work your way up from behind
You can think of layers like sheets of glass that are stacked on top of each other. You can start your way, beginning from the background up to the smallest detail. If you would like to change some details afterward, you can easily choose the layer that contains the details you'd like to change.

1.2. Create groups of layers in order for an easier organization
Group the details of your illustrations into several layer groups so that you can have a better organization. You can easily hide or lock some groups if you want to make sure that they won't get changed whilst you work on other things.

1.3. Name each layer neatly
It might be easy to remember one or two layers, but when it comes to creating digital illustrations, you might be working with dozens of layers that you might forget every detail of each layer. That's why it's very important for you to name your layer neatly so that you can easily tell every detail contained in every layer.

You might find that Photoshop isn't doing something that you want it to, only to discover that it's an issue with your layers. Having a basic knowledge of this feature can help to avoid road bumps and frustration when you're using Photoshop.

Created by Nicholas Chuan |


2. Utilize Presets

It's important for an illustrator to be consistent with their art style. Adobe Photoshop would help you regarding this as it has a Preset feature. With Preset, you can save brushes, shapes, patterns, and many more. This will save so much of your time, especially if your client demands you to create digital illustrations in a very short time.

To view your presents, you can simply go to edit> presets > preset manager. You would be able to see a new list of Presets in there. Moreover, you can also access more presets by clicking the drop-down option in the upper right corner.

Aside from that, you can also browse lots of free brush or shape presets that you can apply to your digital illustration. However, don't forget to credit the creator of those presets that you've used.

Created by Anna Butova |


3. Stroke lines using the right brush

Just like Adobe Illustration, Photoshop also allows you to hands-free drawing by using a brush. Photoshop itself already comes with various types of brush with rich textures. However, it is possible for you to add more texture and type of brush by installing new sets of brushes. You can easily purchase online or download brush sets for free. Here are some tips that you can apply when you're using a brush to create digital illustration:

3.1. Use Rotate Tool
Rotate tool will allow you to rotate your brush. This will surprisingly give your stroke a different result and makes your drawing looks richer.

3.2. Smoothen Out Your Stroke
You can change the smoothness of your brush stroke in the options bar. By increasing the smoothness will help you create a slick and curvy line. For those who do digital hand lettering in their digital illustration, this will help tremendously in reducing the jittery of every line.

3.3. Change color easily
With Adobe Photoshop, you can easily change color as you desire. There are two main ways of changing the colors of your artwork in Photoshop:

a. Lock the pixel
Press the 'lock transparent pixels' button in the Layers panel to lock down all active pixels in the layer. As a result, you'd be able to paint over all existing pixels without adding more new pixels. However, ensure that you unlock those pixels after you're done changing the color.

b. Clipping Mask
First of all, you should create a new layer. Then in the Layers panel, click the thin line between chosen layers while pressing Alt. You would be able to see a small arrow linking to the layer below it. As a result, the color that you apply on the clipping mask will automatically be in the previous layer as well.

Created by Lorena CM |


4. Use texture to add depth

When you create digital illustrations, playing around with texture could help to add authenticity and uniqueness to your artwork. Moreover, choosing a unique texture would give you a more unified look at the art that you produce.

Photoshop lets you import your own textures. You can easily do it by clicking Layer – New Fill Layer- Pattern, or you can simply press the 'create new fill or adjustment layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel.

Since you can import any picture and turn it to be texture, you can flex your creative muscle by creating various types of texture. You could even do it manually by hand drawing textures on paper using pencil, watercolor paint, or acrylic, then scan it before importing it to Photoshop. You can also easily change the color of your texture by using the same methods when you change the color of your brush strokes.

Created by Guilherme Franco |


5. Corporate your sketchbook in the digital illustration

Creating digital illustrations doesn't necessarily mean you can altogether forget your sketchbook. Using Photoshop, you can actually work with your traditional illustration.

In order to bring the best out of your traditional illustration, it is best to separate your linework and shading. As you scan your linework, ensure that it is contrast enough that the computer could pick up every stroke and line easily. It's better for you to use a black pen or marker as they have deeper color.

Once you've imported the scan of your linework, you can separate the lines from the background by following these steps:

  • Select all the images or press CTRL + A, then copy them.
  • Look for the 'Channels' window, then create a new channel that will show up as black.
  • Paste the image, then invert it by pressing CTRL + I. The image will become white.
  • Click 'Load channel as selection' so that your image is selected.
  • Get back to the Layers panel to open a new layer.
  • Press CTRL + backspace, and this will color in your selected area.

As for the shading layer, you can do exactly the same steps. This way, your sketch is now completely digitized, and you can add more details using Photoshop!

Created by Steven Noble |



So here are the two complete guides for using both methods to create digital illustrations. Both guidelines work in different ways as one creates vector-based outcomes and the other produces pixel-based images.

Which of these two methods would you prefer to use? We hope you enjoy reading through our design guidelines. Feel free to drop us comments on the section below. Have a great day, and cheers!

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