Graphite Illustration Process

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

Hello everybody! Today I'm sharing how I go from sketch to finished illustration. Seeing an artist's process has always been fascinating to me, so I thought it would be nice to give everyone a peek behind the curtain. Let's take a look!


This is probably everyone's least favorite stage of a piece, but I find it super critical when working on larger projects. Drawing out thumbnails is the perfect time to work on composition, lighting, and color. While I only focused on composition in these thumbnails, there have been many instances where I planned color and lighting for my piece.

I knew what I wanted the image to look like primarily, but I wasn't sure which orientation would look better. You can see me thinking about that in the first two thumbnails; one is landscape and the other is portrait style. I decided landscape would make the narrative stronger, so I used landscape for the remaining thumbnails.

Scale was the second element I was testing out. Did I want the figure to be in the cave or outside of the cave? How close did the eyes need to be? What other objects would be present in the piece? These were all questions I was trying to answer through these thumbnails. And while I ultimately removed the figure in the end, I was still able to pick the strongest iteration because I gave myself many options. A lot of the time, we just want to get started. But it can be a huge mistake to just go with our first idea. Thumbnails are a much lower-stakes option for testing out ideas before moving onto something that is much harder to fix. What sounds better: fixing a mistake on a 30 second sketch or starting over after spending hours on a drawing because of poor composition?

Sketch and Transfer

After I decide which composition I want to pursue, I make a final sketch. This is where I work out issues with the details and overall object placement. You can see the figure has been removed at this point. I also chose to leave out the vines and rock details in the end, because they weren't adding to the image. (Although, I think I might go back in the future and add some foliage back into the image. Art is never truly done, so don't be afraid to fix things after a piece has been "completed".)

I then use tracing paper and transfer paper to move the sketch to my final piece of paper. This saves so much money, because good drawing paper is not cheap. I don't want to scratch my good paper or tear a hole in it by erasing a lot, so I do all the messier parts in my sketchbook. This results in clean linework and clean paper for the final image. I also just tape the tracing paper into my sketchbook when I'm done with it. It makes it feel like a scrapbook and makes it feel more interactive. I love how messy and truly ugly my sketchbook is. It takes the pressure off for it to be perfect! I mean, look at those scribbles where I was trying to figure out what was making my pencil so scratchy - that's definitely not social media ready.


This is the finished piece. It's titled, "The Void Looks Back." It's based on the paranormal principle that once you start looking into the void of the paranormal, it will notice you noticing it, and more paranormal things will begin to happen to you. It's a pretty intriguing idea, and I wanted to see if I could translate it into an illustration. When thinking about a void, an image of a cave came to mind. So I decided to place an eerie, ominous face in this cave to depict the void noticing the viewer. The cave is surrounded by pretty normal, albeit odd-looking, objects to make the viewer unsure if something bad is about to happen.

I know there aren't any process photos for the final drawing, but I think I'll save those for another post about critiques and how to adjust work after receiving feedback. I was lucky enough to get really good feedback and direction for this piece, and I altered it several times while working on it. As such, I think the process photos for this would work much better in a post all about critiques. But just for a quick rundown, my process is very slow - I lightly build up graphite in multiple layers, working from the hardest leads to the softest ones. I make sure to keep my pencil sharp and primarily use the edge of the lead to avoid creating indentations with the point. I also use reference photos to get an idea of how to render different objects in the image. But that's really it - a lot of slow, deliberate work over many, many days.


Thanks for going on this process journey with me! I hope it was insightful or helpful in some way. I think it's important to see an actual process these days, especially now that everything has to be pretty much perfect for social media. My process is anything but picture perfect, and I hope that this post reminds you to spend more time on the process rather than the product.

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Thanks for reading and happy creating!