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The five stages of digital illustration

Images: Eric Wilkerson

4minutes read

09/21/2022

Award-winning artist Eric Wilkerson (Wizards of the Coast, Scholastic, Marvel, Wētā Workshop, Disney) breaks down the five stages of digital illustration.

Eric—whose career spans film, TV, advertising, publishing, animation, comics, video games, and even costume design—is no stranger to a client brief and sees the five stages as an integral part of his illustration process.

Hi, I’m Eric Wilkerson, a digital illustration mentor at CG Spectrum. The following steps are an adjustable process I walk my students through in the Advanced Illustration Course. This process helps them discover their voice and gain the confidence and speed necessary to be successful illustrators.

Let's get started!

What is digital illustration?

Digital illustration is the creation of a narrative image that tells a story, conveys an emotion or mood, and helps sell a product. While traditional illustrations are created using methods such as oil paint, acrylics, and watercolor, digital illustrations are made using software such as Adobe Photoshop.

Why do we need the five stages of digital illustration?

The five stages of digital illustration are important to know because an illustrator is being hired to create an image within a deadline. Having structure and defined stages helps us adhere to a timeline and follow our progress more clearly.

Stage 1 — Manuscript / Art brief

After receiving the initial call from a client, due dates and fees are negotiated for preliminary sketches, color studies, and finished art. A short description of possible concepts is given to the artist and, in some cases, the entire manuscript as well.

I read through the manuscript, circling and selecting passages of character descriptions and potential designs. The time allotted for completion of each painting varies from one week to three months, with factors such as sales conferences and marketing deadlines dictating the final delivery date.

Stage 2 — Rough sketches

While reading the manuscript or treatment, I generate small value and color sketches. These small sketches allow me to see how different ideas may function on a very basic level: strong silhouettes, harsh lighting, scale relationships, and diagonal actions.

A quick sketch of Miles Morales from Spider-Man that Eric did for Scholastic.

I can produce as many as a dozen or as few as two. It is difficult to describe what I am seeking visually, but I usually find at least two to three of these abstracts are worthy of producing final drawings from. I push hard at this stage to really focus on the overall value and color palette of the image. Solving this part of the puzzle early on gives the client and me a general idea of what the final art will be.

Stage 3 — Reference Gathering

Once the color sketch is approved, I focus on gathering reference for figures and other details. Often times I will create assets in 3D. I love making reference maquettes when I need to paint things that don't exist.

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For the Shuri comic, I got to sculpt a prop (see image above) that served as reference for some background black panther statues.

This took a fun couple of hours to make and paint in acrylics. It provided just enough info to see how light and shadow affect the form. I took it outside around the time of day I wanted to depict in the final painting and shot a bunch of reference photos. The rendering on Shuri was the only thing that really matters, so it was left up to me to fill in what the background details would look like in the final art. 

Along with creating reference maquettes, I extensively research props, costumes, environments, textures, and character types during this stage, formalizing any of the elements I wish to include in the final illustration.

I actively seek out influences from other art forms—Islamic textile patterns, East African clothing, Egyptian architecture, etc., and other artists' work to inspire my imagery.

I don’t believe in guesswork when it comes to investing potentially weeks of my life on an illustration. Working out my color scheme and gathering as much reference material as possible guarantees that I won’t need to stop during the painting stage to try and figure out what to do next. I can just put on some music and switch into pure render mode.

Stage 4 — Full-size drawing

With all the reference material gathered and the final rough composition situated nearby as a guide, I then create a digital line drawing in Photoshop for the painting. This drawing is created at a one-to-one ratio to the final painting. I’m not trying to do a polished grayscale rendering here; instead, my goal is to produce a detailed line drawing roadmap to guide me as I paint.

HubSpot Video

Shuri cover detail timelapse by Eric.

Stage 5 — Final painting

When the drawing stage is done, I merge the line art down into one layer and proceed to block in my painting. Since I have already worked out my values and colors during the reference gathering stage, I proceed to scale up that color study to the working size of my final painting. 

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Final Shuri Book Cover Art by Eric Wilkerson

The color study is placed underneath my line art, which is either set to a multiply blend mode or is just black lines without a white background.

The enlarged color study acts as a base color layer for my painting. From here, I develop the image from background to foreground. I am consistently looking back to my references as I develop the painting.

Creating a digital illustration is a time-consuming process, and this is just my way of getting results. I’m not someone who likes to fumble through an image or repeatedly need to alter my rendering as I go due to poor planning. I follow the 5 “P”s of creating art: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance.

Timelapse video of Eric's work showing the 5 stages of digital illustration in action.

For more great advice from Eric, check out The CG Spectrum Podcast episode featuring Eric and fellow artist Ovidio Cartagena or read about him becoming an illustrator


Learn the five stages of digital illustration from industry mentors like Eric!

CG Spectrum's digital illustration courses not only teach you about the five stages of digital illustration, but they also ensure you put them into practice, guided by expert mentors! Experiment with hand painting, photo-bashing, and 3D paint-overs and graduate with original work for your portfolio.

Whether you want to work in film, games, or publishing, our career-focused courses prepare you for an exciting career in your chosen field!

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[more]Read CG Spectrum's bio[/more]

CG Spectrum is an online animation, VFX, digital painting, and game development school that brings the industry to you. Whether straight out of high school, changing careers, or upgrading skills, our goal is to help you build the job skills and confidence to pursue your dream career in film and games. Get more out of your education with world-class career training and mentorship from leading film and game industry experts.