Most of the time, I illustrate for my own book ideas. In this case, I was commissioned to illustrate a birthday card that KCCI 8 News sends out to their employees. A full color illustration like this takes time and this particular project clocked in at 71 hours and 13 minutes.

I start the process by brainstorming in my sketchbook. I make word lists, sketch out ideas, and play with compositions. I like to browse Pinterest for inspiration at this point. For the birthday card, I tried some things that didn’t pan out: using a square cake, scaffolding, and having a construction worker using a paving tool to lay down frosting like the gunk between bricks.

Making the Sketch

After brainstorming, I make a sketch of what I want the illustration to look like when it’s done. I don’t worry about using reference and keep everything very sketchy. Most importantly, I nail down the overall composition.

Ideas are still flexible in this stage. Down the road, it could take an hour to change a small component… but when the drawing is rough it only takes a moment. That’s why it’s important to critique the sketch at this stage with other artists.

I initially tried to illustrate two workers blowing sprinkles onto the cake with an industrial fan… it wasn’t reading quite right so I changed it to a circus cannon. Changes like this are really common! It takes time and feedback from others to figure out what jokes are landing and which ones are just plain confusing.

While I liked the cannon idea, it looked plain. I added in workers loading and transporting the cannons to give the idea more dimension. I finished the sketch with a skyline of buildings to suggest the builders are working on top of a roof.

I usually get the art director’s approval on the rough sketch so I don’t waste time refining it. What’s the point of making a rough sketch super pretty? It’s just a step in the process! In this case, I produced a more “final” sketch since I had multiple people approving it. Plus, they weren’t as familiar with my work so the extra step was needed. The final sketch is very clear what the illustration will look like. I hope the images in this article show how the sketch evolved during the revision process.

Color Study

I always create a mock-up of the colors (a color study). I learned about a technique called gamut masking from James Gurney’s book, Color and Light. I highly recommend it for any artist out there who wants to improve their color choices! It’s a method that involves creating a mask overtop a color wheel which limits the color palette. I like using triads- a color palettes that use only three colors. So, my gamut mask was a triangle with the three colors making up the three points.

Now that the sketch and color study got the thumbs up from the client, it’s time for the fun part… making the illustration for real!


I begin by making an underdrawing which is a process of refining the sketch and using reference to clean up the drawing. A placeholder drawing of a cube will become the actual body of a crane. A swarm of little scribbles becomes a sea of sprinkles. The point of this step is to do all the hard work of the drawing so that when I start inking, the hard choices are out of the way. All of the characters and backgrounds should be drawn how I intend the final artwork to look. I want my underdrawing to be tight enough so that when I go to ink it, I’m only making choices about line variation.

Now, it’s time to put on my favorite music and start inking! This part of the process is peaceful. It can be challenging not to take video for my Instagram story, I try to limit how much I update my social media while working. It’s just so fun and I love to share that!

It’s super easy to change the color of my linework in Photoshop. I keep the elements on different layers so that I can assign the linework colors that match the painting beneath it. It’s as easy as double clicking the layer and using a color overlay.


I keep four windows open.

  1. The final artwork canvas at 400DPI
  2. Color study
  3. Color palette
  4. Wacom pen settings

I use the pen settings often, adjusting the pressure sensitivity to easily fill big areas without having to press really hard and break my hand off. I keep the pen’s sensitivity high when doing light shading. I use the eyedropper to pluck hues out from my color palette and Kyle’s Brushes to lay down the color.

I did the backgrounds first and then worked my way around clockwise on the characters.

Slowly but surely, I finished coloring the illustration.

The finished product.

The final product turned out fabulous!