Thoughts & Process: Drawing a Patterned Illustration

One of the things in fashion I love illustrating and seeing when I go out are people and characters who wear multiple patterns on one outfit. It’s one of those elements of fashion that I think gets an unfair rep for looking “gaudy” or “unkempt,” when it has the potential to look very nice. This is a slightly older illustration of mine, clocking in on February of 2020, but there’s aspects of this work that I think still hold up and contribute to discussion. So thanks for joining me as I discuss the thoughts and process behind a patterned portrait.

I have the original step by step process on my Tumblr post found here, if you’re looking for just a general idea of how this piece got developed. The core concepts of each step are:

  1. Making the original sketch
  2. Fixing any issues with anatomy, style, and all other minor issues with the sketch
  3. Moving and enlarging the sketch to make for a more appealing composition
  4. Drawing the line-art on a separate layer
  5. Turning off the sketch layer, and put a flat color on the character to more effectively make clipping masks
  6. Deciding and laying the flat colors on the character
  7. Painting general areas for the lights and shadows
  8. Blending lights and shadows, putting patterns on the clothing, & adding the paper texture background
  9. Final touches and signature
A sketch of a woman wearing a head scarf and dress, with a flower drawn on her left hand.

Originally, this was just a sketch I made for personal satisfaction in my sketchbook. Once I had finished, I realized I wanted more out of this than to just leave it as is. The character featured here isn’t an original character of mine, or at least not really: she was drawn for the sole purpose of this illustration. I should make some more concrete OCs…

Something I should clarify quickly: one thing I used to do in my sketches, in early 2020 specifically, was create what I called “light-maps,” which are places on the sketch that indicate what areas are lit and what areas would be shaded. In this sketch, the areas that are colored light blue are spots I marked as “receiving light,” and the spots that are pink are areas I deemed “needed shading.” This was pretty helpful at first, and definitely made for some interesting sketches along the way, but I eventually dropped this practice because I felt it made the distinctions between outlines and light-maps confusing, as well as I got more comfortable simplifying my sketches.

My next step is to, preferably after one day or more of finishing the sketch, is to scan the drawing into my computer, and correct any mistakes I see in the original, in order to get a better drawing. So what changed in-between the original sketch and the fixed? If you were to play a spot-the-difference with this slider, you’d find more than what you’d think based on a first impression. The major things that changed are the clothing folds now have rounder creases and edges, so they look a little more still and sit more naturally on the character. I also applied these same fixes to the woman’s hair. The woman’s right arm is more shapely towards the shoulder, and her right breast was drawn more appropriate to the angling of her body. Her hips are also just slightly wider, and her face has a more oval shape to it. Other than that, there were some minimal changes regarding my own personal preferences on how certain subjects appear.

A sketch of a woman wearing a head scarf and dress, with a flower drawn on her left hand. The colors are faded and the woman from before is enlarged.

After that, I decided to enlarge the fixed sketch and position the character in a way that I thought was more interesting for the drawing. I didn’t intend for anything much to go in the background since I primarily wanted to draw the patterns and fashion, and as you can see in the final result, all that I did was put a simple paper texture. So I felt comfortable making the character so much larger and take more of the composition up. I turned the opacity on the sketch layer down so it looks more faded. This is simply done in order to make it easier for me to see the line-art on top of the sketch, so you might not even need to do that step. I drew the line-art on a new layer above the sketch, and used just a simple black pencil tool to work the magic.

A sketch of a woman wearing a head scarf and dress, with a flower drawn on her left hand. Black lines overlay the original sketch.

After the line-art, it’s time to lay down the base color in order to create our clipping masks. What’s most effective here is using a magic wand tool on the white areas outside the character, inverting the selection, and then refining the selection edge by constraining and/or feathering it. I picked a solid middle gray color so it would be easier to see any mistakes in this process. After that, I made about 5 layers that further divided the various parts of the drawing: the head scarf, the skin, the dress shirt, her hair, and finally the shawl.

You probably noticed the shawl strings appearing in the after image. The way I did the shawl strings is surprisingly simple, so simple that I’m somehow proud of it. I remember when I bought an art-book called MANGA: The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Digital Painting Techniques and read it long ago, there was an artist named Sinad Jaruart Janapat who wrote how they felt pieces in an illustration that are smaller shouldn’t be overly detailed and kept simple. That’s one of the art trivia pieces I’ve read throughout the years that’s stuck with me. The shawl strings were done on a layer on top of the line-art layer, just in the case that I had messed up, and are all simply drawn lines of the individual strings with a wider brush. I wanted them to be simple, mainly because of the patterns that were going to exist on the clothing were already going to swallow much of the shawl string details, and excess detail would make the piece harder to look at. To finish up the strings, I transparency locked the layer, and did some very quick lighting on the strings and blended them in with the black. The lighter colors are towards the bottoms of the strings, and on the strings further behind the woman’s left arm. This entire process was simple, but very effective and I found it worked with my style quite well.

A drawing of a woman wearing a head scarf and dress. She's colored in dirty blonde hair, her scarf is black, her skin is beige, and her dress is a darkmaroon.

I used the lighting maps to determine where the lights and shadows should sit on the drawing. I blended them by using a lower opacity brush tool, and simply painting and working in a way that looked blended with the base colors. Depending on what material or surface your shapes are in the drawing, you may want some harsher or softer edges to your blending. This consideration is outlined on the character’s head in the final product, where the light on her cheek almost looks airbrushed, while the character’s forehead has a harsher shadow line when her brow starts receding back into the head scarf. When it comes to some of the smaller details of the color and lighting changes, such as the different strands of hair, those were implemented after the larger spots were blended.

Between the steps of painting the shadow spots and the next step with the patterns visible, there is a major difference I wanted to talk about: the woman’s dress changes color and gets closer to black. The reason for this color shift was simply to make the blending process easier on my eyes, since the other drapery around her was pretty similar in tone to what I imagined. If you have a situation like this, once you do your blending, you can use either the levels or contrast tools in your digital software to adjust the base color, while keeping the actual values of the lighting and shadows intact. I’m a pretty strong believer in being nice to your eyes!

An almost complete illustration of a woman in a patterned scarf and dress designed in roses. She wears a blue flower painted on her hand.

Now for the big one: the patterns. Normally when I make patterns for my artwork, I create vector patterns in CorelDraw, export them, and overlay them on the drawing. That is not what happened with this piece. Each pattern got its own separate layer on a clipping mask on the relevant fabric. Starting with the head scarf, I painted some flowers, some leaves, and some golden lines in order to make the final product look pretty bold and wild. I hand drew everything on the head scarf so the cloth’s folding could look more natural and would cause me less technical issues. The pattern for the dress was made with using some darker colors with an off red and teal, so that they’d look more muted on the character. Like before, not a single part of this pattern is copy pasted somewhere else on the character’s body, in order to make the pattern have an aged element to it. Painting the article’s patterns took me at least an hour each, my hands were sore after for sure, and I did it all on stream! But it’s not all bad, I think it looks good in the end, I’d like to wear a dress like hers.

All that remained to finish up this illustration was a couple of things. First, I added some hair strands outside the line-art on a separate layer. Next, I duplicated my line-art layer, made the original layer invisible, and then after preserving transparency, I colored the line-art various colors relevant to the parts the line-art was around. For example, I used a darker tan color to color the line-art encompassing the hair, and a darker peach for the skin. Because so much of this piece was dark, I didn’t have to change very much of the lines’ colors, but felt it important to do nonetheless. Finally, I put my signature on the character’s hip.

An illustration of a woman in a patterned head scarf and patterned dress. She bears a painted flower on her left hand.

So it’s probably worth it in the end to mention the things I don’t do with my current art style that exist in this illustration. For one, I don’t draw the individual hair strands outside the character’s hair anymore. Once I started refining how I wanted to draw in 2020, I realized that this practice made my characters look needlessly messy, and that I wasn’t applying these same standards to other aspects of the paintings I made, such as elements like grass. I also use completely different brushes that have a more colored pencil texture than the more oil paint feel of the character, and the slight crayon looking drawings of the patterns. This is because I realized that I wanted everything in my art to look like it came from the same tool in order to create cohesion. Other than that, the core concepts of my style from then to now haven’t changed much besides some different values in anatomy.

That about wraps things up for the discussion of this piece! I still like this piece a year later, although I could see myself trying to redraw something like it in my future. If you’ve read this far, I’d like to thank you for your attention and for looking through this work of mine. I wish you the best, until we meet again.

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