My top 5 tips for creating and editing beautiful illustrations using watercolour & gouache


If you’re just getting started with hand-painted illustrations and feeling a little confused, hopefully this post will give you some helpful tips as to how to get a clean and polished look for your work. These tips are what work for me and my style, and may be different for you but hopefully a few of these will help you along the way.

  1. Don’t go too light

    Though you might appreciate that subtle sheen and super transparent tint, go a little heavier on the colour. Super light washes tend to disappear and get lost while scanning and editing, and in my eyes one of the important parts of illustration is providing clean & neat work (unless your style is known for being on the messier side). For example, if you’re painting a light blue wash for the sky, paint it a little bit darker or more saturated so it shows up better in the scan. You can always lighten it up afterwards if you went a little overboard.

  2. Invest in good brushes, but not in good paint (yet)

    If you’re anything like me, if you go out and buy yourself some expensive paints, you will probably not end up using them out of fear of wasting them. If you’re in the early stages of your career, or you are trying out a new medium, buying cheaper paints will take away the guilt of using them all up and wasting them all. You need to waste paint to an extent, because you need to let yourself try new things and make a mess before you figure out what works for you. Buying some good brushes, on the other hand, will take you very far and will help improve the quality and ease of your work. See if you can find some good brushes on sale, but try to buy professional quality brushes if you can (quality over quantity here!).

    I highly recommend Arteza paints because they’re very affordable (and actually used by many professionals) and work really well.

  3. Drawing & painting is only half of the work

    As a commercial illustrator, I need to make sure my illustrations are professional and sleek. This means that I can’t just scan something and throw it onto my portfolio without retouching it. Sometimes I spend more time editing a piece than it took me to paint it. Let the Pen Tool & Clone Stamp tool become your best friends.

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Before and after using the pen tool to clean up the outer edge of the illustration, see the difference? This method is great for any less-organic shapes like objects, people, clothing but for things like flowers, hair, fur, I wouldn’t recommend doing this.

4. Use Adobe Lightroom

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Using Adobe Lightroom for my illustrations has been life-changing. I like to follow a very selective colour palette with my work so being able to adjust specific colours within the painting is wonderful. Use the colour mixer to your advantage, or to create edits for a client who needs a specific colour palette. I find that my illustrations tend to scan quite dull, so taking them into Lightroom gives them some life again!

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See how dull and boring the first illustration looks compared to the second one?

5. Last but not least, Less is More

As someone who can spend hours on minuscule details, I have quickly learned the importance of sort of “getting to the point” in an illustration. You don’t need to portray something exactly like the photo unless you’re going for a super realistic look. Sometimes the most simple & quick paintings I’ve done are my favourite ones, whereas those that I spent hours mastering every detail simply feel too busy to look at. This is where the difference between art and illustration really comes in, you need to think about what you’re trying to communicate with what you’re painting. Illustration is art but put to work, so it needs to be effective & clear, and in my eyes, less is truly more.

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In the first illustration, I spent so much time on all the little details that the result is a bit too busy for my liking, whereas the illustration on the right is much more effective, you still see some background details but overall it’s more appealing because it’s more clear to the eye as to what’s going on. This is of course personal taste, but I do believe that in a commercial setting simple and clear is always best.



Sabina FennComment