Sketchbooks & Process


I love black and white. It’s such a powerful color palette, one that forces onlookers to move beyond the surface and explore the details contained within. Since my style of illustration is predominantly black and white—and trust me when I say that style comes with a whole set of unique challenges—I thought I’d share my process, from beginning to end, to highlight the rather detailed journey I undertake every time I craft a new piece. So, dear readers, shall we begin?


My process always begins with a concept. A foundation. An idea that inspires me and implores me to create. From that idea, I craft rough sketches in my sketchbook using nothing more than a standard no-frills black pen. These rough sketches help me put my ideas on paper and are typically messy. But once I have a firm grasp on the style, elements, and layout, I move on to formal sketches. This stage is more structured and involves a careful application of ink to paper in order to generate the desired look and feel. Since the formal sketches are eventually scanned, I draw them on 110-lb. white cardstock using illustration pens.

When I start to gain momentum in the formal stage, it’s not an odd occurrence for me to draw with two pens in my hand (typically a fine tip and broad tip) so that I can easily switch back and forth. Although all the elements of my illustration are compiled using one or more sheets of cardstock, I don’t worry about composition at this point. My biggest concerns are the line work and each element’s relative size.


When I complete my formal sketches, I scan the work. Regardless of whether the illustration is for print or online, I always scan at 300 dpi (dots per inch) to ensure quality output (this will show up as 300 ppi in Photoshop, i.e. pixels per inch). And since my style is black and white, I will either scan in Grayscale or convert color scans to black and white in Adobe Photoshop.


With the elements imported to my laptop, I begin to create the composition! That means each element of the illustration must be copied from the original scan and then pasted into my master document (which is usually 8″ x 10″). However, since this piece employs an inverted black-and-white palette, I must do some fancy footwork before I move on to the next element.

The most obvious task is inverting the item. But since that technique does not produce a bold white, the step that follows requires the Levels feature to brighten those whites in order to create the desired contrast.

Next, I must remove the solid background so that my illustration’s master background is revealed. To do that, I erase the extraneous details from the original scan, which is followed by selecting the color/areas I want to remove (using the Magic Wand Tool) and pressing Delete. That leaves me with a beautiful white-line gesture drawing atop my scanned texture background.

Composition and detail

Now that all the elements are imported and refined, it’s time to create the composition and various artistic details that will bring the whole thing together (note the small changes in each screenshot as I move through the process and realize that certain decisions no longer work well). For this piece, I want a somewhat playful and magical look and feel, not only for the composition but also for the details. Therefore, I knock out the fill from the jar and light bulbs, and then add and arrange a pattern (from scanned craft paper) behind them. The two screenshots below show the knockout as well as my reducing the opacity of the background to determine the final arrangement of the patterns.

With that in place, I move on to refining the composition, which in this case involves quite a bit of time moving stars around the sky, resizing, and adjustments to the ground elements. As with every illustration I create, I use guide lines to ensure each component is aligned in a way that produces asymmetrical balance.

The following screenshots highlight what I look for in terms of balancing the elements: the relationships between the primary elements (yellow), the secondary elements (green), and the overall balance (purple and green). Click on each image for a closer view; and please forgive the casual nature of the highlighted lines…I was a bit impatient!




AND NOW, DEAR READERS, the final illustration…On Ideas & Fireflies: “Float into the night sky and flicker among the stars. Dance within the imaginations of all who dare to dream. Illuminate their minds and brighten the first step forward.”

Writing, photos, screenshots, and illustration © 2018 Joe Blend. All rights reserved.