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How To Get Started With Illustration

Now that you’ve learned a few tips on how to draw from Part 1, you’re ready to start practicing your illustration skills. But sometimes you can’t start illustrating because you don’t know what to draw. You rack your brain for ideas, but your mind remains a blank canvas. Sound familiar?

Creative blocks happen when we can’t find the inspiration to fuel our creative work. They can happen to anyone — amateurs, professionals, and even illustration enthusiasts like you. While creative blocks may leave you feeling discouraged, there are ways you can overcome this.

In this article, I’ll be sharing some insights on how you, as an aspiring illustrator, can overcome creative blocks and eventually figure out what you’d like to draw.

1. Study works of various artists and designers

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something.
Steve Jobs
Many tend to think that people who generate groundbreaking ideas out of thin air are naturally creative. In reality, what makes these people creative is that they’ve gathered a ton of inspiration, which allows them to relate one idea to another.

How is this achieved? For illustrators, one of the best ways to gather inspiration is to constantly study works of artists and designers from various time periods, genres, and styles. Don’t limit yourself to studying one field alone; it’s better to find inspiration from multiple fields, such as graphic design, architecture, fine art, and the like.

By being exposed to multiple fields and styles, you gain a broader perspective of how differently people interpret the world or find solutions to problems. Moreover, you compile an inexhaustible list of ideas to use.

Here are three things I’d recommend when studying works of artists and designers:

Read up on both art and design history

This will help you get ideas on how you can mix and match different styles and art movements into your illustrations.

A useful website to check out is The Art Story. If you’re running on a busy schedule, The Art Story is the perfect place to learn on-the-go because it lists the key ideas of each art movement in history, as well as notable works from each time period.

For offline reading, an excellent series is Taschen Basic Art, a collection of art books each with a biography of an artist and illustrations of his or her work. My favorites from the collection include books about Matisse, Rousseau, and Toulouse-Lautrec. I also recommend Meggs’ History of Graphic Design because it explains concepts in a visual format.

Follow Instagram or Twitter accounts of artists and designers you like

This is a great way to keep up to date with what’s happening in the art and design world. My favorite accounts to follow include:

Alice Lee
Alice is an artist and illustrator based in San Francisco. Her most notable works (in my opinion) include creating a custom illustration brand system for Slack and her murals for Webflow and Dropbox.

Joy Li
Joy is a graphic designer based in Sydney. Her work is inspired by gender, race, and cultural studies. Her data-driven project, Living as an Asian Girl, which expresses the challenges Asian women face in Western society, went viral. More recently, in partnership with Adobe Asia Pacific, Joy created the ABC Chinese New Year Survival Guide, a booklet that helps Australian-born Chinese deal with annoying relatives and other family-related struggles during the New Year.

Gizem Vural
Gizem is an Istanbul-born illustrator who won two medals from the Society of Illustrators. She has also worked with clients like the New York Times, the Guardian, and MIT Technology Review. Her illustration for the New York Times Book Review about a 6-year-old boy’s mother learning about her cancer diagnosis shows her skill at using abstraction for imbuing emotion into her pieces.

Analyze works by asking yourself questions

To effectively study works, you need to analyze them. You can’t do this by merely staring at a piece of work all day long — you need to be introspective and ask yourself questions. Some questions you can ask yourself include:
  • Why do I like or dislike this work?
  • What makes this work different from other works out there?
  • What was the intention of the person who created this body of work?
  • How did the person communicate this intention through their work?
To further deepen your knowledge, you can also research the background of the artist or designer. When doing this, I ask myself:
  • What are some of the artist’s or designer’s influences?
  • How do these influences affect the artist’s or designer’s works?
  • What is the artist or designer’s process with their work? Which techniques and methods do they use and how?
  • What are the artist’s or designer’s beliefs about their works?

2. Invest in non-art-related activities outside your comfort zone

Just because you’re an illustrator doesn’t mean you’re only limited to engaging in art-related activities. In fact, it’s better to immerse yourself in a variety of experiences, preferably ones that get you outside your comfort zone.

The easiest way to achieve this is to do something different from your daily routine once in a while. For example, you could prepare all your meals for a day with only six ingredients, or choose a different route to get home. Other activities that can take you outside your comfort zone include traveling and spending time with people whose views are different from yours.

While you may feel uneasy doing some activities at first, you’ll end up with more unique experiences, which can become interesting stories to tell and provide rich mental imagery to draw on in your work.

3. Write at least five ideas in a journal every day

Sometimes, the best ideas come during unexpected moments. You could be stuck in traffic or having a conversation with friends when your inner voice murmurs an idea in your ear. However, because most of us live busy lives, we end up pushing ideas aside and forgetting them.

Illustrators need to avoid this tendency, as every idea is an opportunity to connect one idea or image to another. The more ideas you generate, the more connections you can make.

It might be hard to remember every single idea, but it helps to keep track of them by writing them in a journal every day; try for at least five a day. The ideas can be as random and weird as you’d like. If you’re not used to writing in an analog journal, using note-taking software, such as Notion and Evernote will do.

4. Process your experiences by reflecting

We won’t learn from our experiences unless we process them. By reflecting upon our experiences, we not only become more self-aware, but we also establish a deeper understanding of our experiences. Who knows? You might have realizations from places you previously overlooked.

For example, perhaps you just came from a trip to the beach. You can reflect by asking yourself questions like:
  • How did this trip make me feel? Why?
  • What did I like the most about the trip?
  • What could have been better about the trip?
  • What did I learn from the trip?
  • How could I apply the learnings from my trip in my everyday life?
When we become proactive in seeking new experiences and reflecting upon them, we learn new things, and in effect, we make more connections with our thoughts. Hopefully, with these tips on how to find inspiration and stay creative, you can overcome creative blocks and eventually figure out what you’d like to draw as an illustrator.

What’s next?

Now that you’ve learned the basics of drawing, as well as tips on figuring out what you’d like to draw, it’s time to put what you’ve learned into practice.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll be sharing tips on how to get your work out there and gain more experience as an illustrator.