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Learn to be an Illustrator

Updated on September 26, 2012

Art Instruction

This lens exists to help those who would like embark on a serious study of drawing and painting in styles both representational and exaggerated. The books, links, and videos recommended in this lens will develop an artist's ability to use line, value, and color in artistic compositions.

Join the Comics Experience Creator's Workshop.

I am the art moderator for the Comics Experience forums. I regularly give critiques on artwork posted.

The Benefits of Studying Illustration

The above two pictures were done by the same person, Alex Ross. Clearly Ross was not born with the ability to draw; it's something he learned through intense study. If your illustrations are closer to the drawing on the left than the painting on the right, there is no need to despair -- it means you probably have not engaged in the same intense study that Alex Ross has. If you are willing to put forth the effort, however, progress awaits.

Part 1:

Basic drawing and perspective

The First Book You Should Read - Part 1 of this learning lens. There are no prerequisites required.

Making good observations is an essential skill when learning to draw. Betty Edwards's book is full of great exercises to help develop one's observational acumen.

The strength of this book is also its greatest weakness. It is critical of analytical approaches like perspective and constructions. I recommend using you're whole brain for drawing, but there is nothing wrong with starting with the right side when you're learning.

The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

This is the best place for beginners to start. This book will teach you to draw what you see.


Supplies To Get Started

Here is a list of supplies that I use the most. Experiment with supplies to see what works best for you.

The Myth of Talent

Studies show it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. That means 5 to 10 years for most people, depending on the level of immersion in the new skill to be acquired. Becoming a "talented" artist is no different. It's simply a matter of effort.

Marshall Vandruff's Perspective DVDs - This video suppports part 1 of this lens

This is a clip for a video series you can buy at The DVDs contain 12 hours of perspective instruction. I ordered them based on the quality of instruction in this YouTube video. Marshall Vandruff has put together first rate instruction. If you have ever struggled with perspective, Marshall Vandruff is the answer to your problems. I consider the DVDs indispensable.

Perspective Books to Support Marshall Vandruff's DVDs

During his lectures, Marshall Vandruff references the two books listed below. Both are well written and easy to understand -- especially after listening to Marshall's lectures.

Perspective Drawing Handbook (Dover Art Instruction)
Perspective Drawing Handbook (Dover Art Instruction)

This book shows you what the rules are, is simple to understand and has lots of great diagrams and pictures. If you can only get one perspective book, get this one.

Creative Perspective for Artists and Illustrators (Dover Art Instruction)
Creative Perspective for Artists and Illustrators (Dover Art Instruction)

Once you've learned the rules, this book will show you how to break them.


Plaster Drawing Casts: Simple Shapes

The famed anatomy teacher Robert Beverly Hale said, "You learn to draw by coming to shape conclusions." What he meant by this is that artists break down what they see into simple shape combinations based on the sphere, the cube, the cylinder and the cone. Knowing how to draw and shade these simple shapes will help you draw the human body once you realize how to construct your figures using these shapes.

Additionally, drawing from white plaster casts with simple lighting will help you understand form, and value. This is a necessary skill to develop in order to successfully work with color.

Part 2:

Anatomy, construction, and proportion

Andrew Loomis and the Best Illustration Books Ever Written - Part 2 of this learning lens. The prerequisite recommended is Part 1.

The English philosopher, Fancis Bacon, once said, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." Andrew Loomis's books are of the kind to be chewed and digested. My approach has been to read the books all the way through to get a good understanding of Loomis's approach, then to go through them again, pencil and sketchbook in hand to commit his teachings firmly in memory.

Loomis's books, "Fun with a Pencil," Figure Drawing for All It's Worth," and "Drawing the Head and Hands" can all be understood by beginners. "Creative Illustration," and "The Eye of the Painter" should really be in Part 3 of this lens as they are best studied only after studying the other three Loomis books. I implore you to seek these wonderful books out.

Fun With a Pencil
Fun With a Pencil

This is an easy read. If you are just beginning with drawing, this is a good place to start. It will expose you to the concept of construction, which is building complex shapes out of basic shapes. Loomis does not burden the reader with precise measurements of proportion necessary in realistic work, so it is lighter in tone, while providing a solid foundation in the Loomis approach. I love this book, but it can be skipped if you have some experience drawing.

Drawing the Head and Hands
Drawing the Head and Hands

In this book, Loomis starts with construction, delves deeper into the subject by introducing concepts of proportion, planes, anatomy, and tone. These are the same concepts he uses in "Figure Drawing for All It's Worth," but the ideas are easier to digest because the subject matter is limited to just a few body parts.

Successful Drawing
Successful Drawing

This book covers a lot of the same material covered by Marshall Vandruff in the DVDs listed above. I would say this is not a good first book to get on perspective, but it's a great second one. The diagrams are hard to understand if you're just starting out in perspective. If, however, you already have a good basic understanding of perspective, this will deepen your knowledge.

Figure Drawing for All It's Worth
Figure Drawing for All It's Worth

Most of what needs to be committed to memory with regard to proportion and anatomy are in the first two chapters of this book. This is a book to read and reread.

Creative Illustration
Creative Illustration

This is largely considered Loomis's masterpiece. I have experimented with some of the design approaches in my own work with good success.


Loomis Method Demonstrations

Abdon J. Romero demonstrates the Loomis approach to drawing a head. In this series, you'll get an idea of basic construction -- how the head is built up from a simple sphere.

"Lack of knowledge can be greater torture than the effort of acquiring it."

— Andrew Loomis

More Anatomy and Figure Drawing Books to Study

During the early to mid 1900s, three art schools produced more than their fair share of illustration talent. The schools were the Art Students League of New York, The Chicago Art Institute, and the American Academy of Art in Chicago. Howard Pyle, the father of American Illustration, helped found the Art Students League, and helped influence the curriculum at the Chicago Art Institute through a four year correspondence with the school's administrator. He also lectured at both schools.

Andrew Loomis is special in that he attended all three schools, the Art Student's League and the Chicago Art Institute as a student, and the American Academy of Art as an instructor. During his career he was exposed to the best art instruction of that (and arguably any) era both in the schools and in the art studios that surrounded the hubs of the publishing industry in Chicago and New York. Loomis's contribution of distilling and exhaustively recording this instruction in his books is the chief reason his books are the gold standard of illustration, and the reason many artists revere him.

His anatomy instructor, George B. Bridgman, published anatomy books. After so many of his students went on to artistic immortality, his books should not be passed up. While I have no doubt of his teaching ability, I have less faith in Bridgman's writing ability. It is for this reason that the work of his student and teaching heir, Robert Beverly Hale should also be studied. I suspect that Hale's work is a more complete record of what Bridgman must have taught.

Dr. Paul Richer's book, "Artistic Anatomy" is a classic that is referenced by Hale in his own work and is also eerily similar to the anatomy instruction of Loomis. I suspect that Loomis may have been directly or indirectly influenced by Richer's work and should therefore be studied.

Andrew Loomis and Alex Ross

Alex Ross was influence by, and studied, Andrew Loomis extensively. In fact, when you look at Ross's studies of his character turn arounds (above right), you'll clearly see that he is using Loomis's methods and proportions (above left). The above left picture came from "Figure Drawing for All it's Worth," by Andrew Loomis. There are other books out there that use similar methods, usually derived from Loomis, but no one ever explained it better.

"[B]ad drawing springs from basic faults as surely as good drawing springs from basic merits."

– Andrew Loomis

Master the Above Skills

Good drawing is the basis for illustration. Once you have mastered the fundamentals of drawing, adding color is not a difficult transition. The transition from line to tone is much harder, in my opinion, than the transition from tone to color. The reason for this is because, as a watercolorist I once knew explained, value is what makes a picture read.

If you still have doubts consider this fact: Leonardo Da Vinci produced over 15,000 notebook pages littered with drawings in his lifetime, but left behind less than 20 paintings. He could paint well, because he could draw well.

Likewise, Vincent Van Gogh insisted on focusing on drawing fundamentals for two years before he put oil to canvas. He struggled mightily to improve his drawing skills, often working through intense frustration. When he finally did start painting, it came more easily to him because of his efforts to learn perspective and anatomy.

Mastery of the fundamentals is more important than any advanced technique. Once you have mastered drawing, the world of art will open up to you.

Included below are some suggested resources and reading to push you in the right direction. It is by no means exhaustive. I've included books from both Alex Ross and Steve Rude, both disciples of Andrew Loomis through his books, and are the two artists today who are more responsible than any other for keeping Loomis's methods alive. I've also linked to other lenses that you will be able to make use of after you have mastered drawing.

It will take years to master the above skills, but take heart - it takes every artist years to master drawing. I'm still working at it too.

Part 3 and Part 3 (alternate):

Color, composition, and various techniques

Watercolor Books and DVDs - Part 3 of this learning lens. The prerequisites recommended are Parts 1 and 2.

The following books and DVDs will help you get acquainted with watercolor. The second book, on watercolor composition, can be useful even if you work in another medium. I would recommend it even if you never plan to paint in watercolor.

Basic Watercolor Techniques (Art Instruction)
Basic Watercolor Techniques (Art Instruction)

This is one of the best beginning books for aspiring watercolorists. Don't skip the easy exercises. Pay close attention to becoming familiar with your paints and it will pay dividends in the long run.

Watercolor Composition Made Easy
Watercolor Composition Made Easy

The emphasis on this book is COMPOSITION and encourages artistic license. It will help you interpret and edit what you see to make your compositions more appealing.

Getting Started Right in Watercolor with Jan Kunz (DVD)
Getting Started Right in Watercolor with Jan Kunz (DVD)

This isn't on Amazon last I checked, but look for it and other DVDs by Jan Kunz on the web. In addition to reading books, watching skilled artists work is both highly inspiring and instructional.


Comic Book and Cartooning Art Instruction - Part 3 (alternate) of this learning lens. The prerequisites recommended are Parts 1 and 2.

Comic book art is worth studying because comic book artists must be able to draw ANYTHING--and do so while telling a story. For this reason (and maybe a little bias) I've included the following resources for your consideration.

The Art Of Comic-Book Inking 2nd Edition
The Art Of Comic-Book Inking 2nd Edition

This book will teach artists about the tools and techniques of working in ink.

Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross (Pantheon Graphic Library)
Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross (Pantheon Graphic Library)

Alex Ross is the pop culture Norman Rockwell. In addition to being an inspiring book, there is a tutorial at the end about his process of working with photographs.

Joe Kubert's Comic Book Studio: Everything You Need To Make Your Own Comic Book
Joe Kubert's Comic Book Studio: Everything You Need To Make Your Own Comic Book

This book is very simply put together but is a gem. The supplies aren't that great but the insights into the process of planning a comic book are invaluable.

Draw the Looney Tunes
Draw the Looney Tunes

I recently discovered this book. Unlike most cartooning books which only give "recipes" for characters, this book will give you the underlying approach to create your own characters.


Comic Book Artist, Alex Ross

This is a short video, but you get a quick look at how Alex Ross works.

1. Thumbnail sketch

2. Photo reference

3. Final painting

Alex Ross studied the Andrew Loomis's methods extensively and is considered one of the most talented artists in the field.

Part 4:

Additional resources

POST YOUR ARTWORK!!! - Here are some collaborative learning environments for ALL PARTS of this lens.

I can't stress enough how important it is to get involved in artistic communities. You'll get exposed to many other ideas and get feedback from talented artists from around the world.

Shopping for Supplies

Most of the books will recommend various art supplies. If you can't find what you need at your local art store, go to Cheap Joe's.


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