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Smithereens, Post No. 4: Stylized Non-Fiction

Posted on by Rebecca Green


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Smithereens: [smith -uh-reenz] Plural Noun. 1. Small pieces, bits.
Smithereens are tiny pieces, fragments of a larger thing. In this series of blog posts, I share small slivers of my process, thoughts on materials, and insights into the larger world of illustration. 

Drawing people was 'easy' when I created realistic work in college. Yes, there were formulas and there were rules....but there were formulas and rules! When you're trying to draw real people in your style, that's where things get tricky. Because the equations and guidelines just sort of fly out the window, don't they? How can you look at a photo (or ten photos) of a person and draw them in your own visual style without getting too caught up in the realistic details? 

I've spent the last ten years doing just this and have created some little formulas of my own - take that realism!! Would you like to know this super complicated, very tricky, and almost impossible wizardry? 

Four Words: Put the photo away. 

Not at first of course, you'll need to look at something! And I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start from the beginning, shall we? 

*Today I'll be drawing Anne Frank, who is someone I've always been inspired by, though just thinking about her and seeing these images busts my heart open. I realized I didn't have a clear example to show you with my previous work so I did a quick sample of the this process for this post. 

1. Gather references - dig online, go to the library, request photos - and if you can take the photos of the human yourself, do that! Also great to gather references of clothing, backgrounds, any small details that might add personality and story to the illustration of your subject. What time period, culture or location are they from? Can you add pieces of these realms into the illustration? 

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2. Draw, draw, draw. This is my least favorite part (and the sketches I'm least likely to share!) but it's necessary. Don't try to make anything too perfect, just pay attention to the features and characteristics of the subject. The shape of the face, eyes, eyebrows, the shapes of the nose, or the hairstyle - these are all monumental features in a person. Draw objects, clothing, etc if you think those will be helpful in the final illustration. 

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3. Here we go: put the photos away!! You don't need them anymore - you're now working solely off of your first studies. Do a second round of sketches, just by looking at your initial drawings for reference. Try to mix up posture, perspective, layout, etc. to make the drawing your own. Remember - it's the goal to break away from the photos. 

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4. Ready for it? Again! Put the first set of drawings away! For the third round, you'll only be drawing from your second round of sketches. Is it starting to feel more like you? More in your style? Usually at this point, I start to see the character evolving in my style and I feel more comfortable capturing their essence in my own visual vocabulary. 

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5. Start your final! Once you settle on a sketch and you've got your line work done and ready to fill in, start painting (or screen printing or drawing or inking, or whatever you do!) I usually don't go back to the initial references, but if you need to peek at details like eye color or clothing, do so, just put the photo away again. Remember, this is a creation from you, not a photograph. 
** Since this is a quick example, I left out a lot of details in my drawing - like the pattern on her diary, flourishes that would have allowed the viewer to know where and what time period she's from. I really recommend building those details into your final illustration. 

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And what's more - this wizardry works not only on people, but animals, plants, buildings, and anything you want to stylize. This process has helped me tremendously as I've had to research for illustrations, while keeping the drawings in my style. Do you guys have any tips that you've found helpful for translating real life into your personal art approach? 

Cheers and Happy Stylizing!