Illustration Station, Kidlit County

How do you do that?

Some questions I hear about my work are:

  • “How do you do that?”
  • “Is that watercolor?”
  • “Is that pastel?”
  • “Colored pencil?”

The answer is pencil with digital color.


Let me provide you with a brief tutorial (without giving away too much of my secret sauce ;D). Be advised, this post is more for art nerds who are interested in technique. I won’t be offended if you just want to look at the art and leave the shop talk to the artsy fartsies.

STEP 1: make a pencil drawing 

I start out by filling a whole sheet of paper (I use Strathmore drawing) with loose graphite and a shammy. I use a mechanical pencil with 2B lead for laying out the composition. Then I “chisel” out the drawing by darkening with a graphite stick, pencil, or more loose graphite, and I erase out the highlights.


STEP 2: refine

I scan my drawing (be sure to scan at least 300 dpi) and bring it into Photoshop. I am currently using CS5. Now is the crucial moment to go through the drawing to retouch any imperfections, move anything around, darken, lighten, etc. Can you spot the differences?



STEP 3: color overlay

I usually like to make a color overlay that will set the “mood lighting” for the piece. If you were a painter, you might call this a unifying wash or glaze. Since my setting is a candle lit room, I want the cold, grey graphite to be warmer and cheerier. So, I make a copy of my black and white image layer, open up my “fx”, click on color overlay, set to multiply, and search around within the color picker until I’ve found something that makes me feel warm and fuzzy.






STEP 4: adding local color

Next, I start adding color to all the different parts of the drawing. I create a new layer and fill it completely with one color. I set the layer mode to multiply so that the pencil comes through the color. Then I add a layer mask and fill it completely with black, so that the whole layer looks like it disappeared. Finally, I select the layer mask, set my brush, select white in my color palette, and start “filling in” the places that I want the color to show through.



It seems like a very long winded way to add color, but this way I have more control. Since I’m not coloring directly on the pencil layer, I can remove color later. Also, if I were drawing with my brush in multiply on the actually drawing layer, I would have to keep the brush in contant contact while coloring, or else the color would over saturate if two separate brush strokes were to overlap.

STEP 5: final touches

Now that all of the local color has been tended to, it’s time to put on the finishing touches!





Here I’ve added another color layer that’s a bit golden in color—another unifying wash, to give it that candlelight glow. I’ve set the layer to multiply, and brought the opacity down to 33% to keep it subtle.




However, those candles and sparkling crystals aren’t bright enough for me to believe the light, so I create a new layer and go in with a white brush to bring out those saturated points of light.




Finally, I create one more layer, this time with the mode set to hard light, and go in with my brush once again, this time with a more golden color at a lower opacity, to paint the shimmering reflective light onto the details (mostly the metal and glass objects that would pick up a strong reflection, like the candelabra,  mirror and frame).


And there we have it! One magical feast made to order! So, if you’re curious, please give it a try. When you’re done, send me a link so I can see it!



23 thoughts on “How do you do that?

  1. Just saw you featured on SCBWI and I love your work! It’s sumptuous..and really fun. I’m learning Photoshop and this post is great. I can’t wait to experiment with overlays and masks now. Thank you for posting your process.

  2. Just want to say your article is as astonishing.
    The clearness in your publish is simply excellent and that i can think
    you are an expert on this subject. Fine with your permission
    let me to grab your feed to stay up to date with impending post.

    Thanks a million and please carry on the rewarding work.

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  6. This is super cool! I’m actually working on a joint blog post with Danielle from This Picture Book Life about your book Little Elliot, Big City. My site is an illustrated food blog, so I was curious to see what technique you use – and …. we use essentially the same technique!! How fascinating! I apply my color a little differently than you, but I almost always do a full value pencil drawing, scan that in and do all of my color and finishing touches in Photoshop. I’ll have to fool around with your method a little bit and see how that goes for me. Thanks for sharing!

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  9. I absolutely adore Little Elliot, whom I have just recently discovered! Thank you so much for sharing how you compose your beautiful illustrations. I can’t wait to try this technique.

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