An Illustrator's Day - Custom Blog Banner Painting

Let's be honest: This isn't a "day" of work. The nature of illustration commissions makes them a long process spanning days or weeks, from sketches to last corrections. But: This would be an ideal day in the life of an illustrator, aka my ideal work day! I'll guide you through the entire process of creating a custom, personalized illustration - from idea to finished piece. 

Making-Of: Custom Blog Banner Illustration

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Getting Started with Beauty and Makeup Illustrations

I'd started drawing blog banners nearly two years ago, just after I'd gone from working for a comic publishing company to freelancing. My first 'Beauty' illustrations were just little sketches of my own favorite makeup products, but those quickly evolved into more elaborate motives, #motd drawings, and my very first sticker motives. Instagram really helped in getting the whole beauty and makeup illustration angle going. 


From sticker motives, I went on to draw product illustrations for online shops and beauty brands... and then the first few blog header illustrations

Beauty Blog Header Illustrations are to this day some of my favorite commissions!

The old header illustration - kept quite simple and with toned-down, cool colors. The new blog banner is warm-toned, brighter and more whimsical.

The old header illustration - kept quite simple and with toned-down, cool colors. The new blog banner is warm-toned, brighter and more whimsical.

So when Sooyoona from Something Beautiful requested a new version of her previous blog banner, I was excited to both draw the piece and look at how my art style had changed in the meantime. 

The process for custom art pieces: 

The commissioner/blogger/brand and so on provides a list of products, color schemes, random favorite decor elements (like flowers, patterns, stationery...) and an overview of their brand's style guide. 

Ideas can evolve from that, or from and image the client already has in their head. I personally really like the look of flatlay illustrations - as in, drawings that mimic flatlay photography. But I've also drawn desktop arrangements, cute shelving and floral pieces for blog headers. Depending on the blogger or brand, one theme might be more fitting than another. 

"Shelfie" inspired beauty blog banner with decorative hand-drawn typo for Aarirang

"Shelfie" inspired beauty blog banner with decorative hand-drawn typo for Aarirang

Based on those initial ideas, I then draw a couple of sketches to test different layouts, arrangements, and formats. Sometimes, a logo has to be included, either hand-drawn or as a typography element. 

Once a sketch has been chosen, we move on to the real thing: 

Watercolor Brand Illustrations:
Art Materials for High-Quality Scans

For these banner commissions, I use a certain type of paper and pencils to make sure that later on, when the image is scanned and used digitally, everything looks smooth and clean.

While watercolors can be really fun on textured, rough paper, those papers usually don't scan well. Most watercolor papers also have a cream or even yellow-ish hue to them, which makes color adjustments a bit of a pain. Since these illustrations are specifically made for digital presentation, I focus on materials that look better digital than when looking at them in real life.

A "What's in my Pouch?" Beauty Illustration for Shiaswelt. Love the pink pastel hues here! 

A "What's in my Pouch?" Beauty Illustration for Shiaswelt. Love the pink pastel hues here! 

Ideal Watercolor Paper for Scanning and Bright Colors

My paper of choice for the last five years (I've previously used it for comic book cover illustrations) is the Fabriano Artistico Watercolor Paper in Hot Press Extra White. It's so smooth that you can even use ink nib pens without the paper fibers clogging the nib, and the lack of texture makes scanning very easy. The Extra White color is a bonus for anyone who wants to use their watercolor illustrations digitally later on, with the white paper background easily used for color balancing. 

For commission pieces, I also prefer a very hard AND a soft pencil, both applied with soft pressure. 

Why two kinds of pencils? 

  • A 2B or 3B pencil, used with soft pressure, leaves the paper undamaged and is easy to erase. This is perfect for sketching before then drawing the lines with a waterproof pen. 
  • A 3H or 4H pencil, again, used with soft pressure, for the parts of the drawing that won't be lined with a pen or ink later on. Since I won't erase these lines before using watercolors, the hardness of the pencil prevents 'stray' pigments or pencil dust that might mix with the water and leave nasty streaks or stains, and the light color of harder pencils also looks pretty much invisible after coloring on top of them.

Pencils and Pens to use with Watercolors

On the image above you can see the pencil lines drawn with a 3H pencil (this one by Faber Castell) for the center piece of the illustration, which won't receive any pen outlines. The green plant elements around it are already colored in and the pencil lines there just leave a hint of definition.

The elements I'd previously sketched with a 3B pencil (I absolutely love this 'School Line' 3B pencil by Caran d'Ache ever since I discovered it while applying for art school!) are now drawn with a sepia multiliner by Micron. The soft pencil erased easily, and the Fabriano paper does well with even more heavy-duty eraser rubbing. 

I use a Tombow MONO eraser for actually erasing pencil lines. If you've never tried MONO, you're missing out. These are magical, and I've gone through about a dozen while working on comics and illustrations for the last couple years. 
For just toning down lines or removing graphite dust pigments, I prefer a kneadable eraser by Faber Castell.

Coloring an Illustration: First Watercolor Layers

Before going into too much detail for any part of the illustration, I try to get a grasp of the overall color scheme. While the brand's or blogger's colors have been discussed previously, there are still a lot of tiny color differences and shading decisions that I make on the go.

I was using both my Windsor & Newton watercolor set from anno ... 1995 or something, and my brand new Shinhan watercolors. The Shinhan colors are brighter, mostly as a result of the Windsor and Newton ones slowly aging and me carelessly mixing colors in the pans, which gives a bit muddier results. The Shinhan tubes are also really cheap, so I'd recommend getting a set of these when you're just starting out with watercolor painting or if you're looking to expand your collection of shades.

Layering Watercolor Layers for Contrast and Saturation

Once the whole illustration has been covered with a first layer of color and I know where I want to go with the contrasts, where I want to put the most saturation and therefore focus, the details are allowed to join the fun!

I add details in two different ways:

  1. Detailed shading, hints of realism in the objects, tiny details of the objects themselves
  2. Watercolor textures and "random" patterns

The first one is self-explanatory. Adding light reflections, detailed shading and coloring in even the tiniest parts of a drawing automatically makes the result more detailed, playful and intricate. 

The second technique adds visual interests to otherwise simple parts of a painting. I used watercolor patterns and textures on the book covers, the cup and the pouch, as well as all over the background. But adding in tiny watercolor 'splashes' that look random but are carefully placed all over the illustration keeps the end-result from looking too clean.

A chaotic desk illustration with lots of beauty, makeup and stationery products! This one was on the realistic end of my blog illustration spectrum and I loved the more detailed shading and three-dimensional view. 

A chaotic desk illustration with lots of beauty, makeup and stationery products! This one was on the realistic end of my blog illustration spectrum and I loved the more detailed shading and three-dimensional view. 

Word of Warning for Wet-on-Wet Watercolor Techniques:

I don't actually splash around with watercolor. While I love playing with wet-on-wet techniques and random effects in my sketchbook, I really, reallllly don't want to ruin a commission piece! Random effects are fun, but well, they're random and can go very wrong. So my watercolor textures are carefully placed and I don't use too much water - that way, I have more control. 

The center element without pen outlines and, instead, lots of plant elements.

The color scheme for this part of the image is actually quite different from the rest of the image, making it its own entity while still fitting in with the overall image. I used warm greens, mixed with beige for the desktop illustration, but colder greens mixed with blue and white for the logo part.

Using White Watercolor for Effects

White isn't traditionally a part of a watercolor set. But Shinhan has a white pigment tube in their set, and I love adding it to illustrations. It tones down colors, making them milkier.

Ultramarine blue on its own, for example, is a dark blue but very 'see-through'. Mixed with white pigment, it becomes slightly lighter, like a pastel version of the previous color, and loses the see-through quality - so you can paint over mistakes, pencil lines, or add more plasticity!

I used only Ultramarine blue mixed with different quantities of white for all blue parts of the center logo. 

The rest of the illustration doesn't have much if any white mixed in, so the colors are 'purer' and warmer.

After the illustration was finished, I scanned it with my Epson Perfection V330 Photo scanner (Epson has some of the best scanners for color accuracy among all those I've tried so far - while staying affordable) and adjusted exposure, levels, and contrast in Photoshop.

The original piece I mounted on cardboard for a cleaner look and more stability. 

You can see the finished, digital version over on Sooyoona's blog "Something Beautiful". 

Finished the illustration!

That's it for my painting process of commission pieces. Of course, each custom illustration requires a different approach, depending on the style, color scheme, and subject, but the overall work process remains similar. 

If you'd like to commission an illustration, contact me at with your ideas, or head over to my Etsy shop! You can always use the contact form, too. 

I illustrate for a variety of media, but mainly:

  • Social Media Custom Art
  • Custom Logos and Icons
  • Blog Post Editorial Pictures
  • Personalized Portraits or Avatars
  • Product Illustrations
  • Personal Branding 
  • Custom Youtube Headers, Blog Banners, etc...

Do you use watercolors? Any tips and advice to add to my rambling post? :) 

If you're an artist - beginner or advanced - then my art advice on two ways for improving drawing skills can be found here!

Thank you for reading!

Stickers Making-Of - Scanning & Editing Watercolor Drawings

If you've ever scanned in a watercolor drawing (or any image with soft hues and delicate color transitions) you probably know the horror of seeing your digital image looking VERY different from the original.

Where black-and-white images or strong colors are quite easy to edit, techniques like watercolor and colored pencil require more care. Especially if you prefer leaving parts of your paper white, but don't want the paper structure to show up in eventual prints or digital presentations. 

So while I'm still new to color images and maybe not the best choice for advice, I'll show how I usually edit my watercolor drawings in Photoshop.

Photoshop can be purchased on a monthly basis, which is a bit of a curse and a blessing in one. While I hate paying every month instead of just 'getting it over with' once, I'm glad that this takes care of eventual program updates, and it makes the initial expenses a lot more manageable. While I've used a lot of different graphic programs, from freeware like GIMP to Paint Pro SAI, Corel Painter and Clip, I do come back to Photoshop for image editing all the time. It isn't the most intuitive program for actual 'painting' (that's where Corel Painter wins...) but since I prefer painting traditionally anyway, that doesn't bother me. 

But these tips should be applicable to a lot of programs since I'm not using anything fancy. The basics are, well, basic enough to work nearly anywhere. 

My other materials can be found on my 'Resources' page - from watercolors to scanner and graphic tablet, I've listed them all there. But as with Photoshop: The materials really don't matter all that much, as long as you know what you're doing. ;)

Let's go!

First, you'll need something to scan, of course. 

Select the highest resolution that works for your laptop/PC. I work with 600 dpi since that allows me to zoom in while correcting the image - anything beyond 600 dpi is just a pain in the ... backside of my laptop. 

Once you've got your scanned image open in Photoshop (or graphic program of your choice), crop it and duplicate that layer! Having a layer, set to invisible and pushed to the very bottom, is the perfect backup and comparison material for when you mess up along the way. 

For a long time, I then went directly into color adjustments to get the image as bright and natural looking as possible. But I've changed my approach a few months back:

I apply a selection mask to my objects first.

It's a lot of work, yes, but I've found that trying to get the background white by color selection/adjustment layers only, I always use more color nuances than necessary in my drawings. Especially for my sticker motives I like to keep the 'hand-painted' feel and the editing to a minimum, so this gives the closest results. 

Step by step: 

Background Color Selection

Go to 'Select' and choose 'color selection', then click on the white color of the paper to give the program a color reference. This will select all white or white-ish spaces on the drawing, with more or less leeway depending on the percentage you enter. Play around a bit - this really depends on your paper, the intensity of your watercolors etc.

But really, don't fret too much if the selection isn't all that accurate. Because next, we'll expand that selection (by clicking on 'Select', then 'Options') by 1 pixel, thus swallowing some of the pesky dots that refused to be selected. 

Then, inverse the selection (again under 'Select') so that instead of your white space, you have only the colored objects selected. 

Create a vector mask by clicking on the tiny symbol at the bottom of your 'layers' window. This makes everything that isn't part of your selection transparent. 

Working with Layer Masks

Now for the incredibly dull part: Take out your graphic tablet and refine that mask. This means both correcting the borders of objects and the interior of objects where you'd left white space or only very light colors in your drawing.

Really, my only advice for this is: Reduce the size of your Photoshop window and re-watch your favorite episodes on Netflix on the same screen. For reference: Correcting the mask for my Bonsai trees took two episodes of Parcs & Rec. Yay. Good times.

Yes, it's possible to get good, clean results without masking. But especially if you want to 'cut out' individual parts of the drawing (like individual trees) to make stickers, re-arrange the layout, or plan on printing anything: You'll be glad you did this later on. Our eyes see details like gray smudges or dots much better on paper than on screens, so while your picture might look clean on the monitor, you might be in for a surprise after printing. 

Bonus Tip: Personally, I find working on a transparent background or white background incredibly hard on my eyes. That's why I created an extra layer in a dark color. Much easier to spot stray smudges this way!

Upper right part of the tree is 'cleaned up', the lower left leaves much to do. 

Upper right part of the tree is 'cleaned up', the lower left leaves much to do. 

Adjust Layer Mask with Brush Tool in Black and White

I tend to leave a slight border around my drawings, especially if I have used a pen instead of just watercolors. It's easier to keep the drawing's borders looking natural and hand-drawn instead of overly digital. But every image requires a different approach. 

You can also see that now that my masks are in place and the clean-up well-advanced, I've started playing around with adjustment layers to see how my final pieces will look. I mostly adjusted brightness levels and cranked up vibrance, saturation and shifted the hue slightly down. 

Color Balance comes in handy especially when working with colored pens to draw the outlines, like the sepia I'd used for these. Sometimes, they can look too bright or not match the colors in the aftermath. I toned down the yellow in those lines via Color Balance. 

Apply Layer Mask

Once every tree is corrected, a right-click on the vector mask (the small black and white thumbnail in the layers window) and selection of 'apply layer mask' will make the mask permanent, leaving you with individual images on a transparent background: No paper textures except in the drawings themselves, no smudges, no dust grains from the scanner. 

Then, I can select individual trees with the lasso selection tool, copy-paste them into new files and save them individually for future use - like arranging them on A4 paper for printable files, or smaller formats for sticker sheets. Here's where the initial 600 dpi decision comes in handy: I only need 300 dpi for my prints, which makes the trees large enough to work on A4 paper despite the original drawings being slightly smaller. 

Is this the most time-effective way of getting a white background? Nope. But it is the way that keeps my original drawings looking as close to reality as possible, with me being able to adjust the background and the drawings separately.

I'm not sure if this 'tutorial' is helpful - I do hope so, but I think you'll need to know some Photoshop/graphic program basic knowledge, like how to work with masks and adjustment layers, to follow along.

So do tell me where I should expand or add additional steps. I'm thinking of doing a breakdown of how I create coloring pages, too.

The finished drawings can be found on my Etsy both as printable files and sticker sheets