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How I Illustrate

Anybody can write a story, some write good stories.  Really, anybody can illustrate, but it is my job to illustrate well.  Through my process of idea generation and refinement, I strive to make the best illustrations possible.

First, I read the text to be illustrated.  If I do not know what the text is saying, I cannot illustrate it.  In this case, the text was the nativity story from the Bible.

Very often when reading a historical story, I realize that many details have been left out.  What exactly did people wear during that time period?  The author is not going to spend a chapter detailing the make and fit of the heroine’s dress with the fabrics and patterns.  So I will have to research characters and settings outside of the story in history books and encyclopedias.  Sometimes I will call museums or specialists to isolate the right fact.

Throughout the research stage, I am thinking of images.  How can I illustrate the text in the most powerful way?  As I am researching, or afterwards, I spend a certain amount of time creating rough sketches.

A rough sketch is a road map for the artist.  Many clients insist on seeing sketches, but I have rarely met a nonartist who understands what the illustration will look like straight from the sketch.  A better indicator is either the final drawing, the color study or a color sketch.  Often I will jump straight from the rough sketch to a color sketch, and then start refining that into the final illustration.  However, I started with a rough sketch for this illustration because of time issues.

After a sketch is approved, I look for source photos.  For this painting, I visited a farm and photographed cattle eating.  A friend who lives across the country posed as the face and my sister posed in costume as Mary.  In lieu of a friend from New York, I posed for Joseph, but more on that later.

I also looked up pictures of sheep on  Most photos only give a feeling for the anatomy of the sheep, and I mix and match body parts and poses, making sure to keep the image my own.  Every once in a while, I run across a pose and lighting situation that matches exactly what I want and have to resort to changing the species, like in the above image.  In the final illustration, I changed the species to one of those speckled lambs.  I would be more careful with what I use for my sources, but this was a donated illustration.

After creating my source collage, I create a color study to get a better idea what the painting will look like when it's finished.  I now have correct poses from the collage, and can experiment with the colors.  I paint the characters and setting in with broad brush strokes, not caring about a lot of detail.  I know that I will be going over the entire painting before it's finished.  I just want enough detail to get a feel for how the painting will look in the end.

The faces and the hay painted.

I usually break the illustration down into sections.  I work first on this face and then that face, then on this body and then on that body, then on the foreground elements, and then on the background elements.  Step by step, inch by inch, I steadily finish the illustration.

Sheep painted on the right side.

Cattle painted on the right side.

Mary's outfit painted.

Animals painted on the left side.

Wall blocked in and Joseph painted.

Often when painting a face, I will have a friend pose as a character from history or as a different nationality.  This pose will give me the lighting and much of the modeling needed, but will not give me the unique facial features.  I will then find photographs or artwork depicting the face I need.  I will then think about the face in a three-dimensional way and model the face after the source, while preserving the lighting of my model.  As a final step I will tweak the expression to make it exactly what I want.

Rock wall and final tweaks.

After I finish a painting, I send it off to my clients and often they have suggestions to improve the painting or to mold it more closely to their vision.  Sometimes comments can leave me feeling troubled, as any creative person feels when someone critiques their work.  Many times, though, after assessing them for validity and urgency, the suggestions cause me to create an even better painting.  And I really enjoy making my paintings better.  There is few things in life as pleasurable as a job well done.


  1. I love that you used the recreation of what a man from Nazareth would have looked like in your creation of Joseph. Nicely done!

  2. Great description of your methods. Love to see other people's creative process.

  3. This is amazing work Matthew! How do become a blog member?