Learn how to draw so you can stop using Unsplash

Create inspiring illustrations in Procreate by following these 10 steps
Last updated
February 13, 2022

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I remember never having a simple answer for this basic question. It was as clunky as the ordinary, “what do you do?” question we get as adults now. 

Back then I’d answer, “Professional sports card artist.”

Huh?” was accompanied by the crooked head.

I was obsessed with drawing sports figures. I even had an unfinished, headless life-size portrait of Chris Webber on my bedroom wall before he was suddenly traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Washington Bullets. (It’s hard to imagine that as a team name now, isn’t it?)

In the ’90s, most sports card sets included a number of cards that were painted portraits of star players. They were worth almost zero cents as a collectible, but I couldn’t believe artists were paid to paint sports players. What a job! 

I spent much of my childhood drawing and playing sports. Even as an artistic kid, I was always looking for shortcuts. I would record cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, then pause the recording while we drew out the scene.

My dad even had a projector that would reflect a photograph upwards through a piece of glass, which would shine through a piece of paper if placed over it. It was easy to copy that way. 

I learned an important lesson early on. Copying is a shortcut to increasing your drawing skills. 

Here are the 10 steps I’ll cover to help you draw. 

  1. Use an existing piece of content
  2. Brainstorm a collection of visual ideas
  3. Remix your ideas
  4. Get your iPad and set up Procreate
  5. Select a pencil and a brush
  6. Trace your composition
  7. Fill with color
  8. Add depth by choosing a light source (Optional)
  9. Export your image
  10. Stay consistent and take it easy on yourself

Rethink everything you know

Learning to draw is like learning a language. 

You don’t need to be 100% fluent to get around. Knowing just enough to be conversational requires around 60-80% to get by.

Drawing is similar. To draw something unique, you don’t need to have thousands of hours studying theory and practicing just to create something visually inspiring.

The truth is, I consider myself more of a remixer than an artist. I can’t draw a perfect human figure from scratch. I roll my eyes at spending hours and hours behind a canvas. So, I prefer to pick reference materials first and use those as guideposts. And referencing photos shortcuts my process to creating custom illustrations. 

So, here are 10 steps to creating visually dynamic digital illustrations for beginners.

The Setup: My toolset

I spend most of my time drawing for digital purposes. So I like to stay in the digital realm as much as possible. This makes the workflow frictionless, so I don’t need to draw on paper, but you’re more than welcome to do so.

Here are the tools I use:

Step 1: Use an existing piece of content

Visuals typically support another piece of content. If it’s an article, a video, or something else, you might have an idea of what you want to draw. 

It’s helpful to have written the article, shot the video, or built the product so you have something to draw for. When I illustrate this newsletter, drawing is the last thing I do. That way, I already have some context for what I should be doing so I don’t waste time coming up with ideas.

But if you’re just drawing for fun, you can skip this step.

Step 2: Brainstorm a collection of visual ideas

You probably don’t know what you’re going to draw yet, and that’s ok. 

When I start out, I let my imagination run wild. For example, if I need a visual metaphor to describe the internet, I’ll do a quick Google search and start looking at images that might relate to this idea. Or if I’m writing an article based on the concept of selling onions online, I might look for clouds and onions.

I might save some pictures of clouds, technology-related objects, or other images that pique my interest. The idea is to grab a few images that act as a launching pad for your own, remixed idea. 

What you’re looking for are interesting metaphors for ideas. Images that might work well together, like electronic cables weaving up into the clouds. But, it’s ok to just pick an image with a clear meaning like the one I did for last week's article, Make it Yours. It was an article on personalizing a bike, and so I drew a bike. No harm, no foul. 

If you’re struggling with finding images, get out your phone and take photos of things around the house. If you need a picture of your hands, take a picture of your own!

My hands are used for this illustration, KonMari your creative life.

Collect around 3-5 images and start thinking about how to remix them in the next step. I usually add these to my photo library app on my iPad so it’s easy to access in Procreate.

Step 3: Remix your ideas

Now it might seem like the ideal time to open up Procreate and jump right in. But I recommend taking 10-15 minutes to take your collection of images and come up with a real concept.

The reason is that you could easily just trace an image in your style and be done. But usually, the most iconic and memorable images come from creating a composition. A strong metaphor. 

The way this happens is by creating something unique and visually grabbing. 

Some of my most popular illustrations came from combining and remixing photos together. One of my favorite examples of this is from my article, Konmari your creative life. I wanted to create a visual that felt calming and welcoming. This was also a play on Marie Kondo and her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Instead of decluttering your home, I wanted to present control of your digital clutter. 

For this piece, I thought a pair of hands opening up, with some small branded artifacts would catch people’s attention. 

I shot a photo of my hands so I could trace them, then simply added branded artifacts on my hands as a way to show which assets I was organizing. Some of the sparkles and stars that were added to the piece came after I was finished drawing. 

This image wouldn’t have been as strong if it were just the branded artifacts or the hands. Remixing these two ideas created a much more compelling visual. 

Take 10 minutes and think about how to combine 2-3 images, and I’ll show you how to lay them out in the next step.

Illustration concept for an article

Step 4: Get your iPad and set up Procreate

Now that you have an idea of what to draw, we need to get into our drawing software and add our images. 

Procreate is a powerful piece of drawing software that might feel intimidating, but we’ll just use a few of the basic tools. 

Create a new document
Start by creating a new document, using the default “Screen Size option.” You’ll be staring into a blank canvas, and you’ll next need to add your 3-5 images. Or the ones you decided to use. 

Create a new document

Add your images
Tapping the wrench tool in the top left opens a popover menu. Select “Add” from the first icon and insert the photos that you collected from your Google search. 

Create a new document

Move and mix
Before we start to draw, we want to create a rough composition by moving the images into place. We’re not trying to draw from scratch, but layer the photos to create an interesting composition that we can trace.

In this example, you can see how I layered the images into place to create something strange and unique.

Layer your images

Reduce opacity and set up our drawing layer
At this point, we want to prep our file by reducing the opacity of our composition so we can still use the images for reference.

Reduce the opacity from 100% to 20%

We’ll also create a new layer above the old one so we maintain control over our new illustration. We don’t want to draw on the same layer as the photos, because we’ll hide that completely once we’re done.

Add a new layer above your image

Tip: To quickly reduce the opacity of a layer, open the layers menu and double-finger tap the layer, and then swipe left anywhere on the screen to slide the opacity down.

Step 5: Select a pencil and a brush

When I set out to illustrate for my blog or newsletter, I don’t want to spend too much time on it. The trick to simplifying the process is like many branding projects. Select only a couple of drawing tools, and stick to them over and over.

I prefer to limit myself to just two types of tools, and this makes the decision-making much less complicated. 

I would urge you to experiment with a lot of pencils, ink pens, and brushes in Procreate to get a feel for how you enjoy using them. 

If you prefer a very sketchy, informal look, I would opt to use a pencil instead of an ink pen. 

I typically use the 6B pencil, and the Gloaming brush. The 6B pencil comes in handy for making thick outlines, and the brush is great for coloring and adding depth. 

Select up to two brushes

Choose one tool for sketching—an ink pen or pencil—and a brush for “painting” in color. There are no hard and fast rules here, so you could just choose one tool for everything if you prefer. But if you’re just starting out, stick with just a couple. 

Step 6: Trace your composition

Here is where the fun really begins. You have your image composition—a visually interesting combination of photos. You have 1-2 drawing tools, and a blank layer to start drawing. 

There are many ways to draw, and I’ll share my own. But know that you could search for your favorite artists and try to break down their style.

I’ll usually start by tracing my lines like we’re making a coloring book, and then filling in the color later. But if you’re feeling creative, you could try the opposite, or not use outlines at all!

Copying my own photo of my hands

By tracing your remixed composition, you’re melding your ideas into one strong illustration, just through the act of remixing photos. It’s a shortcut to creating something unique, like how a DJ mixes two songs together.

Spend some time here getting a good foundation and a look that you’re happy with. You may think this is cheating, but you’re actually learning more quickly by doing, and developing a skill set more rapidly than if I were to ask you to draw a bird by imagining it.

Final remixed illustration before adding color

Step 7: Fill with color

Once you have the foundation of your sketch, create a new layer and we’ll drag this beneath your outline layer. This is how I make sure I don’t accidentally color in my outlines, or ruin any of the work I did before. And we can always erase and go back in time. 

Select your colors using the eyedropper tool
To quickly replicate the illustration using colors from the original photo, I’ll use the eyedropper tool to quickly get close. By holding your finger on the screen, it will turn into a loupe, allowing you to select the color you’re hovering on, then replace the current fill with the newly selected color.

You can make adjustments to this by tapping the selected fill color in the top right corner, and modifying it however you like. 

The point is to quickly fill in the outlines with some color, using your brushes. You’re beginning to create an aesthetic unique to you, and a system that’s repeatable for future drawings. 

Take some time to add multiple colors if you’d like, and fill your illustration in. 

Filling in the outlines with color

Step 8: Add depth by choosing a light source (Optional)

What you might have right now is a 2D illustration, without any depth or sense of space. What I spend the last 5-10 minutes on is adding a light source to my images. This is optional depending on the look and feel you’re going after, but I recommend trying this out. 

Imagine there’s a light—or the sun— sitting somewhere on your canvas. That light source is going to hit your illustration in the same way it hits an object in real life, and will cast shadows. Those shadows give objects a sense of space, and it’s the easiest way to help a drawing come to life. 

Add depth to your photos

Now instead of just adding some black or white tints to your images, think about adding shades and tints—lights and darks—of the existing colors you’re using. So if you’re using a brown in your image, select that brown and find a darker shade of that color and use that to create shadows. 

If it’s helpful, create a new layer to do this so you don’t mess up anything you’ve done already. You can always erase it later. 

Step 9: Export your image

The last step in the process is to export your file from Procreate so you can use it on your blog or newsletter. 

Hide the original layers
First, head to your layers palette and hide the original image layers and anything else you want to prevent from exporting. 

Share your image as a PNG
Head to the wrench icon in the top left, and click the Share action. I usually opt for a simple PNG file because you don’t lose any quality. Because your canvas is large, you might want to downsize it later to keep the file size small, but for now just get the hi-res image to use for whatever you’d like. 

Step 10: Stay consistent and take it easy on yourself

Whether you’re writing or drawing, sitting down with a blank piece of paper is difficult. Find some photos to copy to kickstart the process.

This process is what I use weekly for creating all of my illustrations, and I hardly get stuck. My goal is to produce something of high quality in 30min or less and help this newsletter stand out from the noise.

The main takeaway is to limit your drawing decisions and find a repeatable method you can use, day in, and day out. 

If you decided to draw something, I’d love to see it!

the 80/20 Design challenge for non-designers

20 days. 20 videos. $39 bucks.