Sketching for Surface Designers & Illustrators | Shannon McNab | Skillshare

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Sketching for Surface Designers & Illustrators

teacher avatar Shannon McNab, Surface Designer & Illustrator

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

10 Lessons (36m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Sketching Versus Drawing

    • 3. Sketching Supplies

    • 4. Tips for 3 Common Sketching Issues

    • 5. How to Sketch: Flowers

    • 6. How to Sketch: Animals

    • 7. How to Sketch: Faces

    • 8. How to Sketch: Hand Lettering

    • 9. Creating a Sketching Habit

    • 10. Final Thoughts + Your Assignment

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About This Class

Three years ago, I had a realization that the act of sketching was directly responsible for the improvement in my pattern and illustration skills. So I switched from doodling on occasion for fun to utilizing it regularly as a tool to hone my design style, and that’s when I really started to notice a huge improvement in my work.

The class was designed specifically with surface designers and illustrators in mind. It gives you an overview of sketching as a creative practice and how to utilize it to progress your skills, develop your style, and build your creative confidence. During class we'll discuss:

  • my favorite sketching art supplies
  • ways to tackle the 3 most common sketching issues
  • beginner tips for drawing flowers, animals, faces, and lettering
  • two methods to help you find your signature style
  • plus best practices for sketching with the final art in mind

If you're just starting out in your career as a surface designer and illustrator, this class is for you. Or if you've been designing for a few years, but still lack confidence in your sketching abilities, my hope is that this class will give you a fresh perspective and motivation to grow as an artist!

Meet Your Teacher

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Shannon McNab

Surface Designer & Illustrator


Hi ya! I'm Shannon, an American surface designer living in Dublin, Ireland who specializes in patterns and hand lettering. My focus is on helping you not only improve your creative work, but also your business skills – anyone who dreams of making a living from their work needs BOTH to succeed. But community is also really important, which is why I started Sketch Design Repeat – to support and encourage you.


PS. Want to keep in touch and know when I have new classes or articles? Sign up for my newsletter.

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1. Introduction: Hi guys. I'm Shannon McNabb and I am a self-employed surface designer and illustrator working in the Bay Area. Now, I've been sketching for probably over the past two decades, but it was only about three years ago that I realized that it was having a major impact on my work. And from that discovery, my whole attitude about sketching changed. I went from doodling in my sketchbooks every once in a while just for fun, to sketching regularly and using it as a tool to improve my work and hone my creative style. This class is aimed at both hobbyist and designers who are new to surface design and illustration. But it's also helpful for experienced designers that want to develop a better sketching habit and learn a few new tips and tricks. We'll start the class by discussing my favorite art supplies and tackle some typical sketching problems. Then we'll review for common things to sketch. Flowers, animals, faces, and hand lettering. By the end of this class, you should have a solid understanding of sketching and how it can positively impact your design work. Have the tools to build your own unique style and be able to confidently translate your sketches into the computer to complete a final design. No matter where you are in your creative journey or how experienced you are as a designer, There's lots of small, simple ways you can improve your sketching. And my hope is that this class will give you the tools to take your sketching it to the next level. 2. Sketching Versus Drawing: Both sketching and drawing are incredibly important skills as a designer. However, the terms are often used interchangeably, but they do in fact have very distinct meanings. And it's important for this class that we discuss them. The Webster Dictionary describes a sketch as a rough drawing representing the chief features of an object or scene and often made as a preliminary study. A drawing is a picture or an image that is made by making lines on a surface with a pencil, pen, marker or chalk. You can see that sketching and drawing are two very different acts. Sketching is meant to describe the beginnings of the creative process as you flesh out your ideas by creating quick rough drafts and drawing is more for the end of the process when you create a refined, finalized design as a result of your sketching efforts. So when I discuss sketching and drawing in this class, I'll be referencing a very specific part of the creative process and it's important to keep the two separate in your mind as it will help avoid confusion. I'll be providing specific tips and considerations for both through the course of this class. 3. Sketching Supplies: Before we can dive right into sketching and drawing tips, there is a few simple items you'll need to have on hand first. Let's start with the tools you'll need for sketching. The most obvious of which is a pencil. The type of pencil you use really doesn't matter as its only a tool for the first phase of sketching. Personally, I prefer using a mechanical pencil because I never have to sharpen it. I do however, have to make sure I have extra lead on hand. But if you prefer using a regular pencil, just make sure you have a sharpener handy. And obviously, if you're using a pencil, you also need to have a good eraser. My favorite is the Staedtler, plastic white eraser, as it never runs the paper and lasts a really long time. However, if you have a different brand of art eraser you like, then go with it. My only recommendation would be to never ever use one of those pink erasers you used in elementary school because they can easily ruin your sketches. The last thing you need is paper. Again, since we're just talking about sketching here, use whatever you have handy. I know several designers like to work on Computer paper as sketching on loose sheets can feel less precious than an a sketchbook. The preference however, is to sketch in a sketchbook. I use a nine by 12 spiral bound sketchbook by Canson. The benefit to keeping a sketchbook is that all your sketches are with you. So if you need to reference something, you can just flip back to the pages on instead of having to rifle through tons of loose sheets of paper. The other option that is becoming increasingly popular is to sketch on an iPad and Procreate. This can be especially useful to you when you're traveling. So you don't have to log a heavy sketchbook around with you. In the end, what you choose to sketch on is all down to your personal preference. The same cannot be said however, for when you're at the final stage of drawing your designs to scan into the Computer. The two most important things you'll need to achieve a crisp drawings are high-quality black pen and smooth surface paper. Let's tackle the pen first. You should invest in at least one good drawing pen. And it's important to always test the pen at the store before purchasing. You're looking for a pen that has very little bleed when drawing. Because the more bleeding a pen has, the less crisp your scan will be. My favorite pens are in order, Staedtler pigment liners, Pigma Micron pens, and Faber-Castell Pitt pens. And for brush pens, my absolute favorite is the Tombow Fudenosuke Brush Pen. If you're purchasing a single pen, I'd suggest choosing a 0.03 or 0.05 width. However, if you plan on drawing a lot, it's best to have a small set of pens and a variety of widths, plus at least one brush pen. But a high-quality pen is only half of the equation. You'll also need the smoothest service you can find to ensure you get as little pen bleed as possible. Now I've experimented a lot over the years with a bunch of different so-called smooth art papers. That is until I found tracing paper. Tracing paper has almost no bleed when working with high-quality pens and it's cost effective. You can purchase a pad of tracing paper at your local art supply store for less than $10. And there's a second benefit to working with tracing paper when drawing your design. You can draw right on top of your pencil sketch and still see it without the use of a light box, which is something you'd need when using most other papers. Now that we've discussed the two most important things you need for drawing, let's round out this discussion with the last tool you'll need, which is a Scanner. I know that you may prefer to just snap a photo with your camera phone but personally, I've never found the quality of a photograph to be as good as what you get with a Scanner. The good news is that you don't need a fancy professional grade scanner. My favorite brand to use is Epson. I currently have their v300 photo scanner. The most important thing to keep in mind when purchasing one is to make sure the scanner software includes settings that can be adjusted, especially the resolution and color mode settings. 4. Tips for 3 Common Sketching Issues: Now that you know what tools you'll need, we can start discussing how to improve your sketches. I thought the best place to start would be to give you tips to tackle three issues designers often face during the sketch phase. Number one, blank page paralysis. Even though all designers know that sketching is supposed to be one of the least intimidating Parts of the process. There's something about staring at a blank piece of paper that makes us nervous. Now, to be a 100 percent honest, there's no quick magic cure to blank page paralysis, but I do have a few suggestions that can help have a plan. It's hard to start sketching if you have no idea what to draw. instead of just sketching on the fly, choose a few items you going to sketch first, better yet, start a list of motifs you'd like to sketch that you can reference during your sketching session. If you're not sure where to start, download the sketching prompts pdf I put together for this class and pick a few from the list to sketch. You'll find the pdf under the project section of this class. Start small, If you're nervous about drawing a particularly complicated motif like a giraffe or a bouquet of flowers. Don't start with that. Instead, start by doodling things you're more comfortable with. Once you fill that one corner of the page and gotten into a sketching flow. Now you're ready to tackle the more complicated objects. Know, some sketches will suck. I hate to be blunt, but not everything you sketch will be a masterpiece. In fact, it's almost inevitable that you won't like some of your sketches and that's okay. Also by the way, completely normal. The next time you find yourself scared to sketch something ugly, Think of your sketching for what it is. Practice. Number two, fear overdrawing complex objects. You know, I'm really good at drawing flowers, but I don't have any clue how to draw a chicken. Does that kind of phrase sound familiar? It's easy to stick to what comes natural for us to draw, whether that's animals, flowers, or geometric's. However, I bet most of us at one time or another, has thought of a great idea to sketch something that we have no clue how to draw. Six years ago, I used to be that person in never drew animals because I didn't know how to. I was too scared to fail at it. Fortunately, about five years ago, I read about a simple technique that completely changed my mentality. The technique is this. Take any complex object you want to sketch and break it down into basic shapes. Let me show you how this works using this little roaster from my sketch book as an example. Let's start with his body, which is simply a half circle. Then there's his neck, which is in the shape of a triangle. His beak in his thighs are also triangles. Finally, there's his plumage, which is just elongated teardrops. That's it. See how simple that can be. The next time you're stumped on how to sketch a complicated object, See if you can break it down into simple shapes first, I would bet that at least 90% of the time, you can. Number three, sketching from memory. There are very few people in this world who are blessed with a photographic memory. That's probably why another issue many designers face myself included, is being able to sketch objects from memory. That's why it's important, especially to those of you who are new to designing, to always work from real-life images when sketching, drawing from life or photographs provides a starting point for you to sketch from and helps you understand the shape and proportions of an object. Take this little scooter from my sketchbook, for example. Now I don't personally owned a scooter or live in an area where I see them often. So I had no clue how to sketch one. Luckily, we live in an internet era, so reference photos are very easy to come by. I just did a quick little search on Pinterest, found a few images I liked and viewed them as I sketched out the scooter. One of the thing to note here, it's important to only use the overall shape and proportions of an object as a guide and not to copy the image outright when you're working with the photograph. Now I will say that once you have lots of sketching experience and have drawn the same thing hundreds of times. It's absolutely okay to sketch without reference imagery. I do that on occasion when I sketch out florals for my funkier pattern designs. The important thing to remember here is that when you're unsure how to draw something, it's best to find some reference for it first. 5. How to Sketch: Flowers: Flowers are one of my absolute favorite things to draw. I've also probably had the most practice drawing flowers than any other motif. Through my years of drawing flowers, I've discovered a few things that make sketching them easier. If you find drawing flowers to be daunting, the best place to start is by sketching out a flower's center first. Which gives you a solid foundation to draw the petals on. If you want your petals to be fairly uniform in size, the next step is to draw very lightly with your pencil. A larger circle outside the center, followed by straight lines connecting the two circles. The number of lines you create will equal the number of petals you want. I usually tend to create bloom's with anywhere between five and nine petals. From that simple formula, you can then play with the size and ratio of the center and petals, different petals styles, and endless possibilities of detail. But what if you want to draw a flower from a side view with it's stem and leaves attach? Well, the easiest place to start with that is by sketching the stem first. As it grounds the flower and can help you gauge how big the flowers head is going to be. Again you can take this simple approach and explore its infinite potential. These are the basic building blocks for drawing any flower. However, once you've got the basics down, the sky's the limit. However, if you're unsure where to start, here's a few sketching crops, you can try take a popular type of flower like tulip rose or orchid, and draw it in at least five different ways. You can search Pinterest if you need help coming up with ideas. Maybe start by drawing just the outline of the flower, and then maybe create a second version with patterns in the pedals. Sketch messy floral by keeping the pencil very loose in your hand. Try to avoid any uniformity and pedal size, shape, etc. I've created several funky patterns this way. Create a composition of flowers, whether it's a bouquet, a wreath or spray. Make the flowers, leaves and branches overlap one another. Think of adding in small details like berries, buds, or even small doodles around them, or introduce another natural object into floral sketches like a bird, insects, or fruits. 6. How to Sketch: Animals: I have a confession to make. I'm still not entirely comfortable drawing animals. You might wonder then why I am including animal sketching advice as part of this class. If it's something I still struggle with and the reason is simple. Just because I'm not completely confident about it yet, does not mean I don not know how to draw them. It just means I need more practice and that is my very first tip for you. If you want to add animal designs to your portfolio, you need to practice sketching animals, a lot. Of course, it is a lot easier said than done so if drawing animals makes you nervous, let me walk you through my two favorite animal sketching tips. Start with static poses. You may feel inclined to start off by trying to sketch an animal in dynamic pose, but you are less likely to get discouraged if you keep things simple. Find reference photos for an animal is standing or sitting and either facing directly at the camera or in profile, like this picture of a cute baby goat. Then, start sketching the animal using the simple shapes method I laid out in video four. I always like to start with the body first. Then I add the head and neck, making sure to get right postures, followed by the ears and then the legs and I finish it by adding details like the face, maybe some fur, and a cute little curly tail. Once you have gained confidence in your ability to sketch animals and static poses, you can slowly add more dynamic poses to your sketching sessions. Now, let us move to tip number Two. Add interesting details. No matter how simple your designs may be or how comfortable you are at drawing animals, there is a very easy way to add some charm to them and that is by adding in interesting and unique details. Sometimes adding in something simple, like a flower or a bow or a hat to an animal can create instant character. However, if you want to be a little more quirky and unique in your choices, you can feel free to really push the envelope. Two of the easiest ways to do that is one, anthropomorphize an animal by giving it human-like attributes, Think of a human-like body with an animal head. I have sketched out cats, dogs, goats, bunnies, and even frogs this way and two, utilize contrast by using unexpected details or placing an animal where it would not be normally. Like the recent trend of including warm weather animals to holiday art, like flamingos are llamas or do the opposite. Like a penguin, hula dancing, which is something I have actually drawn. Hopefully, you can start incorporating these two techniques into your sketching to help build your confidence in drying animals. 7. How to Sketch: Faces: Whether you're sketching animals or people, faces present a unique opportunity to add lots of personality. But for those fairly new to drawing, it can also be a challenge to get comfortable sketching them. So I'm going to walk you through the process step by step. Let's start with the head. A simple circle is the obvious default for a face, and it's a great place to start. There's so many other options. Pull out a blank piece of paper and draw nine different face shapes, starting with the simple circle. The next step is adding in the eyes, which should be placed in the middle of the head. Let me show you what I mean. First, I'll need to draw two lines intercepting this face. And from that, I know my eyes should be placed right here. It may feel strange at first and you may feel inclined to place the eyes higher up on the head. But it's the most anatomically correct placement for many animals and especially people. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, like frogs or insects, but it's a good place to start. Next is the nose and mouth. If you're really uneasy about this process, it's best to start with extremely simple shapes. That means using a triangle or moon-shaped for a nose, followed by a simple upturned smile. Now we have the basic elements of a face, and it's nice. But for additional character, it's good to add things like eyebrows, eyelashes, or even rosy cheeks. Even if you render an extremely simple face. But just adding in one of these extra elements, you instantly add charm. Let's say this is a face of a person and not an animal. We should probably give them some hair. I usually start by deciding if the person has a part or bangs. If they do, I'll sketch those out first, since they frame the face. Again, if you want to be anatomically correct, the hair should not start from the top of the head, but slightly below it instead. From there you can add the rest of the hair, whether it's long locks, a short bob, or even a man's comb over. Also, don't forget the ears. If you want to include ears on a person, know that the top of the ear should be on the same horizontal axis as the eyes. Once you have the basics down, the magic of learning to draw faces is with continued practice. I'm sorry if you're tired of hearing me say this in every video. But it's true. The best way to get better at anything is to practice. Take the sheet of face shapes you created and add faces to all of them. Try to use different combination of facial features to each of them and see what you come up with. 8. How to Sketch: Hand Lettering: Now let's talk about one of my absolute favorite things to sketch, and that's Hand Lettering. Again, it's something that took me years of practice to feel comfortable with. But now I consider hand lettering a very powerful tool in my design also and you can too. I actually love hand lettering so much that I could easily fill an entire class with nothing but hand lettering advice. But I want to stay true to the purpose of this class, which is about giving you a brief overview instead of a deep dive on sketching. So just like my advice for flowers, animals, and faces, I'm only covering the basics here. Let's first talk about Block Lettering, which includes both serif and sans-serif lettering. The first step is to take a ruler and draw out two parallel lines. These will serve as your guide. So you'll know where the top and bottom of each letter needs to be. If you'll be including lowercase in your lettering as well, it's a good idea to add a third line in the middle, which is called the X-height in Typography jargon. Now, let's say I wanted to sketch out the word HELLO in uppercase thick block lettering. I'd start by creating the skeleton of the letters first and anytime you're creating blocky or thick lettering, there are two important things to remember when drawing a letter's skeleton. Number one, leave ample space between the letters, so you have room to add the thickness to them afterwards. Sketching them out this way may feel foreign to you at first, but it will lessen the likelihood of you having cramped lettering. Number two, for any letters that have sections that sit along the top and bottom guides, including all rounded letters, sketch their skeleton out just slightly inside the guides. So that when you add thickness to the letters, they aren't a lot taller than all the rest. So for the L and the O in HELLO, I'd make sure to draw them both just a touch inside the guides. Once you have the basic skeleton of the letters, it's time to add thickness to them. This part of the process is fairly painless. The main thing you need to keep in mind is that the thickness of the letters should be consistent throughout. From there, you can have fun adding decoration to your letter. Like maybe, you want to add a little shadow line. Or maybe add a detail for the inside of the letters, like dots or stripes. Now let's briefly talk about Script Lettering. Right now, Script Lettering is a hot trend and it's something I personally think we'll stick around for quite some time. So, if it's something you'd like to dabble in here are few basics for you. If you're just starting out, it's important to use guides. Just like we did with the Block Lettering, as it ensures that everything is aligned properly. Once you had years of lettering practice under your belt, you may opt to not use guides on occasion. After you have horizontal guides. It can also be a good idea to create vertical guides. Especially if you want letters to have a slight slant, which is something I like doing. It's a good idea to include these guides too. Again, it ensures that your lettering is more consistent and uniform, which automatically makes it look more professional. From there, the next step is to lately sketch out your script lettering. I'll demonstrate this using the word, THANKS. Now unlike block lettering, where we include lots of space between the letters, you don't need to do that as much for script lettering, even if you're going to add some thickness to it. Which is what I'll do right now. I'll go back to each letter and add a bit of thickness to both sides of every downward stroke to mimic a calligraphy-like style. Just like with mastering the basics of Block Lettering, once you've done that with script lettering, you can experiment. This is really the part of the process where you can see your own lettering styles start to develop. 9. Creating a Sketching Habit: I think I've made my point over the course of this class that practice is the key to improving your sketching skills and owning your design style, and that's great. But saying you'll do something isn't always enough motivation to actually do it. That's why I'm such a firm believer in making time in your schedule for your sketching practice. Because by scheduling your sketching sessions, just like you would any other business task, you're sending yourself the message that this is important, and honestly it is, because the more time you spend practicing your sketching, the faster you're going to see results. What I suggest is scheduling a 30 minute to one hour block of time into your work calendar when you're most likely to sketch. As far as how often you sketch, it's completely up to your personal preference. There's lots of designers out there that sketch every single day, and if you're one of those people, more power to you. Personally though, I am not one of those people. I've found that sketching every day simply isn't realistic for me. Instead, I schedule an hour long weekly session in my calendar. Basically, you just need to find a frequency that works for you that you can stick to for the long term. There's absolutely nothing wrong if you can't keep up with a daily or even weekly habit, or if you miss a session or two that you wrote down in your calendar. Life happens and sometimes something more important comes up, and that is totally okay. The important part is that you set the intention to work on your sketching skills by putting it in your calendar. 10. Final Thoughts + Your Assignment: The act of sketching isn't complicated or difficult, but that doesn't mean it can't still feel daunting at times, and that's what this class was all about. Giving you actionable tips you can utilize when sketching to make the process feel less intimidating and to help you level up your skills. Here's your class assignment, choose one or more motifs from the sketching prompts PDF found under your project section of this class. If you want an extra challenge, you could also choose one phrase from the hand lettering prompts found in the same PDF. Create some quick and rough thumbnail sketches to get the ideas flowing. Remember if you're focusing on illustration or hand lettering, this part of the process is especially important. Then sketch out the motifs you chose for your pattern or illustration until you have enough designs you like. Use sketches to create a final piece, either a pattern or illustration. If you're finishing the design in a computer, remember my tips for redrawing your final designs on tracing paper, to scan it, and this is an optional step, but I personally would love to see you take your sketches from beginning to final products. Finally, go to the your project tab just below this video, click create a project and post images of your sketching process and share with us anything you learned about yourself and your style. Now we know it can be scary to post your work publicly, especially your rough sketches, which usually nobody sees but you, but I want to encourage you to be brave and post them anyway. We all start somewhere. Why not post your in-progress work proudly and encourage others to do the same, and actually, while you're at it If you know somebody who's struggling with their own creative confidence, I want you to reach out to them and give them a few words of encouragement or a virtual hug. I know they would really appreciate it, and if you think they'd also like this class, feel free to share it with them. Thank you so much for watching sketching for surface designers and illustrators. I hope this class gives you a lot of helpful tips, and I really hope you enjoyed it.