Illustration Workshop by Mary Kate McDevitt is a book I’ve been looking at for awhile. I finally got my hands on it. My hand drawing illustration skills have been stuck at the grade school level for most of my life, and I’ve been meaning to improve them. I’m hoping this book will help with that.
I was drawn to the Illustration Workshop specifically because it seemed more approachable than traditional illustration books. It isn’t about how to create realistic portraits or creating brilliant watercolor landscapes. The emphasis is on having fun, not worrying about perfection, and creating and refining ideas. That actually makes it a great illustration book for graphic designers.
The contents of Illustration Workshop consist of lessons, warm up exercises, assignments, practice sheets, and challenges; though the majority of the book is assignments. There are five warm up exercises, twelve assignments, about twenty pages of practice sheets, and eight challenges.
I’m going to start with an in-depth overview of the warm up exercises and how I approached them. For the rest of the book, I’ll just give a brief overview. If you’re really interested you should go out and get the book yourself because it’s pretty great.
Warm Up Exercises
Since the warm up exercises are at the beginning of the book, it made sense to do them first. Also, since I don’t hand draw regularly, this was the best place for me, personally, to start.
The first warm up activity was to do a scribble drawing that you turn into a proper illustration. So I grabbed my pencil and did a thing. The book asks that your loose scribble is something you draw without actively trying to create anything, then start to transform it into something else after it’s drawn.
Unfortunately, I didn’t really see anything in my scribble so it was difficult to transform. That’s how I got this soccer playing, flower lady kicking a ball and holding a purse (below). I still don’t really know what it is, but it’s pretty fun regardless; and creative too?
The next warm up activity asks you to do a blind contour drawing. I actually love the look of these. The simple forms are still recognizable but really unique to look at. The book asks that you first choose a subject. I chose a Baby Yoda/Grogu toy because the face is really unique. Then you’re asked to draw what you see without lifting your pencil. After that, fill in the form.
I actually really liked the initial drawing I did and didn’t want to fill in any more details, though I might go over the lines in ink to polish up the illustration a bit more.
The next warm up exercise was to use hatch marks in different ways. First, readers are asked to make some random hatch marks, then combine them to make new patterns. After that, the book encourages you to make forms with hatch marks to show dimension. Lastly, you’re asked to use hatch marks to create different forms, like letters or plants or animals.
I didn’t go crazy with this one, though I probably should have because I need more practice. It is surprisingly hard to make properly aligned forms using only lines and small shapes. I thought about outlining the forms first, then erasing it after, but I figured that probably defeated the purpose of the exercise.
The next activity involves a bit more creativity. The book asks readers to draw some random shapes then figure out how to make something from them. Well, I did draw some random shapes but I couldn’t see how to make anything from them. I feel like this activity would have benefitted from an actual plan, but again, I think that defeats the purpose. This is like doing improv for illustrators.
After adding a few more shapes, I went to find some pencil crayons so I could colour in the areas that I wanted to be my main illustration. It took awhile, but eventually I figured out I could turn the shapes into a bunch of marine life. It’s still pretty rough and the original pencil lines are still there, but it was a fun exercise.
The last of the warm up activities is to use shapes that are provided to create an illustration. This one is a bit more open ended than the last exercise, while still having plenty of room for creativity. You’re asked to first study the shapes, then redraw them to create a new composition, then repeat to make several different formations. I opted to make a few interesting looking rocket ships. I think these would fit in nicely into an illustrated children’s book.
Next in the book are the assignments. They are laid out with a brief that explains the assignment, what the challenge is, what to include, the specifications, and ideas to get you started. Next you’re asked to start brainstorming with a mind map and visuals, then thumbnails, a few rough sketches, a revised sketch, then the final illustration.
I really like how this book guides you through the creative process in each assignment, which is crucial for any creative person to be familiar with.
The Illustration Assignments
- Greeting Card
- Illustrated Map
- Book Cover
- Editorial on Summer or Winter Reading
- Bottle Packaging
- Cereal Box
- Illustrated Poem or Short Story
- Pattern Design
- Tote Bag
The next section of the book, practice sheets, is similar to the warm up exercises, but asks for more specific illustrations. For me, this section is quite difficult because you’re asked for a degree of realism. Basically, when the book asks you to draw a bike, you should be able to draw a bike. I can’t draw a bike. Yet.
The practice exercises here consist of a variety of activities that start basic then increase in difficulty. For example, one of the first activities is to draw a cat, then a dog, then a dog and cat hanging out together, then draw a pig riding a horse. I’m just trying to figure out how to draw a cat that isn’t a stick figure.
The last section of Illustration Workshop is for illustration challenges. This part is meant to be difficult. The first challenge is to figure out what things you think are the hardest or most impossible to draw, and try to draw them. You’re asked to first think of something you believe you can’t draw, then look at references of that thing, start simple, then draw and redraw until you’re satisfied. This is a great challenge for anyone to do, at any illustrative skill level.
Illustration Workshop Book Review – In Summary
Overall, I’m really enjoying Illustration Workshop so far. It’s pretty massive in terms of project time too. The warm up exercises alone took a few hours, and I’m sure the actual assignments will be even longer since they mimic the process of a real world design or illustrative project.
Let me know in the comments if you want to see my process for any of the assignments, practice sheets, or challenges in this book and I can create a separate post for that.
Because this is a workbook rather than a reference guide, I found it similar to The Graphic Design Playbook, which consists of a bunch of in-book activities and design exercises. It’s also a lot of fun.
You can get the Illustration Workshop book here. It makes a great gift for any designer who wants to improve their illustration skills, or for an illustrator who just enjoys workbooks.
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Have you read Illustration Workshop before? If so, did you find it to be useful in improving your creative and/or illustrative skills? Let me know in the comments below!