Illustration: Ten Top Tips & Techniques

by Paul Morton

Over the years I've picked up, adapted and invented many time saving and money saving tips that I'd like to share with the budding and the experienced illustrator alike.
Some of these might seem obvious but hopefully others will be completely new to you.
Here goes ...

1. Never buy another compass!

I came up with this idea whilst still at college and have used it ever since for cutting large circle and drawing oversize circles.
No need for those tricky compass extensions.
Either use a strip of stiff card, eg mounting board, or better still find yourself a piece of rigid plastic.
Carefully insert a pin at one end and then mark off the measurements that you'll need directly onto your card strip.
At the point where you need to make the cut, insert a scalpel blade gently through the card so that it's point just penetrates through to the surface to be cut.
Secure the pin end into your board and using light pressure at the scalpel begin cutting the arc. It also works really well for drawing by making a hole for the pencil tip with the pin then following the same procedure. It can be used many times but when the holes have worn too big to be accurate, throw it away and start again.
If you don't want to have a pin hole in the centre of a drawn circle, use a small square of clear plastic (from a cassette box lid - younger illustrators ask your parents) and lightly spray mount onto the back, press the pin into this to protect the surface.

2. Save your pencil stubs
This one might seem obvious but once tried you'll not forget it.
When a pencil gets too small to hold comfortably, use an old felt tip barrel to hold the stub. Pentel markers are perfect.
I've got colour pencils that I'm still using and they are no more than 10mm long.
After that, collect them in a tall jar and you've got an attractive decoration for your studio!
Also, flip the pencil round when carrying to protect the tip and to prevent drawing on clothes etc.

3. Clutching at straws
well not straws exactly but I have a series of clutch pencils that are employed to hold soft tissue twists - makes a perfect detailed torchon for blending.
Broken off pencil tips ... Berol have stopped making Karismacolor and so these wonderful soft waxy, richly coloured pencils have become priceless. Each time I snap off a tip in the pencil sharpener I save it and use it in a clutch pencil.
Also, cotton buds, felt pads etc can all be used for rubbing and blending.

4. Erasing

I love using the click eraser and  a few years ago somehow managed to wrongly order enough to last me 2 life times.
For small, crisp and detailed erasing I tear holes and slits into paper and rub out through these gaps to get precise shapes.

5. Build a library of textures
I try and look for and save as many interesting textures as I can.
Use them for rubbing or scanning in and re-colouring.
A couple of my favourites are a snake skin faux leather folder cover and a small plastic fish with it's scales nice and rough.
You can request free samples of exciting textured cards and substrates from the binder and presentation companies that advertise free sample packs.

6. Palettes

I also scour supermarket shelves for those clear plastic containers that hold lipsticks or other cosmetics. They make perfect palettes for inks, water colours or just for water.
My all time favourite is an old chocolate tray with about 20 small depressions just right for Dr Martin ink droplets and it even has it's own slide over cover.

8. Colour matcher

I think this one is Leonardo's!
When out sketching, and you're not sure of the exact shade of green etc. that you're looking at, try isolating the patch of scenery by holding up a piece of white card with a hole in it. Target the mystery colour through the hole and then mix your best guess at the side of the hole to see if it matches.

9. Graphics tablet
Getting digital now.
Sketching on a graphics tablet takes a bit of getting used to and the stylus often skips and slides about annoyingly.
If you need to regain a bit more control you can tape a sheet of paper onto the tablet surface. It restores a nice 'tooth' feel to the drawing and offers some welcome resistance.
Experiment with various textures, tracing paper, cartridge etc.
Be warned though, prolonged use will wear out the plastic tip more quickly.

10. Tracing photographs

Likewise, when using a tablet and stylus, instead of scanning in a photograph that you might want to use just as quick reference, trace over it directly on the tablet, the paper gives that aforesaid resistance and control and the results might look more natural.

That's it.

Paul Morton, full time professional freelance illustrator and aspiring Picture Book writer, lives in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. He runs Hot Frog Graphics illustration and design studio - recently celebrating 30 years in the business. Paul works for local and global clients alike and has his artwork on many famous chocolate bars, cereals and ice cream packaging. For children, Paul has produced the artwork for 40 or so games, plus illustrated many educational books and a series of 52 mini pocket picture books. He currently has 3 Picture Book apps on the Apple Appstore. He lists his hobbies as mountain biking, where he catches up with his muse, wild mushroom picking, cooking and eating. He's also a keen amateur magician and performs  tricks at friends' parties.


  1. Thanks Paul for these tips, especially the pencil stub one in old felt tip barrel.It's never occurred to me before and it's such an obviously good idea!

  2. Brilliant - thanks Paul! Just wish I'd read this before I bought a pencil-stub holder from Still I'll have another more useful reason to buy chocs now!

  3. Really enjoyed this Paul! Particularly liked the colour matcher - forgot about that one. Will share with my students, we do a colour matching exercise in their colour theory module.

  4. Wow - loved the eraser tip ... and I had no idea you could do that with a graphic tablet. Thank you so much!

  5. I loved reading this - gave me a bit of an insight into the mysterious world of the illustrator...

  6. I loved the thrift in this, Paul. Especially that you rescue broken pencil tips from your sharpener!
    (I still have a caran d'ache felt tip from a tin I had for christmas circa 1969. It's orange and it still works.)

  7. Thanks Paul! It's reassuring to know I'm not the only one who hates waste, and gets their palettes from the supermarket shelves. I have found that little ceramic dip / condiment dishes are great for mixing watercolour washes. And by the way, did you know that Karandash (Caran d'Ache) is the Russian word for pencil?

    Roelant Dewerse

  8. Thanks All, I bet there are loads more tips waiting to be shared??
    I didn't know about Karandash Roelant, so thanks for that.
    And I apologise for the rogue apostrophes!!

  9. Paul you have made me feel like throwing some coppers your way after reading some of these tips but others are fantastic!
    Love the erasing tip and you have encouraged me to try the graphics tablet ones - something I have been considering doing is put some masking tape around the edges so its easier to navigate straight to an edge as its not always very clear where it is!
    Thank you :-)

  10. I have actually read a lot of your blog posts in the last hour. I really enjoy what you are doing here. (And as a writer of fantasy novels, I'm enjoying looking at different aspects of that when you go through them in blog post). And truly, I love world-culture building

  11. Thanks Paul for your great tips. Though I like this kind of tips, not only me, I think all the people will be benefited by reading your post.


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