BeLoose Graphic Workshop

From design sketch to marketing collateral - my process for creating an architectural illustration

In this post I’d like to share the steps and methods for the illustrations I do.  My hope is that you might learn something new, see something that might help in your work, or share something that can help me.  One of the greatest things about this profession is that you never stop learning and this is a great forum for everyone to share their ideas and learn from each other to help us all become better at what we do.  So here goes.


All of the color illustration work I do is primarily in Painter using a Wacom Intous 4 tablet (this was a recent upgrade, but my first tablet lasted 11 years)… I painted in Photoshop for years, but never felt loose enough, and always had a difficult time using their color palette.  When I came across Painter, it was a much better fit for me.  I found it to be a more intuitive and fluid program.  I use Photoshop now mostly for setting up files and post production work, making any layer adjustments, transforming objects, etc.


Start of a project


By the time I’m contacted from a client for a project like this, the design is finalized, color and material palettes have been chosen, and now  they need to persuade a design review board or to inspire their client.  This is a project I did last summer for a client in Phoenix, AZ, and over the course of this post, I’ll go thru the illustration process, file set up and layer management, and a few of the methods I use.


Create a 3D model


As with most projects, I’ll start by gathering all the info I can get my hands on.  This means ACAD files, color and material samples, Google Earth images, resource photos.  I’ll build a simple 3D model – usually in Sketchup – and, for me, the key here is speed, so I don’t waste time with a lot of details, but mainly the overall massing and locations of windows/ doors.

After the model is finished, I’ll move around the environment a little to find a view I like – or one the client already had in their minds - and send a few shots for review.  Once the view is chosen, the real fun begins.  


I’ll print out an 11x17 copy of the model at a very low opacity – usually 10-20% - grab a pencil, kneaded eraser and sketch right on the print.  You have to reverse engineer the 3D model a bit, finding the vanishing points and horizon line.

I have a solid core door as the top of my drafting table, so once I’ve found the vanishing points, I stick a pin in each so I can quickly pivot my triangle from them.  I continue  adding architectural details, surrounding context, landscape and other vegetation to the scene (I use this preliminary as a map so I’m not concerned too much about detailing shrubs, trees, etc., just their overall massing and general locations)-  keeping in mind the basic planes – foreground, middle ground, and background.  Any site and entourage photos I’ll print as well to use as reference as I go.



When I’m drawing I try to keep things loose.  I draw from the shoulder and elbow when I do these, so most of the time I stand up as I work.   What’s important here is to develop a 1,2,3 read: Foreground (bringing the viewer into the scene), middle ground (in this case the selling point – the home), and the background  or context.  These help not only establish a sense of depth and scale, but also helps keep things simple – any higher than counting to three and I get lost.


As the preliminary drawing develops, I’ll start to get an idea in my head of how I want the final illustration to look, and for some of the residential projects, it’s the sizzle not the steak, so I have a lot more artistic license (time of day, where first read is, etc).  Once I get into the color stage the illustration is already marinating so my decision process goes smoother.


Once I’m happy with the preliminary drawing, I’ll send it to the client for approval.  With their blessing, it’s time to move onto the color study.


For most projects, I’ll send a color sample to the client for confirmation of materials and scene.  I like to keep them posted throughout the entire project, and this gives them (and me) an idea of where the illustration is headed.  I didn’t have time to do one for this project, so here’s a sample from another one.  Once they’ve given the go ahead on the color sample, it’s time to start prepping the file for painting. 


In order to start a full scale digital painting in Painter, I’ll prep my file in Photoshop creating the necessary layers.  Keeping in mind how I want the final illustration to look, I ransack my library of photos to find ones I like, and need (I did a lot of work in Phoenix, so I have tons of photos of mountains, trees, shrubs, cactus etc).  I keep these files on a separate layer so I can refer to them quickly as I start the color work.



For my layers, the line drawing is kept  separate and placed above my color layers, specified as a “Multiply” layer so the pencil shows up over what I paint.  I’ll separate the building materials (stucco, windows, roof, etc) on their own layers.  All the landscaping is put on a different layer, as well as the background.  My top layer is for checking values.   This layer covers the entire image in black, but is set as a “Saturation” layer, so you can turn it into a black and white version quickly and read your values.  As I get into the color, it’s a great tool to use to make sure my values are correct and the image reads well.



Onto the color...




These are  the brushes I use on a daily basis in Painter – once I was comfortable using them, the work became fast and loose.  I am always trying out new ones though, seeing if there is one I like better, but when I get in a jam, these are my bread and butter.


1st color pass


In some cases, I’ll use a color for the background, but for this illustration, I used white as the background color, so my first thought is to cover all the white as fast as possible – working over the entire image bringing everything up to the same level of detail.  And, like the preliminary line drawing, the key here is speed.   At most, I’ll spend a couple of hours getting to this point, establishing the time of day, getting first read in, knocking in values, and getting the building settled into the scene. 

During this stage, I’ll squint a lot at my screen, zoom in and out, and stand away from my desk since it helps your eye to blend things together.  When I’m happy with the look of the scene, I’ll check my values. 



Turning the saturation layer on and off will confirm things are correct – if your color seems to look right, but your value is off this will quickly let you know.  If I see something I don’t like or the image looks muddy, I’ll make the necessary adjustments before getting into more detail.   Once I’m happy with this stage, I’ll shoot it over to the client for review.



Color development - 2nd color pass


If this were a concept image, I wouldn’t take it much further.  All the information is pretty much there, and in a few hours it’s gone from 3D model to color.


In this case, the client wanted it done to full detail, so here’s where I strap in, put on the head phones, and start working over the entire scene, again bringing the overall image up to the same level…till I get to here-


Which, for a project like, this generally takes another couple of hours.  You can see the line drawing’s opacity is turned down low - to about 20%, and more attention is paid to defining shapes, edges, and building materials.


This proof gets sent to the client for review – and in this case, the roof color needed to change.  With that part of the building on its own layer, it was a simple matter of adjusting the hue, saturation, and lightness.  As I continue working on the illustration, I turn the line drawing layer off and am focused now on detailing all the elements of the scene: landscape, building materials, etc.  I keep noodeling in the details zooming in and out of the entire image, turning the saturation layer on and off to make sure my values are still correct.  Once I get to the stage where I’m detailing shrub branches and flowers, I know I’m getting close to completion.


As far as a completed illustration, it’s definitely a personal thing – when I was happy with what I considered a completed illustration, I sent it over for final approval – until I have that, it’s not finished.


Final illustration



Hopefully this has given you some information that will help you.  Mike, Brian, and the people featured here are all people I’ve looked up to and who’ve  inspired me to get into this profession.  It’s an honor to post my work beside theirs.  If you have any questions or would like to go into more detail about any of the info from this post, feel free to contact me.  






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Comment by 周春来 on December 19, 2012 at 5:43pm

Great, must learn from you, your picture is very beautiful, the feeling of oil painting 

Comment by Karen on July 10, 2012 at 4:51am
It is generous of you to share the specificity of your process. I like the tip about using the swiveling triangle, standing back and combination of drawing with Photoshop. Thank you.
Comment by Mason Mullendore on May 17, 2012 at 10:04pm

This is done great, I'm going to try the same process. Thanks!

Comment by rafael palacios on May 7, 2012 at 12:06am

AWESOME WORK JEFF!!! Very inspiring.

Comment by Renee Byrd on May 4, 2012 at 7:19am

Thanks so much for the tips! This was very helpful. Do you use a pen tablet? I would like to purchase one for both photoshop and AutoCAD work, so any recommendations would be great. Thanks again!

Comment by Mike Lin on May 3, 2012 at 6:07pm

This is a great process, on behalf of our BeLoose members, thank you so much for your contribution Jeff.

Comment by Andrew Tremelling on April 30, 2012 at 3:26pm

Great blog Jeff and I love your work, very fluid and direct. Both of us use Painter, it's a fantastic program for those hybrid artists that want to keep a foot in the traditional camp but with all the benefits of digital media. Keep posting and I look forward to seeing more of your work.

Comment by Arnel Sarmiento on May 15, 2011 at 7:46pm
Thanks for sharing your process! It was very helpful information. I used photoshop in my works with the wacom tablet, now I will try to learn all about painter thanks again . Very nice and great works.
Comment by Robert Natata on April 9, 2011 at 11:12pm
WOW! Great piece of work from sketch to color. I haven't used painter yet, since I've gotten used to Photoshop.
Comment by Mark on April 9, 2011 at 1:30pm

yes- thanks for sharing that wealth of knowledge

BeLoose is a workshop where the experience will definitely change people's lives and increase their confidence beyond their expectation.

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