Design Part 3: Process

Alright, I have all my references assembled, I have paintings of ancient Wyoming for inspiration, I have a fresh cup of tea, I’m ready to go. On to the actual drawing process!

Drawing doesn’t seem like it would be that hard: holding a pencil is pretty easy. Getting your idea to look on the page exactly how you see it in your mind… well now, that’s tricky. I don’t have any tips for aspiring artists out there other than to just draw as much as you can. Develop that hand-eye coordination! Luckily, with this project I don’t have to drive myself crazy erasing lines over and over to get them “just so”. I just hit “command z”. Sometimes I’ll sketch a general layout by hand, but in order to get those crisp lines I mentioned in our style post, I create my final images using Adobe Illustrator, which means it’s easy to fix mistakes.

an image of the pen tool in the Adobe Illustrator toolbar

One of the most important tools in Illustrator: the humble-yet-multi-functional pen tool.
(Photo from, which is a great resource)

We measured the exact dimensions of the display cases, and happily for me, I can set those dimensions on my computer as the size of my Art Board. Clearly, my monitor isn’t 342.4 cm long or 172 cm tall, but because I’m using vector lines with near-infinite resolution, I can zoom in or out as far as I need without the lines getting blurry. The first thing I learned in Adobe Illustrator, many moons ago: the pen tool is your best friend. With it, you can make straight lines, razor-sharp zig zags, and perfect curves. Later you can fill in your shapes, re-scale their sizes, cut holes out of them, stack them on top of each other… all thanks to that initial use of the humble pen tool. Here’s a super handy explanation of what vector lines are, how they work, and why they’re so awesome.

I start my drawing with layers, because I don’t want to lose track of any element. I make a sky layer in the background, mountain layer above that, treeline above that, and so on until I reach all the itty bitty details like sparkle on water or shafts of light coming through the canopy. I name my layers, color code them, and nest them. It takes a little time to organize, but saves me so much time (and headaches) down the line. After that, just make sure you have a good stash of podcasts or audiobooks, because drawing with the pen tool can take quite a while.

Screen shot of layers in Adobe Illustrator

Name your layers!

Another thing about illustrating for a living: take breaks for your eyes. It doesn’t matter if you’re working in front of a giant monitor or looking through a microscope — make sure to look up now and then, and let your eyes rest. I learned that the hard way when I first started out and didn’t want to stop working, and would exit the lab at the end of the day blinking and bleary eyed. My eyes and hands are my tools, and though I may not take the best care of my hands (I do like to rock climb), I do try to look after for my eyes.

For this project, my biggest challenge is reining in my perfectionism. My brain is always looking to add more details (a holdover from my time drawing biological specimens, I suppose), and I have to snap myself out of it to stay compatible with our crisp, uncluttered aesthetic. Basically, I have to retrain myself with every project.


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