I like to draw every now and then and I guess, the results are OK for a computer scientist.

enter image description here enter image description here

Schematics like the eye on the left are sometimes needed in scientific publications and when you use freely available images for that, you (i) have to check the copyright and (ii) you never find something which contains exactly what you want with the right labels and details.

Additionally, I like to do things by myself and I'm always amazed by people drawing things like this professionally like here or here. I own a heavily underused Wacom Intuos 5M and I have the Creative Suite CS6.

I would really like to either digitally ink or completely redraw my sketches with Illustrator, but I'm simply overwhelmed by the pure mass of available tutorials, videos and documentation. For instance, there seem to be completely different approaches to ink drawings, where there is one newer approach (?) and an old-established method. And I don't even know whether it is not better to build something like an eye from geometrical primitives like circles and curves instead of sketching and inking it. In short, a situation where you can easily follow the wrong path as a beginner and waste time or loose interest.

Question: Is there a preferred approach and are there tutorials/videos/documentation that experienced users would highly recommend for the purpose I described?

Additionally, I would like to know why there are different inking methods and which one is recommended for what purpose?

  • 1
    here's a tutorial that helped me a while back. it's slightly NSFW, no nudity, just objectification of women. gomediazine.com/tutorials/from-sketch-to-vector-illustration/… also, look up a guy that calls himself Hydro74, he has a few videos on behance that show some of his process. might help you a bit.
    – BrianC
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 17:14
  • The first linked youtube video, perhaps slowed down, is all the tutorial you need IMO. "Overwhelming" is just a word for "a lot going on at once." As a computer scientist, you already know how simple iteration gives rise to complex looking operations and 1,000s of lines and 1,000s of files of code. Same thing.
    – horatio
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 19:22
  • Additionally, what you are describing as "so many ways of doing it" is very much like a Software Design Pattern way of thinking. With art, you have more flexibility.
    – horatio
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 19:25
  • @BrianC The tutorial is indeed quite nice, thanks for that because it is somewhat exactly what I had hoped for: A tutorial which is considered to be useful by someone who does this regularly. Hydro74's sculls and owls look amazing.
    – halirutan
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 19:50
  • @horatio Right, that's why I linked it. I thought there is maybe a good video tutorial out there showing slowly how to do this, which shortcuts to use, all the small tricks. To give an example, on our Mathematica stackexchange site we have a very nice post about Most common pitfalls for new users. If you have read this, it will be like a swiss army knife helping you over the first hard parts.
    – halirutan
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 20:00

3 Answers 3


Your drawings are very good!

In a digital world, illustrations that possess some humanity (like yours) are unfortunately rare. Digital drawing tablets are fantastic for many uses but they do still have a certain quality that is distinct from hand made art.

I like using physical media.

For line drawings and shapes that need to have some organic personality, I work out relatively final art on layout paper. I usually start with a good set of pencils before moving to the final media. It's important to keep your vector goals in mind, ie hard edges. To that end, I've used India ink, technical pens (Copic), China marker, conté crayon, even strong coffee ;)

My final art gets scanned, dumped into Illustrator, then I play with live trace to get things close (you must customize the settings to get it right). Inevitably, I follow that by expanding the live trace result and making small adjustments.

With a bit of practice both in and out of the computer, the results can be extremely rewarding.

  • Thank you for sharing your work-flow. I guess I'm a bit in a dilema. I like to draw with a pencil on paper, OTOH I'm keen to get better using the tablet, because I see so many videos where people who are doing this like they would use a pencil. Btw, I'm far more experienced in automatic vectorization than doing the tracing by hand :-)
    – halirutan
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 20:14
  • You should certainly learn to make proper use of your Wacom. Just don't let it replace physical media for everything or you'll find you've given up some of the soul in your work. Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 3:51

There is no "best" method. Ultimately everything ends up as shapes and paths. How you get there is of no consequence. You should use whatever methods you find useful.

The reason there are 2 schools of thought basically comes down to software features and age of the artist.

5-8 years ago there was no Width Tool, no stroke profiles, no Blob Brush, etc. Wacom features were only supported in brushes. So almost everything had to be created with the pen tool and then altered.

In today's versions you can use things like the Width Tool to instantly add some vocabulary to strokes. Or set strokes to have a profile for some variation. Or use the Wacom tablet to dynamically create variations as you draw.

Neither method is better. It's all what you are comfortable with.

My personal processes for illustration is a mix of the two. I use the Pen Tool and Pathfinder operations heavily, but I also utilize stroke profiles, the Width Tool and the Blob Brush with regularity.

Newer methods may lend to speedier illustration, however older methods possibly lead to more well-constructed final images. These are generalization and the artist's hand ultimately is the deciding factor.

  • Thanks for your answer. Seeing the old method, I guessed something to do with the variable Width which is now possible. Do you use a tablet in general or would you consider using the mouse when you create shapes with the old method?
    – halirutan
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 20:21
  • When using the traditional tools - Pen, Shapes, etc, there is pretty much zero benefit to tablet use. A tablet may feel more natural, but ultimately construction is all click, click-drag, click which is the same regardless of the actual input device. If using things like brushes or the Pencil Tool, a tablet is a drastic improvement over a mouse. That being posted, I use my tablet 100% of the time in all applications for all input. I haven't touched an actual mouse in years, and even then simply to install the tablet drivers.
    – Scott
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 20:31
  • If you are really interested in the best possible tools for drawing, I'd suggest taking a look at DynamicSketch from astutegraphics.com. It's an Illustrator plug in which greatly aides in natural drawing behavior within Illustrator.
    – Scott
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 20:34

First; your drawings are very, very good. I would be delighted to see more of them. Never stop with pen and paper.

Disclaimer. What follows are for the most part my opinion and personal experience. And pardon me for going on a rant about context.

Background, scientific illustrations

There are still people employed and being educated as scientific illustrators. These people work for the most part with pencil, ink but most of all; watercolours. Particularly in the life sciences there is a big need for scientific illustrators, and there are good reasons for this. Many highly educated in these sciences are also excellent at drawing, sometimes accomplished artists, though the full-colour illustrations they leave to professionals.

Palaeontologists draw their fossils, archeologists draw their digs, some neuroscientists draw their neurons.

There are reasons for this, perhaps the most important being:

Nothing – photography included – can replace the seeing. Drawing or painting something forces you to intensely see. The brain is a wonderful thing, but we "fill in the blanks", we assume, we create patterns and can therefore loose important information. In identification of species, fossils etc, this is a serious mistake.

Personally, I draw stuff, I have the luxury of cutting corners. I draw a foxglove, and if i skip a bud or a leaf, or if I place a leaf slightly more to the left, no harm done. No one will ever know. My brain makes assumptions, and when I realise that mistake I do not have to correct it. A professional scientific illustrator do not have that luxury. She will stare so intently on every tiny little part, every shade, texture, shape, and so force her brain not to make assumptions. Simple example: butterflies. Glance at a butterfly and you would say it is symmetrical. But they never truly are, not in wing markings, wing shapes nor colours. Not entirely. But your brain will jump to conclusions and assume. In scientific illustration there is no room to assume.

These people paint from specimens. They can touch them, turn them over. They are able to recreate extremely subtle textures in tiny details that would be lost in photography (or, you would have to take so many photographs under so many different lighting conditions, that the whole idea of an identifying specimen just falls flat).

Your work falls into this tradition.

The value of your drawings

From the examples; they are splendid. They have, to quote @plainclothes humanity. They have personality, and in a way, they feel more trustworthy, more consistent. You spent time seeing. The drawing of the eye: I assume you have not actually sliced an eye, but what it contains, is your seeing of probably multiple images. You have yourself "distilled" these into your drawing. I believe this is a very valuable skill. Your drawing is a "mashup" of all eye schematics you have seen :) I would say that the value of your drawings, compared to pictures or a jumble of different kinds of illustrations, are immensely larger. I also think that it is important to keep up the skill of pencil and paper.

"But I want it digital..:"

Yes, I fully understand that. I have had tablets for many years, I am very fond of them. But it will never be the same as pencil and paper. They can complement each other, they can maybe enhance each other, but they are fundamentally two different tools, and therefore two different processes. Pencil and paper are an extremely tactile thing; something the tablet do not have. Variety of the paper, the sound, the pressure, the actual ink flow or pencil hardness etc etc.

What I think you need to do, is to do some mental planning, ask some hard questions.


Some illustrations and drawing you can do directly with the tablet. These will, most likely be good, but lack that elegance that graphite will give. You will loose some life, the magic, artistic "it". You will of course get better and better, but start out by asking the question:

So, what images are essential to have as vector?

Really. Maybe these should be done directly with the tablet, maybe just with some simple guiding image behind. You will sacrifice some of the elegance, spontaneity and sophistication of the trad media drawing. Or, draw it with ink. Ink is pretty straightforward to trace, particularly if you keep the edges pretty sharp.

An example of this at the bottom of this post.

Pencil and ball-point pens

To make a pencil sketch into vector is a bit of a nightmare. You need to scan it, go through Photoshop for contrast, sharpening and whatnot. Then into Illustrator and fight with tracing. I have come to the conclusion: I only do it when absolutely necessary. I have landed on the compromise:

If I want the energy, artistry and "credibility" that goes with physical media, I will sacrifice vector. Sometimes: I will draw over the images, and create simplified vector images. I also know, that if at some point I really want vector I could, but the vectorising process takes away some of the life of the drawing. That is in the nature of the process, and I think the value of the hand-drawn in most cases wins hands down.

I know this did not directly answered your questions, but I hope it could be a contribution nevertheless.

  • 1
    +1 A personal and subjective opinion is always helpful, because you see how other people in the field work. Fortunately, for scientific schematic sketches the accuracy you described is often not necessary, because you mostly concentrate on specific details. You can leave out a great deal of the other details and often it is impossible to keep proportions correctly when you highlight small features in an overview. In general, however, you are right: Scientists who observe things should be able to make exact field notes. Unfortunately, this seems to be a...
    – halirutan
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 7:52
  • ..dying breed nowadays. I guess in former times, biologists and others could always draw up to some point.
    – halirutan
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 7:55

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