Follow eight outstanding stock illustrators through their creative process as they share how they find—and maintain—success.
In recent years, drawing apps like Procreate and Adobe Illustrator Draw have revolutionized the world of illustration, making it possible for artists around the world to produce high-quality work on an unprecedented scale. As a result, the industry has opened up and evolved at lightning speed; new talent and fresh ideas have led to a surge in exciting trends, ranging from “flat design” styles to vibrant neons to elaborate typography.
We recently asked eight outstanding illustrators from the Shutterstock collection about their everyday workflow. They each have a distinctive style and an original perspective, but we found that their creative processes are surprisingly similar. These artists all share the discipline and the passion to follow just a few essential steps—from note-taking to keywording—every time they embark on a new project. With their help, we put together this guide to drawing for stock and taking advantage of today’s market. Read on for their best tips.
Step 1: Gathering inspiration
“I follow a lot of interesting modern illustrators on Instagram and Pinterest and constantly read art blogs about design,” Alenka Karabanova explains. “In our field, it is so important to observe and explore. That’s how you train your eye and cultivate your taste.
“I try not to just look at illustrations but to analyze them as well. I consider what I like about them and what I don’t. I look for cool color combinations, compositions, techniques, and themes. Later, I piece all these references together with my personal experience. That’s how new ideas are born.
“This inspiration-gathering phase takes a lot of my time, but I enjoy it—and I consider this process to be the most important part of my work. I do it whenever I get a free moment and even when I’m resting or relaxing with a cup of tea.”
This initial step can also include looking at how buyers use illustrations in their advertisements. Browse magazines and study billboards and website banners to see what kinds of designs work well in these formats.
Step 2: Taking notes
“The first step in my illustration process is an idea,” Maximmmmum explains. “I use the Notes app on my iPhone to keep a backlog of these ideas, and I add to it as I go about my day. I usually include verbal descriptions, and I also have a notebook where I keep sketches for future projects.”
When it comes to stock illustration, it helps to keep all your ideas organized in one place. That way, you can access them whenever you’re inspired to create something new.
Step 3: Researching
“After I’ve settled on an idea for a new illustration, I start researching it,” Alexander Babich tells us. “I’ll look at similar images on Shutterstock, and I’ll also read Wikipedia articles about the topic I want to cover. I’m always trying to think about how I can do an even better (or more unique) illustration than the ones that already exist.
“For example, when I was researching illustrations of beer bottles, I discovered that most were made in perspective. I thought that front projection would be easier to layout when purchased by graphic designers, so that’s what I did—and voila! Currently, this image is one of my best-selling illustrations.”
Step 4: Sketching
A few of the illustrators we interviewed prefer to get straight to work on their drawings and correct them as they go, but many build a dedicated sketching phase into their workflow.
“I usually do a few sketches from various angles and with different proportions,” Alexander Babich adds. “Sometimes I sketch by hand, sometimes on the computer. A few times, I’ve even worked with 3D models.”
Step 5: Drawing
The drawing process itself looks different for every illustrator we interviewed. Some draw digitally with Procreate or Adobe Illustrator, and others start with pen and paper before scanning and tracing their images digitally. Whatever method and medium you choose, it’s important to stay organized and have a plan.
“When I decide what style I’ll use for each illustration, I envision my future customer,” tandaV says. Thinking about who will buy your work and why will help dictate some of your creative choices, including composition and color. tandaV uses the website COLOURlovers to track color trends and discover interesting palettes.
During the drawing phase, it can also help to start thinking about the keywords you’ll add later. Gabriyel Onat tells us, “I always take note of the keywords that come to mind while I’m drawing. This makes the whole process much more convenient for me.”
Step 6: Finessing
After your initial drawing, it’s time to refine and perfect your idea. “I sometimes spend a long time changing the layout, composition, and color until the result suits me completely,” tandaV admits. “I can easily spend an hour drawing something and then spend the next two hours re-selecting the colors, fixing the composition, and adding new elements.”
Submit work that makes you proud, and go the extra mile to make it stand out from the crowd. “When you create a new picture, ask yourself how it can be improved,” Kotoffei advises. “Ask yourself, ‘How will buyers be able to use it for their purposes? Will they be able to put it on their websites, print it on fabric, hang it as a banner in the center of a city, or put on the cover of a book?’”
Step 7: Keywording
Without keywords, your images won’t show up in searches, so take the time to apply appropriate terms and phrases. If you’re having trouble thinking of keywords, take a peek at how top illustrators on Shutterstock index their photos. It’s also a good idea to get comfortable with a keywording tool like KeywordsReady or Xpiks.
“I always look at what keywords are popular with buyers on Shutterstock, and I also research my topic on Wikipedia to find new ones,” Kotoffei tells us. “If I have already illustrated a topic in the past, I always look at the statistics section in my Shutterstock Catalog to see what keywords led to my images being purchased before adding them to new illustrations.”
Kotoffei and a few of the other illustrators we interviewed devote designated days to keywording so as to give it their full attention, and they also keyword illustrations in batches to save time. From there, you can then go into each individual image and add more specific keywords.
Don’t be afraid to get creative with keywords, either. “Look carefully at your illustration and ask yourself, ‘What would I write in the search bar if I were looking for an illustration like this one?” Lauritta suggests.
“The description and keywords should be relevant and meaningful to the picture at hand. Spend some extra time coming up with unique and relevant keywords and descriptions, rather than simply copying them from one picture to the next. Keywording is an important step, as this is the
clients’ only way to find your pictures.”
Step 8: Uploading
Set aside a regular chunk of time for organizing, indexing, and uploading your images. “Once a week, I upload and index my illustrations for stock agencies and print shops,” Alenka Karabanova says. “It’s usually Monday or Tuesday. I find that after a weekend, it’s easier for me to get into the habit of doing this kind of routine work.”
Kotoffei, on the other hand, uploads images in smaller batches every day. It doesn’t matter what your schedule is, as long as it’s consistent. Regular uploading ensures your portfolio stays fresh and updated, and that’s crucial for your discoverability in this market.
Step 9: Tracking sales
The work of a stock illustrator doesn’t end with uploading. After you’ve polished your work and submitted it, it’s time to see how it performs with buyers.
“Keep track of your results,” tandaV advises. “These numbers will show you how much demand there is for the kind of work you’re doing. They will tell you if you should continue with your original topic or try something new.”
Step 10: Trying new things
“It’s important for me to take risks and set new goals for myself,” Olga Korneeva says. “Give yourself some time to make mistakes. In this business, you need to understand yourself well and understand the needs of the market—and that can take time. Set yourself specific tasks, and try different things.”
This focus on experimentation and growth was a consistent trait among the artists we interviewed. As stock illustration evolves, their skill sets are constantly expanding. Maximmmmum says, “I would recommend trying something new every time you create an illustration—whether it’s a function in Illustrator you have heard of but never used, or a combination of different tools and techniques.”
Step 11: Finding a community
Your fellow illustrators aren’t just a source of inspiration; they’re an invaluable resource that will nurture you throughout your creative journey. “In my view, it’s important to be involved in the industry,” Olga Korneeva adds. “When I got started, I had a mentor, and other stock illustrators also supported me when I doubted myself. Everyone has their own way and their own path, but it helps to find a community.”
Top image by Alenka Karabanova