Pencils before Computer Programs: Why I Draw By Hand First

Why I Sketch By Hand First

I’m not sure why it shocks people sometimes that I like to go a little old school with my artwork. Even though my art is primarily digital graphics (icons, logos, ebook covers, and so on), I always start with my lead holder or a pencil and my drawing table or in a sketchbook, and later perfecting it long before I import it into Adobe Illustrator or some other program.

Why Sketching Matters

Given that I eventually end up in Adobe Illustrator, you might be wondering why I don’t just start there in the first place.

I’ll be honest. For a long time after I got back to design after my motherhood siesta, I did just that. Cut out the tedium of drawing, right?


There are several good reasons to start on paper.

The Sketchbook Brain Dump

The first is simply to get all of your different ideas and brainstorms out of your head and onto paper.  Also known as the “brain dump”.

For example, when I’m working on a logo or on some web graphics for a project, I have to think about

  • What I need this graphic or logo to convey to its audience
  • What images and pictures come to mind when thinking about that big idea
  • How do I need to use this and at what sizes?

When I was creating my own new logo, I started off wanting to create something that conveyed both design and writing, while reflecting on my unique personality.

As I brainstormed ideas relating to this, I had at least 20 different ideas I originally rough sketched, but I kept coming back to a flourishing D and a fountain pen. I was trying hard to choose one when I started working on ways to combine them. The pen speaks to writing, for me, as well as design and my own unique personality (I collect them and use them more than ballpoints). I eventually combined the fountain nib with the letter T for thoughts and later transformed the t to be more like a cross to reflect my faith, with the D wrapping around it.

Placement and Thumbnailing

Sketching is also a great way to decide how to layout a design, by way of thumbnailing.

In the example of my logo, it was much easier to figure out how to have both of those elements interact with each other while still on paper, before I started drawing them in Illustrator, using the pen and pathfinder toolbox.  Somethings can’t be easily undone on a computer.

When I create a series of icons for use on a website (not just social media icons, by the way, but icons that represent unique ideas or sections of a website, like the ones in the navigation menu above), I sketch them out on a sheet that I’ve created with squares, rounded squares, and circles (depending on the shape of the icon), because it’s important to consider the proportions of each icon relative to other ones, even if you’re not planning to leave it in a round background, for example.

Backtracking and Following New Creative Trails

In fact, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately, in terms of the value of sketching, comes from the example set by greats like Leonardo DaVinci, who sketched all of his inventions out, in detail, from a variety of angles, long before he built them. I’ve been reading his sketchbook journals as of late, and I’m inspired (and a little intimidated).

One thing I’ve noticed in Leonardo’s sketchbooks, that I’ve come to realize is vital to the creative process, is the ability to walk back an idea that doesn’t quite work, and return to a previous idea. This works so much better when you are first taking the time to develop and idea in a sketchbook.

For example, while working on a recent logo design project, I realized the direction I had started going in was just not working well. Everything was too cluttered, and we needed something entirely different. I was able to go back and see the previous ideas I had decided against and realized one of the other ones I had already forgotten about would work better.

When I look at the collection of sketches I made while developing the idea for my own logo, I see many great ideas slowly developing before I find one that works the best, after a few missed starts going off in other directions with other sketched ideas. Then, I move from sketching to a more finished drawing of it before photographing my logo and importing it into Adobe Illustrator and redrawing it with the pen tool.

The Sketching Process

Although I’ve talked more about my creative process earlier, and how I develop ideas for projects, my sketching process fits into that as well.

I’ve gotten back more towards drawing on paper first. I usually start with a very hard lead in a lead holder (or a pencil), to draw lightly. I like my lead holder over a pencil because I love the way it handles. An added bonus is the fact that it looks very different from pencils and therefore doesn’t walk away to be used for phone messages or such. 🙂

Brainstorming in Sketches

The idea, as I mentioned earlier, is to get down on paper my different ideas and associations with what I’m supposed to be drawing. I try to answer the question: What ways can I visually communicate this idea? 

These sketches are very light and very rough. I’m just trying to get the information down quickly, not create a finished design.

Idea Development

After I get my ideas onto paper, I usually take a quick break — lunch, coffee, snack, an episode of Castle? — and when I come back to my brainstorm sketches, I start to develop a few of the ideas better. Usually coming back with fresh eyes after a short break helps.

I continue to sketch and then draw a better version as I develop ideas.

I seem to draw things two to five times before I like what I have done. Then I turn on my lightbox and trace the drawing with a black marker if this is going to be a graphic of some sort.

Sometimes I trace it onto watercolor paper and make line art to paint on. I love the soft, whimsical look of a watercolor with faint line art outlines, although as a graphic designer that’s not really practical for most of my projects. That’s just fun.

Importing into Illustrator

After I’ve perfected my hand drawn version, I then photograph it and import my finished drawings into Adobe illustrator to create vectors.

Vectors are very smooth drawings based on mathematical formulas, and they can be enlarged or reduced without losing any quality, and are thus important when you’re printing something in a variety of sizes. I use the pen tool to trace over my hand drawn illustration.

Adobe Illustrator does have a trace button, but I’ve found that it doesn’t always do as good of a job as I’d prefer. I find it easier, for me, to go over the sketch with the pen tool myself manually than to try to fix what Auto Trace creates.

Leave a Reply