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How to create an illustration for t-shirt printing

Posted by in Blog, Illustration, Motion / Video

Mandates that involve illustration work are always a source of joy to our studio. They allow us to approach the project in a more personal way to apply our style and signature.


Holy Guns, a Colombian clothing brand, got in touch with us to carry out all the designs of the winter 2014/2015 collection. The visuals they wanted to apply to their clothes were varied in nature. It was necessary to find a mixture of logos, typography and illustrations.

In this case, we will observe the creation of an illustration during its design stages. The treatment of the latter should reference the old cartoons. The subject is a raccoon who steals a bag full of money bills. The design must be accompanied by the tagline “Get the money”.

Research, inspiration and brainstorm

The first design step is to understand the concept and graphic style of the wanted topics. For this, you must create an inspirational image library. These images become references throughout the rest of the process because they contain the inspirational elements to achieve the desired result. The observation of these images allows to analyze the characteristics to be used and the techniques to be applied.

From this point, we can begin to think about the characteristics that we will give to the subject. We’re talking about inspiration and not copying. Personally, I often use the site to gather my references because it brings together works with a wide variety of treatments and disciplines. This gives us a broader and richer inspiration library.


Now that our references are selected and our direction is chosen, it is time to let the pencil speak. Throwing some quick sketches on paper helps us to familiarize with the forms and to appropriate the subject. This step is also good to compare options for angles, positions and proportions for each of the elements that make up the drawing. Do not particularly dwell on these sketches because they will not be the final visual. This is rather, a way to explore many techniques and create a lot of sketches to succeed in the best possible final illustration.


At this point in the design, it is necessary to control the features and visual elements that will make up our drawing. Positions, proportions and angles that we are going to use for our final composition must be well determined. We must now begin to trace the main design that will lead to our final illustration. Using the pencil is recommended in order to erase some areas and start over.
This step is the one to be treated with most care and attention to detail as it will determine your final image. Do not hesitate to restart if you consider that the result is not optimal.


Once the penciled version of the drawing is complete, it is time to start inking. This involves retracing the lines with ink in order to obtain a more accurate rendering. Depending on the desired result, one can use several techniques such as pen, brush, felt, pen… This step allows us to erase the pencil traces and get our sole contour.


Now that our design is finished, it’s time to use the scanner to be able to perfect it. Scanning the drawing with specific settings is important. First, you must import the image with the highest possible resolution. Personally, I scan it and then pass it through Photoshop to replace, enlarge, reduce or convert the elements that could be improved. I also take advantage to adjust the contrast, brightness and levels. This will help us for the next step.


If the scan is prepared properly, the vectorization can be easily done in Illustrator with the “Trace the image” tool. However, for a more clean and controlled result, it is advised to retrace all lines with the “Pen” tool. Once this is done, playing with the line weights will determine reading levels, which will make it easier to understand visually (the most important lines are thicker while secondary lines are thinner). At the end of this stage, it is possible to add an extra few touches to enhance the final result.

Colouring, testing and applications

This step consists of applying colour to the areas enclosed by the outline of the drawing. The creation of colour masses that will be placed on the back of the outline will give a general sense of dimension to the drawing. Once these colours areas are determined, make a photoshopped simulation on a shirt to see the results that will be obtained from the design and colours. The colours of the illustration should be chosen based on the color of the media on where it will be printed. On this case, the t-shirt. Make sure to note the colour references and communicate them to the printer so that the final result is as accurate as possible.

Preparing files for printing

At this stage, the design is normally done. We must now prepare the files that will allow the printer to create the silk screens. Each colour corresponds to a screen, it is then necessary to split the design in separate files – one per colour. In this case, we used two colours, the third one being the color of the shirt.

This process is the one we use the most, but obviously, adapt it to your creative habits for optimal results.
We hope this article will help you understand precisely how we create our illustrations and give you ideas for developing of your own technique.