top of page

How I Create My Illustrations

Updated: Feb 26

In this blog I want to give you an insight into my thought process behind the first illustration I have created for my new WW1 project, and how and why I illustrated it the way I did. I started with the concept of illustrating the First World War through the use of maps and the best starting point for me was the Battle of Mons. The Battle of Mons was the first conflict of the war between the British Expeditionary Force and the German Empire as part of Germany's Schlieffen Plan, where they would attack France through Belgium. The first major battle of the war was the Battle of Liege on August 5th 1914, however I have decided to start with the Battle of Mons as it is a subject I am more knowledgable on.

By focusing on a battle I know more about it meant I could concentrate on the design and make sure it is something I can easily replicate on multiple illustrations. This is important when working in pen and ink as you can't just copy and paste parts from previous illustrations, everything has to be drawn from scratch.

A page layout template in my sketchbook

After sketching out a few ideas I knew the main focal point of this illustration was going to be the map so I focused on which cartography elements I wanted to carry over from my previous map drawings. I knew I wanted the overall feel of the illustration to be clean and simple so I chose a black and white border to outline the map. This would create a distinction between the map and the rest of the illustration without being a distraction. I also wanted a border that was different to the map which separated the different sections of the illustration so I used a 2mm line which was shaded with hatching. This is something that is easily replicated as I was looking for. Because these two elements are simple it made sense to put the title in a simple bounding box, so i used a 1mm solid black border.

Now I had all the borders sorted and a rough idea of where I wanted the illustration to go it was time to start adding the different elements I wanted to incorporate. I knew at this point there were two main things I needed to focus on, breaking up the rigidity of the design and telling the story of the Battle of Mons. My plan was having the information above the map introducing the battle and everything below the map depicting parts of the battle and showing the outcome. At the top I knew I wanted to include the title, the date, the combatants and their respective flags and the strength of each force, I just didn't know how I wanted to illustrate that. I was, if I'm honest, kind of making things up as I went at this point as I'm a huge believer in trial and error. So I went back to my sketchbook to focus on ideas for the top section of the illustration.

Working on title layouts in my sketchbook.

I started by sketching the borders and then seeing how the flags would fit within that shape. Quickly I came up with concept of using the ribbons of military medals and having the flags of the combatants projecting out from them. Once I tried that with the title and date borders I realised that they just got lost. I stuck with the medal ribbons, as that is something that can be used on multiple illustrations, and moved the flags to the corners which worked a lot better. This left a big gap in the top of the illustration that I needed to fill. I have always used symmetry in my illustrations so I decided to try sketching symmetrical patterns using the guns that were used in the conflict behind the medal ribbon. As soon as I did this I could visualise the finished illustration and knew that was the direction to go.

Once I had the illustration visualised in my head I stopped working in my sketchbook and moved back to my final drawing. I sketched out the title and date in their boxes and added the ribbon for the miltary medal in behind them. I added the flags to the corners and then added the German rifle the Gewehr 88, the British Pattern 1914 Enfield rifle and the Vickers machine gun. Adding these guns not only depicted the weapons that were used during the battle but also broke the rigidity of the design which is what I was looking for. However I still felt as though everything was either running horizontally or vertically which made the illustration look a bit odd. To break this up I added the text in and bayonets protruding from the guns and medal ribbon. As a final element for the title section I added the cemetery cross from the St Symphorien military cemetery at Mons where over 500 soldiers who lost their lives at the Battle of Mons are buried.

For the map illustrations I have created before I always start by finding the area I'm illustrating on Google Maps and working from that, but because these are historical maps and road and rail layouts have changed, I have had to use military maps from the time and Google Maps. I had to overlay the military maps on top of Google Maps using Photoshop, I then trimmed it to size and added a 1cm grid. I then drew a 1cm grid on my illustration where the map is going to be positioned and started drawing it out. I always start with the towns and cities, the add the roads, railroads, canals and rivers. Because this map is depicting a battle I then added the positions of the British and German troops and the direction of the German advance. I decided not to add trees and hills onto this map as I normally would because I felt with the addition of the canal and troops that it could become too busy. Also I didn't want to run the risk of the maps looking too much like a fantasy map.

For the bottom of the illustration I took my inspiration from cartography from the 1700's and 1800's where the illustrator would include drawings of the area they were mapping around the outside of the map. I decided to include Britain and Germany's highest military honours in the Victoria Cross and Iron Cross. These medals were awarded for the first time in the war at the Battle of Mons for acts of valour. The frontline of the battle was the Conde canal. I found a photo of the canal that was taken in early 1914 just before the outbreak of the war which I illustrated to show the viewer what the terrain looked like that the armies were fighting over.

Once I had everything sketched out and I was happy with it then it was time to move onto inking the illustration. I have inked thousands of illustrations over the last fifteen years and I still find the first few lines of ink on a new illustration a terrifying experience. It is the point of no return. I use Staedtler fineliners to ink my illustrations. I think these are the best fineliners you can get in the £15 price bracket. The texture and width of the pen casing sits in my hand better than Copic's which means I can drawn more accurately. For all the linework on this illustration I used a 0.1mm nib. This is the only pen I use for line work, if I need the line to be thicker then I will draw two 0.1mm lines and shade between, which is what I did for the border around the title on this illustration. I always work on the principle that you can add but can't take away when inking an illustration. So because what I do is detailed I build up with a 0.1 rather than using a 0.3 or 0.5 which you have less control over. For the mark making I use a mixture of 0.05mm, 0.1mm and 0.3mm pens and follow the same principle of building the layers up from 0.05mm to 0.3mm. Starting with the lighter shades and building up to the dark. Normally I work in black and white but I didn't feel as though that would work with this illustration as I had to be able to differentiate between the two opposing armies. So I decided to use a limited colour palette, once I use more than one colour I feel as though my work becomes too childish. Using black white and red not only allows me to differentiate between the two armies but I can create a strong identity through multiple illustrations.

Part of the Battle of Mons map illustration
Map Illustration

Once I have sketched out the illustration and decided how I am going to ink the different elements it is just a case of being tied to your desk for the next 50 hours. There are no shortcuts when it comes to creating this kind of work, I wish there was believe me! Each finished illustration represents around 100 hours of work. I am planning some smaller maps and illustrations as part of the project that I hope will only take around 35-40 hours. I am now working on my next map illustration which is going to be on the first Battle of the Marne, which I will follow with a less complex map on the race to the sea, but I will cover that in another blogpost.

I hope that has given you a good insight into how I produce my work and how I am approaching my new project on the First World War. If you have any questions on the project or would like any advice on your drawing then please feel free to ask below. If you would like to support my project you can follow me on Patreon here.

Finished pen and ink map illustration of the battle of mons
Battle Of Mons Map Illustration


bottom of page