Autumn Man Illustration Process

As a commercial artist, designer, illustrator and business owner, I relish the opportunity to collaborate and create wonderful things for clients and partners that meet their needs. That said, there is a unique and terrifying satisfaction in creating work that’s 100% your vision from start to finish.

In this case, my personal vision also served Pulp Studios Inc. in that it was used to gain more exposure for the company. It was featured in our advertising, ended up garnering the prestigious cover of the 2011 Applied Arts Calendar, being a finalist in Hand Drawn’s first ever Illustration competition and was a limited edition print for the studio as well!

Please join me as I walk you through the process, from ideation to completion of The Autumn Man.

Step 1: What’s The Story? – Ideas And Initial Sketch

In creating an image for yourself you need to first decide on a subject. There is an adage in regard to writing that states that you should write for one person, and often that person is you. This applies to painting or illustration as well. You need to find something that you want to talk about in images, something that you want to share with the viewer, that is both worthy of their attention and lets them see a bit of yourself.

Autumn Man is a character, or as they say in the biz an “IP” that is very personal. He’s an amalgam of my favourite stories, and all the gothic, tragic, brooding hero archetypes. Part Edward Scissor Hands, the Crow, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and a little bit of Swamp Thing. Mix in my love of mythology (particularly Orpheus’ tale), fantasy, vampires and elves and you get the Autumn man. He’s a forest spirt, a fey, an elf. Quiet, tragic and mysterious. He’s thin, intense, with interesting features. I could see a young David Bowie type, with a hint of young Eric Stoltz in there playing him.

Clothing-wise he is dressed classically, long coat, scarf, earthy coloured shirt and very hand-madeish boots( like a camper boot). His foot-ware should be  something that looks like it could have been cobbled. He should look as at home in the 1600’s as he would now. Below are some of my first explorations into the look of Autumn Man.

Autumn Man Character Sketch



I wanted to create an image that enticed viewers and drew them into the character’s world. I was heavily influenced by Pre-Raphaelite and Romantic painters like John Everett Millais and John William Waterhouse. I also wanted the character to confront the viewers gaze, and to be coming out of the forest/foliage, as his story is tied into Celtic mythology and nature. I have an OCD/Sadistic streak in my illustration work, and I’ll often find a way to work in pattern, repetition, detail  or complex forms into my personal pieces. The forrest leaves/foliage gave me an opportunity to bring that pattern and element of repetition into the work.

Getting the sketch ironed out is extremely important. Your sketch should nail the mood, story, composition and angles of your final piece. Failing to do that at sketch stage isn’t the end of the world, but you’ll avoid tonnes of redrawing and roadblocks if you plan your course properly!

Autumn Man Sketch

Step 2: Let’s Get Inspired – Themeboard

A themeboard is like a personal soundtrack, it informs and inspires the illustration and gives some touchpoints for mood, colour, composition. Just like listening to music can colour your perceptions of events, a good themeboard will influence how you approach a picture. They are also used as additional reference for various elements of the painting/illustration. In this case I had a specific look in mind for Autumn Man’s complexion that the model didn’t have, so I sourced images of fair freckled redheads. The biggest mistake young artists do when using inspiration or themeboards, is that they reference things too closely and end up plagiarizing the other artist’s work, or they lose the life of their image by trying to adhere too closely to the themeboard. Themeboards should be used as inspiration, filtered through your own reference, reference from life, and your own stylistic choices. In the end good illustration is about honesty, and your end product should be unique to your sensibilities, not your inspiration’s.

Below are the three themeboards that I used as a starting point for my illustration.

All images are copyright their respective owners.




Step 3: Reference Reference Reference – Photo Reference

Good photo reference and appropriate models are extremely important to create a successful illustration. Spare the model and spoil the picture (again with the adage!). At Pulp Studios Inc. we are extremely fortunate to have my wife(and baby momma, and all around inspiration), Christy Dean, to take any important reference for us. Being a commercial photographer for the music and advertising industries, she knows about proper composition, lighting, colour and mood. She also makes sure that our reference is actually in focus. The model is also extremely important. You can model for your own photos or get a friend, but the most important attributes are appropriateness for the character( don’t get your short/stalky friend play the tall lanky character in your illustration!) and ability to emote. I can tweak facial features or complexion, but changing body types, expressions or gesture are very time consuming. The more a model gives you to work with, the easier your job is…and most often, the better the piece.

For this illustration I needed someone that had a movie star look and was more sensitive Johnny Depp and less Rugged and Tough. I remembered Christy had done some promotional photography for the (then) young local band Ten Second Epic. Daniel Carriere, the guitarist had the right look. At the time he looked like this. Christy contacted Daniel for me, and he, being an understanding and generous artist, agreed to model for the piece. Now, when he came to the shoot he was a totally different person. A few years had gone by since that shoot with Christy and he had long hair and a beard(rock stars eh?!). No worries, the important thing was he had the look and build, and I’d be changing the complexion anyway(freckles!). On top of having the appropriate look, Daniel is also a consummate performer, and was able to emote exactly what I was hoping for. The shoot went swimmingly and I ended up with amazing reference. If you have a chance to see him perform, go…he’s a talented musician and has amazing stage presence!

Thanks Dan( and Christy!)

Step 4: Getting Down To Business – The Drawing

This is where a large percentage of people think that the painting or drawing starts. That whole ideation phase, the sketches and the reference gathering are largely unseen and unknown to the general audience. Here is where I brought out my 21w Cintiq, opened up Photoshop CS5 and got down to drawing. I wanted to make sure that I was getting the emotion I wanted in the piece, so starting from my reference I roughed in the face. It was at this point that I knew this was going to work smashingly, and went about creating an under drawing to work from.

Autumn Man Pencils 01

At this point I am solving all my structural, design and compositional problems. I wanted to pull the viewer in with the subjects gaze, as well as to create some pleasing negative shapes. I started placing the foliage and the shadows strategically to help move the viewers eye around the piece.

Autumn Man Pencils 02

Step 5: Block It Out Now My Funk Soul Brother – Blocking In Colour, Light And Form

I’ve started to block in the areas of colour and shadows now, introducing the main palette and lighting . The colour should be working strongly at this point, and if you zoom out of the image or squint it should be similar to the final image in terms of composition and colour.You’ll also notice I’ve flipped the image. All my illustration gets flipped several times throughout it’s creation. Flipping allows you to see errors more easily and is a way to get “cold eyes” on a piece, especially when you’ve been staring at it from one angle for a while. Comic artist Bernard Chang let me know this technique years ago when I was a young lad seeking advice. He would draw all his layouts reversed, and then draw the final illustration on the other side of the drawing paper(over a light-box). I’ll be flipping this image back and fourth as it progresses.


Still blocking shapes in and refining things. I’m starting to develop the figure. I love faces and I really dived into rendering here (perhaps earlier than should normally be done). I’ve also developed the hand, hair, coat and some of the bark behind the figure( I’ll end up keeping most of the loose/impressionistic feel of the bark all the way through). I’ve also added my line drawing of where I want the rest of the individual leaves to be.

Step 6: It’s All In The Details – Rendering And Fleshing Out The Image

At this stage I am focusing on the coat, tree, leaves and the light coming through the branches. This stage was extremely tedious, and extremely satisfying, it’s where the illustration becomes less work and more fun. Most of the heavy lifting has been done. I’m happy with my lighting, structure, composition and colour palette…now it’s on to rendering and giving the elements form, and…well…just painting pretty leaves:-)

Autumn Man Details

I’m almost completed the rendering. At this stage I could probably have called it quits, but wanted to really push things. I’ve added quite a bit of depth to the leaves, using a soft focus on some of the leaves and branches in the top foreground, as well as some fun rim lighting/hot spots on some of the cool/dark leaves in the far background. Autumn Man’s face is almost done, as well as his hair and jacket. Oh..and I’m STILL flipping this guy as I work.

Step 7: Final Coat Of Polish – Last Details And Touchups

Here is where I see young artists throwing in the towel. If you are going for a loose/painterly approach, or if you have a tight deadline, then of course you could stop before this stage. But if you are really trying to push your work to the next level, and are working in a semi naturalistic style, then this is where you can really bring that shine to your piece.

For my final touches I added spots on the leaves, and some more rust/reddy colour to unify the piece. There is some more details to the branches, so they feel like branches and not white lines. I’ve  pushed shadows and details on the figure( things like freckles, hair, and buttons), as well as glazed some greenish light over him, to help integrate him into his environment more.

And it was here, after many days working on the piece, that I decided it was done*cue collapsing on the floor like heap of jelly*.

Thanks for accompanying me on this journey through my process, y’all come on back now y’hear!



  1. Teri Ewanchuk
    October 18, 2012

    Kelly! simply said … you are an amazing artist absolutely beautiful – I truly do not know how it is that I do not own one of your pieces. We need to fix this.

  2. kim
    October 18, 2012

    Great post Kelly! Thanks for taking us on this amazing journey!


Leave a Reply