Process: Erica Sirotich

I moved to California a little over a year ago and continue to be astonished by how beautiful the landscape is here. I’m an animal lover (my illustrations usually feature creatures of one sort or another) and California is just brimming with amazing wildlife. During an excursion to the Point Reyes seashore a while back, we saw an elephant seal so enormous we thought he was a beached whale! Inspired by all of this life, I decided it would be fun to create a map of some of the state’s wildlife and offer it in my shop, which specializes in art & prints for children’s rooms & nurseries.

I began by researching California animal species and their ranges using field guides, animal encyclopedias and the web for reference. I sketched 40-50 of my favorites. I would end up using about 30 of them on the map.

Animal Sketches

I used a light pad to ink the sketches on a fresh sheet of my favorite inking paper, Borden & Riley’s Paper for Pens. When inking, I use Japanese brush pens and fine tipped technical pens such as Microns and Faber Castell Pitt Fineliners.

I’m a bit obsessive about line quality so when I ink my drawings I really sculpt the lines. I start with my brush pen and simply trace what I see as the main gist of my sketch, allowing some of the brush’s natural contours to show. The leaping deer in the drawing above and skunk in the drawing below are at this initial stage. If I’m happy with how the initial drawing looks, I continue to work at its lines with both brushes and fine tipped pens, going over the lines again and again in some areas. I’m aiming for really bold, contoured lines that pop. I ended up not using the deer or skunk in the map, but most of the other animals on these two pages were used.

After inking, I scan the line work in at 600 dpi. In Photoshop, I open the line work files and clean them up by adjusting levels (thereby making whites whiter and blacks blacker) and using the dodge and eraser tools to remove stray marks that don’t belong.

 

I like my line work to be as crisp and clean as possible, especially in print. So I open the cleaned line work in Adobe Illustrator and Live Trace it using a tracing preset I created through much trial and error. I then expand the tracing (which reveals the vector points created during the live trace). Even though my tracing preset produces pretty good results, I still manually correct the resulting vector artwork by deleting lots of unnecessary points and straightening out the handles & curves of others. If you’re interested in what this process looks like, here’s a time-lapse video that shows me cleaning up the wonky bits left behind after live tracing the line work for another illustration. (Turn your speakers down–the music in the video is a bit over the top!)

 

Once I’m happy with my line quality I export the artwork as a high resolution (600 dpi, usually) transparent file. This allows me to open the file in Photoshop and have nothing but the line work to worry about. Because there’s no background in the file, I don’t have to deal with separating it from my lines. I can just start working right away.
Almost forgot about the map itself! Back in Illustrator, I created the shape of California by placing a satellite image of the state in one locked layer and then loosely drawing the state’s shape with the Pen Tool on another layer. I wasn’t terribly worried about the shape being 100% accurate; I mainly wanted it to be recognizable and have a nice balance of angles and curves. I then exported that, too, as a transparent hi-res image file and opened it in Photoshop.
I approached this illustration a bit differently than I do other illustrations in that the piece’s composition was created digitally rather than on paper. Normally I work out an illustration’s composition during the sketching & drawing phase but, being a map, this piece is a bit more graphic than others I’ve done. In Photoshop, I gave the map a Color Overlay in the Layer Style palette (making it yellow, for now). I then started to place the animals’ line drawings in my map file, each on its own layer. This made moving them around and scaling them, when necessary, a snap. My aim was to place the animals within their (approximate) geographic ranges on the map, as well as to create a composition that was balanced and pleasing to the eye. This part of the process took a good bit of time.
After settling on a tentative arrangement for the animals (and weeding out a few that just weren’t doing it for me), I began to work out the map’s color palette. In Photoshop, I colored each animal, each within its own layered group folder so that I could continue to edit them and move them around the map. I colored them simply to avoid giving the map too busy a feel. I also created a bit of a halo effect around each animal by placing a lightly textured shape behind them. This was intended to give the impression that the animals were collaged onto the map (which they were, digitally).
I decided on a nice grass green for the map color (and applied a subtle texture to it using a large custom brush). At this stage I had also decided to name the map “Living California,” and chose to use one of my favorite typefaces, Governor from Lost Type Coop, for the title text. At this point, the piece looked like this:
I then turned my attention to lettering the animal’s names and the map’s legend & compass rose. I printed the map and went analog again, using the light pad to work on these elements. It was difficult for me to decide whether I wanted to use script or block lettering for the animals’ names and experimented quite a bit. I finally settled on the script (which, if you look back at my first sketches, was my initial plan anyway).
Using the light pad allowed me to get a feel for how the lettering would affect the composition of the map, as well as contour the lettering treatments to the shapes of the animals’ bodies.
I tried a few different variations for the design of the legend. I mainly wanted it to help indicate which animals were California’s designated “state symbols” (it’s State Bird, State Fish,” and so on). I chose to represent five state symbolic animals on the map (in addition to the two dozen or so other animals shown). I ended up liking these little banners. I realized I could use them on the map too to designate which animals were the state’s symbols.
I included a drawing of the California state flag below the banners. This element ended up serving another purpose–depicting the California State Mammal, the Grizzly Bear, which is, sadly, extinct from the state. I couldn’t really include the Grizzly on the map itself for this reason, but was able to place a footnote, of sorts, under the flag, indicating the State Mammal’s status. Using vellum, I tested the banner idea on the printed map.
I liked it, so I moved back to digital, vectoring the banner shapes & line work and moving back into Photoshop to color them. Though I thought was going to use hand lettering on the legend’s banner, I ended up preferring using the title’s typeface again.
At this stage I also scanned & vectored all of the script lettering for the map, and moved those elements into my main illustration file. The piece was finally in the home stretch! I experimented quite a bit further with the palette, deciding on background colors for the adjacent states and ocean, and colors for the script lettering. I decided to throw in some dotted lines to represent the adjacent states’ borders (I created these in Illustrator easily using the dotted line option in the Stroke palette). I also applied a slight drop shadow to the collage shapes under each animal to punch up the map’s collaged feel.
Here are some details from the finished product! This turned out to be one of the longest and most process-intensive projects I’ve worked on, but I’m quite happy with the result and am planning to create more maps like it. Next up–a map of the animals of the US!
And here’s the finished illustration in print!
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  1. This is so amazing, I loved reading about the process & details. As a California resident & animal lover, I really appreciated this. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you so much. It’s a lovely illustration. I’m looking forward to using some of your tips!

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