Creative Tips & Resources – Brushes and Textures

Freelance Jungle

Hi everyone, this month’s post is slightly different to last month’s about portfolios, but very important none the less – especially if you do, dabble, or are thinking of dabbling in digital illustration.

Whether you venture out into the world taking snapshots of rusted signs and twisted woodgrains or just download stockpiles of digital textures online; using textures in digital illustration can add real warmth, charm and element of something physical to your digital work.  The use of custom, textured or stamp brushes in digital illustration can evoke a stylistic atmosphere and depending on your choice of brush, can change the aesthetics of the illustration entirely.

There’s always going to be the undercurrent debate of ‘traditional vs digital’ in illustration, but I believe, as I assume many others do, that a happy medium incorporating elements of both is the way forward.  There’s something so convenient about digital illustration, I won’t be the first to admit painting in gouache and having the flicker in my mind to press Ctrl, Alt, Z to undo a mistake– no such luck there. But on the other hand there’s such a beautiful element to physical work, the accidental smudges with your hand, the splashes of ink on the page, the smell of the paint.

Personally, in my illustration work, I use both. Whilst at University I tended to focus more on pure painting, I had so much time to dedicate to experimentation. But now, a few years on, as I get more commissions, tighter deadlines and, ahem, fickle minded clients, I’m finding that digital illustration is an awful lot faster and easier to make alterations to.  I most often paint linework in ink and use digital colouring and textures to enhance and complete the illustration. The convenience of digital with that organic element of textures and paint splat brushes I’ve collected to keep the atmosphere of my illustration work.

Von Glitschka is an illustrative designer, avid photographer of found textures and author of the book ‘Crumble, Crackle, Burn’, an anthology of illustration and the use of found textures within them. I asked Von what he thought the use of textures brings to an illustration and the grey areas using textures have between the ‘digital vs traditional’ stance.

“Even though our industry is digitally driven, ideas are still best developed in analog. A drawn design that is than executed on digitally. Sometimes this move from analog to digital loses that nice tactile quality that a hand drawn creation has to it. Digital art at times risks looking too perfect, too sharp, too clean, too digital. So if you make it a habit of taking pictures of real-world surface textures and texturize your digital art using these real-world textures than you can get an nice authentic and organic quality to the aesthetic that pure digital vector art can’t really deliver on.

The nice thing about textures unlike most graphics in our industry is they’ll never go out of style. A texture you use now will be completely appropriate for a project in twenty years. So if you get in the habit of collecting them you have an endless archive you’ll be able to leverage for a lifetime.”

Kali Ciesemier

So how do other professional illustrators use textures in their work?

Kali Ciesemier works entirely digitally, using textures and custom brushes to add variation and extra detail to her work. She broke down the various techniques she uses into three steps for me -

Textured brushes!

Making your own and downloading other people’s custom photoshop brushes is an easy way to start adding texture to your digital images. I used to only draw with the standard hard-round photoshop brush, but now I draw everything with a subtly textured custom brush that adds a little bit of tooth to my lines and edges. Sometimes I’ll add shading in an image with a rough textured brush, too.”

Clipping masks & texture ‘stamps’!

As you can see in this walkthrough, you can use texture scans or texture brushes like stamps on your work. Clipping masks (or layer masks) can help out a lot here! Adjusting the opacity can keep the effect subtle or bold, however you want to use it.”

Texture scans & layer modes!

Usually the final step in my illustrations involves me placing several layers of scanned texture on top of my image. Then I set each of the texture layers to different opacities and layer modes (Color Burn, Vivid Color, Soft Light, etc.), sometimes adjusting the colors or levels if needed. It helps that I have a big handy library of textures that I’ve scanned myself and downloaded from other sites, so I always have options to choose from, from vintage paper to splattery watercolors to gritty asphalt. Generally I add anywhere from 2 to 6 layers, but I set them all to very low opacities, usually somewhere around the 10% mark, sometimes less. I also try and balance the lightening and darkening effects of each- if one layer is set to the Color Burn layer mode, I’ll likely set another to Color Dodge, so none of the layers really mess up my color scheme.”

There is a delicate tactic to using textures in digital illustration work, it’s not just a case of slapping on a wood grain and expecting the piece to work effectively. I asked Kali what she thought the benefits of adding textures through a range of different techniques can add to a piece.

“Incorporating textures in a subtle way has been the approach that’s worked best for me. Sometimes juxtaposing a very clearly readable texture onto a graphic image has the opposite effect of making the image seem more computerized, because you can clearly identify the source of the texture. For me, adding in hints of texture doesn’t really hide the fact that the image was made in Photoshop, nor does it need to, but it does blur the lines a bit (sometimes literally!), and I think that nebulousness provides added interest.” 

I stumbled upon these great illustrations by Troy Cummings for the “Let’s Take a Hike” card game.  Troy uses custom brushes and textures to evoke that nostalgic aesthetic of 1950′s/1960′s illustration.  I asked him about the techniques he uses and the reasons behind them.

I’ve been experimenting with textures and splotchy brushes in Photoshop for the past few years. My goal has been to develop textures, shading, lines, etc. that feel like they could have been painted with a real brush. I’m a big fan of kids’ book illustrators from the 1950s and 1960s, (Like Mary Blair or Art Seiden). I love anything with flat, kooky shapes, surprising colors, and simplified characters. I tried to bring some of that to the “Let’s Take a Hike” card game. I think those splotchy textures can hint at leaves, fur, tree bark or whatever, while still keeping things loose.”  

I spoke to illustrator Andrew Lyons about his heavily textured illustration work and process.

“To create my textures I play around with ink and charcoal, or pencil and paint on different papers, then scan them so I have a library of textures to pick from. In any one illustration I’ll probably use around 4-5 different textures on different parts of the image, or blend 2 textures together on low opacity.

As I use Photoshop, I’ll normally place a large, sepia coloured paper texture on the top layer, and set to ‘colour burn’ in the blending modes window. This overall texture helps to unite the colours and different shapes of the illustration. 

I’ll delve into the illustration and single out certain parts that need a bit of texture. I’ll lay a texture on the layer above the object, rasterize and then crop it to the right shape (by selecting the shape: cmd/click on the layer, and then inverting the selection and hitting delete when on the texture layer.) Then I’ll play around with blending modes and opacity until it looks right.”

So that’s that!  Basically, just have fun with it.  Go out with your camera and take hundreds of snapshots, play with layers and effects, just experiment!

Here’s some fantastic resources to keep you going -

Downloadable brush sets                                                                           Downloadable textures

BittBox                                                                                                             Lost and Taken                                                                                                     Texture King

Chris Wahl Art Brushes                                                                                BittBox

Web Design Ledger                                                                                       Mayang’s Free Textures

Stumpy Pencil                                                                                                 Archive Textures

Don’t forget to take a look at the work of the illustrators who have kindly contributed to this article – Kali Ciesemier, Troy Cummings and Andrew Lyons.  Kali has also written some very useful bits about texture stamping techniques and the Photoshop brushes she uses.


By Emmeline Pidgen

Note! All images used with permission, it’s the right thing to do.

Photo c/o Ben Schlitter. Images: I – Kali Ciesemier. II – Troy Cummings. III – Andrew Lyons.

Creative Tips & Resources – Portfolios

Freelance Jungle

So, dear fledgeling illustrator, your metaphorical bag is packed. Filled to the brim with motivation, business cards, pencils and (hopefully) a ton of natural talent.

But hold it right there; before you jump out into the freelance world, you need to make sure your portfolio’s set to go.

Be it luxe and leather bound or a minimalist online slideshow, an illustrator’s portfolio is invaluable. A good portfolio will simply and clearly highlight not only what you’ve done before, but the potential you have for future projects.

It’s likely that at some point in your career you will be invited to drop off your portfolio for review. This omits your chance to explain each piece of work, so you have to make sure your portfolio not only communicates each piece clearly, without a need for description, but also represents you as a potential freelance co-worker.

A dog-eared plastic folder stuffed with crumpled, pixelated images isn’t going to cite you as a competent professional as much as a beautifully bound book, but saying that, it’s not a case of the amount of money you spend. Sure, a £200 embossed leather portfolio might look stunning, but if your work doesn’t speak for itself it won’t do you any good.

You need to set aside some time and a little money to invest in slick presentation, good printing and a carefully selected and organised array of work. Think user-friendly, simple, with clean pages and a rhythm and flow from piece to piece throughout the portfolio.

Tailor the pieces in your portfolio to the person viewing it; narrative and character work for children’s publishers; more conceptual, communicative or decorative work for editorial.  It’s often a good approach to imagine yourself in the shoes of the person you’re showing it to and ask yourself ‘Would I understand this piece without it’s context?’ ‘Does this piece fit with the others in the portfolio?’ and ‘Do these illustrations represent my work and what I want/can do?’. Have a clear view of who you’re aiming your work at and what you want out of a meeting.

I spoke to Ed Burns, founder of Advocate Art agency about the key elements art buyers look for in portfolios: 

In our experience when meeting artbuyers they are looking for continuity, colour understanding, characterization (candid, clever poses), a design element (decorative elements), relevancy to the age group, if it matches the rest of your folio, if it’s ahead of trend or on trend and most importantly an application.“ 

For success in this field everything in your portfolio needs to be relevant to the industry and show your commercial potential. That is opposed to a barrage of self-indulgent pieces which may be difficult for an art buyer to see the suitability for your work in context.

You need to put on your ruthless hat and fearlessly cut out any pieces here that don’t fit or quite make the grade, no matter how much time you spent on them or how sentimentally attached you are to it.  It’s much better to show a few pieces of incredible work than those diluted with fifteen others you’re not confident about. Keep an objective eye, stand tough and ask a particularly honest friend or professional to give their opinion.

I asked Fig Taylor, head portfolio consultant at the AOI what she would describe as a client-stopping portfolio, and what would leave them feeling cold-

‘A good portfolio, regardless of format, has to say two things to your client: “This is who I am and this is how you can use me”. In other words you need to show a consistent body of work, some of which directly addresses the needs of your potential client. A bad portfolio, in my opinion, is one that leaves everything up to the client: a random, unfocused hotchpotch of work that tries to be all things to all commissioners; too much self-indulgence, (endless pages devoted to highly personal projects that bear no relation to the real world, things yanked out of sketchbooks and given prominence for purely sentimental reasons), and/or a protracted or shambolic presentation. Most commissioners are busy so you need to cut to the chase pretty quickly. The only thing that’s going on in their head when they’re viewing your work is, “Is this. Illustrator any good and what have I got on at the moment that they might be able to help me with?”’ 

One thing you’ll hear a lot about is the importance of having a consistent style. A unique visual identity that sets you apart from the rest and have folks murmuring ‘Hey! Isn’t that blahblah’s work? I could recognise that style anywhere!’. But, it’s most certainly not uncommon for illustrators to have more than one style using different techniques, mediums or for another audience entirely.

There’s no crime in lacking a set style at this point, it’s an ongoing process of development. To be honest, if you’re set in stone on a style from the get-go you’re probably limiting yourself from some all-important growth room.  Many popular illustrators have more than one style; digital and painting, for children and for adults. It’s just a case of maintaining a balance in your portfolio and appropriating the work you include for the client you’re showing your portfolio to. For example on your website, create sections for your different styles/audiences so the art director or client can see exactly what they want with one click.

I spoke to Cathy Olmedillas of Anorak magazine about what they look for in a portfolio to commission an illustrator.

What we generally look for is someone who has a consistent style across his/her portfolio. The reason for that is that our illustrators get absolute freedom to treat stories as they wish, so we need to ensure that what we see in the portfolio is close to what we will get.”

This will be the case with most publications as it’s much easier to feel comfortable commissioning someone if you can expect what you’re going to get stylistically.

If you do have different styles, don’t panic. It’s more important to create a continuous ‘feel’ through your work, no matter what medium. A unique voice to the visual language you’re using, tying everything together neatly. Experienced art directors will be able to pick up on this and see that it’s a positive thing that your work can be appropriated into different contexts.

However, if your styles are completely different you could consider having two websites or even use a pseudonym to separate things out.

Just remember to keep it all simple, professional, user-friendly and appropriate. You’ll be fine.

Take a look at these other guides to a tip-top portfolio - 

How to build an illustration portfolio by Heather Castles

Lots of good, clear advice in here on this and other topics about the illustration business.


Heart agent portfolio advice interview on Ideas Tap

Really useful little interview with Jenny Bull, an agent at Heart Illustration Agency about her likes and dislikes in illustrator’s portfolios and some advice to those starting out.


Digital Artists portfolio advice article

Lots of tips, experiences and quotes from industry professionals in here (the likes of Rebecca McCubbin, art buyer for Mother London, Richie Manu, creative director of Consurgo and Fig Taylor of the AOI). Some very useful bits, take the time to read it.


Fig Taylor – portfolio consultant for the AOI

I’ve mentioned her above but thought she deserved her own link. Fig is a long-time industry professional and illustrator portfolio aficionado. On my course at University College Falmouth I was lucky enough to be given a one on one portfolio review with her, which I found very useful. You can book yourself an in-depth portfolio review with her (for a fee) by contacting

There’s also a good interview with her here –


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