How to make illustrations even if you can’t draw

Make illustrations
I really hate clipart. So much that I at some point decided to start making my own illustrations for my documents, presentations and my blog.

Now I get all these nice compliments about my childish drawings. They seem to work well in my presentations because they add a personal touch. Doing presentations is a personal thing. The fact that you, yes you is there to present. People tend to appreciate the fact that you have spent the extra time adding your own special finish to the slides.

One little problem when I started was of course that I can’t draw. I made my own small cartoons at the age of 14 but has not done much drawing since then.

So when I started my experiments I immediately realized that my drawings where identical to the ones I made at the age of 14.

With some tricks in photoshop I was able to give these childish drawings a slightly more professional look, and after a while I am now able to make my own illustrations so fast that it can compete with the work I have to do if I want to find decent clipart.

The illustration in the example in this article took exactly 33 minutes from my decision to make something to finished illustration.

This is what you need:
1. Some courage to expose your unprofessional drawings
2. A black pen and some white paper
3. A digital camera or a scanner
4. Photoshop or Photoshop Elements

The idea
Start by trying to figure out the simplest possible illustration for the point you want to make. The fact that I can’t draw helps me a lot. It forces me to keep things simple. Not having the skill to make advanced illustrations is actually a good advantage when you want to make simple things.

Filt tip pen
The drawing
Use a thin pen. 0,75 or 1 mm. Have fun. The simple idea that comes to your mind first is often the best one when making illustrations like these. Don’t be afraid to break all rules about perspective, depth, proportions and whatever difficult guidelines that you could think of.

Don’t get scared by the fact that your drawing will look unprofessional before you start your magic in photoshop.

Draw with a firm line and close all open gaps.

Close all gaps
Closing the gaps is important for the work that you are going to do in photoshop.

Digitize it
Use a scanner, or a digital camera to get the illustration into your computer. If you use a digital camera you need an even lighting. Don’t use flash. Put your drawing near a window or under a soft light source. Using a digital camera will make the work in photoshop a bit more tricky, but with good lighting, a decent resolution and maybe a macro function on your camera it will do fine.

The photoshop work
First you want to separate your black lines from the white paper. Use the magic wand and select the white part of the picture. If you used a digital camera like I did in this example you might have to adjust the tolerance of the magic wand.

When you feel that you have a tolerance that selects the white part nicely you go to the “Select” menu in photoshop and choose “similar”. Photoshop will now select the parts of the white paper that was closed to your initial selection.

Now you have all the white areas selected. Go back to the “select” menu and choose Inverse. Now all your black lines are selected. Go to the edit menu and select copy. Then go back to the edit menu and select paste. (Or, Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V).

New layer
Now you should have a new layer with your drawing on a transparent background. Turn off the original layer with your photo or scan and start working on that new layer.

Here you use the magic wand to select the parts that you want to fill with color. The process is simple and quite repetitive. Select area, find your colors, select the gradient tool, choose a gradient type and apply the gradient.

Apply the gradient

If you want to add shadows or other effects you have to copy the part you want the effect on to a new layer.


For this illustration I added a shadow on the person and some motion blur on the globe.

Shouting to the world
I have also had fun adding real photos or screenshots like the desert island in the TV and the screenshot from the Pirate Bay in the story about Bob the Millionaire. You find some more examples as well through this post.

Related story:
How to avoid making boring presentations

…and you can digg this story here.

How to make illustrations even if you can’t draw

38 thoughts on “How to make illustrations even if you can’t draw

  1. kermit says:

    very good idea, always had thought to do it, but never came about. I think i’ll do it now, thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Tomas says:

    This is more simple method than I’ve been using, and with better results – it saves much time, thank you for the great idea!

  3. Illustrationen erstellen…

    Eirik Solheim erklärt, wie man  selbst ohne besonders ausgeprägtes Zeichentalent mittels Photoshop hübsche Illustrationen erstellen kann.


  4. Eric, you have helped move all of us who do not draw well to another level. I really enjoyed this presentation with great pictures to explain how to go about this. You have a great way of helping other folks grasp this stratgy. Kudos!

    Brain Based

  5. Thank you! It’s great if this post can give people the courage to start experimenting. Feel free to share your experiences if you try something like this on your blog or in your presentation.

  6. Ian M says:

    Also tried the freehand method, then tried overlaying a newspaper on my M200 notebook screen and tracing. It worked great! Now I have a technique I didn’t have before stumbling here. Many thanks to Erik the Empowerer

  7. John says:

    I totally agree about the clip art …I have done hundreds of such illustrations with my own drawings,and presentation.I have used an overhead projector..A quality
    one at that.I have never lost a group from boredom.
    ing Last week I gave a training presentation to 30 contractors.They loved it as usual.Unfortunately the VP
    of sales was present wit one of his goofers.He didn’t like it.Said I need to use powerpoint,and graphics…sound ! and join the 21 century..I had no comment…but such a deflator that was…Life is good nevertheless..

  8. As Ahmed (the first commenter) pointed out, I would do this in Illustrator (provided you have Illustrator though). When you use the live trace function, you can trace the lines, as blueprint or as comic art (which would be perfect for this kind of illustrations).

    The drawings will be vector as well, and scalable without quality loss! :)

  9. I guess you inspired others to jump into the design field. Well, you even inspired me to giveaway/share some knowledges adquired through life in painting.

    If you want to download the tutorial I’ve done for a software similar to PhotoShop, go and get it for free!

    Ouch! The tuto comes in Spanish, but it’s so graphical that anyone with only half brain working can get what I’m teaching there.

    1- Meeting the workarea:

    2- Meeting the workarea (part 2):

    3- Our first design:

    4- Our first design (part 2)

    5- How to create and animated image (in English):

    6- Creating a postcard:
    * Cool as today is St. Valentine’s. Happy day for everyone.

    PS: If you want to keep snooping on my things, then visit:
    or just go to:

  10. Craig Hadden, Sydney says:

    Thanks for your great tutorial! It might work well to create drawings like those used at, which i admire.

    As well as Illustrator, Inkscape has a trace function to convert bitmaps to vectors, and Inkscape is free — and great! Its native format is SVG, but it can export to PNG. Well worth trying!

  11. Indeed. Hence the title of this post. I manage to make illustrations to help explaining something complicated, but art? Nice looking proper drawings? Nope… You don’t have to sugar coat anything regarding my lack of such skills. :-)

  12. Chilly says:

    Hi Eirikso,
    Thank you very much for this little tutorial of yours.
    The drawing may be not perfect, but is a very good result for 33minutes!
    Quite amazing :)

    Cheers, Chilly

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