Adobe Illustrator tutorial: Create a retro-style comic

Using an image from an ongoing project, Toby Leigh explains how he turns an initial sketch into a polished piece of art

In this Masterclass, illustrator Toby Leigh will guide you through how he develops a narrative-based artwork in his hip graphic style that puts a modern spin on British comic traditions. 

He will take you from initial sketchbook observation work to a polished piece of final artwork realised using Illustrator and Photoshop. This tutorial will also help you develop a style and visual language of your own that will form your identity.

This piece is from an ongoing project in which Toby documents the various characters he meets on a day?to-day basis in London. 

“Real people and the way they behave is the funniest and most interesting starting point for almost all of my work,” he explains. 

“Having grown up in London, I have always been surrounded by characters and been fascinated in their eccentricities.”

This particular frame focuses on someone Toby calls ‘Mr DVD’, who works tirelessly selling what-we-can-only-assume-are pirate DVDs on Mare Street in Hackney, near Toby’s studio. 

Time to complete 

5 hours


Photoshop, Illustrator, printer, scanner, pencil, paper


The first stage is observation. Looking and listening is key. It’s the little details that make something come to life. 

It’s no use trying to draw everything from memory – keeping a sketchbook is a vital tool. It’s also great for making notes about funny little conversations you overhear. 

The more you draw from life, the more confident your work will become. Try to think about how you draw specific things and try to stylise them – including human features such as hands, eyes and noses. This will give your work a distinct look. 


In the case of ‘Mr DVD’, I’ve watched him for a while and how people react to him in the cafes and pubs he frequents. I began making initial sketchbook studies, focusing specifically on the way he stands. 

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To find the right pen, pencil and paper, you’ll need to experiment. I use a 0.3mm mechanical pencil on layout paper. Because this paper is very thin, I can trace my drawings quickly and thus refine them.


The next step is to begin thinking about constructing your composition. Start by doing some very quick thumbnail drawings. 

Don’t be too precious about how these look. These don’t need to be masterpieces. They are purely functional in order that you can see how the action in the frame will work. 

Once you are happy with your composition, it’s time to refine the drawings so they can be retraced in Illustrator. The great thing about working digitally is you can draw different elements separately and then bring them together on the computer.


Now scan in your drawing and import it into Illustrator. Lower the transparency of the image, so that when you come to trace over it, you can clearly see the lines you are drawing. Lock the layer and create a new layer on which to draw. 

From here, you can begin to trace your image using the Pen tool. It’s best to work with the stroke weight at 0.25, so you can be very precise with the lines you are making. You can alter this later to give a more dynamic look and feel.

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Keep hiding and unhiding the bottom layer, so you can check how the drawing is coming together. Try and make the line work economical and confident, so it appears bold and striking. Once you’re happy with the shape of the drawing, you can begin to alter the line widths in the stroke width palette. 


Copy your drawing into Photoshop and begin adding colour and tone. The style of this illustration is influenced by comics from the 1950s, when technological restrictions meant only limited colours were used. In this case, I used red and black to mimic this style. By using a halftone, you can achieve a grey and flesh tone pink. 


The final texture is a layer that sits over the top of the image to tie it all together and enhance the aged feel. I created this by scanning in some old paper, then positioning it over the top of the other layers, setting its blending mode to Overlay.

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