Illustration tutorial: Combine separate elements into one beautiful digital illustration

Sandra Dieckmann shows you the best ways to create individual elements using pencil, pen and brush – and then combine them into a perfectly composed artwork in Photoshop.

This tutorial is a step-by-step account of Sandra Dieckmann’s creative process, revealing this step-by-step as she takes you through how she sketches, draws and paints the different components of her illustration The Lake House – including this bear – before compositing these in Photoshop.

In this masterclass we observe the use of pencil and ink as well as working with digital media and the marriage of both to create a detailed and interesting piece full of textures and life.

From composition, to sketches, drawing and finishing the piece in Photoshop, Sandra shows us how she created this incredible illustration.


Before I start on my final illustration I sketch out my idea with pencil and ink. I have opted for a simple composition here, drawing the eye into the centre of the image.

For this tutorial I tended to stick very closely to the original composition, but sometimes I move things around once I get into Photoshop where I work on separate layers.


The first and main element I’m going to work on is the focal point of my illustration -the big sleeping bear. This is a printed out enlarged version of my earlier sketch, as I liked the proportions. 

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On a lightbox I work on smooth Bristol board with a mechanical pencil and a wider pencil to create my final drawing of the bear.


Then I work with ink and pencil on all the other elements that are going to feature in my piece - the house, the trees, the hill in the foreground with all the leaves and branches and the mountains for the background.

Each element is on a separate piece of paper and will be scanned and imported into Photoshop.

I like drawing these by hand to add natural textures and noise to the image.


In Photoshop I add each drawing on a separate layer.

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I select the white space around the elements with the Magic Wand and remove it. I set fore, middle and background in the right order to create my stage.


Finally, I adjust the tone and contrast of the drawings.


I love using Kyle T Webster’s downloadable Photoshop brushes to colour and draw. They imitate chalk, gouache and pencil textures closely.

Add a separate layer to colour your drawing. You can apply a Multiply blending mode to the layer to see what’s underneath. You can change the colour anytime later in Image > Adjustment > Hue if you aren’t happy with it.

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Once I lay down a base colour, I then work on the same multiplied layer to create texture and body on the bear by using the Swatches panel, and different size and quality brushes.

I add lowlights and shadow with darker browns and highlights to the bear’s fur with fairer tones. I do that to most other elements later too.


I often Invert my line work when the image is set at night. You can see here that the previously dark grass lines on white paper are now the other way around. This makes these small details stand out more against the dark backgrounds and add a touch of magic light in the night.


I opted for a chalky blue hue throughout my image.

From foreground to background the hues are staggered to become darker to create depth of field in the illustration. The front hues are a touch warmer too. The term for this is ‘Verblauung’, as things running into the distance are perceived increasingly more blue.

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Once the image is basically composed I move onto adding in the small extras I drew earlier. I cut them out, separate them and multiply or screened each layer.

I move the shrubs and trees around until I find the right places for them. I think the human eye can tell the difference between these and digital artwork, so in that respect they add interest and depth to the illustration.


My next step is to concentrate on the mini scene in the middle of the illustration - the little house by the lake. As before, I add colour by working on a new multiplied blending layer for the house, and build the lake up on a fresh layer with several blues and watercolour brushes. The lights are kept on in the upstairs rooms to make the little house seem livelier.


To mirror the house in the lake water I duplicate the same layer and just pull down the top of the free transform box. I then applied a Soft Light blending mode to it to create the mirror effect in the water and erased the bit of the house on land that wouldn’t show in the lake.

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Based on my early composition sketch I want the little house to be enclosed by some hills, of which I haven’t prepared an analogue drawing. I therefore use the Eyedropper tool to pick up a light blue hue in my image and push that up to an even brighter blue to draw in the hills digitally. I used a rough chalky brush around 25px width.


The idea of my drawing is to create a windy night with the big strong bear as a protector lying next to the little house. My foreground was naturally windy because of the way it was drawn but my sky needs more light and movement.

I add diamonds as a graphic light element by transforming white squares and selecting an Overlay blending mode in the layer’s properties. I also draw in wind lines freely with the brushes.


The later part of the illustrating process is really about making all the details really stand out. I went over the grass in the foreground adding lighter and darker plants and changing up the blues here and there. In the middle ground I added last touches by placing the inverted trees and bushes around the house.

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Earlier on while working on paper I made a note about adding in some swans later. I think this will give the house and lake extra life. I draw the swans in with a soft chalky digital brush on a new layer with white. The orange beaks add a flash of colour in the darkness. I add in a slight shadow on the water.


As a finishing touch I coloured in the red flowers on a new top layer. I have a good look around the edges of the bear and other elements in the image to make sure everything is cleaned up and I haven’t missed colouring anything. I make sure the brightness works for on screen viewing and I’m okay with the hues and contrast.


Make sure the elements you are drawing on paper early on have clear outlines. This makes it easier to select the white around the drawings with the magic wand later and cut them out.

Be prepared to lighten the image somewhat for printing. It’s very different viewing an image on screen and preparing it for print.

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Often I’ll have a few ideas ready to go in the sketchbook. This time I remembered a house that stood by a lake that I saw during one of our long walks in the Lake District. With the big hills around it, and as I often do, my imagination drifted to an evening and I imagined a bear lying down to sleep amongst the mountains to watch over the little house.