If you order a custom illustrated recipe, you usually only get to see the end result: the finished poster. Let me take you on a little journey behind the scenes in the world of my custom recipe illustrations. I’ve documented the process of the latest illustration, so you can see all the steps.
It all starts with an email from the customer, telling me about the recipe. In this case not only ingredients and directions, but also a nice background story on who it is for. I love to hear those stories, because it gives me an idea who I am making it for and that makes it even more fun for me to illustrate. Of course, this is totally optional… 😉
Next step is visual thinking: rough sketches. It’s not pretty and it doesn’t have to be. It’s really just thinking on paper, figuring out how many products need to fit in the area you have reserved for your illustration. What are the shapes of the products? Do you have a lot of round products, a lot of square packaging, do you have something you can fill the gaps with? You want to have a balanced piece. How do you achieve that? By having a nice mix of packaging, colors, fresh products, big and small.
Next step is visual thinking: rough sketches. It’s not pretty and it doesn’t have to be. It’s really just thinking on paper.
In this case I had 5 types of packaging, 2 pieces of fresh ingredients and 5 types of seasoning. I sketched them all to see what I was working with. You always have some options on how you show something. I decided to draw fresh thyme instead of dried, so I had a more flexible shape to work with. You can draw black pepper in the grinder or you can go for the loose peppercorns. This is great for filling little gaps. The recipe says a can of beans, but since it’s the main ingredient of chili I want to show their shape and color. Less packaging is usually the best option (in the kitchen as well as in the illustrated recipe).
Let’s look at my first sketches. On the left you see how I explored the shapes. I tried different options for the black pepper and the chili powder. If you have a recipe with just a few ingredients or you find the shapes are all a bit similar (lots of packaging) you can always decide to draw something fresh (like the thyme) or add kitchen utensils. A colorful oven glove might just be what you need. I didn’t necessarily need an extra item, but since the pan is important for this recipe I wanted to show it. With the title of the recipe written on the pan, it became the centre piece.
You’ll see below that the sketch is just a sketch and the final illustration has some different elements. But first things first. I now had a pretty good idea of the composition of the poster. I checked and double checked that all the ingredients are there (believe me, you need to check. And check again before you hit print…). Time to go digital.
A little technical side note here. I use Adobe Photoshop for nearly all my (professional) illustration work. Every time I try something else like Procreate, SketchBook or AdobeSketch on my iPad, I feel I’m missing all the options of the real thing. I draw on an iPad pro, but I use it in combination with Astropad (an app that makes your iPad a second screen for your computer). This way I can work in the full version of Photoshop on my computer, but on my iPad and with my Apple pencil. Hallelujah. I will cover some of this stuff in a different post. Let’s get back to the illustrated recipe.
You have a few choices here.
- If you have an iPad with an Apple pencil, you can go all digital like I do. Use the software/app of your choice.
- If you are a mouse/wacom wizard and you can draw directly in Photoshop, go for it (how though?!).
- Not a wizard, but you do have Photoshop? Draw it on paper, refine your sketches and scan them. You can rearrange the ingredients for the perfect composition and add color and details in Photoshop.
- Not equipped with the digital tools? Go all analogue. You don’t need any of this fancy stuff to make something beautiful (there’s just no CMD + Z, sorry….)
As I said, from this point I go all digital with an iPad + Apple pencil, using Astropad to work in Photoshop. I usually start with the title of the recipe. The lettering is an important part of the illustration and gives the illustration a certain direction. In composition, but also in the way it feels. I decided I wanted the title to be in a circle on top of the pan (see illustration below: 2). I started with that and then drew all the different ingredients on separate layers – I use photo reference when needed, especially when it comes to packaging. Just black lines, nothing else (4).
Before I start coloring, everything needs to be in place. As you can see there are some differences between the composition sketch (3) and the one where I started coloring (5). I shift the ingredients around (different layers for each ingredient!) until it all fits. The thyme and the peppercorns can be drawn in any shape, so use that to fill any gaps you have. In my sketch I drew a chili with powder underneath, but that didn’t work so I went with a spoon of chili powder.
Another thing to pay attention to when it comes to balance is similar shapes and colors. Put them in opposite corners, keep the same type of packaging apart. You can see I put the bell pepper and the onion (the only two fresh ingredients) on either side if the illustration. I did the same thing with the tomato packaging. The purée and the corn were the same kind of cans. I decided to show the corn from the top to change things around. You can (and should, not like I did) figure these things out in your sketches.
Every ingredient has its own group with several layers. You’ll thank yourself in the end for being so damn organized.
Every ingredient has its own layer. When I start coloring I give them their own folder (group). You’ll thank yourself in the end for being so damn organized. Believe me, I’ve spent enough time searching for layers, clicking the little eye to check if it’s the one. Make a group, give everything – each color, shadow, whatever detail you add – its own layer within that group and name them. I usually have over a hundred layers. Better safe than sorry. When everything is in groups you can easily move the single ingredient.
When everything is in place and colored, I hand letter the names of the ingredients. Sometimes curly and playful and sometimes clean and all caps. When the illustration is all done I switch to InDesign to make the layout with the text below the illustration and to make the final pdf. That’s just my thing, the way a graphic designer does it. You could do this in Photoshop as well, but I find it more of a hassle. So now my illustration is all ready, I print it on regular paper to check for the last time. Every ingredient is there? Check. All the measurements are correct? Check. No mistakes anywhere? Check. Then I’m ready to get my vintage paper out and print the final product. I’m always excited and a bit scared at this part… And then it’s done!
So here’s a little recap of what to think about when you want to illustrate a recipe:
- Sketch all the ingredients on your list to know the shapes you’re working with.
- Make a composition: Keep similar shapes and colors apart and vary big and small ingredients. Drawing aubergine salad? Put the aubergine in the centre and make it big! Arrange the rest of the ingredients around your main focus.
- Think about how you want to position the title, sketch it out. Don’t use more than two types of lettering: all caps, thin, bold, curly… your choice.
- Try to match the colors if you can. That’s not always possible. A green bell pepper and red tomatoes… Yep, I know. But you can go crazy and just don’t care. See what happens if you choose two or three colors and stick with it.
- Keep all your ingredients organized in Photoshop: layers and groups!
- Drag them around the canvas until the composition is just right. Balance the white space. Use small ingredients or shapes you can adjust to fill the gaps.
- Add the text for the ingredients and/or the directions of your recipe at the bottom
If you think this all nice and everything, but you know this is never gonna happen, I’ve got your back. I’ll make it for you! Get your own illustrated recipe and let me do all the work. No problem!
But if you do decide to make one, I am really really really curious and excited to see what you made! Don’t hesitate to show your work and ask me for feedback. I’d be happy to give some tips and advice.