I’ve had more than a couple people ask me how I create the illustrations for my Olive the woolly bugger fly fishing books, so I thought I’d share the process with my vast listening audience.

Let me start by declaring that I’m Olde Skool to a certain extent.  I didn’t grow up with computers, and it wasn’t until I was in my mid 20’s that the personal computer came to prominence. Since I was working in the field of graphic design at the time, I had to learn how to do everything I’d learned to do by hand, on the computer.  At first I resisted, but when that proved futile I embraced the computer as a new tool.  However, there are some things that just can’t be achieved with a mouse.

All of my illustrations begin the old-fashioned way with a piece of paper and a pencil.  I’ve never found a suitable replacement for the tactile relationship between the hand and the pencil/paper. More than anything it’s a hand-eye coordination thing. I can draw pretty well with a mouse (don’t care for those Wacom tablets), but the free-form ability to create fluid shapes and gestures is only revealed (to me, anyway) with a stroke of the pencil. I create my rough sketches in this manner, and those rough sketches provide a basis for the next step.

Step #1: Pencil Sketch

Once the rough pencil sketches are done I scan the drawings and import them into my primary drawing program, Adobe Flash.  Yeah, you heard me right–Flash.

“But wait, Kirk,” you ask. “Isn’t Flash just a tool for creating web graphics?”  Why yes it is, and I’m glad you asked.

“Hold on just a second,” you interject. “For printing don’t you have to use a program that allows for CMYK colors?”  Well, yes. But you’re getting ahead of me with that line of questioning.  Please be patient–we’re getting there.

I use Flash to trace over the scanned pencil sketches.  I like the drawing tools in Flash better than any other software program I’ve ever used and it allows me the most flexibility that can only be topped by drawing completely by hand (which in and of itself has limitations).  The first step within Flash is to draw a thin black outline around all my shapes. At this time I also add some details that were not done in the pencil sketch. Full creative license to do as I please. 😉

Step #2: Outline in Adobe Flash

After I’ve drawn my outlines I then go in and add my main colors. Then I use secondary shading to add detail to the drawings.  This is all very easily done with Flash.  But now, as was noted in our discussion above,  I have a file that uses RGB colors (Red, Green & Blue). The computer screen uses a combination of these 3 colors to display images. If I were creating my illustrations only to be viewed on the computer, then my work would be done. However, for printing my books these RGB color files are not suitable.

Step#3: Colors added in Adobe Flash

My Flash files must then be converted to another software format that allows for colors that are used in commercial offset printing.  This process of printing is called the 4 color process, or CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow & Black). The program I use to achieve the CMYK colors is known as Adobe Illustrator. Fortunately Adobe makes both Flash and Illustrator, so the two programs play nicely together.  This compatibility allows me to export my Flash file to an Illustrator format, which does have a CMYK palette needed for offset printing.  The problem is that when I open the newly-created Illustrator file, the colors which were so vibrant in Flash, are now dull and washed out.  This is a result of color palette discrepancies.

Step #4: Faded colors in Adobe Illustrator

What I have to do at this point is select new colors to replace those that are now dull and faded.  It can be a tedius task, but I have found ways to streamline the drudgery. Yes, it’s an extra step but one that cannot be avoided. It’s not a perfect world, but it works for me because it allows me to work in a manner that suits my style.

Step #5: Final colors in Adobe Illustrator

Essentially after I have converted all the colors, I am done. At least with one illustration.  Now I have to do the same for every other illustration in the books.  As you can imagine, it’s not a task to be done overnight. You may be asking, “Why don’t you skip the Flash step, and just draw directly in Illustrator?”  The answer is simple:  Flash is a better freehand drawing tool that allows me to work in a manner that Illustrator doesn’t.  The most important thing to me as an artist is to have final illustrations that look like they were hand-drawn (because essentially they are).  I don’t want software to determine the look and feel of the illustrations.

How I came to work in this manner was very much a trial and error basis, and I may be the only illustrator in the universe that works in exactly this manner.  If there is anyone else out there reading this that uses this same process, I’d love to hear from you.  And Adobe, are you listening?  My life would be made a lot easier if you added a CMYK palette to Flash, or added the flexibilty of Flash‘s drawing tools to Illustrator!

Thanks for listening.