How to Illustrate a Modern Plant Composition with a Nostalgic Flare in Procreate

by Guest Author March 30, 2020

How to Illustrate a Modern Plant Composition with a Nostalgic Flare in Procreate

In this tutorial, we’re going to learn how to create a modern nature composition that has a vintage vibe. We will draw inspiration from old European and Asian matchbooks, as well as modern botanical illustrations, and the plants around your yard!

In order to follow along, make sure you have the following:

  1. iPad and Apple Pencil
  2. Procreate (available in the App Store)
  3. The Mid-Century Brush Pack for Procreate

1. Choose a subject and gather inspiration from wherever you can.

First, you’ll need to choose the subject of your illustration. Since we’re focusing on plants in this tutorial, pick a plant that has interesting shapes/negative space.

Go outside and pick some leaves (make sure they’re not poisonous!) and study the overall shapes and negative space.

Once you've chosen your plant, it's time to find inspiration for the rest of the illustration. We’re focusing on a specific style here that draws inspiration from old matchbooks, so check out Pinterest or Instagram to get some ideas. (Unless, of course, you happen to have a collection of vintage matchbooks from Asia or Europe, in which case, I am endlessly envious!)

I’m a huge proponent of pulling inspiration from real-life experiences (sights, sounds, books, conversations, etc.) but – I think the internet can be an incredible tool, especially if you’re looking for something specific like we are here.

Pinterest and Instagram are great resources for this because you have digital access to the physical things people find around the world.

Pinterest Hot Tip: Rather than searching for Pins with your keyword, try searching for Boards. This way, you can find existing collections rather than individual images which may or may not be related to what you’re searching for.

Below you can find my inspiration for this piece — a combo of things found in real life and online.

2. Analyze the elements of your inspiration.

When trying to achieve a specific style, I find it helpful to list out the different attributes/design decisions that I’m drawn to in the pieces I was inspired by. The combination of different elements is what allows a piece to have its own unique style.

I’m going to list out mine below and I encourage you to do the same – it requires your brain to determine what you like about something, rather than that you just like it. Trust me on this one.

  • Long, organic leaf shapes
  • Hard shadows
  • Color fills
  • Minimal color palette
  • Bold background shapes
  • Gritty texture
  • Mismatched registration

Now that you know exactly what you find inspiring about the pieces you chose, you’re ready to sketch out your composition.

3. Sketch out a rough outline and block out your shapes.

Open up Procreate and create a new 8’x10” canvas. I typically illustrate at this size so I can make it into a print later on if I want.

Open your layers panel in the top right. Tap the + to create a new layer and rename it "Sketch", or something similar, by tapping on the layer and selecting Rename.

Then, sketch out a rough outline of your composition. I love to use the RSCo Dry Gouache brush for my rough sketches. At this stage, try to balance out your composition and avoid tangents (areas where two shapes are touching in a way that creates unwanted tension).

Once you’re happy with your composition, turn your sketch layer to 50% opacity by tapping the N next to your layer and adjusting the slider.

Create a new layer, name it “Shapes”, and begin to block out your larger shapes in a darker stroke.

I tend to use the RSCo Carbon Brush for this step. Only outline the shapes that you want to move forward with – think of this as a more refined sketch.

This is also the time to block out where you want your shadows to be. This will make it easier on yourself in the next step. 

4. Choose a color palette and block our your color.

Since we’re going for a nostalgic feel, it’s helpful to choose nostalgic colors. Great resources for old color palettes are vintage children’s books, prints, ads, packaging, etc.

Go rummaging through an estate sale or a thrift store to find some cool palettes that you think may work and then tweak to suit your illustration. I tend to find that the fewer colors I choose, the more refined the piece feels.

We want to make sure that we have a different layer for each element of our composition because later, we will be adjusting the blend modes of each layer to create dimension.

Create a new layer for your first element. I’m going to start with the bold circle shape in the background, so I’m just going to name my layer “Circle”.

Turn off your “Sketch” layer by unchecking the box next to the layer name. Change the blend mode of your “Shapes” layer to Multiply by tapping the N and selecting Multiply.

Move your “Circle” layer below your “Shapes” layer so you can see what you’re tracing over.

On your new “Circle” layer, using the RSCo Carbon Brush, trace over your first shape with color.

Do the same for every one of the elements in your composition. For my piece, I’ll create layers for the “Circle”, “Plant”, “Plant Shadows”, and “Background Lines”.

5. Simulate mismatched print registration.

Since we want this to have an old feel, let’s simulate an old mismatched print registration. To do this, first turn off your “Sketch” and “Shapes” layers so all you see is color.

Next, duplicate all of your element layers except your plant and plant shadows layer. (We want to create a blending effect with the plant, so we will be doing something else with it later.)

Turn on Alpha Lock on all the duplicated layers by tapping on the layer and selecting Alpha Lock.

Then, select white in the color picker, and fill those duplicate layers with white by tapping the layer and selecting Fill Layer. You won’t be able to see them just yet.

Next, select all the colored element layers (including your plant layer) and change the blend mode to Multiply.

Move each colored shape layer over a few pixels so you can just barely see the white layers peeking through. This gives the idea that the registration was slightly off during printing, giving the piece an authentic old print feel.

6. Add grain and final touches.

Now that we have the piece almost completed – let’s add some grain for even more authenticity.

Add a new layer on top of each layer that you want to add grain to. Tap on those layers and select Clipping Mask so the grain only applies in the area that we have shapes.

Select the same color as your element layer, set your grain layer to Multiply, grab that trusty RSCo Grain I brush, and go to town! Adjust the opacity of these grain layers as you see fit.

If you’re in a more-is-more mood and feel that it still needs a bit more oomph, you can use the RSCo Grain II brush in your background color or white and lightly add some final speckles to your piece. Don’t overdo it!

7. You're done!

Great job! You can use this same technique with any subject matter – doesn’t have to just be plants.

I encourage you to walk around your neighborhood and find some things that inspire you – that super cute cat that’s always in the window, that funky car that your neighbor always seems to be working on, an interesting archway...use your imagination!

I’d love to see what you create, so please tag me on Instagram @kb.kb with your finished pieces!

About Kristen Best

Kristen Best is a graphic designer and illustrator based out of Portland, Oregon. She works alongside her husband and sister-in-law at their creative agency, Sunnyside Creative Co.

Her favorite coworker is her cat, Mary Berry, who tends to make her way into her illustrations and absolutely hates it when she works.

You can check out her work at Sunnyside Creative Co and purchase prints in her shop. You can also follow her work @kb.kb on Instagram.

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