Behind the scenes: the process of creating a
Pokémon TCG illustration
Illustrator / character designer. She has been drawing as an Official Pokémon Trading Card Game Illustrator since 2019. Taking advantage of her experience as a 3D modeler, she is active in various fields such as games, books, exhibitions, product development, and more. She is on a never-ending learning journey to find the answer to one question: what makes something “cool”? She has been playing Pokémon video game since Pokémon Gold, Pokémon Silver, and Pokémon Crystal.
She loves Mewtwo very much.
“Milotic“ illustrator: Akira Egawa
Included in Pokémon TCG: Sword & Shield—Darkness Ablaze
What to Keep In Mind When Drawing an Illustration
Q: First of all, please tell us what you consider important in drawing an illustration.
A: To me, showing a Pokémon’s “life” is the most important thing. That is, where does a Pokémon live? How does it live? What are its strengths? What do its struggles look like? I want to address these questions—making the answers look cool.
Q: You’re really particular about “coolness.”
A: I’ve loved cool things for as long as I can remember. For example, I’ve always liked TV shows starring heroes and heroines, especially the scenes where they fight the bad guys! That made me fall in love with all things “cool,” and even today, that’s what I try to achieve with my illustrations.
Step 1: Pokémon Selection, Researching, and Drafting the Composition
Q: How does the process work from the Pokémon selection to researching and drafting the illustration’s composition? And what kind of materials does Creatures Inc. give you when they ask you for an illustration?
A: When the scheduled order date comes in advance, I receive the order by email, and that’s when I first know what Pokémon has been selected. Getting to find out which Pokémon it’s going to be feels like opening a treasure chest! Then, while checking the materials I’ve been provided for that Pokémon, I start coming up with different ideas on how to draw it, and I start familiarizing myself with it.
Q: The next step is sketching drafts. How do you approach this? Also, tell us more about your preliminary research on the Pokémon.
A: The first thing I always do is read the Pokédex information from the video games. I read to find out where the Pokémon lives, what it feeds on, and what its strengths are. In a way, it’s like reading the encyclopedia of an animal. After that, I collect materials on the creatures that are similar to the Pokémon’s design. I also use the Trading Card Database on the Pokémon TCG website to look at existing cards made by other Official Pokémon Trading Card Game Illustrators to check that what I plan on drawing isn’t too similar in composition or style. Other than learning about the Pokémon in the games, I also check whether it has appeared in the animation series, on TV, or in the movies. After this is done, I start solidifying on what will be the composition and background for the illustration.
Q: So, you spend a lot of time researching before you start drawing.
A: I definitely do. The research step takes a considerable amount of time. But since I only put pen to paper after I’ve already decided how I want the illustration to look, finding research material is essential for me! I’d say I even spend more time on this than I do on sketching the actual drafts.
Step 2: Sketching and Delivering the Draft
Q: Please tell us about your process for sketching drafts.
A: During the research process, I come up with an idea of the illustration I want to make. In order to see how it would actually look like on a card, I sketch a very rough draft with little more than outlines.
After looking at them on paper, the awesome ideas I had in my head often turn out to be…not very cool after all (laughs). I make more rough sketches, asking myself whether the illustration would be cooler if the Pokémon’s face was oriented in a different way, if the composition was flipped, and so on, until, by trial and error, the result starts resembling what I had in mind to begin with. Depending on the illustration, it may take me a whole day, with several drafts, to get through this step.
Once I’ve decided the pose and composition, I’ll start making a more detailed draft with some rough coloring. Personally, I like to include the background and lighting in my drafts. This helps give a better idea of how the finished product will look.
Q: All drafts go through a review* by Creatures Inc. and The Pokémon Company. This is an important step necessary to protect the uniqueness of Pokémon and the Pokémon TCG. What kind of feedback and advice do you receive after this draft review?
*During this review process, illustrations are examined to make sure that they fit within the Pokémon universe in design and atmosphere, and ideas are also suggested to make them more “Pokémon-like.”
A: The most common feedback I get is about the Pokémon’s shape. I’m often requested to make some very small adjustments in order to portray the Pokémon in a correct and interesting way.
The same goes for the Pokémon’s colors. I like using very deep shadows, and my illustrations tend to end up a bit too dark as a result. I’m often told to tweak the coloring of a Pokémon to make it better resemble the original design or to make the original palette easier to see. Sometimes, I’m also asked to make the whole illustration lighter, so that it doesn’t look too dark once it’s printed onto a card.
Translation for the above list:
- 1. As for the head, please adjust so that the center is the largest. (must do)
- 2. Make the tip of head a bit shorter (if possible)
- 3. Make the eye’s outline a bit thicker (if possible)
- 4. The portion of the body from the neck to the abdomen should look thinner (must do)
Step 3: Coloring
Q: Tell us about the painting materials and equipment you use.
A: I do all of my drawing digitally. I use an LCD tablet to draw, and I have another monitor next to it to display reference material. As for software, I use (Adobe) Photoshop.
Q: How do you go about coloring the illustration?
A: I usually draw the background before I start coloring the Pokémon. Since I want the Pokémon to be the main feature of the illustration, I tend to feel accomplished once that part is done, leaving me less motivated to draw the background (laughs). This is why I usually do it the other way around, making sure that the Pokémon and the background that it stands against are up to the same level of quality.
When drawing the backgrounds, I use photos and go visit relevant scenes in person to achieve a more realistic look. However, I try to balance this realism with that stylized feel that is unique to illustrations.
Once I’m 80% done with the background, I take a break from that and start coloring the Pokémon. Instead of using different layers for the outlines, colors, and shadows of the Pokémon, I layer coats of color one on top of the other, as in a painting. During the coloring process, I also make some additional tweaks to the shapes, getting closer to the final product.
The thing I care about the most when coloring the Pokémon is giving them the most realistic textures I can. How would touching this Pokémon feel? Cold? Warm? Hard? Bushy? That’s what I think about while drawing.
As I envisioned, I also consciously add color unevenness to give texture to the surface of the Pokémon’s body. For example, with Milotic, I started with a pale orange, and then added other oranges and reds with similar hues, because a less uniform color gives more lifelike texture. I also added a few playful strokes of contrasting colors, especially blue and green, to make Milotic’s skin look more transparent and to give the impression that the water around it is reflecting off of it.
If you use Photoshop’s eyedropper tool on a scenic photograph, you can extract various colors. Likewise, in real life, color is composed of many hues blended together. That’s why making the color uneven is important to add richness of texture to an illustration.
Step 4: The Finishing Touches
Q: Tell us about the finishing touches, such as any effect or filter that you use to complete the illustration.
A: The great thing about digital drawing is that you can add extra effects after the illustration is done! For example, you can add some soft light reflections to a certain spot to show that the sun is shining brightly onto it, or you can make it look like the light is being diffused by the humid air. As I said earlier, my illustrations tend to end up a bit too dark, so during this last phase, I often lighten them up to prevent shadows being lost when printed.
Taking into account the line of sight when this illustration is seen and rhythm of the illustration as a whole, I use effects such as motion lines or light rays to show how the Pokémon is moving. After that, if time allows, I will either add more and more details or even redraw some of the shapes from scratch.
Q: Sketching, coloring, and finishing. Which stage would you say takes the most energy?
A: The part that drains me the most is the sketching of drafts! For me, that’s like drawing a blueprint for the illustration. Imagine building a house without a blueprint or ground plans. If you just started laying down bricks willy-nilly, your house would probably fall apart before you were even done. It’s the same for illustrations. Sketching a rough draft and working on it until the point when you can imagine the state of completion takes the most energy.
Step 5: Completion!
Q: How do you know when an illustration is complete?
A: I ask myself whether it’d be embarrassing to show it to others and whether it would fly as a professional piece of commercial art. These are the bare-minimum requirements for me to consider one of my illustrations as “complete.” Sometimes, when I’m retouching a work that has already cleared those requirements, there is a moment where I realize that I’m quite good at drawing and feel excited! It’s not very scientific, but it’s the standard I set for my work, so I just keep drawing and drawing until I know for sure that it has been met. Illustrating Pokémon TCG cards is very important work for me, so I wouldn’t want to deliver any illustration that I am not proud of from the bottom of my heart.
Q: How does it feel when you are finished with an illustration?
A: When I deliver the completed illustration to Creatures Inc. and know that my work is done, I get a huge sense of accomplishment. The kind, warm comments that I always get from Creatures on the completed illustrations make me feel happy and reassured. But nothing makes me feel as accomplished as seeing the release of the actual printed card! That’s when I really know that my job is done. It’s an incomparable feeling, and it wouldn’t be too much of an overstatement to say that I live to experience those moments (laughs).
Q: Lastly, please send a message to all those who are thinking of applying to the Pokémon Trading Card Game Illustration Contest 2022.
A: First and foremost, I want you to enjoy drawing from the bottom of your heart. Of course, illustrating can, at times, be a difficult job. Sometimes, you can’t get the picture to look like you want it to, and it just feels off… But this is inevitable with all creative work. I hope that you’ll be able to find something that helps you through those rough patches, such as a small accomplishment that makes you proud, or a compliment someone made to your art. I hope that those things help you stay in love with drawing so that you can go through the whole process enjoying yourself and enjoying drawing the Pokémon you love! This is my message of encouragement to all of you.
I also want to tell you another thing: Don’t worry about trends or about what other people think. Stick to who you are, and draw what you like. I wish that you will all draw freely, showing the uniqueness of your art and of yourselves.
I have also applied for illustration contests in the past. My experience is that, no matter how good your illustration is, as long as you think negative stuff like “this isn’t good enough” or “this will never be chosen,” well, your illustration will never be chosen (laughs). It’s very important to be confident about your illustrations. Imagine your illustrations as if they were Pokémon—loyal companions that you trained yourself and are now going to go to battle with. Submit your illustrations with the confidence you would have sending your Pokémon to battle!
Composition and text: Shusuke Motomiya (One-up) Photos: Kayoko Yamamoto