20 food illustration tips – Features

Illustrators Elena Resko, Ella Ginn, Kendyll Hillegas, Kiki Lung and Luli Reis detail their approaches to drawing food, glorious food.

Kiki Lung

I place a lot of focus on colour, as it plays a large part in determining the mood of an illustration. In my opinion the colours should feel bold and vibrant, be loud and demand attention. When it comes to food the aim is often to celebrate, convey a feeling of joy and highlight its power in bringing people together. Colour does a great job with that.

I work with vectors, and the bones of my illustrations are often geometrical. I love perfect circles and straight lines. Food is often messy! And I like the challenge of translating something imperfect into my clean, digital style. I often work from photographs, and will create folders with reference images to draw from. I sometimes trace on top or will combine a set of different images, like a superimposed puzzle, to create an illustration.

Food is really fun to draw because there is often a lot to communicate, from contrasting colours and textures to honouring certain cultural elements. That’s also why it can be so difficult. Consistencies (melting chocolate) and amounts (rice grains in a bowl of rice) can be tricky to draw, and a good balance between stylization and making a dish or a food look true to itself is important.

I recently worked on a pitch which unfortunately got rejected, illustrating foods from the Mediterranean. The scenes had to be messy, have personality and show movement. Exactly the sort of food illustration I like to make! I used all my go-to techniques, lots of vibrant colour, geometrical compositions to give an illusion of organized chaos, and contrasting textures to make things dynamic.

I find colour very important and will spend a lot of time getting the palette right. I try not to think about colour whatsoever (apart from figuring out contrasts with black and white gradients) until I’ve settled on a composition. Once that is set, I start bringing in colour as I refine the design.

It’s a frustrating answer, but the best tip to get good at something is ‘just do it a lot’! I like to think of things in terms of projects, so it might be fun to set yourself drawing challenges and create project series out of them. ’Every meal I ate this week’, ’Recipes from my childhood’, ’Foods my dogs stole from the counter’ and so on.. Once you’ve bulked up your portfolio with plenty of food illustrations – get yourself out there! Send your work out to your favourite food magazines, bloggers or local restaurants.

See more of Kiki’s work at kikiljung.com

Luisa Reis

I guess my visual style developed by observing my favourite artists and designers, and also some sort of ‘trial and error’. I’d see something I like and try incorporating it in my art style. I still do that and I think I’ll continue doing it forever, since my style is always evolving.

My biggest inspiration is nature itself, but I also feel very inspired by other people’s art (either at an art exhibition or even on Instagram). My ideas pop randomly in my head and I really like to discuss them with some friends to “polish” them. This method of discussing projects has shown to be very useful to me when creating artwork.

I think portraying the shapes and contrast between colours is really important. Also, adding some sort of texture turns the illustration so much more interesting. Since I use watercolours, I like letting the paint flow freely and when it dries I get textures and patterns that gives a really cool effect.

The biggest challenge, for me, is illustrating foods that aren’t really colourful or enticing in real life (such as potatoes) or very texturized foods (eg pineapple skin or a burger).

Recently I’ve been working with a more loose & flowy watercolour technique. I start any project analysing my reference (its shape, the texture, how the light reflects on the surface, what are the main colors, does it have any details, etc) and deciding which colours I’m gonna use.

After that being done, I begin to paint loose brushstrokes on my paper to create the base shape, being mindful of the colours and highlights, and I leave some blank spaces, not adding any paint at all. With the paint still wet, I add some details and some more colours for depth and shadows. After the watercolour is completely dry, I see if I need to add any other detail (such as stems of leaves) and it’s done!

Colour is one of the most important things when creating a strong artwork and learning colour theory is super important. I don’t believe in right or wrong colour choices because art is a way of expression, and if you want to paint a pink pizza, go for it! But choosing the right colour palette is key to achieve a beautiful, balanced and amazing final result.

Usually, I start thinking about my colours at the beginning of a project, right after I choose a painting topic. I decide my colour palette even before starting to sketch. I also maintain a sketchbook for colour studies, where I try out new colour combinations and colour palettes that caught my eye.

Focus on the colors of your illustration. The human brain works in an amazing way and we perceive food not only by its taste, but also its aroma and color, and since we can’t work with taste or aroma in illustration, color is key when creating enticing food illustration. So really try to build a rich and bright color palette for your illustrations.

Another thing to keep in mind is that your illustration doesn’t need to be perfect. When food is too perfect it actually looks fake! There’s no such thing as a perfectly round orange or a supersymmetric cupcake, so don’t worry too much about it. And if you’re new to food illustration, try to create artworks of foods you love. This makes the process so much more fun and enjoyable, and its more likely that you’ll be happy with the outcome.

See more of Luisa’s work at www.lulireis.com

Kendyll Hillegas

A lot of my more specific early inspiration came from food because cooking and food culture and food stories are something I have loved since childhood. Tapping into that really concrete and accessible inspiration was vital in developing my creative practice, and if I hadn’t found that, I don’t think I would have had the drive and motivation to hone my skills. Now after years and years of practice, I can find inspiration in almost any subject or topic since the thing that I really love is that practice of close observation.

Initially painting food was just something I did for fun. I had graduated from school and worked as a barista and an SAT tutor and a community organiser, and a few years out, I had pretty much stopped drawing and painting entirely.

I ended up dealing with some significant health issues that meant that I had to take a step back from work, and stay at home and rest most of the time. I was bored and lonely and desperately looking for something other than my body to focus on, so I started painting the one thing that sounded fun to me: food.

I work with mainly traditional media. Most of my illustrations are 100% analogue, using a mix of watercolour, coloured pencil gouache, and paint pens. Occasionally for certain commercial jobs I do incorporate a little digital painting at the end. I think I’ve only ever had two assignments that were 100% digital from beginning to end. I work from photos mainly, as food is perishable and my larger pieces can sometimes take several days to complete.

For editorial, it can be challenging to get things finished on time when deadlines are tight, which is pretty much always. For CPG a challenge is having more people involved in the decision making process and needing to make revisions to meet lots of different expectations.

A challenge I think a lot of beginning food illustrators face is wanting to draw or paint really pretty food (ultra-modern cuisine, or fancy cupcakes, or shaped birthday cakes, for example). They see the images of this kind of food on social and want to use them as starting points for their work. In my view though, drawing a cake that’s shaped like a table lamp is rarely a good idea.

I think the best food illustration usually shows food that looks like food. You want it to be beautiful, yes, but also human and maybe even a bit imperfect. If I ever have to draw food that’s really regular and neat, I’ll try to do something to muss it up, like take a bite out of it, add a drip or smear, or tear it in half. I find that helps make things look really appetizing and authentic.

Recently, I decided to do a self initiated project in which I’d re-create some of the same subjects I had painted when I very first got started in food illustration. I called it “Then/Now” and encouraged other illustrators to share their own Then/Now’s on social media as well. One of my favorite pieces from the series was a jar of Bonne Maman jam. This was one of the very first food illustrations I created, so approaching it again after several years was really fun.

Working on ultra heavyweight cold-pressed paper (Fabriano Artistico), I started with layers of watercolour. I use lots of different forms of watercolour, including tube, pan/cake and watercolour pencil, but over the last few years I’ve become a big fan of liquid watercolour (I used Dr. Ph Martins Hydrus line in this piece) because it doesn’t lift/reactivate after it’s dried. This means you can easily glaze and layer, without creating muddiness. I also used some Kuretake Mangaka pens to do the lettering.

My goal in laying down watercolour first is twofold: first, it enables me to map out the colours and values of the piece, similar to an underpainting, so that when I move on to details with coloured pencils, I don’t have to make as many of those big decisions and can focus mainly on nuance. Secondly, since I often like to work on really textural paper, using coloured pencils alone would take a long time (and a lot of pencil) to fill in the tooth of the paper.

Essentially, using watercolour first solves the problem of having the white bits of paper showing through in the finished piece. Even with smoother papers like Rives BFK or hot-pressed watercolour paper (my other favourites), I still use watercolour as a base layer because it makes things so much easier later on.

Once I have that colour map down, I layer coloured pencils on top to create detail, and to further refine both the values and the colour. Another change from the first iteration of this subject is just how far I go with the coloured pencil, and with the level of realism.

Earlier on, I would do just little bits here and there with coloured pencil. Now, much of the piece, or even most of the piece has at least some development with coloured pencil. I’ve also gotten quite a bit more realistic, both in the drawing itself, and in the color. This piece is about as far as I like to go with realism, and you can see if you compare it to the reference image, that the proportions/drawing are very close to the reference, and the colour has obviously been pulled from the reference, but I’ve pushed things a bit further as well.

I start thinking about colour very early on in the process. If it’s for a commercial assignment like the Good Culture packaging illustrations (above and below), I’ll often know up-front that a specific colour needs to be used, or another specific colour needs to be avoided. If it’s for a self-initiated project like Then/Now, I usually start thinking about colour when I’m looking at the reference image. In this reference, I knew immediately that I wanted to take my cues from the reference, but wanted to take the colour a lot further in terms of saturation and vibrancy. This is pretty typical I would say.

My goal is generally to make it look about 80% like the reference (in terms of colour) and then be a bit more intense (turning up the volume on existing colours) and even creative (using colours that aren’t there at all) with the remaining 20%. My goal is to make it look like reality, but better while avoiding any feeling of artificiality. Basically, I want it to look good, but not too good. I also tend to choose colours for shadows and highlights based on what will create more vibrancy, so I’ll usually opt for complementary colours (eg using a bit of green in the shadow of a reddish subject).

As a very final step, once I’m done with the colored pencil, I’ll sometimes add a few opaque highlights with a Sharpie paint pen (water based acrylic) or with acrylic gouache. Then I scan the piece in at a high resolution, and, if I’m creating it for a client, I’ll remove the background digitally so that it can easily be dropped into a page layout or a dieline.

If you’re already an established illustrator with a well-defined style and just looking to break into a market, I’d say start creating work that fits the market you want to get into. So, if you want to illustrate a cookbook, start illustrating some recipes you find online. You could even collaborate with a food blog to illustrate one or two of their existing recipes (or do your own if you like to cook!). If you want to get into packaging illustration, start looking at the kinds of illustrations that are used on packaging, both the subject matter and the style, and the composition as well. Start making this kind of work and adding it to your portfolio. This is what I did.

If you’re a new or aspiring illustrator and haven’t quite found your stride yet, I would say the most important thing is to just work on finding a sustaining sense of inspiration and motivation and on honing your craft. This is true whether you’re going to paint realistically or in a more stylized way. If you think you might want to go into food illustration, start simple and draw and paint the food you already have in your kitchen. Take your own reference photos, or work from life if you have a quicker process than I do.

The most important thing at the very beginning is to just draw and paint as much as possible, focusing on developing a consistent style and an initial body of work. You’ll know you have a consistent style when you stop thinking about style. It’s like handwriting. When you’re first learning how to write, you think about every aspect of letter making in a very self-conscious way, but eventually it becomes something you do without even thinking about it.

See more of Kendyll work at kendyllhillegas.com

Ella Ginn

During my illustration course at university I spent a lot of time in the print studio experimenting with different techniques. I found that linocut gave me the bold lines and movement I was looking for in my work. I try to replicate what I learnt from printmaking into my digital illustrations. Working digitally makes my work a little more accessible for commercial projects, printmaking can be quite a long process and it’s not always easy to make changes! Vintage prints such as old matchbox artwork, food packaging/posters and botanical illustrations also inspire my illustrations.

I find that with food illustration I have to over exaggerate the vibrancy and colour to make the food look as enticing as possible, even more so than it does in real life! Clients always want the food to look as fresh and as tasty as possible so it’s always important to keep that in mind. On my more photo-realistic paintings, of fruit for example, I find a good couple of water droplets helps give that fresh feel, so don’t be afraid to use them, even if it does seem a bit over the top!

I feel more creative and less restricted working analogue at the beginning of a project. I aim to draw as much as possible without using reference to get a feel for the composition without being hung up on any reference imagery. I mainly use photographs for reference however working from life is something I’d like to do more of! I recently invested in an Ipad which I love using, so I will finish my illustration in procreate or photoshop.

I sometimes find making food illustrations dynamic a bit challenging. This is where colour can really help bring the illustration to life! I also try to add as much movement as I can through adding some bold shapes and being playful with composition. I also like incorporating lettering to my work to add another dimension and point of interest.

I recently worked on a fun project with Tangent Graphic for Eden Mill’s pre-mixed gin-&-tonics. The brief was to illustrate fruit and hops creatively, incorporating various folklore stories for each can. The overall effect looks almost pattern like so it was important for the fruit to stand out over the other story based illustrations. I start by working in one colour to create the base illustration. Once the composition has been given the thumbs up I use a second mid tone colour to create the shading, this helps me highlight the fruit and make it pop against the background.

Colour is something I used to be quite scared of during university so I mainly worked in black and white. Recently I have been a lot more adventurous with my colour choices and it has really paid off. Because of this I tend to think about colour quite early on as I find it helps inform the illustration. I tend to limit my palette so I don’t get too overwhelmed with choice and I find it stops my work from looking too messy.

Don’t wait for work to come to you! If food illustration is what you’d like to get into, set yourself your dream project and add it to your portfolio. Once you have a body of work that represents you, contact design studios or brands you’d love to work for. You never know who will get back to you and what they might be looking for. Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment and have fun, I always find that my best work is the project I had the most fun do.

See more of Ella’s work at ellaginn.com

Elena Rekso

Attention to detail is a key: just imagine how many different colours, textures, shapes food has in real life, everything is so so different! Almost anything we eat is a complex creation, even if it’s just a piece of fruit or a berry, not talking about club sandwiches or some crazy 100-ingredient dishes. The better you show this variety – the richer your food illustration will be. Add this extra cheese, sprinkle more sesame seeds, drip some of this mayonnaise.

My work is 100% digital, from sketches to the final result. Generally I don’t draw from life or photos. I think it limits your imagination to have a real-life example right in front of your eyes.

If you need to, go through Google or Pinterest to get some visual aid, try to get some kind of ‘collective memory’ of how it might look like and then interpret it your way. It’s much more fun like this! In case of anything particularly complicated – study the object, get the idea of some basic features to make it recognisable and then put the reference as far away as possible so you don’t get too attached to it. Drawing it close to reality is not the point!

However, it’s always a good idea to make your own reference photos. Liked a colour combination? Saw a great dish arrangement in the cafe? Take a photo – you’ll definitely thank yourself for this later.

A recent project where I was asked to draw a cake as a symbol of unity and celebration. It had to be delicious and messy. I was given the pastel Lila and green colours to work with. So I created a palette complementing these two rather cold colours and added bits of them to the cake itself for support and balance. I added a lot of dynamic in the elements/ingredients to make it even more festive looking. And of course a lot of details – the dripping, the splashes, a lot of small bits to keep it all as rich and interesting to look at as possible.

If I am free to choose my colour palette – it happens in the majority of cases – I tend to think about it while doing sketches already. Just going over in my head what is a good colour solution for the piece might be.

The main point – it doesn’t have to be close to reality at all. Enhance the natural colours, mix things up! I always try to add a bit of a twist to the “normal colours”. Do not overdo it though, it still needs to be appetising.

I do have colours I use the most, so I have a few of them as a staple and then add more to the range according to the theme of the piece. Sometimes there is an urge to use a really specific colour, (or client might ask for this) so I take it and try to work the rest of the palette around it. It’s a great exercise as well.

As in almost any sphere – practice is your best friend. Draw the food you like, draw the food you ate in your favourite restaurant, draw the food you saw somewhere, and can’t stop thinking about. Also don’t feel restricted to how everything looks in real life, food illustration is not necessarily about drawing realistic food.

See more of Elena’s work at elenaresko.com/

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