A Step By Step Look On How T Shirts Are Designed

Hey! I’m Nils and in this article I’ll show you how I do my shirt designs. I hope that I can give something back to this community by doing so. First of all I want to say that this just describes my personal way of designing shirts. I know a lot of other illustrators do things differently. So start experimenting and find your own way. Find out what works best for you.

An illustration for shirts always starts with an idea and some sketches. When I get an idea, I just grab a random pen, some paper and start drawing. At this point it’s not important how everything looks. It’s all about capturing an idea.

So this time I’ll draw a vampire-kangaroo carrying some siamese-twin-skeletons. After the first sketches I do some research on the things that I want to draw. Research is very important because the better you understand something, the better you are at drawing it. Animals always have certain characteristics and they should show up in your drawing. I compare my sketches to photos on flickr or google and spot the differences. By doing so I found out that kangaroos have claws on their hands and their ears are bigger than I thought. Now it’s time for another round of sketches. More accurate ones. I tend to do a lot of sketches but it always depends on your deadline and how much time you are given.

When I’m happy with the characters and the composition it’s time for the final sketch. I collect all previous sketches and put them on my desk next to a fresh sheet of my special drawing paper. I prefer thick paper with a smooth surface. As for pens, I’m using a neon-yellow marker to sketch the basic outlines. Using a pen like this makes cleaning up the scanned linework a lot easier. The scanner barely even notices the yellow. I tried to make it more visible for this tutorial, here’s how the final sketch looks like:

Alright, now let’s ink this. I pfefer inking traditionally and I’m using Faber Castell artist pens for doing so. The first satge of inking is drawing the basic outlines. After I’m done with that the drawing looks like this:

Some parts are a little bit odd but they can be corrected during the next step, which is adding lineweight. This gives the illustration more depth and dynamic. There are some things you have to know. Basicaly thick outlines indicate that the object is closer to you. Thin outlines are used on objects that are further away from the viewer. Try thinking about seperating your drawing into different layers to find out how thick or thin the lines should be. This is how the drawing looks like inside of my head during that process. You might as well draw something like this on your sketches if it helps you.

This should give you a basic idea about the next lines. The balloon needs some thinner lines though because it’s made of a thin material. So with all that in mind I’m ready for varying the lineweight.

On to the next step: details. I really like this part. First I take another look at my reference pictures in order to get the details right. Sometimes I add a lot of details but sometimes I like to keep it simple. This time I decided to stop adding details at this point:

This is the point were the drawing gets scanned and the rest of my work is done digitally. A lot of people ask me how to achieve those solid black lines. Here’s how I do it. I scan the image, clean it up a little bit by adjusting the curves and going over it with the burn and the dodge tools. I redraw some parts if necessary. Then the image gets vectorized to clean it up a little bit more and to import it from Photoshop to Illustrator. For vectorizing I’m using a program called CR8Tracer. Google it up, it might be helpful for you. I think it’s a little bit better than Illustrator’s own tracing filters. But I don’t trust this program either, I still take a look at the paths and correct some odd parts with the pen tool.

Most of the differences are rather subtle. But now the linework all cleaned up and ready to be colored. Sometimes I do everything in Illutsrator and sometimes I take the linework and paste it into Photoshop. Both programs have their benefits. Chosing the program is based on experience and knowing what you are about to do. The more effects I want the more I’m leaning towards Photoshop. Simple stuff gets done in Illustrator.

A few sentences about using a tablet. I used to do all my stuff without it so I know it can be done. I recently bought a bamboo pen & touch knowing that it’s not the best tablet out there. But in my case it gets the job done. I’m still trying to get better at using it but I just don’t see myself going all digital anytime soon. I’ll stick to pen and paper for now. Another thing is that a tablet does NOT enhance your skills, it just enhances your possibilities.

I start coloring by chosing a shirt color and base colors for all the characters. I might change them afterwards but at this point, the illustration looks like this:

A little flat, huh? Yeah, that’s why I’m adding shading and highlights now. It adds more depth and realism. Chose a single light source and go from there. The light source I’m using here is in the upper left corner. That’s a good place for a light source. If you look at old paintings, you’ll notice that most of them use a light source like that. It has something to do with the way the majority of people see things. I’m not making that up, this is science, look it up if you’re interested. Anyways, the result looks like this:

You’ll notice I also added some extra details along the way. And I found better colors. Everything is pretty much done now. But I think in this case I really need a background. I like having spirals in the background and that’s the first thing I tried out this time but I did some more experiments and came up with something different.

I know it kinda looks like bacon. But I guess that’s okay. After all these steps the design is finished and I’m happy with the result. now I can mock it on a shirt and post it on a website or send it to the client.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and learned something. If there are any quesions left unanswered, just ask.

To get a hold of Nils check out his website at: http://flavors.me/nvasion


  • Awesome but does anyone know of a program like CR8Tracer for Macs?

  • How many hours would you say were spent on this entire process…from sketch concept to final print-ready separations?

  • Hey Nils, really cool design and step by step. What shirt templates are you using?

  • Thank you guys

    I heard good things about Cocoapotrace but I never tested it myself because I'm working on a PC.

    I don't really count the hours while working. I think I can pull out an illustration like this within 2 working days if I had to.

    The shirt template I'm using is one that I found on emptees.com in their resource section.

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  • bretdelossantos

    hey Nils, what did you use while adjusting and choosing the colors for your design?
    How did you do the light source?what did you use?

  • I did that with Illustrator. I always open the swatches window, delete all the default colors and add new ones. When you select global you can later change the color in the swatches window and the changes will be visible on the canvas. When working with Photoshop your best bet is to do different colors on different layers from the start and adjust them with the Hue/Saturation menu.

    The whole shading part is mostly based on trial and error, it takes some time to get a feel for it. That part was done with some brushes and the help of my tablet. I used to do it all with the pen tool on my earlier designs.

  • voguerevenge

    What software did you use ?

  • Photoshop and Illustrator

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  • Nice post. I always wanted to know how others and how it differs from mine. Thanks for sharing.

  • alex ocampo

    tnx nil…

    how did you make the image more realistic.. like the flat one turn to realism.. can teach me step by step and what software did you use… photoshop or illustrator.. tnx a lot again nil.. m/

  • alex ocampo

    tnx nil…

    how did you make the image more realistic.. like the flat one turn to realism.. can teach me step by step and what software did you use… photoshop or illustrator.. tnx a lot again nil.. m/

  • love this tutorial Nils. think this will help me a lot when designing t's for my brand. Thanks very much 🙂

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  • Anonymous

    How do you mock it on the shirt like that? That’s one thing I’ve always wanted to know how to do.

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