How do I get started in technical illustration and animation?
June 18, 2010 11:34 PM   Subscribe

I've always admired great technical illustration, such as in a good Physics or Mathematics textbook. I'm jealous of illustrators that can also do animation, such as in this Google Docs promo video (just a recent example, not necessarily a pinnacle). But I have next to no illustration experience myself, and have always been intimidated by programs like Adobe Illustrator. Is technical illustration and animation accessible to the new adult hobbyist, and is it feasible to cultivate visual artistic ability in adulthood given a lack of previous experience? Are classes useful for this, or a waste of time?

I feel this question has two parts. The first part is just the common tools and books question. Illustrator and Flash seem common, Adobe publishes their own starter guides for these, and there are dozens of other resources for working with these tools. But while I've done the Illustrator draw-a-pencil tutorial, I've never really gotten the hang of the thing enough to produce satisfying results. I even feel like a newb with simpler diagramming tools like OmniGraffle, though at least I can align objects. I've done dead-simple animations in presentation tools with limited capabilities, like Keynote, but I haven't really done anything with Flash's animation environment. Are these all good places to start? Any off-the-beaten-path recommendations for tools or books?

The second part of my question is about cultivating visual artistic ability. I'll gladly take it as read that adults with limited experience in an art form can pick up basic skills, even without accounting for "natural ability" (which I consider a poisonous idea anyway). But "basic skills" is why I'm limiting this question to technical illustration, and not advanced visual design or character animation. Are university-level classes typically a good place for adult beginners to start? Are there better resources? How do I pick classes that aren't a waste of time or above my level?

Would any illustrators/animators in the audience be willing to share personal development stories? For some reason I imagine most visual artists were active since childhood, and tools and techniques were merely part of a natural path. I'd love to be disabused of this notion, since I don't feel such a natural path is available to me. I'm a bit embarrassed by this, since I imagine plenty of people feel the same way about prose or music, and I feel no such alienation in those areas.

posted by dan_of_brainlog to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Learning to use illustrator isn't really all that difficult. The interface is kind of abtruse compared to Corel draw, which I had learned when I was in highschool, but it's not that hard. Basically if you can imagine a shape you should be able to figure out how to create it.
posted by delmoi at 7:06 AM on June 19, 2010

You may just need to put in the time (one of the dirty secrets of childhood). But don't stop with Illustrator, there are a wide variety of tools like a 3D modeler, and various plugins to programs like Photoshop/Gimp or Illustrator/Inkscape. Also don't discount the time some folks spend on a single project, pick an idea you want to work on and spend 2-3 years fine tuning it.
posted by sammyo at 7:31 AM on June 19, 2010

Best answer: I'm in a bit similar situation, doing post-graduate studies in design school without background in visual arts. We both lack drawing and sketching skills. With Illustrator that can be replaced with being good with manipulating curves and lines. Instead of drawing the correct shape at once, we can draw something remotely like it and then nudge it slowly with trial and error towards the shape it ought to be.

What I'm doing and I'd suggest you to do is to concentrate on Illustrator's line drawing and point and shape manipulation tools. Draw only black and white and learn how to bend lines, how to add grab points, remove them, etc. Master basic drawing and related shortcut keys really well before moving to layers, colors, patterns and other complications.
posted by Free word order! at 8:59 AM on June 19, 2010

Best answer: No matter where you start, you'll only get better as you put in time working towards whatever you aspire to. Only you can tell how strong your motivation will need to stay in relation to the speed of your progress.

I recommend you start drenching yourself in good references and inspirational examples, since it's your eye and your preferences that you need to strengthen and clarify, as much as your skills. Start a collection of images that please (or repel, just as useful to explore) in any way, so you might have a bunch of stuff that you like only for its colors, say, or for some other qualities, even if they're not illustrations or animations of the sort you want to make.

Illustrator's a fine tool, and it integrates well with Flash, plus both have the advantage of being extremely well documented, with hundreds of free and not-free training resources; a month-by-month subscription to's probably the most cost-effective way to learn either. But they're vast, complex tools with endless uses outside of what you want. If animation's really your goal, you might want to consider Anime Studio or Toon Boom Studio, both of which are sort of like Illustrator and Flash rolled into one and expressly designed for making animated drawings, i.e., character animation. And both have entry-level products that don't cost much but could certainly handle a wide range of animated diagrams.

Btw, the example you linked to is not what I'd call "real" animation; it's just animated. I.e., it's a bunch of unchanging graphic objects that simply slide around and get pivoted in faux 3D space, but nothing changes form. It could have been done with Powerpoint/Keynote (except maybe for that rotating in 3D trick, dunno), but if that's the kind of thing you want to make, why not just explore those? The potential has scarcely been tapped, and you don't even need drawing skills. Character animation is what you need for making shapes that transform in highly controlled (i.e., drawn) ways.

I'll be interested to hear how you progress, if you want to post back here or email me…
posted by dpcoffin at 12:18 PM on June 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @dpcoffin: Good point about the animation I linked not involving much technique. That's really all I'm interested in at this stage, though I'd expect some modest expertise in character animation could come in handy for simpler things--nothing that couldn't be acquired with a bit of thoughtful observation and experimentation. I imagine even OmniGraffle box-and-arrow diagrams could be engaging when swished around in simple ways. Design-wise, I like how some of the Google videos make familiar UI interactions abstract so the focus remains on the concept or feature being described, something that wouldn't be as effective with a screencast. Simple and effective, and worth the extra effort.

There's a lot to be said for making the most of what you have. As jealous as I am of expert technical illustration and graceful animation, you can do a lot with Keynote, OmniGraffle, Screenflow, and Final Cut Express (or less).
posted by dan_of_brainlog at 9:52 PM on June 19, 2010

Hear, hear on making the most of what you have! And you seem pretty well equipped already…

And now that you've clarified what you're after, I'll certainly recommend that you explore Final Cut, and especially LiveType which comes with it. I use Final Cut Pro for video and have actually used Motion, which comes with that, for most of the animations I've done, which are entirely in the area of animated diagrams. I didn't mention it above because of the cost of the full Studio package. LiveType isn't Motion (which itself isn't a character animator or drawing tool, just a very capable vector animator), but it's certainly a powerful little app for making things move around and light up, by no means limited to type. Check out the LiveType tutorials at for eye-opening info about that; you can get at least one day free access there, which would be plenty of time to skim a few tutorials and get a sense of the software. LiveType's perfect for making moving arrows and lines (out of dots and dashes from typefaces, for example) and other basic graphics used in diagrams.

Final Cut (either version) itself is very powerful as an animator of layered still graphics and videos. Almost everything can be keyframed (i.e., set to change parameters at precise moments and to continually adjust between different settings as the video rolls), from size, aspect ratio and position to color and transparency, plus all the parameters of any plug-ins.

Another interesting option to check out is the latest Adobe Creative Suite (#5), which includes InDesign and Flash Catalyst, both of which now have very powerful animation- and interactivity-creating features requiring no coding or scripting.

Using older versions of InDesign and outputting to pdf, I've created simple but effective multi-state vector diagrams (anything with just a before and after state or simple 1,2,3 step sequences would work well) that change when clicked or rolled over. Remote html rollovers could of course also be used for these kinds of things. You don't always need video to give a sense of movement or change.

Finally, be sure to check out Kinemac, Norcross Movie, and maybe even Videator, all definitely off-the-beaten-path video tools with various degrees of animation power. (Only Kinemac offers features beyond what you could do with Final Cut; I'm including the others for readers without Final Cut.)

Previously and previously
posted by dpcoffin at 1:29 PM on June 20, 2010

Just in case, make sure not to miss this.
posted by dpcoffin at 3:08 PM on June 20, 2010

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