• Ariel Sun

How I Learned Illustration (& Became Good at It) in Less Than a Year + How to Learn Anything Faster

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

If you know me but haven't seen me in a while, I bet you'd be like "what!? I didn't know she's artistic at all!". Just in case you count yourself one of the shocked, here's a bit of context -- I've been learning digital illustration since about 9 months ago, when I started my current marketing job. This has led to one of the highest personal growth periods of my life and a number of pretty amazing opportunities in my career. 

But prior to that, I had had zero drawing and illustration skills, and had never done anything remotely artistic or felt artistically inclined. Growing up, I was always convinced that studying the sciences was more likely to lead to a rewarding (and financially stable) life. After graduating with a degree in International Relations from NYU, I entered the digital marketing world, a balance between what's in demand and what I thought was moderately interesting. 


My way into visual design started from creating my personal website. At the beginning of my marketing career, I made a myself a little self-marketing website off the platform. That was in 2014, when a personal website could still easily wow people, and little had I known that this would soon lead to a couple of exciting years of moonlighting in web design. This experience has allowed me to carve out my creative outlet, and form my own understanding of good design and user experience.

I began my current job as a marketing specialist at The Human Project at NYU last August. The offer was made to me two weeks before my start date. I was relieved and of course thrilled to hear the news, but then my soon-to-be manager told me that for my first project, he'd want me to finish a series of graphics for an upcoming event that the previous design intern left half-completed. It was also stressed how time-sensitive it was because my start date was barely two weeks before that event, and they need at least a 10-day lead period for production. My smile froze, and my heart must have skipped a beat. Did he equal my web design experience with graphic design skills? I've never even used Adobe Creative Cloud! What can I do now? Should I come clean and not accept the job? 

Instead, before I started the job, I hired an art student to teach me Sketch, because that's what I was told the previous designer had been using. Back then I had no idea that Sketch was an RGB-based program. The art student taught me how to break down illustrations into shapes, the layering concepts in digital illustration, the pen tool etc., which laid a conceptual foundation that made the learning of Adobe Illustrator so much easier and more relatable. The two weeks of practice also helped me arrive at the understanding that illustration and drawing boil down to the developing of an analytical eye - the abilities to perceive edges, spaces, relationships, lights and shadows. This becomes my First Principle in approaching any subject. 


Elon Musk spoke about the First Principles in a number settings, which I find applicable in acquiring most skills as an adult. In his own words, he explained the first principles as "the fundamental truths", something one should reason up from. The Ancient Greek mathematician Euclid in The Elements used the method comprised of using a small set of axioms (i.e., you can draw a straight line from any point to any point), from which theorems in Elements were derived. 

Here's another example: as designers, we are often expected to be able to proficiently use all the latest design programs and apps on the market by employers. So how do we learn as many of those as quickly as we possibly can?

When I was trying to get a hang of those core Adobe design software, namely, Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign, and After Effects, instead of diving right in, I stepped back, and spent more time figuring out the design logic and building blocks of those products. I found the building blocks, albeit their different names, to be very similar across the board and are designed for user to apply analogies to the rest once one of the apps has been mastered.

Figuring out the axioms, however, does not substitute the thousands of hours you have to put in to perfect your craft. The successful delivery of the first graphic assignment earned my boss's confidence in me, and led to more graphic design and illustration assignments, which allowed me countless hours of practice. I also took a number of online and offline classes that systematically taught me the theoretical, technical, and practical aspects of illustration. 

Above: my first ever illustration assignments at the Human Project, circa 2016.


Feeling rewarded by your hard work and efforts is also a critical component in learning. I've been lucky: my work has been well received and rewarded by my supervisors. I understand that not everyone who likes illustrating would have the chance to do illustrative work at your day job. But I hope that doesn't completely shut down the door of rewards. Remember, you can create opportunities for rewarding experience yourself. Post your work online and ask for feedback, submit them to creative blogs for emerging artist features, offer help to family or friends' businesses and add them to your portfolio, etc. 


Illustrators who rise up to the top of the game are usually known for a distinct style. Some are strong in details, some are known for drawing characters with a certain style, some are best at illustrating a scene. In the beginning at the exploratory stage, don't feel bound. Go ahead and experiment with any style you like. When you are ready to go deep into a specific direction, you are equipped with the skills necessary to come up with the work.


Here are some resources I heavily reply on for learning, growing, and inspirations. 

1. From my personal experience of learning Adobe CC, I think self-paced online classes work best for me. I find things happening on a screen hard to follow on an offline setting, especially without a "go-back" button. offers thousands of classes that can equip you with the most in-demand skills, including Adobe CC. They also have hundreds of highly curated learning paths if you are interested in entering a specific profession, for example, motion graphic design, music production, agile project management, etc. 

2. Medium: Stay abreast with the latest design trend and graphic design hacks + tutorials.

3. + Dribbble + Behance: Inspirations and networking. 

4. Instagram: Not only is it one of my daily sources of inspiration, but also a place to get to know the design ecosystem and community. I follow a lot of designers and illustrators and learn from their daily processes.

5. Design Matters by Debbie Millman: A podcast hosted by artist and design guru Debbie Millman featuring interviews with established designers and artists on how they became they are. 

Did you become a creative unplanned and it turned out to be your true calling? How did you arrive at who you are from a total neophyte? Share with us in the comments!

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