My Typical (Illustrator’s) Work Day

Today I will be donning my Illustrator’s hat and share with you the article I wrote for my nephew Matthew in the U.S. because he wanted to know more about my job for his Career Day class project.


It takes me, at the very least, a day to finish a page or a spread of illustration.

Will take you step by step through a project I did last year, for an exhibition commemorating the life of two Philippine heroes, who were incidentally married to each other and are parents to the current Philippine president.

I belong to a group of Filipino illustrators of childen’s books, Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan (Ang INK) and our group was tapped by the Ortigas Foundation to illustrate the writings of Benigno S. Aquino and Corazon C. Aquino.

I illustrated this passage of text from the former President Corazon C. Aquino which describes her feelings while her husband was unjustly imprisoned by President Marcos during the Martial Law and she was left with the tough job of raising their five children:

“As a housewife, I stood by my husband and never questioned his decision to stand alone in defense of a dead democracy against an arrogant dictatorship.  As a housewife, I never missed a chance to be with my husband when his jailers permitted it. Nor gave up looking for him one day when he was taken away, no one could tell me where…..As a housewife, I held his hand as the life drained out of him in a self-imposed fast of 40 days, to protest a fine legal point about the civilian jurisdiction of a military court…… For seven and a half years, I sat outside the gate of his maximum security prison, with his food and his books — when they allowed it — and with forced smiles from our children and myself…”

It is the job of the illustrator to help the reader understand the text by interpreting it into a visual that conveys the essence of the author’s meaning.

Here, the author is Corazon C. Aquino, and because she used to be a former president, there is a lot of information about her on the web.  I had to do some research on her life, her thoughts about her husband being imprisoned then later, martyred as he was assassinated. Although my rendering would be stylized, I still wanted to know how she looked like when she was a young wife and mother, and what her clothes looked like back in the 70s. I downloaded her pics and some articles about her as references so I can access them easily on my desktop whenever I felt at a loss about my interpretation.

Making studies. I spend a whole day on this before I paint. I make additional research, if I feel I need to. So the first thing I did after researching was to sketch studies.  First I did tiny sketches on my sketch book.  Illustrators call these sketches thumbnail sketches.  These are tiny (though literally not the size of your thumbnail), quick sketches so called because of their size.

How does one interpret pain of being away from a loved one?  How does one visually describe the longing of a family for their father?  I decided that this was what the way I wanted to interpret Aquino’s text.

So, from my sketches I chose one which I thought best captured the meaning I wanted to convey and then I made a bigger, more detailed sketch exactly the size of the painting I was going to make.

From this I made a cleaner drawing. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to save that sketch.)  Will use the drawing later to transfer the image onto the collage background I will be making the next morning.

8:00 AM  Making the collage background.  A recent favorite technique of mine is making painted collage artworks. I cut pieces from magazines, my old notebooks, scrapbook paper, just about anything that I find interesting.  I keep a box of scrap paper of all kinds for this purpose. I apply them on a canvas panel with acrylic emulsion. The acrylic emulsion acts as adhesive and as primer for the canvas.

I like the way the handwriting on the torn notebook pages convey memory. After all it was Aquino’s reminiscence I wanted to capture in my artwork.

10:00 AM  Painting the background.  I prime the background with white acrylic, covering some of the collage and leaving some details uncovered.  The wonderful thing about this technique is that you can make mistakes.  You just paint over them.  Over this I put a layer of green acrylic glaze.

Then, at this point, I add more textures to the surface with unconventional materials and tools.

11:00 AM  Transferring the drawing onto the background.  I make a tracing of the clean drawing I made earlier on the surface of the collage, and then I start painting in the flesh tones.


1: 30 PM  Working on the skin tone.  I refer to old artworks for the skin tone. Mixing the skin tone is a bit tricky. I needed just the right mix of chrome yellow, white, vermillion and burnt umber.  I referred to a previous painting I had made of the Aquino sisters.

2:00 PM  Working on  the middle tones.  Then I worked on the middle tones. I work layer by layer.  This is what artists call the “glazing” technique.  At this point I also start adding the darker tones and shadows.

Adding details and definition.  It is an extremely painstaking process, and you have to be really patient.  It is only at this point that what I am painting gains a semblance of the final product.

6:00 PM  Finishing up. After all the details are in place, the artist signs the artwork. Sometimes an illustrator opts not to sign an artwork, especially if it is going to be used in a picture book.  In a picture book, the acknowledgment for the artist appears on the cover, along with the name of the writer. But this particular artwork is for a commemorative exhibit which aims to familiarize the Philippine youth with the writings of Benigno and Corazon Aquino. So I sign it.

Giving the artwork a title is usually an optional step for illustrators.  But I gave this artwork the title “Seven and A Half Years”.


3 thoughts on “My Typical (Illustrator’s) Work Day”

    1. thank you, dan. happy you found inspiration in my post. what’s stopping you from doing what you want to do? sometimes, all you really need to do is start. good luck! =)

      1. hi May,

        Most of the time something comes up that prevents me from starting, an event to go to, another planned trip, grocery shopping 😀 well those are my excuses, can i also add doing other things i like to do as an excuse? 🙂

        hopefully i will begin to start again, i will not wait for next year 🙂

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