Last year, when the Nature Conservancy announced their #Elegram campaign to raise awareness and money for elephant conservation, I contributed my own take, a big purple bull elephant. I rarely take on the more popular, charismatic mascots of conservation, but it got me thinking about doing more. I did a Monarch butterfly next, and recently, I completed a Siberian tiger. This one is my favorite, and Jennie shared a peek at it in our last post. Here’s how it came together.

The #elegram design that began this series.

First, it was helpful to have tigers nearby to photograph. Jennie and I took two of our nephews and one of our nieces to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center here in southern Indiana last year. I snapped a load of photos and one in particular was my favorite. I created a really rough sketch in Adobe Photoshop to block out areas of contrast and do a bit of geometric simplification and abstraction.

The original rough sketch.

Next, I brought that rough into Adobe Illustrator and traced it with one of my favorite tools, the trusty pen tool. I knew that the lightest colors of the tiger would be the same as the background, so I only drew the large blocks of orange and then added the stripes on top. Instead of black, I chose a dark green. I’m partial to green and orange palettes.

I love the use of drawn patterns, so I drew in the fur with one of my Illustrator brushes from a set I call my “Markers.” But it didn’t feel right - it was too naturalistic. So I selected all of the marks and reverted to just plain old solid squared off lines, and I loved the result. It meshed better with the dynamic, geometric shapes of the tiger's stripes.

Three phases: orange shapes, dark green stripes, fur details.

To give a bit more dimension to the tiger, I studied where the shadows fell on the photo, and used different blend modes to make some of my fur strokes dark and some light (if you’re unfamiliar with the term, blend modes are a set of different methods in Adobe software used to make colors blend together). I used “multiply” mode for shadows and “color dodge” mode for the highlights.

Detail of the tiger's face, showing more of the fur detail.

Once I was happy with the tiger, I studied some of the typical environments a wild Siberian tiger would be found in. I experimented with various foliage, but it was far too easy for it to compete with the pattern on the tiger. So I went with the idea of the tiger passing through a grove of young trees in the boreal forest.

The tiger with some basic background elements worked in - leaf litter and small tree trunks.

At this point in the process, I bring a design into Photoshop for a few tweaks that Illustrator can’t do. I love working with bitmap textures and combining them with blend modes. A bitmap basically takes all of the values of a piece of artwork and changes it to pure black and white. How it does this is a matter of choice - it can be a pattern of circles, diamonds, or lines, among other options. By creating new bitmaps, layering them, and playing with blend modes, happenstance becomes part of the process. In the tiger piece, I used this as a way to give a bit of texture to the bark of the trees and the leaf litter upon which our rather large feline stalks us. It helps to break up background elements to keep focus on the tiger.

Bitmaps. On the left, the original gradient. In the center, a circle pattern bitmap. On the right, a line pattern bitmap.

The tiger's environment, before I began playing with bitmap textures.

And after I played with bitmaps. You can see that I also played with offsetting textures over the leaf litter and layering shapes over the trees.

I showed it to Jennie at this point for some feedback, and she noticed that it was a bit off - one of the trees needed to be in front of the tail for it to feel like the tiger was passing through space. Of course, she was right, and a small change made a big difference.

A small change, a big difference. You can also see that the placement of trees shifted a bit after I moved from Illustrator to Photoshop.

After adding in the slogan I’ve been using in this series, “A world without them is not a world for me,” I was done. I'm keen to do more like this one. There are certainly plenty of threatened animals to focus on.

The finished product.

The finished product.