Ai Kawabata is a designer and illustrator who lives in Tokyo, Japan. Follow along as she explains how a sketch, source photos, and historical research culminated in one work, "Scarlet Peony and Courtesan (Oiran)."
I focus on that first spark of inspiration. Later, during meetings or when I'm doing research, I already have a rough idea in my head, so I can devote the rest of my time to experimenting and refining my ideas to create the best possible result.
Normally, I don't rely on rough sketches to work on an illustration, but in this case, I felt having a sketch would help me achieve the exact level of detail required for this project (see Figure 1).
After drawing the contours of the woman's body, I added the kimonos: the undershirt (kosode) and collar, short-sleeved robe, front-facing obi belt, and formal robe (see Figure 3). I drew the areas for all the shadows and then added gradients, and I set the blending mode for the objects to Multiply and Screen to create deep shading on the kimono.
The fashion worn by courtesans (oiran) during the Edo period was quite elaborate and extremely unique, even for the time, which was known for its elegance and refinement. The women wore distinctive hairstyles and kimonos in patterns that most people — then and definitely in modern times — would never even dream of wearing. They also adorned themselves with an excessive amount of ornamentation. When I draw figures that represent part of our rich history, I reference as many materials as I can and do my best to avoid inaccuracies.
Courtesans use special hair ornaments, with specific rules governing tortoiseshell hairpins (kanzashi) and combs (kushi). I created the hair ornaments in separate documents and then combined the parts (see Figure 4).
After the hair ornaments, I drew her face. Using the Pen tool, I added fine shadows and highlights to create the curves of her face (see Figure 5). Rather than focusing on creating a completely accurate human face, I emphasized the feeling that you get from the original sketch.
Leaving the courtesan for a moment, I started to draw the peonies.
It happened to be spring at the time, and all the flowers were in bloom, including peonies, so I went out to take some photographs. After taking about 800 photos, I selected the peony with just the right shape and used that photograph as the basis for my sketch of the flower (see Figure 6).
Knowing that I could change the color later, I first drew the petal shapes and added grayscale shading. I only used two types of gradients: light to dark for the flower petals and dark to light for the shadows.
I drew the cluster of stamens at the center of the flower using the Appearance panel to create multiple strokes of varying thicknesses and blending modes on a single path.
Using the Assign mode of the Recolor Artwork feature, I deselected the colors used in the center of the flower, and then switched to Edit mode to change the gray gradients in the petals to red.
To create the background, I placed circles reminiscent of halos or the moon behind the courtesan and used the Appearance panel to color them with a checked pattern fill along with multiple gradient fills with different blending modes. After drawing circular gradients ranging from black to deep gray in Draw Behind mode, I used the Color Dodge blending mode to combine the gradient circles in a way that represents light.
I then turned a cherry blossom flower motif into a symbol and arranged the flowers using the Symbol Sprayer tool (see Figure 7).
I wanted to add more ornamental detail to the background and thought that this would be an opportunity to try out the new images in brushes capability as well as auto corners for Pattern brushes in Illustrator CC. I created a gold raster image in Adobe Photoshop CC and trimmed it to a square shape. Then I created a design for the pattern I wanted in Illustrator, loaded it into Photoshop to create a vector mask, and output the resulting image in PNG format.
I placed the PNG image in Illustrator, embedded it, and created a new Pattern brush, setting the outer and inner corner styles to Auto-Centered. Finally, I applied the new Pattern brush to the object in the background. Using auto corners for Pattern brushes along with images in brushes helped me generate corners that match my strokes perfectly, with no extra work (see Figure 8).
The Ukiyo-e artist Jakuchu Ito, from the middle-Edo period, used chickens and roosters as a theme in his works. Chickens also appear in Japanese kimono patterns. I quite like them, so I decided to use one in this project. I first drew it in a separate document based on a photograph.
Starting with a photo I took of a candy wrapper, I created two different types of images, one blue and one silver. I placed them in Illustrator and embedded them. Using images in brushes, I created new Art brushes with the images.
I applied a Variable Width profile to each of the brushes to add dimension, and then I added a blue-green gradient with the blend mode set to Hue to add color variation to the stokes. I created a new graphic style with the modified brush and applied it to the tail feathers of the chicken (see Figure 9).
After copying the chicken image and pasting it into the courtesan illustration, I drew flowers and added them to the kimono pattern. The feathers from the chicken on the obi belt jut out for an artistic touch (see Figure 10).
With all the elements complete, I turned on all the layers to reveal the finished image (see Figure 11).
Ai Kawabata works on commissioned illustrations and web design projects after having created catalogs, pamphlets, and packaging designs for years. She is also writing a book on Adobe Illustrator. Ai finds inspiration in action movies, novels, music, good food, and the nearly 3,000 photographs she takes each month.