Steve Rude – Lessons from a Master Illustrator

We’re going to talk about how to draw and paint like Steve Rude. You can read the article below, or watch the video which is packed with pictures.

Before getting into the technique breakdown, there’s a pretty cool story behind these videos/articles. About 20 years ago, when we were kids me and my brother loved comic books. We would go down to the comic shop every weekend and pick up what we could with our pocket money. One that we used to buy was Nexus.

My mum Mayko was learning to use Photoshop back then, so she decided to Photoshop us into some of our favourite comic book covers. She inserted me into a Madman cover by Mike Allred, and she put my brother into a Nexus cover by Steve Rude. We loved that classic, high quality style Steve Rude had.

Madman cover by Mike Allred modified for me, 20 or so years ago


Nexus cover by Steve Rude modified for my brother, 20 or so years ago!

So you can imagine our surprise when, fast forward to 2018, out of the blue we got an email from someone called Steve Rude! He said:

I’ve seen them all.  All the artist’s You-Tube videos, pro and amateur, and everything inbetween.

Love Life Drawing, however, beats them all.  It contains the best and most perfectly explained narrative I’ve ever heard, tapping into a commonality that the average person and the highly trained journeyman alike can’t help but identify with.  I know it has with me.

We couldn’t believe it. We had been inspired by his artwork decades ago and here he is, the co-creator of Nexus, encouraging us and saying he likes Love Life Drawing!

So, of course I asked if we could make a video about his drawing and painting skills, and he very kindly agreed to let us show his work in this video and answer my questions. He even sent us scans of artwork that isn’t up online. This first part has insights direct from Steve on how he creates illustrations, his colour schemes and other things about his process. The second video/article will be about how he developed and continues to develop his skills, as well as what makes Steve’s work so high quality.

You can follow Steve on Facebook at or his website at I’ve also published his original email that he sent to me where he explains his process and ways of learning on our website – what I have in these videos is really the highlights, so check it out.

Steve’s Process

Imagination and references for illustration

Steve explained that his illustrations start and end with imagination – he has an idea, an image he sees in his mind, which he’ll sketch out. And his aim is for his final product to represent that imagined idea.

To help make his vision into a reality, Steve will start thumbnailing. Little 2 inch tall sketches to get the elements in the right place, figure out the light, and a colour scheme. That’s definitely something worth trying if you haven’t before. During a long pose at a life drawing session, why not try some thumbnails to see how you’d like the composition to work on the page?

The next step involves references. Take a look at the references that Steve gathered for this image.

He said that some artists go to great lengths to gather perfect references – staging photo sessions with models to get precise poses and lighting – while others gather what they can and wing it, with Steve eventually ending up in the latter camp. His artwork feels really well researched and prepared, so I was surprised to hear he put himself in the ‘less meticulous’ category. I suspect that Steve’s standards are very high, so what he considers ‘winging it’ may be different to what we think of as winging it.


    The big mistake that led to all my other mistakes

It’s really illuminating to me to understand how much preparation goes into these illustrations. These artists are not magicking up these images, they are crafting them by combining imagination, knowledge & skill and then real life observation and references. The imagination has the big vision. The real life observation – the references – has the details and the sort of ‘facts’ needed for the image. Then the knowledge and skill bring the two together, with a heavy does of hard work of course.


When I asked Steve about how he chooses colours, I thought he must use some set of principles or theories. It felt to me like he often balanced the colour temperature in his illustrations and so on, there must be a secret to how he puts them together. But, here’s what he said:

“My color palette is simple:  white and black, two yellows– like lemon yellow and yellow ochre—orange, two reds—as in a medium to light red and alizarin crimson–a dark brown like burnt umber, a couple greens, and two blues, usually a thalo blue and an ultramarine.  Unlike most people, I don’t think in terms of “warm and cool” colors. To me, they’re just colors. Whatever color works best, that’s what I put it in.”

He explained that it was never a natural ability, he practised and practised, persevered through frustration, and studied his favourite artists until this intuitive sense became part of him. This is something I keep coming across. I ask artists whose colours I particularly like, include Mayko’s, and they always say they don’t use any theories, they just kept practising and now they can use colour intuitively. This is good news for us. There’s no secret shortcut, but the path to great colours is there for anyone tough enough to walk down it.

Spotting problems

Here’s a tip from Steve – “Reversing things in a mirror and looking at things from a distance are two methods all artists seem to rely on to help spot problems in symmetry and compositional things that might be off-balanced.  When I’m about 50 to 75% done with an illustration and not sure where to go with it, I’ll prop it up against a wall about 10 feet away and figure out what I need to pull it off–things I’ve never been able to catch when working close up.”

Another method he uses for comic book work is to do a reverse photocopy, sometimes increasing the size of certain elements. Do you ever do anything like this while drawing? It can be really powerful to take a fresh look at a drawing. Sometimes you can’t see the wood for trees – you’ve been staring at details too much and something glaringly obvious becomes invisible to you.

For a life drawing session, some artists will carry a little handheld mirror with them. Sometimes when I want to see the drawing with fresher eyes, I take a photo with my phone, and that can be enough to help me see something like ‘oh that area’s colours are too strong, it’s taking away from the focal point’.

I hope you’ve enjoyed part 1 of the Steve Rude analysis. Look out for part 2 coming soon. If you haven’t signed up for our newsletter and got the free Life Drawing Success guide, sign up below – it’s well worth it. The full set of answers from Steve that he emailed me can be found here.

Avoid the big mistake that led to all my other mistakes

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