Inside Illustration with Elements Author Danilo Sanino

We chat to Elements author and former Kinder Surprise illustrator, Danilo Sanino, to get his best illustration tips, tricks and advice.

Inside Illustration
Portrait for Kelsie RimmerBy Kelsie Rimmer  |  Updated November 19, 2020

Illustration has come a long way from just putting pencil to paper. Gone are the days when the only way to make a career from illustration was through comic strips, cartoons and picture books. Now, thanks to the rise of digital illustration, there’s endless opportunities for illustrators to make a career from their craft. But, according to artist Danilo Sanino, combining the digital and traditional is where the true magic happens.

Meet Elements Author Danilo Sanino

Envato Elements author, professional illustrator and former artist for the eggcellent Kinder Surprise, Danilo Sanino is no stranger to navigating the ins and outs of the illustration industry. After five years working as an illustrator for one of the most established companies in the world, Danilo now works for himself as a freelance digital illustrator, giving him full control of how he creates and sells his creations. 

We sat down to chat with the super successful illustrator to get his best tips, tricks and advice…

What’s your artistic background?

DANILO: I’m a freelance illustrator, living in Cuneo – a little town in Piedmont, Northern Italy. I worked for five years for Kinder Surprise, the chocolate eggs with surprise toys inside. I illustrated the pieces of paper inside the eggs with the toy characters and inscriptions.

In 2008, I thought about the possibility of being free from the daily demand of one single client, and discovered the world of micro stock sites like Envato Elements. I wanted to draw images of my own design and choice, not restricted or managed by external sources.

I discovered the world of micro stock sites like Envato Elements.

Danilo Sanino, Illustrator

What inspires you?

DANILO: There are a lot of great illustrators I follow on the web, but there isn’t one specific artist that I am inspired by. After my decade long career, I can say that what has helped me most is the practice I did in school and in my free time, before illustration turned into a job. I also took inspiration from playing with traditional art tools: pastels, watercolors, pencils, and brushes.

The digital coloring process is not very different from the traditional one when it comes to the choice of the colors, the tones, the gradients, highlights and shadows. Once you learn the software and tools, you have in your hands the same possibilities as a piece of paper with pencils and pastels.

Over the years, I have grown a lot as an illustrator. At the very beginning, I drew simple characters and backgrounds, but I challenged myself to choose more difficult themes, anatomies, and backgrounds to get out of my comfort zone.

I challenged myself to choose more difficult themes, anatomies, and backgrounds to get out of my comfort zone.


How and where are your clients typically using illustrations?

DANILO: There is not a specific place where my illustrations are used, different people have very different demands. For example, I can work for a kindergarten teacher that needs some simple characters or animals for children, and the next minute I’m creating an illustration for an agency for  an avatar in a role play game. 

I have worked for people that create card games, and mobile apps. Any place that needs illustrations can be the right place for me. I’ve also done personal portraits and caricatures with many different expressions and hairstyles.

What’s your advice for creating unique work that stands out from the crowd?

DANILO: I can give advice to the young illustrators entering the micro stock industry. Clients ask for work very similar to the illustrations present in your portfolio, so make sure your portfolio features the type of illustrations that you want to create for a commissioned client project. For example, I did several avatar dress games in the past, and I have been called to work on similar projects since then because people saw that style in my portfolio.

In terms of personal style, my advice is to draw a lot. In my perspective, style comes from practice. It can be a long period of time, studying the anatomy, the highlights, the shadows, and so on.

Your style is a summary of knowledge, of what your mind and your body have assimilated over the years. Sure, it can be helpful to watch other artists and their personal styles. But you must have a base, and only you can build it with discipline, patience and study.

In terms of personal style, my advice is to draw a lot. In my perspective, style comes from practice.


What’s the biggest learning you’ve had from becoming an illustrator?

DANILO: Observation! Observation of the world and the things around you is a neutral action, not determined by judgment. The subtle aspect of drawing is the development of the observer inside us, similar to meditation.

On a more practical note, my advice is to find a balance between the things you like to draw, and the things that the market and client ask for. And always carefully evaluate the proposal before you start working on a project. Is it too big for you? Are you interested in the work? I would ask these questions to avoid making the mistakes I made at the very beginning.

My advice is to find a balance between the things you like to draw, and the things that the market and client ask for.


One more piece of advice I can give, is that in the process of building your portfolio, you should create some personal illustrations that satisfy you and make you happy, as well as more commercial illustrations.

Find a balance between these two types of images.

And in both fields, try to challenge yourself and create something harder than usual – more complexity, more subjects, or a more detailed background. This way you will have a masterpiece that will pop out from your portfolio every 20 or 30 illustrations, which is a good way to stand out.

What are your go-to programs for creating your work?

DANILO: I use Adobe Illustrator, vector software and a graphic tablet, but I always start from a drawing done with pencils.

What’s your creative process?

DANILO: The creative process can be summarized in this way; the first step is to make a sketch of the subject. Once it’s approved by the client, I vectorize it and send the colored preview with my semi-transparent watermark repeated on the image. Then, after payment is received, I send the file to the client.

  1. Do the drawing on paper
  2. Scan it
  3. Reduce the size of the scanned drawing in Adobe Photoshop
  4. Insert it into Adobe Illustrator
  5. Make it semi-transparent in a locked layer, start with the vector colors and lines.

What’s your advice for mastering digital illustration?

DANILO: My advice is to approach any kind of digital software like a coloring tool, based on a real drawing on paper. Be clean with the lines on paper. Make the drawing as close to your idea of perfection as possible. Don’t do a very rough sketch. Your effort in this first step will be repaid when you digitally color it, as you will be able to re-trace the lines easily and find the exact shape of your subject.

Another specific suggestion is to start with a colored background, not white. A neutral color – beige, light brown, yellow – something near to white but not white. Especially if you have to do a complex scene like a landscape with characters. Your eyes will be less tired after hours of work, and you will find better colors to add to the scene. Always be very organized with layers, and don’t be afraid to create a lot of them – just remember to group and name them.

I also suggest limiting the use of transparent or multiple effects on highlights, shadows and colors in general. At the very beginning, the micro stock industry did not accept files with these types of graphic variables. So, I have learned to create illustrations avoiding the transparent effect, re-creating them only with the variation of the tones. It’s a higher level of difficulty, but it teaches us to color in the correct way at the same time.

What do you think makes a great portfolio? Any tips or tricks?

DANILO: A great portfolio is determined by two aspects: the quantity of the illustrations, and the quality. 

I suggest creating one masterpiece for every 20 basic illustrations. By basic illustrations I mean simple characters or objects without a background. And by masterpiece, I mean an illustration that is very detailed, on which you have worked several hours or days. By applying this workflow repeatedly, you will have a portfolio with hundreds of illustrations and dozens of masterpieces.

A great portfolio is determined by two aspects: the quantity of the illustrations, and the quality. 


Each of us have favorite themes that we like to draw, so create your portfolio based on them. Whether your interest is fashion, nature, animals, fantasy, or whatever else, choose your favorites and start working on them. Don’t be put off by other people’s portfolios – start with humility, and passion, and your portfolio will get better, over time.

How do you see the future of illustration in the digital era?

DANILO: The imaginary has always existed in the human collective and the digital era has spread illustration exponentially – like it has for many other crafts.

It’s difficult to say how illustration will develop in the next few years, but my hope is that there will always be a balance between digital and traditional styles.

Draw some more inspiration from these Illustration Trends, or check out another Inside Illustration Q&A with a talented Elements Author!

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