1. START WITH A GOOD PHOTO. Find an photo that I was happy with. Using Photo Booth.. (Photo booth)

2. SET UP YOUR ILLUSTRATOR FILE. Create a new Illustrator file. Since this was going to be used as an avatar, I used a web profile. I also set up my artboard at 600×600 pixels. Perhaps one of the more overlooked benefits of using Illustrator for screen graphics (over Photoshop for example) is the ability to work in scale, but still be able to zoom in really close for detail work. As we’ll see later, we can easily export our art at any size we need.

3. PLACE THE PHOTO INTO ILLUSTRATOR. Choose File > Place and position the image on your artboard. I actually realized I was leaning somewhat in the photo, so I rotated the image a bit (I used the eyeglasses for alignment). To make your life easier, create two layers in your document. You’ll have the image on one layer and your drawing on the other. In this way, you can easily hide and lock the photo as needed.

4. PICK A PLACE TO START DRAWING. This was the hardest part for me, and sometimes just getting started can get the creative juices flowing (in my writing classes, my professor used to tell us to write “I’m stuck” over and over when we had writer’s block, as the process of writing something would help things along). I figured the glasses would be the easiest to create, so I started there. You might look for other parts that are easy to draw, such as eyes, etc.

Change the opacity of the photo to something like 50%, lock the photo layer and switch to the draw layer. Use the Pen tool to draw the glasses (I created a compound path to define the hollow part). I actually drew one side first and then flipped a mirrored copy to create perfect symmetry (adjusting the temples somewhat to compensate for the slight angle). Remember this is an illustration, so you can make things perfect even if the photo isn’t. Take some creative license. To make it easier to see what you’re doing, use a fill set to none, and a stroke set to .25 point.

5. ADJUST YOUR EYEDROPPER TOOL SETTINGS. The easiest way to color your artwork will be to sample colors directly from the photo. To do that, you’ll use the Eyedropper tool to both sample and apply color simultaneously. By default, the Eyedropper tool samples the exact pixel you click on. However, you can set the Eyedropper tool to be more forgiving and choose a color from a larger sample. Double-click on the Eyedropper tool and towards the bottom of the dialog where it says Raster Sample Size, choose 5×5 Average. Click OK to accept the setting.

6. APPLY COLOR TO YOUR ART. Unlock the photo and set its opacity back to 100%. Select the Eyedropper tool. Press Command (Ctrl on Windows) to temporarily activate the Selection tool, and click on the glasses path. Then release the Command key. Press and hold the Shift key and then click on the area of the glasses in the photo. This will simultaneously sample the color from the photo and apply the color to the path.

Note that with the Shift key and the mouse button both down, you can move the Eyedropper tool around and watch as the color indicator in the Tools panel changes in real time. When you see a color you like, just release the mouse button. Set the photo back to 50% opacity so that you can start drawing more paths. In truth, you may find it easier to leave a copy of the photo at full strength off to the side so that you can easily sample colors without having to constantly adjust the photo.

Remove the black strokes from the shapes as you apply colors to the fills of the objects.

7. DRAW THE EYES AND MOUTH. Zoom in close to the photo and draw basic shapes for the eyes and mouth. To save time, I drew one eye and one side of the mouth and then simply copied and flipped them. Maybe in real life my left and right eyes are different, but in my vector avatar, they are in perfect symmetry.

8. ADD COLOR TO THE EYES AND MOUTH. My eyes are blue, but they weren’t lit very well in the photo. Rather than sample a color from the photo, I chose a nice blue color for the eyes. I then used the same technique with the Eyedropper tool to apply color to the other areas. Don’t worry if the colors seem bold or harsh at this point – things will end up blending in just fine later.


9. DRAW THE BASIC SHAPES OF THE FACE. When I first tried this, I failed miserably. Then I started working backwards and got much better results. I started by drawing a base shape with the Pen tool that would eventually become the main skintone of the face. I then drew main areas of shadow that would eventually define the parts of the face.

For example, instead of trying to draw a nose and chin, I drew the shadows that were cast from those facial features, which resulted in clearly defined features. It will help if you can visualize how you will eventually color in the shapes when you’re done — I’ve included a screenshot below to better understand the progression. I drew the ears separate from the face so that I could layer the hair between the face and the hair in the stacking order.

Defining the nose and chin using a shadow shape.

10. DRAW SHAPES FOR THE HIGHLIGHTS AND SHADOWS. Take a good look at the photo to see where the large shadow and highlight areas are. Don’t worry about small detail – just look for main areas of distinction. Use the Pen tool to draw paths to define these areas. Don’t worry about trying to get paths that are perfect. Once you’ve drawn the paths, use the Smooth tool to get any kinks out of the paths, and to generally get a smoother appearance on the paths. You’ll find that this will define more organic areas, and this will also reduce the number of anchor points.

11. START BLOCKING IN THE MAIN COLORS. Using the Eyedropper tool, sample and apply color to the main face shape, the ears, and the hair.

12. DEFINE THE SHADOWS AND HIGHLIGHTS. To make things easier, you can use blend modes to define the highlights and shadows. That means we’ll be using shades of gray to fill the objects we created for those areas. By default, Illustrator includes a color group called Grays in your Swatches panel, which you can use to easily apply color. You can also use regular white-to-black gradients. The thing is, we have to work in reverse. Use darker grays for the highlight areas, and lighter grays for the shadow areas.

It looks funny at first, but that will change once we apply the blend modes. Select all highlight shapes (filled with dark grays) and use the Transparency panel to change the blend mode to Screen. Then select all the shadow shapes (filled with light grays) and use the Transparency panel to change the blend mode to Multiply. At this point, you can adjust the gray value of each individual shape to your liking, if necessary.

13. SOFTEN THE SHADOWS AND HIGHLIGHTS. Right now, the art features clean sharp lines, which may actually give you the vector look you’re going for. However, I was looking for more of a realistic tone to my avatar. I wanted it to look clean and sharp, but also real enough to make you take a second-look and wonder if it’s really a drawing or not. Select all of the shadow and highlight shapes and choose Effect > Stylize > Feather. I used a value of 3 pixels, but you can experiment to your liking. You may even find that Effect > Blur > Gaussian Blur gives better results, but I stayed with Feather because it’s doesn’t suffer from some of the technical issues that Gaussian Blur does.

14. ADD JUST A TEENY BIT OF REALISM. The avatar looks pretty good as it is, but I really wanted to add a bit of texture to really give it depth. This step is optional, but I moved the layer with the photo to the top of my stacking order. I then set the image to have an opacity value of 30%. I then used a mask to hide the background of the photo (creating the mask was as easy as making a copy of all the art and using Pathfinder Unite to define a single shape of the entire head). With the transparent image as a nice overlay on the vector drawing, I get some texture in the hair and more subtle shadows and highlights across the face. Drop in a gradient for the background and you’re done.

15. EXPORT THE ART AS NEEDED. Perhaps the greatest benefit of using Illustrator is the ability to export your art at virtually any size (you can always remove the overlay from step 14 for really large uses). I created this artboard at 200×200 pixels because that’s a size I use often when uploading avatars, but here’s how you can quickly export your avatar for any size you need.

Don’t resize the art on the artboard – resize it in Save for Web. Choose File > Save for Web & Devices. Choose the file format of your choice (I used PNG), and then in the Image Size tab, make sure Constrain Proportions and Clip To Artboard is checked. You can then enter a Percentage or the exact Width and Height value you need. Then click Apply (if you don’t, the settings won’t take), and then click Save.

Of course, you can follow many of these steps to create all kinds of art. Be it an avatar, icons, or anything else. I hope you find this tutorial useful, and if you’d like to see more things like this, let me know!






Make Watercolor and Marker Style Portraits with Illustrator

Make Watercolor and Marker Style Portraits with Illustrator


With this tutorial, we are going to work through ways of creating digital portrait illustrations that have a unique and somewhat tactile feel of marker and watercolor. This tutorial will focus on using a drawing tablet and Adobe Illustrator. There will be a focus on technique and technical settings, but the overall product will rely on your own personal style and taste.




  • Portrait by Lillian Bertram (Creative Commons Share Alike – used here with permission)

Step 1: Set up your Illustrator document

Start with a print document of 8.5 x 11″. Make sure to change the color space to RGB.

step 1

Step 2: Import the reference photo

Import the photo you will be using as a reference (File > Place). In this tutorial, I used this portrait by Lillian Bertram.

Step 2

Size it up or down as necessary—try to size it up to the artboard.

Don’t sweat the resolution or pixelation of the image since the reference photo is only a guide. However, the better the quality of the image, the more detail you have to work from.

Since the artwork will be imported into the first layer, name it “Photo Reference” using the Layers panel.

Your work area should look like this:

Step 2_2

Step 3: Set up your work area

You are going to want to go to the Layers panel and create two more layers. Name them “Outlines” and “Fill Lines“.

Go ahead and select the reference photo on your canvas.

With the photo selected, go to the Transparency panel (Window > Transparency) and lower the transparency of the photo between 50% and 70%—just enough for you to still see the features, but not enough to obstruct your tracing workflow.

Now go over to the Layers panel and lock the reference photo layer so that you don’t accidentally move it.

It may also help to select a Workspace preset for Painting (Window > Workspace > Painting) to set up an initial workspace and panels placement that’s suitable for what you will be doing.

Step 4: Setting up your brush

Before you get started, go to the Appearance panel (Window > Appearance) to show the Appearance panel.

Click on the settings (upper left) and in the drop down menu that comes up, be sure that New Art Has basic Appearance is deselected.

Then, you can close out the Appearance panel.

Now double-click on the Paintbrush Tool (B) in the toolbar to pull up the options dialog box for the brush.

Be sure to have Keep Selected and Edit Selected Paths unchecked as they can inhibit a natural drawing process. Adjust your Smoothness to a lower number if you have confidence in your drawing strokes, or a higher number if you feel you have a shaky hand or want straighter and smoother lines. I usually keep the Fidelity option around a 4 or 5 as well.

Go to the Brushes panel, select a 1pt stroke, and double-click the 2 pt. Oval default brush. (If you wish, you may rename the brush to make it your own.)


You can adjust the options so as to respond to the pressure and tilt of your tablet, as well as make it more of a flat-tipped, calligraphy style marker.

Brush settings

If you don’t have a tablet—don’t worry—you can still make adjustments to the head of the brush and add some randomness to the variability in the stroke. These adjustments will make for a more realistic marker look.

Be sure to doodle a bit on a blank area of your canvas on the “Outlines” layer until your brush looks as you wish.

Step 5: Initial tracing

With the Paintbrush Tool (B) selected, go to the color selection area of the toolbar. Make sure that there is no fill on the brush and choose black that has a little gray to it for the stroke—you don’t want to use a 100% black if you want a more natural look.

Zoom in on the area of the canvas where you want to begin working. Personally, I like to work from the eyes outwards, but also find it just as helpful to work with a quick outline around the whole face and work inwards. What you want to do is use short brush spurts of lines in a similar direction. You want to define the darkest areas of the photo, or the areas with the most contrast. Use the pressure of the tablet for thicker areas of definition. You will want to shade with cross-hatched or diagonal lines to denote areas that are midtones.

This is your chance to experiment and play around stylistically. You can change how your brush displays by going back to the Brushes panel and modifying the settings you created earlier. You will have the ability to apply your changes to all your strokes, so long as you modify the same brush you used to make all of your previous marks.

Periodically hide the “Photo Reference” layer to see how your composition stands on its own.

At some point, you want to break away from using the reference entirely once you have enough key features and focus on stylizing the portrait with your own marks and aesthetic.

Step 6: Add contrast

With your base outlines close to order, you will now add fill lines to the piece for greater contrast and to pull the piece together visually.

Select the “Fill Lines” layer. Go to your Stroke panel and choose a stroke between 3pt and 4pt.

Fill lines select

You will now go over the outer edges and any areas where you want to make a bold distinction of contrast. This will also give it a more urban/graffiti/marker look.

Step 7: Tweaking the piece

You can also make use of the Eraser Tool (Shift + E) to organically remove unwanted marks.

Remember that all of your strokes are just paths so you can always pull and adjust curves using the Pen Tool (P) and Convert Anchor Point Tool (Shift + C) to make adjustments.

Also, you can use the Group Selection Tool (white arrow with a “plus” symbol) to select and edit areas of lines by scaling, moving or rotating as you see fit.

Step 8: Before you begin coloring

Since you want to achieve a softer and layered look with the colors, you will be using layered Pencil Tool (N) fills with a lowered transparency. To begin, create a new layer to sit below your “Fill” and “Outline” layers. Name it “Color” and lock all other layers but this layer. Also, be sure to hide the “Photo Reference” layer.

Step 9: Set up the Pencil Tool

Double-click the Pencil tool Icon in the toolbar and adjust the settings as follows:

  • Check Fill new pencil strokes
  • Uncheck Keep Selected
  • Uncheck Edit Selected Paths

Pencil tool

Go to the color selection area of the toolbar and swap the stroke color with the fill color so that there is no stroke color.

Double-click the fill color and choose a skin tone color that is on the lighter end of a yellow to red hue.

Next, go to Window > Transparency to select between a 15% to 20% opacity for your fills.

Test out your color and transparency by drawing some overlapping circles and see how the color fills build up. If the new fills aren’t showing up as transparent—or with the correct color—check your settings and also be sure that your Appearance panel has the New Art Has Basic Appearance option deselected.

Step 10: Coloring in your portrait

Begin with the skin tones of the face. Draw overlapping shapes that contour and compliment your lines with the Pencil Tool (N).

Over the darker and shaded areas, be sure to build up the color. Also select darker shades within the same hue to add more contrast and shadow.

For the skin: I tend to work with yellows, oranges, and reds. Use a gradient for larger areas with a light to dark fade, and build on top of them. Be sure that your highlights are basically just areas with less color.

If you need to enhance highlights, draw transparent white shapes over these areas. Keep a light hand, and draw fast layered shapes with lower opacities—this helps keep the watercolor and layered feel to the illustration.

Also draw a bit outside of the lines—with this process, imperfection is our friend.

Since you will be drawing irregular shapes with the Pencil Tool (N), you may notice sharp edges and unclosed paths. To close paths, hold down the Option/Alt key right after you begin drawing your path and just before you finish it. This will complete any shape you are drawing. It’s okay to have irregular shapes and sharp edges; you can always edit them at any point with the Eraser Tool or the point-editing tools.

Color in the rest of the portrait using colors that you find works best. It is a good idea to use the Eyedropper Tool (I) and choose a color palette from another photo you may find aesthetically-pleasing.

I also encourage the use of contrasting colors to add a bit of interest, like circle shapes of bluish hue shadows on yellow and orange areas of skin or small drops of deeper reds on blue or green tones. They add a bit of complexity and depth.

Step 11: Finalizing the portrait

At this point, you should be close to finished with the portrait. Improvise, add flourishes, text, and deviate towards using your own technique and style to enhance your illustration.

You may also bring your illustration into Adobe Photoshop for added effects, color management, and texture.

This entry was posted on Sunday, March 1st, 2015 at 11:59 am and is filed under Adobe Illustrator Lessons. You can leave a comment and follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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