Create an Illustrative Logo From a Photograph


In this tutorial, we'll start with a photographic reference, then through some manipulation in Photoshop and careful tracing by hand, pare it down to its essential elements. The result is a stylized mark that is representative, yet bold and graphic. Let's get started!

Concept and Research

Step 1

When approaching any logo assignment, it's best to do a fair amount of research before you even put pencil to paper. Sometimes you'll get a detailed creative brief, and other times, the client will have a vague notion of what they're after, and let you do the rest. Regardless of the scenario, research should be the first step in the process. Even if the client already has as logo basically done and wants you to polish it, I believe that the more knowledge you bring to the job, the more successful it will be.

For this imaginary assignment, the client wanted a lion's head for their logo. Lions often represent royalty, pride, strength and leadership. I decided on a proud lion in profile, and made a few very rough thumbnail sketches. I decided to do something that was more realistic than stylized, yet bold and graphic.

My sketches looked like a cross between a sheep and a kitten, so it was time to do some research. I hit up the usual image searches for a lion in profile. At this point, I was just looking at images and absorbing visual information. I wanted to get a good sense of what a lion actually looks like, and carry that with me when working on the logo.

In order to make a realistic vector logo, I wanted to find a good photograph on which to base my design. I want to state emphatically that you should always get the photographer's permission when using a photo as a source image. Even though your end result will be quite stylized, it's simply not OK to use a copyrighted photo without permission. There was a case several years ago regarding the logo used on the Kentucky license plates. A German photographer claimed the logo was based on his photograph. He sued and the license plates had to be changed. So stay on the right side of the law and get permission.

Step 2

The other aspect of logo research involves seeing what's already been done. It can be tricky to look at lots of logos and try not to be influenced by them, but it's also good to know what's already out there. You don't want to spend hours on a logo only to find that it looks very similar to another one. I first did a Google image search for "lion head logo." It's a popular motif, and the designs run the gamut from realistic and detailed to stylistic or cartoony.

I didn't see anything quite like what I had in mind, so it was on to the initial prep work.

Reference Image Preparation

Step 1

I found an excellent source photo at PhotoDune, and got permission to use it. Since this is an imaginary assignment and no money is changing hands, the photographer was kind enough to let me use it for demonstration.

Big Male African Lion by EcoSound

Step 2

Since my logo will be high contrast, I first want to adjust the photo so I can more easily see the highlights and shadows.

Open the photo in Photoshop, and go to Image > Adjustments > Black & White. Since my image consisted of mainly yellow tones, I chose the Yellow Filter preset. Using the Black & White adjustment rather than simply converting to Grayscale gives you more control over how the gray tones will look. You can start with a preset and fine tune the color sliders.

Step 3

Now convert the image to grayscale. Go to Image > Adjustments > Levels. Adjust the sliders to add contrast to the image.

Step 4

Now that your image is prepared, print it, then use tracing paper to draw out the lines and shapes by hand with pencil. You may think it would be faster to just start drawing in Illustrator, but drawing by hand allows you to make decisions about which shapes and lines are important to keep and which can be discarded. Keep your pencil strokes smooth and deliberate. In my tracing, I've added hatch marks to larger areas of black, just as a reminder when I'm creating the vector shapes later. The finished pencil trace is below.

Drawing Vector Shapes

Step 1

Begin drawing the lines and shapes with the Pen tool. You could use the Pencil tool, the Brush tool, or even the Blob Brush tool, but we're going for precise paths, with only the essential points.

It can help to increase the line weight of your paths. Doing do can help you more easily see potential problems. In the examples below, sharp angles and points stand out better on a thicker stroke. Carefully adjust the handles to correct issues like this.

Step 2

Continue working in this manner, smoothing and simplifying paths along the way.

Step 3

Fill in the shapes of solid color. Keep simplifying paths where necessary, and smoothing points.

Step 4

Draw a path for the white area. This will eventually be cut out of the overall logo, or will be filled with a different color. The path is shown in green below.

Step 5

Draw in the highlights. Again, these may be eventually cut out, but for now keep them a lighter color.


Step 1

At this point, it's down to miniscule decisions. Take away everything that's not necessary for the image to read as a lion. Simplify!

Some changes I made were simplifying the ear shape and removing some of the shapes on the mane. I also enlarged the eye a bit so it would still be visible at smaller sizes, and I made the dots on the muzzle larger and more uniform.

Step 2

When you've made all of the tweaks and refinement and you're certain it's done, you can reduce the illustration to only the paths that make up the highlights. Use the Divide function on the Pathfinder panel, or the Shape Builder tool to remove all but the lighter colors, creating one compound path. The finished logo is shown in Outline mode below. This step is optional, you can always keep bother colors. WIth a highlights-only vector shape, however, you can easily place the object on a differently-colored background to create different color schemes.


Tweaking and perfecting each path is important and can take hours to get everything in its optimum place. Be sure to view the image at different sizes along the way. Building a solid foundation through hand drawing can make the process a little easier and faster.

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