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Professional Workflow for Creating Photorealistic Portraits in Illustrator

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Creating photo realistic portraits in Illustrator may seem to be a difficult task in the beginning. But a well modularized and simplified approach from start to the finish can give you the desired results.

In this tutorial, we'll cover some important tips, techniques, and professional workflow to simplify your efforts while creating photorealistic portraits. Assuming that you are familiar with the basic use of the Mesh Tool, we shall start with this tutorial!


Step 1: The Reference Photograph

Before actually jumping into the Illustration, let's meet the basic requirements of the reference photograph.

1.1 The reference photograph used should be of a good resolution, so that you find it easy to give detail in your vector art.

1.2 If possible, color-correct the photograph in Photoshop to remove uneven color shades. Clean it using blur, fade and other filters. You can browse Psdtuts+ or Phototuts+ for tips on improving a photograph. Remember, if you work hard at this stage, it will solve the colorization problems to a considerable extent. This is a must-to-do step because it is not possible to color the entire portrait using a set color palette. You will have to pick the colors from the photograph itself.

1.3 Place the reference photograph into a template layer and DO NOT dim the image. Let it remain at 100% Opacity.



Step 2: Modularizing the Portrait

Since we will use the Mesh Tool (U) for the entire illustration, it is important to understand its limitations. Technically, it is very hard to sculpt the entire portrait from one single mesh object. For example, if you are trying to give too much detail in the eye, then the mesh lines created in the eye will also flow through the rest of the face.


So, it's a good practice to divide the entire figure into different objects like face, hair, eyes, lips, ears, teeth, neck, clothes, etc. This will reduce your efforts in modifying the individual objects without affecting the other ones.



Step 3: Starting with the Illustration

Create a new layer to start with the illustration. Now what seems obvious at this stage is the use of the Pen Tool. Ironically, forget the Pen tool until the end of your project. The entire portrait will be created using rectangles that are twisted and sculpted using the mesh wireframe. To start, create a rectangle of any size. Next, grab the Mesh Tool (U) and click on any one anchor of the rectangle to convert the entire shape into a mesh object.



Step 4: The Outline Mode

For the entire illustration, switch between Outline Mode and Preview Mode using Command + Y. This is useful in seeing the reference image and picking the colors. Since the reference image is in a Template layer, Outline Mode won't affect its appearance.


Step 5: Forming the Shape of the Portrait

5.1 The simplest approach is to start with the face first. With the Direct Selection Tool (A), drag each mesh point around the boundaries of the face, and adjust the control handles to get a rough shape that is close to the anatomy of the face.


Tip: While moving all four points of the Rectangle Mesh, try to place them evenly at four corners, depending upon the anatomy of the face - i.e. each of them should cover one quadrant of the figure. An example below shows the wrong placement of anchor points.


In the above figure, when you add further mesh points, the entire flow will go wrong, as shown below.


A right placement at four corners of the face will give you the desired flow, as shown below.


Once you are satisfied with the flow, you can proceed further with adding more and more mesh points.

5.2 Select the entire shape and color it with a mid tone of the face color. You can use the Eye Dropper Tool (I) to pick the color.


Tip: Toggle between outline Mode and Preview Mode using Command + Y.


Step 6: Adding, Adjusting and Coloring Mesh Points Using the Average Technique

This is an important stage where you will sculpt and reshape the entire face into a perfect 3D wireframe. An obvious mistake that any one of us may do is adding more and more mesh points in just one region. Avoid such a mistake.


Instead, follow the Average Technique to get the smooth flow of the mesh wireframe.

The Average Technique: In this approach, the entire shape is divided into halves in each direction. Following this, each sub-section is again divided into halves, and so on, until we get a detailed 3D wireframe. An example below shows the use of the Average Technique.


Following this technique, start adding mesh points on the wireframe to divide the shape into halves. DO NOT think about detail at this stage. On every addition of a mesh point, follow this three step algorithm:

  • 6.1 Move the newly added mesh points according to the flow of the face.
  • 6.2 Color each mesh point with the nearest color value from the reference image beneath it.
  • 6.3 Adjust the control handles to smoothen the flow.

The images below show the first addition of mesh point, and its adjustment according to the anatomy of the shape.




Controlling the Color Acceleration

The control handles of a Mesh Point decides the acceleration of the color flowing through it. A long handle will throw color to a far distance, whereas, a short handle will limit the color flow to a small distance. This will be clearer from the image below.


So, whenever two mesh points are close, try to shorten their control handles, so that they do not cross each other.


Fact: As opposed to the normal anchor points, the control handles of a mesh point move synchronously - i.e. you can not turn the two handles independently. If you turn one handle, the other one will turn automatically.


Step 7: Continue with the Average Technique

Follow the Average Technique along with the three steps Algorithm until you get around 60% detail in the figure.








After adding several mesh lines, adjusting the points and assigning the colors, the mesh will start taking the shape of the face.



Step 8: Adding Medium Details

The figure created till now is abstract. Instead of directly hitting on the detail, add medium details first, and then fine details in the end. For this, start adding mesh lines in the areas where you see the color changes. DO NOT create a mesh line exactly on the edge of a color change. Instead, create two lines at a considerable distance - i.e. one at each side of the color change.


While adding medium details, follow the same Average Technique with the three step Algorithm.


Note: Do not put much detail into eyes and lips, as they will be created using separate mesh objects.


Step 9: Adding Fine Detail

To achieve fine detail, start adding mesh lines closer to the edge of color changes. Use high zoom to add the mesh points accurately. DO NOT modify the color of all those points that fall in the locus of any particular mesh line. Only modify the colors that are required to do so.


Try to add closer mesh lines so that the figure doesn't look blurred.


After suitable fine detailing, the face shape will look like the image below.


For the moment, the design will look a little weird without lips and eyes. Once they are created, the entire portrait will gain the anatomy. For that, lock and hide the face layer, and create a new layer for lips.


Step 10: Creating the Lips

Formation of any object can be started with the same rectangle concept as seen in the formation of the face till now. So, start by creating a Rectangle (M), and converting it into a mesh object using the Mesh Tool (U).


10.1 Next, move the mesh points around the shape of the Lips as shown below. Try to cover a bit larger area that can be easily merged into the rest of the face. In other words, the lip mesh should be a positive offset of the original lips.


10.2 Start adding Mesh lines using the Average Technique and the three step Algorithm described in Step 6. Below are the three snapshots of mesh lines added with the Average technique.




Tip: Wherever you find a wider distances between two mesh lines, try to occupy them evenly, so that the entire mesh looks evenly distributed before adding the detail. After adding detail, the mesh may not remain so beautiful.

10.3 Using the same procedure as found in Step 7 through Step 9; add medium and fine details to the lips mesh. Once done, the final result will look like below.




Step 11: Morphing the Lip Object with the Face Object

Now that we have created the lips separately, its time to morph it with the face object. For that, unhide the face layer.

11.1 Morphing is not as easy as it may seem. Even if we assign the same color to the mesh points of front and the back object, the transition may not be smooth. This is due to the fact that the acceleration, direction and the flow of mesh points of the two objects is different.


11.2 For proper morphing, select each mesh point of the lip around its boundaries, and assign a color by picking it from the face object.


11.3 Once you morph the boundary colors with the background face object, the result should look something like below.


Tip: It may be hard to get a perfect morphing without practice. Try to get as close to the colors as you can. Little errors are not legible enough.

Let's proceed ahead with the formation of eyes. Lock and hide other layers and create a new layer for the eyes.


Step 12: Creating Eyes Using a Radial Mesh

When it comes to the formation of eyes, nothing can beat a Radial Mesh.

Technically, a radial mesh is a rectangle mesh bent in a circular form. This fact is exposed when you find a duo of collinear mesh points along the right-horizontal axis of the radial mesh.


12.1 To create a radial mesh, draw an ellipse and fill it with a radial gradient.


Next, select the Ellipse and go to Object > Expand. Select the Gradient Mesh option and hit OK.


Ungroup the result (Command + Shift + G) and release its Clipping Mask (Alt + Command + 7). Next, delete the circular path that appears inside the radial gradient.


Now you have the basic radial mesh that can be used for the creation of eyes.

12.2 Position the center of the radial mesh exactly at the center of the eye pupil.


12.3 Since the pupil, cornea and the iris of an eye looks perfectly circular, it's good practice to add a couple of radial mesh lines to the inner section of an eye, before distorting the outer boundaries. As you add mesh points, assign the color from the reference image.


12.4 For rest of the section, twist and drag the mesh points to form the shape of an eye.


12.5 Select the mesh points on a right-horizontal axis.

As discussed in the beginning of Step 12, there are two mesh points on one another, along the right-horizontal axis of the radial mesh. To select them, either use the Lasso Tool (Q), or drag-select with the Direct Selection Tool (A) in Outline Mode. While coloring, select this duo of mesh points together, and assign the same color to both of them.


12.6 Turning the Control handles of dual mesh points: The duo of mesh points must have identical movement and flow. If you modify the control handle of one point, you will have to make similar changes for its identical point too. For that, use Smart Guides (Command + U). This will help you in snapping the handle-to-handle and point-to-point.


12.7 Once you are comfortable with the movement of dual mesh points, you can easily start adding more and more mesh points. Follow the same technique as done with the formation of the face and lips.


12.8 Try to divide the entire mesh evenly by adding linear mesh lines too, as shown below.


12.9 After medium detailing, the eye mesh will look like the image below.


12.10 Keep adding more and more radial and linear mesh lines until you get the desired detail. A final version of the detailed eye is shown below.




Step 13: Create Another Eye and Morph Both Eyes with the Face

Using the same technique as in Step 12, create another eye. After successful formation, morph both eyes using the techniques described in Step 11. A final version of the face, lips and eyes after morphing will be something like below.




Step 14: Create Hairs, Ears, Neck and Clothes

Now that we have created the face, lips and eyes; it's easy to create hairs, ear, neck and clothes using the same techniques as described in this tutorial. Start with a basic rectangle shape and follow the same technique as for the face and lips. After successful formation of the rest of the parts, the portrait will look like the image below.


Note that the detail in the hair is still required to finalize the portrait design. Let's proceed ahead with that.


Step 15: Detailing the Hairs

Now this is the stage where you will use the Pen Tool (P) and the Pencil Tool (N). Using any of these tools, create a rough figure of hairs containing medium detail, as shown below.


15.1 Create some artistic brushes for fine details in the hair. Below are some examples of the brushes you can use for hairs.


15.2 Using these brushes draw several strokes for hairs, using either the Pen Tool (P) or the Pencil Tool (N).


You can play with opacity and transparency modes to achieve more realistic results. Try not to put too much detail, as that looks overwhelming.


Step 16: The Final Touch

Finally, you can create a background matching with the actual background of the reference image. This will appeal to the actual light sources of the portrait. A final version of the portrait in Outline and Preview Mode is shown below.



Conclusion and Scope

We have seen a step by step modular approach towards the formation of mesh portraits. The technique of turning basic shapes into complex mesh objects can be really helpful in making photorealistic illustrations of daily objects. We can further play with colors of the final result in Illustrator's Edit Colors option. Thanks for your patience and time in reading this tutorial. I hope you enjoyed the techniques!

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