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The Seven Vector Sins: Why You're Doing It Wrong!

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You've spent hours, possibly days on an illustration. This is the one vector piece you're insanely proud of, but something isn't right. Something isn't sitting well and you've no idea what it is. As long as you know there is something wrong with your illustration, you're half way there to improving it.

In this article, I'm going to tell you about the Seven Vector Sins. Sins which you may be guilty of and why you're doing it wrong. More importantly, how to get on the correct path to vector sainthood. I'll give you some examples of epic vector fails, thanks to some of my much older work which I can now look back on and face palm. This article might be that one kick to the butt you need to take your work to the next level, so let's get on with it already!


1. You've Got Issues With Colors

Let's start with probably the hardest to fix. If you've got issues with colors, then chances are you're going to need a few lessons in color theory. Learning to balance colors and using them in an effective manner to convey your concept and any emotion, is an art in itself.

Speaking of balancing colors, I went through a horrid phase of putting random gradients in the backgrounds of my portraits because I wasn't sure what colors looked good with what. So I'd sample two colors from the portrait (below from the eyes and eyeshadow) and simply filled the background. Of course, this method wasn't always effective and I'd end up with clashing colors... bright red lips with that background? Really? You may cringe, but it won't be the last time in this article that you do so.


Not the American Beauty we know, not with those clashing colors!

How Do You Fix it?

There is no easy fix to this as it may require you to push yourself to change the way you approach color... I should know as it's been something I've found hard to do myself. There are plenty of tutorials out there which talk about color theory and how to apply to it your craft. For example, we've many on Tuts+: color theory in illustration, color theory in web design and even our Mobiletuts+ site is at it as they inform their readers with their introduction to color theory. It's not something you can just read an article about and that's it, you are the color design guru of the year. You need to put these skills into practice in order to perfect them. It will come with time.

If you're anxious and need to fix your color issues pronto, then there are several ways you can help yourself within vector, specifically in Adobe Illustrator. I recommend you check out my article on using Adobe Kuler, which also goes over the color resources of Illustrator.

This is going to sound extreme, but do you know how I learn about balancing colors? I dye my hair bright colors. It forces me to co-ordinate my clothing, make up and hair. It's a superficial thing to do and sure, I do love having bright pink hair these days, but it has forced me to literally come face to face with something I've needed to learn properly and confidently.


2. Your Contrast is Just All Wrong!

Related to colors, but not strictly something you can modify with learning how to use them correctly. This is more to do with how we look at different areas of an illustration. You often have one process for one surface of an illustration and then a different one for another surface. These processes may involve different ways of choosing the colors you apply to your illustration or it may be you've adopted someone else' process as your own, thus not had time to change it to follow the style you're accustomed to. Let me show you an example from my past, perhaps you can see what I'm about to point out.


The contrast in this portrait is a legen.. wait for it... dary fail.

I vexelled this portrait about 10 years ago of Alyson Hannigan. Rendering issues aside, this portrait has issues with contrast. I've not added enough contrast to the skin, yet I've managed to add contrast to the hair. You can clearly see to the right of the portrait there is shadow under her hair and there is shadow at the roots and a shine to the hair. However there is little contrast in the skin, which makes her look as if she's got no nose and her jawline lacks definition. Not very flattering is it?

How Do You Fix it?

Firstly, check your monitor settings, make sure you are in fact seeing the contrast correctly. Sounds silly, but it may save you a lot of frustration and time!

There is a quick fix if you've got contrast issues across the whole illustration. You could put a shape over the entire artboard, fill it with color and then play with Color Dodge and Color Burn Blending Modes, then adjust the Opacity. This will help adjust your contrast within a matter of clicks.

With my Alyson portrait, looking back, I could duplicate the shape for the entire skin and place it underneath the eyes and lip layers. I could then fill it with color and then play with Color Burn - Color Burn giving the ability to darken colors. So let's have a look at what this can do.


I smell an improvement!

As this is a very old file and I no longer have the original source file, I can't go in and adjust it accurately. However I've put a fill of #156d86 over the top of the entire portrait and set it to Blending Mode Color Burn, Opacity 16%. This has brought out the contrast in the shadows of the face.

We shouldn't rely on quick fixes all the time though and it may be a case of selecting all the shapes which create the skin and using Recolor Artwork to create the correct balance of contrast. Alternatively, look at the way you choose your colors or render each area. Are there differences in the way you're doing it? If so, consider making your process consistent throughout to avoid contrast issues.

When I'm creating portraits these days, I still come across issues with my skin shading. Therefore I make sure when I finish an area of high contrast, such as the hair, I go back to the skin and help balance the contrast by using gradients to force more shadow and highlights into areas to balance it out. You may see this happen in my portrait tutorials. There is nothing wrong with "finishing" an area and then revisiting it later on to keep consistency throughout.


3. There's No Consistency in Your Work

So after talking about contrast consistency, let's look at style consistency. You may have added too much detail in one area and then not included enough detail in another... the result gives you an inconsistent style and makes areas look as if you've copy and pasted one vector into another.

This happens in the same way as contrast issues... you may have learned one area from one source and not tuned it to your own style. Or perhaps you lack motivation to render one area above another or even, you're not as confident rendering that area?

So let's look back at one of my own face palm moments and see if you can point out the style consistency issue here...

Inconsistency in this vector was enough for Marilyn to tighten his tie so much his eye popped out of its socket.

Yes, I too had a Marilyn Manson phase, but as you can see the face is "detailed" in it's rendering style, as is the hair... but it appears I've not decided to add this same style throughout... I've even added a little detail to the hand, but not enough to make it as clear as the detail in the face! You could even point out the hand lacks contrast.

So why is this wrong? I mean you could do a piece which is detailed in one area but not in the rest, but how this portrait is looking is half finished. I could have improved on it by making sure the shapes created for the "simple" areas were more refined, thus giving the impression of detailing. I could have put effort into rendering the hand correctly. Truth of the matter is that this is a half finished portrait and the reason I didn't finish it is because I found hands difficult and I found rendering clothes boring. And it shows. Painfully.

How Do You Fix it?

There are a variety of ways you can approach this one:

  • If you're mixing styles, consider making your styles in a less rushed and rough manner. This will help avoid making your work look as if it's incomplete. The overall base shapes of the illustration should match in terms of detailing to enforce the consistency.
  • Following tutorials is great and you can learn a variety of things from them, however learn to adapt them to your current skill set to ensure you keep a constant style and quality throughout.
  • If your styles aren't working together, is it because you lack knowledge or practice in those areas? Confront the problem and learn to create/render those areas and objects by vectoring them over and over again. I went through a phase of making sure all portraits had a hand in them. This forced me to confront the areas I wasn't confident in.
  • Learn to balance detailing... if you've added more detail to one area, perhaps others could do with more. Otherwise, learn to know when to stop adding detailing. Plan the level of detailing across the composition before you start and stick to it!
  • Use Graphic Styles and modify them slightly for each element to keep the style consistent.
  • If motivation is your issue, vector the area you are least interested in first and make sure you do it well. Therefore you'll have the areas you're most excited to render for the end of the project and will still have the drive to make sure you do it right! I love vectoring hair and eyes, therefore I leave these mainly until last.
  • I often receive work from clients wanting a series of portraits of their staff members or specific people. The trick is to vector them all together. This also applies when it comes to creating duplicate elements, such as eyes. When you add one shape to the eye, create the same for the other eye straight after!

Check out my tutorial on Maintaining a Consistent Style Across a Series of Vector Portraits for more tips.


4. You're Following Every Single Shape of a Stock Image

Stock images and references are great... I'm a huge fan. This is because although I can draw, I do need help from reference images. Although I'm not as reliant on them these days (I often stray from them and use them only as a guide), many years ago I used to literally trace a stock image curve for curve, color for color and the end result was effectively a vectored version of a photograph. There is nothing wrong with using stock images, just learn how to use them effectively.

The problem is, while a stock image can be a great guide, you may pick up on artifacts in the image which are unnatural or the image may not be high quality enough for you to pick up on the details you need. The latter ends up creating what we commonly see is blobs of nondescript color that hold no relevance to the illustration.

I'm a pro at falling foul of this problem... so let me show you an example of where I did it wrong. It may take you a while to recognize, but I kick myself for its stupidity.


Still a fan of Kelly, but perhaps I should vector her again to do her justice!

Yes, it's those jeans! The blobs of color have effectively created a blurred look to the clothing. The belt has sharp edges of color and to a certain extend, so does the face... but due to following the image of Kelly Osbourne shape for shape, the lines of the jeans aren't as sharp as they should be. However, there is an even bigger vector sin here. Let's see if you noticed it...


Magic eye effects in vector? I see numbers!

Oh the shame! The image I was using as a reference for this was in greyscale... and it had a watermark of some sort over the jeans which was embossed into the paper. I actually vectored the shapes of this. Looking back, this was probably the number "35" for some reason. I cringe at this one so much. I will deny it other than in the comments field of this article.

How Do You Fix it?

Aside from actually learning to draw, this one comes down to experience and a lot of practice More importantly, pushing yourself to go beyond your comfort zone. If you vector every single shape, you are going to pick up on all flaws in an image. Taking the time to recognize patterns and textures may help you avoid jean rendering issues let's say, but also how objects are constructed.

You don't always have the best quality image to hand, especially if you're rendering a famous face. However making sure where abouts you can expect shapes and drawing them with confidence regardless of what the reference says will help give your illustration a professional look.

From personal experience, I had years of creating vector illustrations as a hobby and not being paid for it. So I could experiment and play with the portraits I did. It got to a point where I realized I was carbon copying stock images and I wasn't getting anything from it. So I promised myself, with every new vector project I started, I was going to deviate from the stock image and add something new or modify it. From this, I gained the confidence to be able to create wacky hair styles, clothing and even altering expressions. If you don't have confidence in drawing, then push yourself with each illustration to go beyond what is right in front of you.


5. Your Line Art Looks Rushed

Being able to render professional looking line art is no easy task. Apparently some people forget to check the simplest things, such as miter limits and end up having their mistakes displayed on television. I can't watch this show the same way ever again...

John Bishop's stand up comedy show in the UK... with a dodgy corner in the top left hand corner

Miter joins, intersecting lines and Stroke Weight are just some of the areas you may need to pay more attention to. If you're not doing a sketch styled graphic, then you're going to need to pay attention to your line art. Not spending time to perfect these will make your line art look sloppy, rushed and bring down the quality of your work significantly.

How Do You Fix it?

Assuming you're not creating a sketch styled graphic, where being messy is the point, there are some key areas you'll need to pay attention to:

  • Corners and Limits: If your line art consists of many sharp corners, play with the Corner and Limit settings in the Stroke panel. John Bishop's graphic in the background could have been avoided if the designer modified the angle of that sharp corner to avoid the flat corner from happening. If you can't get the angle right, consider creating the corner manually from a filled shape.
  • Stroke Weight: Typically, the thinner the Stroke Weight, the finer the detailing you're creating. However, remember that if you're working in print to not draw your lines too thin that they are redundant to the illustration.
  • Smart Guides: Enable Smart Guides (Control + U). This will help you make sure your lines intersect to each other. You don't want connecting lines to be crossing over each other or even not touching each other when they should be!
  • Caps vs Width Tool vs Width Profiles: For lines which are open ended, consider the appearance of those lines to the rest of the design. If you're going for a sleek design, you may wish to use tapered tips. Therefore Profile: Width Profile 1, maybe the tapered end you wish to achieve that look. It will look better than using a specific Cap and less hassle than using the Width Tool.

You can get some great tips on refining your line art by checking out my Funky Line Art Portrait tutorial and my Vintage Scooter tutorial.


6. Those Curves Look Sloppy

The flat design trend is well upon us and doesn't appear to be slowing down, but it's not just this style which has depended on smooth and accurate curves. For a lot of illustrations which depend on a simple and minimalist look, the curves are a make or break aspect of the design.

Although the majority of my work has involved plenty of detail, the Horde symbol of this one haunts me. Those curves... oh my, they bring down the quality of this portrait.


Epic fail in that symbol although to be fair I play an alliance character.

Take a closer look at the points of the symbol around her head... and the outer curves of it. Looks pretty sloppy don't you think? Well imagine you're working on a piece which relies on this very style throughout, not just one element. That is one vector car crash waiting to happen.

How Do You Fix it?

If you're working predominately with simple shapes and minimal design, not just in this flat design trend, then forget about using the Pen Tool, the Paintbrush Tool or even the Pencil Tool. It's time to learn from the old school and form your illustrations from basic shapes, straight lines and effects. Learn how to use Offset Path, Effect > Warp and Effect > Distort & Transform. It's definitely time to get familiar with the Pathfinder panel while you're at it.

These basic tools and effects will do what it says on the tin, it will keep those lines and shapes basic. The Pen Tool (and others) are not accurate in creating the shapes you're looking for and accuracy is the key to creating smooth curves.

If you're into this style, I highly recommend the tutorials of Vectortuts+ author Andrei Marius. He's a highly skilled vector artist and creates the majority of his designs without using the Pen Tool. This means he relies on using the key tools needed in creating smooth curves. A great example of "doing it right" would be his awesome tutorial on creating a detailed lighter without using the Pen Tool.


Smoking may be wrong, but there is nothing wrong with these curves or lines!

7. You're Not Saving Your Vector Right

Every time a vector artist uses Save As... to create a JPG, an anchor point loses its handle bars. I've seen a lot in my time and I'm thankful this isn't actually one of those things I've fallen a foul of. You've gone through all this effort to make your vector art look fantastic, in fact you're not failing at any of the other six vector sins, but you fall at the last hurdle. I've seen people who have even gone as far as screenshotting their work and pasting it into Adobe Photoshop and saving it there, just so they get the resolution they want. I kid you not.

Why is this such a bad thing? Well the way that Adobe Illustrator displays your work in real time is not necessary how it will be displayed when you save it correctly and at the resolution you require. This is especially so when you're using line art, raster live effects and gradient meshes. If you don't save your web image files correctly, all that time you've spent creating that perfect vector image goes down the drain.

How Do You Fix it?

There's only one way... use File > Save for Web & Devices (or Save for Web in later versions). In addition, if you're using Adobe Illustrator CS4 and beyond, use your Artboard Tool (Shift + O) effectively like a cropping tool and define the area of your composition. Then when you Save for Web, you can specify your resolutions Height/Width and Clip to Artboard to only save within that area... Simples!


If you didn't know, you can find this option within the File menu.

Get That Ellipse Tool and Draw Yourself a Halo!

There is one thing we all have in common and that is we were all beginners at one point in our vector lives. It's not until we made those mistakes and learned from them that we knew the right direction to follow. It's taken me over a decade to get to where I am now and sometimes I do fall a foul to one of the sins, but by being aware of them I can prevent them from seeing the light of day.

Don't beat yourself up and remember rules are made to be broken. You will improve if you've got passion for whatever you're doing and you will get better. No doubt if you keep on following the awesome content here at Tuts+, you'll get there quicker and perhaps be able to show us a thing or two!

The preview image has been created using a Tuts+ Premium Pack: Devil Heads.

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