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Create a Dramatic Back-Lit Male Portrait in Adobe Illustrator

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In today's tutorial I'm going to show you how I created a dramatic back-lit portrait from a stock image, using gradients and art brushes. It's a relatively simple effect to achieve as the shading is done by the type of gradients you're going to use. You wouldn't think you'll only use white transparent gradients to achieve this! So enough talking, let's get on with it.


1. Set Up Your Document

Step 1

I'm going to start by preparing my New document. File > Place your stock image onto the artboard. I've purposely chosen this image as it's deep in shadow, so it's much easier to create a dark and mysterious portrait. You could do this with a normal, even lit stock image, however you'd need to know a lot more about rendering realistic portraits and how shadows are cast.

Then Create New Layer and place a white fill Rectangle (M) across the stock image. Set the Opacity to 50%. Create New Layer and place a black fill Rectangle (M) over the stock image. Lock all your layers and then Create New Layer and this will be where you draw your shading shapes.

Step 2

I'll be using a series of gradients to add highlights to the portrait and I won't be straying from these. It will be a mixture of transparent gradients, both linear and radial... and they'll all be from 100% white to 0% white in Opacity and all shapes, unless I've stated otherwise, will be set to Blending Mode Screen.

If you were to use either gradient on a black background (C=0, M=0, Y=0, K=100), your gradients will appear only white and several shades of grey. However, if your background introduces just a tiny bit of color, which you can not tell by the naked eye, your gradients will appear to show color So I've set my "black" rectangle to a fill of C=100, M=0, Y=0, K=100. This will give the gradients a hint of cyan, even though the actual colors in the Gradient panel will only be white!

If you want your portrait to be showing more magenta or yellow, then simply introduce these colors into the background. As long as K=100, you should be fine to only see black!


2. Begin Adding Shading to the Face

Step 1

Let's start by adding initial shapes over the portrait where the light bounces off the upper parts of the face. I'll be filling each shape with a radial gradient and then Grouping them (Control + G) for each layer of shapes. If I was to use a Compound Path, a single gradient would be applied across the whole collection of shapes; where as with this Group method, even the smaller shapes (for instance on the ears) will have their own gradient fill.

If you're using a version of Adobe Illustrator before CS4, which doesn't have transparent gradients, you can get around this by applying the Feather effect on your shapes. Do this by going to Effect > Stylize > Feather and add a 10pt radius to the feather. Although you won't get an identical look to the end result in this tutorial, you will get soft edges to your shapes. It greats a really interesting effect as well!

Step 2

Draw shapes highlighting each of the more intense lit areas on the face and use the Group method. Then when you're done, set the Opacity to each of the groups to 4%.

Step 3

Let's add some texturing shapes for the beard and eyebrows. Modify the gradient you are using by increasing the location of the center Gradient Slider to 85%.

Then double-click on the Pencil Tool (N) to access the Pencil Tool Options. I've altered the Fidelity and Smoothness. Once done, click on OK.

Step 4

This will be easiest to do using a graphics tablet, but is achievable with a mouse. Draw several zig-zagged shapes with the Opacity set to 4% and place them on top of each other to create the textured short hair effect.

Step 5

I'm going to add a subtle texture to the skin. So first duplicate the group of shapes you've previously made which covers the majority of your portraits skin. I'm going to use a previous pattern I do like to use for subtle texture, my 100% Vector Noise.

With the group of shapes you've got, first turn them into a Compound Path (Control + 8) and then open the Appearance panel. Create two New Fills and apply the pattern to each. For the bottom fill, go to Object > Transform > Scale and adjust the pattern only to 50%. Then set this to Blending Mode Screen, Opacity 5%. The top fill, change the Blending Mode to Soft Light and the Opacity to 30%.

Place the shape below your shading shapes. The difference is very subtle but it will give you a soft, defused, noise effect... perhaps even the subtle impression of pores on the skin.


3. Add Hair to Your Portrait

Step 1

Now to begin work on rendering the hair. I'm going to start by adding hair over the top of the forehead. Using a tapered Art Brush (you can use my Width Profile brushes for this) with the Paintbrush Tool (B), draw a series of strands which overlap the forehead.

Step 2

Select all of the strands and then Object > Expand them. Then in the Pathfinder panel, select Unite to combine all the shapes.

Step 3

When you view them on top of the whole portrait, there may be areas which still show the gradient work underneath. Using the Pencil Tool (N), draw shapes over these areas to make sure they are hidden. Then select all of the hair shapes and use Pathfinder > Unite again.

Step 4

I'm going to now apply two Drop Shadow effects onto the hair shape, to create a soft shadow effect. You can do this via the Appearance panel and clicking on the "fx" button.

I've used the below settings for the Drop Shadows.

Step 5

With the Paintbrush Tool (B) and the same tapered art brush, draw strands of hair where the are highlights. I've used a 2pt Stroke Weight and set the strokes to Blending Mode Screen, Opacity 10%.

Step 6

Continue adding strokes to the facial hair and the eyebrows with a Stroke Weight of 3pt. Take the opportunity to add lines to the face where you feel it will shape the face and features better. For instance, I've add some lines around the nose to make it more defined.

Step 7

Now to add thicker strokes with a 4pt Stroke Weight. This helps bring larger areas of highlight to the hair.

Step 8

Back to 2pt Stroke Weight and with the Opacity 5%, draw lines for finer highlights in the eyebrows and also where the light catches the eyelashes.


4. Refine Your Portrait

Step 1

Often when you work on your skin shading first and then your hair rendering, the contrast of the portrait may not match. So take some time to adjust this. I'm "correcting" my contrast by adding gradient filled shapes, drawn with the Pencil Tool (N) to the skin. These are set to Blending Mode Screen, Opacity 10%.

Step 2

I've then added a couple of shapes either side of the neck.

Step 3

Due to the blunt edges of the shapes of the neck, I'm going to overlap black lines on the top edge to give the impression of the facial hair.


5. Add a Back-lit Effect

Step 1

I'm going to add a back-lit effect. It's quick and easy to do and very effective if you've got a shadowed portrait such as this one. First draw a shape around the portrait. I've used the Pencil Tool (N) again for this and filled it with a radial gradient set to Blending Mode Screen, Opacity 100%.

Step 2

Using the Paintbrush Tool (B) with a tapered art brush, draw dark strokes of black set to Opacity 50%, around the hair and behind the shapes for shading/hair.

Step 3

Then below the dark strokes, add strokes with the same brush set to Blending Mode Screen, Opacity 20%. It doesn't matter if the lines are overly messy or even aren't full lines, it will add to the effect you want to achieve.

Step 4

With the Pencil Tool (N), draw a continuous line along the "shoulders", neck and portrait.

Along this line, apply a radial blend art brush. You can find out how to create one of these from my Jellyfish tutorial.

Step 5

You may discover that due to the corner limit of the line, it may produce some distortion in how the blend brush is applied. Go in with a Direct Selection Tool (A) and adjust the handle bars for the point concerned to resolve this.

This should give you a nice glow around the portrait. You could finish there, but I want to add a similar effect as my Jellyfish tutorial.

Step 6

Using the glow scatter brush from that tutorial, draw lines around the portrait and over the portrait in places to add orbs in the air. Set these to Blending Mode Screen, Opacity 10-20%. Modify the Stroke Weight to increase the size of the orbs and to add variety.


5. Crop Your Artboard

I love the Artboard Tool (Shift + O). Back in the day I used to save my vector art and crop it in Adobe Photoshop. However, the best way to essentially crop your vector art is by using the Artboard Tool. Once clicked, you can position and modify the boundaries of the artboard to fit the dimensions of your illustration. Alternatively, you can manually add the measurements for the artboard along the top.


Whoa! You're Now Done!

I hope this process has given you some tips and tricks on how to create your own deep shadowed portrait. Try playing with different colors and back-lit effects to create a dramatic portrait of your own.

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