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Create "Dia De Los Muertos" Decorations on a Skull in Adobe Illustrator

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In this tutorial, I'm going to be using a pre-made skull Monika Zagrobelna created in her great tutorial, Using Meshes to Create a Detailed Skull With Adobe Illustrator. I'll be turning this spooky Halloween ornament into a cheerful and contrasting, sugar skull for the Mexican festival known as "Day of the Dead".

If you want to join in and create your own sugar skull, you can either download the source file from our original gradient mesh skull or you can try out our Skull Decoration Challenge.


Dia De Los Muertos

For those who are not familiar with, Dia De Los Muertos (Spanish for "Day of the Dead"), it's a holiday celebrated mainly in Mexico, on November 1st and 2nd, to honor the deceased. It is not as spooky or somber as Halloween. The spirits of those departed are believed to visit their families. So altars with offerings are prepared for them. The most popular "Dia De Los Muertos" offering, or "ofrenda", are sugar skulls.

These are dried white sugar mixtures pressed in skull forms and decorated with colorful icing. They are edible but sometimes non-edible items such as beads, feather, cloth and various ornaments are used on them for decorative purposes. Decorated with stripes, lace, vines, dots and swirls of icing, these designs are mostly whimsical and bright colored, not morbid. So when you are designing your skull, keep in mind to stick to plenty of colors and decorative line work.


1. Sketch and Preparation

Step 1

Let's start by bringing Monika's Skull into Photoshop for sketching. Create New Layer on top of "Layer 1", and sketch in the details of your sugar skull. Use the Brush Tool (B) and a white foreground color. I added a rose next to the skull to present the offering.

Once you have completed your sketch, delete the background layer and Save (Command-S) the white sketch layer in a transparent PNG format. The PNG format helps to maintain transparency in your image, so when we place it over our skull in Illustrator we it better.

Basic RGB

Step 2

Open the skull source file in Illustrator. Create New Layer above the "Skull" layer and name it "Sketch". Place in you sketch (PNG file) File > Place and position it over the skull.

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Lock the "Sketch" layer, and Create New Layer on top and call it "Decoration". Now that our file is imported, we can begin to trace our sketch.

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2. What Tools to Use For Tracing

Step 1

There are several tools we can use to trace an image. In this tutorial we will be using the traditional Pencil Tool (N) and Paintbrush Tool (B) for the normal line work, along with the Smooth Tool to soften the lines. Then I'll be using the Blob Brush (Shift-B) in conjunction with the Eraser Tool (Shift-E) to create wider brush strokes.

Let's test our tools. There are two easy ways to create smooth lines. First, through our tools' option menus. Select the Pencil Tool (N). By double-clicking it in the Tools panel, then the Pencil Tool Options will open. From here we can set the percentage of smoothness we want for our Pencil Tool (N). Set Smoothness around 40%, and keep Fidelity set at the default of 2.5 pixels. Fidelity works like this: the higher the fidelity, the less anchor points Illustrator will create. Test out what preferences suit your hand flow. The Paintbrush Tool (B) works in the same way.

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Step 2

Open the Brushes panel (F5 or Window > Brushes). Here we can select from a range of brush types. By clicking on the Brushes panel sub menu, go to Open Brush Library > Artistic > Artistic_Calligraphic.

Also open the Stroke panel, Window > Stroke, so we can easily access and alter our stroke options. Let's start with a 10pt Oval from the Calligraphic Brush set.

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Step 3

The second way to smooth your line work is by using the Smooth Tool. Select your Pencil Tool (N) and trace a small element from your sketch, as a test. With the Pencil Tool (N) selected, hold down Option (Alt for Windows machines) and the Pencil Tool (N) will switch to the Smooth Tool. Now click-drag across the selected path, and it will begin to smooth out. You will notice that the Smooth Tool will sometimes reduce the amount of anchor points to your path. Repeat the action until you reach the desired result, however if you are looking for more precise line work, it's better you stray away from this tool. For this tutorial it works just fine, since we are aiming for a hand-drawn effect.

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Step 4

The last two tools we can also use to trace our sketch, are used in conjunction with each other. They are the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B) and Eraser Tool (Shift-E). The Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B) is a really nice way to draw freehand and mainly used for wide brush strokes. You can start to paint as you do with the Paintbrush Tool (B), but you will notice that it creates a filled shape out of your brush strokes, instead of a stroked path.

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The Eraser Tool (Shift-E), helps carve out shapes from your blob. Test it out. To manage your eraser brush size, hold the left square bracket key ( [ ) to make your brush smaller and the right square bracket key ( ] ) to make it bigger.

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3. Trace Your Design

Step 1

Now that we have learned about our tools and their options we can begin to trace! When tracing, try to vary the Stroke Weights from your Stroke panel, experiment with brush types and properties, and use all the tools we have mentioned above in the tutorial, to achieve the result you need. The tracing process can be very boring and time-consuming, but with these tools we should be done in no time.

To trace the rose, it's preferable you create a brush with tapered ends, as it's a delicate and curvy object. Use the Paintbrush Tool (B) or Pen Tool (P) for the line work.

Tracing may take some time, and once it is complete, you image may look very flat. So we will need to add depth and weight to the composition.

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Step 2

Since we are done tracing the foundation of our sketch, delete the "Sketch" layer, from Layers panel. We shall start adding thickness, to our lines, using the the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B) and Eraser Tool (Shift-E). Keep in mind that changing your Stroke Weights, will help your image pop-out more, as we see here:

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4. Add Color With Help From Kuler

Step 1

Now we can start applying color! Create New Layer, under "Decoration" and name it "Color". A cool new user experience on Illustrator CC is Kuler. You can download Kuler app from the App Store. The app enables you to quickly use your phone's camera to generate color themes from virtually anything around you. I went ahead and took photos in my garden, and Kuler instantly generated the color themes and synced them to my account (Make note to use the same account for Illustrator and Kuler).

The Kuler panel will automatically display the themes you create and save (indicated by folder icon) or themes you've favored (indicated by heart icon).

To access the Kuler panel in Illustrator CC, you can click the Kuler icon from your Swatches panel (Window > Swatches) or click Window > Kuler.

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Step 2

Now start coloring in the "Color" layer by tracing in the shapes, and applying color from your stored color themes in Kuler. To add color from your Kuler panel to your Swatches, just click on the Kuler panel sub menu and Add to Swatches.

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You may need to go back and forth from the "Decoration" and "Color" layer to tweak and adjust paths, stroke appearance, shapes and transform subjects around. That's normal, as artists we tend to amend things as we move along. For the first part of the coloring stage, we need to just fill in the color shapes with solid colors, in order present a harmonious feel to the piece. Once you are done, the image will look like it lacks depth, but that's alright for now, because we are going to move on to the second coloring stage, of adding gradients.

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Step 3

First we will start with the rose. Open the Gradient panel (Window > Gradient). Start applying gradients to the shapes, from your Swatches panel. Once you have finished applying gradient tones to the rose fill, move on to the "Decoration" layer, and apply color tints to the line work. Black strokes are too heavy on the composition, by adding color to the strokes, it helps breakdown the hardness of the black. You will begin to notice how gradients add depth to the composition, and altering the color of the lines will make the illustration, visually more interesting.

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Step 4

Next, move onto the Skull decoration, and apply gradients to the shapes and strokes as we had done with the rose. You will most probably need to rearrange the order of elements, to back or front from: Object > Arrange > (various options to move elements to back or front). This will take some time, however your piece will start to take life.

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Step 5

After we have colored in all the artwork, we need to Group (Command-G) each embellishment , in the "Color" layer, with it's counterpart, so we can start applying Blending Modes. Once you have grouped each respectively, we can start applying blending modes from the Transparency panel, and alter Opacity percentages. For example, for the upper jaw, I gave the group a Blending Mode of Overlay, with 80% Opacity level.

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You really need to experiment with what Blending Modes and Opacity, to capture the fitting effect. Look how mine developed:

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Step 6

Now move on to the "Decoration" layer, and repeat the same steps of Grouping (Command-G) elements and their counterparts, then applying various Blending Modes from the Transparency panel and Opacity percentages. You will perhaps go back and forth through layers, to tweak some elements, but by now your skull should be developing depth.

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Step 7

Unlock the background layer, "bg", and with the Pen Tool (P) draw freehand, a shadow base to the skull and rose.

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Before adjusting the shadow's Blending Mode, let's change the background radial gradient to something more cheerful, since this holiday is a happy one. Make a Radial type gradient, from white to a fushia color, to make it pop.

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Then, select the shadow shape, and give it a purple, to light pink Linear gradient, with a Multiply, Blending Mode.

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Finally, with the shadow base selected, apply a Feather effect: Effect > Stylize > Feather: Radius set at 10mm, and we are done!

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Happy Day of the Dead!

Your Dia De Los Muertos sugar skull offering is now complete! Using the tools we have learned, you can now experiment and create your own freehand illustrated subjects, with a splash of color. Share your results. We'd love to see your work.

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