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Creating a Portrait Using Only Four Colors!

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This post is part of a series called Vector Portraits.
Create a Sparkly Female Portrait in Illustrator

In today's tutorial I'm going to show you how to create a vector portrait using only four colors. It will use a variety of Blending Modes and Opacities to give the impression that a variety of shades have been used.

You can find the source files in the directory labeled 'source' that came in the files that you downloaded. You may wish to look through them briefly before we begin.


Introduction

I'll be using a stock image provided by TasaStock to create a grayscale portrait with dashes of color and a gradient appearance in the hair.

Throughout this tutorial I'm going to be using just four colors.

  • Light gray: C=0, M=0, Y=0, K=20
  • gray: C=60.59, M=51.57, Y=49.38, K=19.48
  • Pink: C=0, M=95, Y=20, K=0
  • Green: C=80, M=10, Y=45, K=0

Should you follow the tutorial yourself to create your own version of this, this tone of "gray" may not be exactly the result you get. The reason for the irregular tone of gray will be more apparent during this tutorial.


Step 1

Open the stock image in Photoshop and use the Crop Tool (C) to crop the image to the relevant composition you'd like. I've chosen to focus on the arms and face, as I feel the arms will help frame the portrait and guide the viewer's eyes around the piece.



Step 2

Drag and drop the "Background" layer onto the Create a New Layer icon in the layer palette to duplicate it.

I'm going to modify the contrast of the stock reference by using preset options in "Curves." Go to Image > Adjustments > Curves and select "Lighter" from the drop down menu, then click OK. Repeat this process with the "Linear Contrast" preset.

To change the image to grayscale go to Image > Adjustments > Black & White and select the preset "Green Filter" from the drop down menu. When using such presets, they emphasize the contrasting colors in the image, so a Green Filter will bring out the red tones. As a result, the shadow contours of the skin and the lips will be enhanced and easier to use as a guide when rendering the skin.



Step 3

Now that the reference image is in grayscale, I'm going to Save for Web & Devices at a width of 600 pixels.

In Illustrator, create a new portrait orientated document and then go to File > Place to put the reference image on the canvas. Using the Free Transform Tool (E), resize the image to the artboard. Double-click on the "Layer 1" layer folder and rename it "Reference," and click on OK. Lock the layer folder.

Create a New Layer and rename it "BG." Using the Rectangle Tool (M), draw a white filled rectangle over the canvas, and reduce the Opacity to 30%. Lock the layer folder. Create a New Layer and rename it "Bases."



Step 4

Until I say otherwise, the shapes drawn will use the light gray fill color. First of all create the skin base shapes.



Step 5

Create a New Layer and rename it "Shading." I'm going to begin adding the skin shading using a variety of Blending Modes and Opacities.

The first set of shapes are for the mid to dark shadows and tones in the skin, including detailing in the lips. I've duplicated the base skin shapes from the "Bases" layer folder and used Pathfinder > Minus Front to remove the highlighted areas of the skin to leave the darker areas of the skin.

Set these shapes to Blending Mode Multiply and Opacity 10%. Using Multiply Blending Mode will add a darker gray/black tone on top of the layers underneath - regardless of the tones underneath. Multiply is a good blending mode for adding shadow with a variety of colors, as it also retains the color of the original shape.




Step 6

Continue adding shapes for the mid to dark shadow areas, using the Blending Mode Multiply and Opacity at 10%.




Once done, Group the shapes from step 5 and 6 together (Command + G).



Step 7

Duplicate the skin base shape and place it on top of the group of shapes of skin shading in the "Shading" layer folder. Select them both and create a Clipping Mask (Command + 7).



Step 8

I'm going to add further shaded areas with the Blending Mode Color Burn and Opacity of 25%. The Blending Modes Color Burn and Color Dodge behave in a way to increase contrast of any shapes underneath. Color Burn will increase the darkest shapes underneath, while Color Dodge will increase the lighter shapes underneath. Placing shapes using Color Burn on top of Multiplied shapes will increase the shadow in the darker areas (where more shapes are overlapping) and not as much in the areas with not as many overlapping shapes.

Once the shapes have been drawn, Group them (Command + G) and drag and drop them into the Clipping Mask group.






Step 9

Begin adding shapes to add highlights to the skin. These shapes will be set to Blending Mode Screen and 10% Opacity. As Multiply adds gray/black tones to a piece, the Screen Blending Mode adds a whiter/lighter gray tone to the shapes underneath. With these in mind remember the difference with these Blending Modes:

  • Color Burn/Dodge: Increasing the contrast to lighten or darken areas. This will increase the saturation of the color(s) underneath.
  • Mulitply/Screen: Adds black/white tones to darken/lighten areas. This will decrease the saturation of the color(s) underneath.



Once done, Group the shapes (Command + G) and then drag and drop the group into the Clipping Mask.



Step 10

I'm going to add further detail and depth to the skin by adding smaller, darker shapes. These shapes will have the Blending Mode Color Burn and Opacity of 60%. Once complete, Group the shapes (Command + G) and then drag and drop the group into the Clipping Mask.






Step 11

As I've created more focused shapes on shadow, I want to add further highlighted areas, but with an increased Opacity as before. These will be set to Blending Mode Screen and 30% Opacity. Once completed the shapes will need to be Grouped (Command + G) and then drag and dropped into the Clipping Mask.




Step 12

Create a transparent linear gradient and add shapes to the portrait set to a Blending Mode of Multiply and 100% Opacity. This will help smooth the darker shadowed areas.



Once done, Group the shapes (Command + G) and put them into the Clipping Mask.



Step 13

Make sure all vector objects are visible and zoom into the piece by say 400-600%. Screenshot the work and Paste (Command + V) it into Photoshop. Using the Eyedropper Tool (I), select the darkest gray tone of the piece. I've chosen the darkest gray towards the top of the arm.


Go into the piece, and double-click on the color in the Color Palette to get the HEX code and then Copy (Command + C) this code. Go back into Illustrator, double-click on any of the colors in the palette and Paste (Command + V) the HEX code into the relevant box. Click on OK and then drag and drop this color into your Swatch Palette. This will be the irregular numbered gray tone as described in the introduction.

Create a New Layer above the "BG" layer folder. Double-click on the layer and rename it "BG1." Use the Rectangle Tool (M) to draw a rectangle over the artboard with the new gray shade.


When you preview it, you may see the edges of the other shapes; however, when you do Save for Web & Devices, you won't see this as shown below:



Step 14

Using the gray color I'm going to add solid to transparent Blends around the regions where the skin shading isn't as dark. This gives the appearance that the arms and face are coming out of the darkness.





Step 15

Some of the areas I feel could do with further gray shapes to increase the shape depth. As the arms and face are coming out of the shadows and by definition this area is the darkest, I'm going to avoid using any darkening Blending Modes such as Multiply and Color Burn. The shapes will be set to Blending Mode Normal and 60% Opacity. These shapes won't be including in the Clipping Mask (this goes for the previously created blends as well) because they need to be overlapped onto the skin and shadow.



Step 16

Create a New Layer above the "Shading" layer folder and rename it "Eyes." Whatever I do to one eye, repeat for the other. With the gray color, add shapes around the eye and for the iris, as shown below (set to Opacity 60%). Add a second shape with a lower Opacity of 30% to also give the impression of a shadow cast over the iris.



Step 17

Create a transparent radial gradient with the light gray shade. Add this to a hoop shape for the iris set to Blending Mode Screen and 40% Opacity.



Step 18

Using the same light gray gradient, add highlights to the eyeball, eyelid, brow bone and lower portion of the iris. Set these shapes to Blending Mode Screen and 50% Opacity.



Step 19

In order to draw the lashes, eyebrows and hair, you'll need to create the "Width Profile 1" brush from this tutorial.

Using the Paintbrush Tool (B), draw strokes for the upper eyelashes with the Stroke Weight of 0.5pt. Set these to Blending Mode Normal and 70% Opacity. Group them once complete (Command + G). Then draw strokes for the lower lashes with the same Stroke Weight and Blending Mode; however, change the Opacity to 50%. Again, Group them once complete (Command + G).



Step 20

Using a similar process, draw strokes for the eyebrows with a Stroke Weight of 1pt and Opacity of 20%.



Step 21

Using the light gray transparent radial gradient and the Ellipse Tool (L), draw circles for the reflections of light in the eyes. Set the Blending Mode to Color Dodge and Opacity at 100%.



Step 22

Create a New Layer above the "Eyes" layer folder and rename it "Hair." Use the Pen Tool (P) to ensure smooth curved lines, draw a guide to where you wish the hair to be styled.



Step 23

Using the hair guide, create base layer shapes for the sections of the hair. I've used a duplicate of the skin base shape to remove from the shapes around the face.


Fill the shapes with the light gray transparent radial gradient. Using the Gradient Tool (G), position the sources for the gradients in places where the hair will be more highlighted – away from the roots. Set these shapes to 30% Opacity.




Step 24

With the Paintbrush Tool (B), I'm going to draw strands of hair over the gradient bases. I'm using the Width Profile 1 brush, Stroke Weight 2pt, the light gray stroke color, and 30% Opacity. Group these strands (Command + G) for now.



Step 25

Using the same settings as Step 24, and with the Blending Mode set to Screen and 50% Opacity, add highlights to the hair.


Once done, Group the strands (Command + G).



Step 26

Duplicate the groups created in steps 24 and 25. Then go to Object > Expand twice until there is no stroke color and there is only a fill color. Then Unite the shapes using the Pathfinder tools. To ensure they are all one shape, create a Compound Path (Command + 8).


Create a pink to green linear gradient and fill the Compound Path.


Then set the Blending Mode to Hard Light and 50% Opacity.



Step 27

I'm going to build up on the colors in the gradient to make it more vibrant. First, I'm going to add green to the tips of the hair but using the Paintbrush Tool (B). Using the Width Profile 1 brush, add a Stroke Weight of 1pt and the Blending Mode Soft Light with 50% Opacity.



Step 28

Then use the pink color towards the top of the hair and add strands with the Blending Mode set to Screen at 50% Opacity.



Step 29

I'm going to bring out the color in the roots. It's more enhancing the color, rather than darkening it. In order to do this, I'll draw strokes that are on Blending Mode Overlay and 20% Opacity.




Step 30

Now add green strokes to the tips set to Blending Mode Hard Light and 20% Opacity.




Step 31

Duplicate the hair base shapes, the ones which have the light gray gradient applied to them, and drag and drop the group on top of the strokes. Change the fill color to the pink to green linear gradient. Use the Gradient Tool (G) to modify the direction of the gradient to ensure the pink is at the top of the shapes and the green is towards the bottom. Add two additional shapes to the wisp of hair on top and to the side.

Set the Blending Mode to Hue and 80% Opacity. You'll notice that this will add some blue tones where the gradient changes in the hair, which gives an illusion you've used more than four colors!




Step 32

Create a New Layer above the "Hair" layer folder and rename it "Front." Use the Rectangle Tool (M) to draw a gray rectangle over the artboard that is set to Blending Mode Color Burn and 20% Opacity. This will increase the contrast of the whole piece.


Now duplicate the rectangle and fill it with the green and change the Opacity to 10%. This will increase the contrast further, but also give a very subtle green hint.



Step 33

Create a pink transparent radial gradient, use this as a fill for a shape over the lips to give a pink tint to the lips. Change the Blending Mode to Darken and Opacity to 40%.



Step 34

Create a green transparent radial gradient, use this to fill shapes over the eyes to give a green tint. Change the Blending Mode to Darken and Opacity to 40%.



Step 35

Create a New Layer below the "Shading" layer folder and rename it "Tattoo." As the layer folder name suggests, I'm going to create a tattoo on the girl. The reason for placing it below the skin shading layer folder is so its form is shaded the same as the arm is shaded.

Use the Star Tool (from the shape tool options) to draw a star with a 1pt Stroke Weight with gray as the stroke color. Then use the Line Segment Tool (\) to divide the star up, crossing through the center. Set these lines to 2pt.



Step 36

Select all of the line art for the star and use the Live Paint Bucket (K) to fill the sections with pink and green.



Step 37

Select the Live Paint group and then expand the group. Group the gray line art together and then group the pink/green shapes (Command + G). Duplicate the group with the pink/green shapes and apply a gray transparent linear gradient. Use the Gradient Tool (G) to change the direction of the gradient.


Change the Blending Mode to Multiply and the Opacity to 40%. Group together all three elements (Command + G).



Step 38

Duplicate the star several times and place them around the arm. Use the Free Transform Tool (E) to resize and rotate the stars. Once completed, Group the stars (Command + G).



Step 39

Go into the "Bases" layer folder and duplicate the skin base. Draw a rectangle over the area with the stars. Use the Pathfinder tools to Intersect an area for the stars to be part of a Clipping Mask (Command + 7).



Step 40

Select the Clipping Mask and go to Object > Envelope Distort > Make with Warp and select the Fish shape from the drop down menu. Modify the settings as shown below to give the impression of the tattoo bending around the arm and being distorted by the muscle in the arm.


Reduce the Opacity of the Envelope Distort object to 50%. Then duplicate the object and change the Blending Mode to Lighten.



Step 41

Finally, go into the "Front" layer folder and use the Star Tool with the pink transparent radial gradient below the eye. Use the Free Transform Tool (E) to rotate and "squash" the shape to make it appear it is lying on the contour of the cheek.



Conclusion

By becoming familiar with the blending modes and how to use them, you can use a limited palette to create a stunning piece of vector art.


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