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From Editor to Zombie: Create an Undead Portrait From a Photo in Illustrator

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One of the pleasures of being able to create vector portraits, is you get a chance to vector those you know. Of course when Halloween comes around, it's fun to choose your victim and then mess them up a bit. In this tutorial, I'll be using a reference image and turning our victim into a zombie in Adobe Illustrator. I'll give you some tips on how you can do the same to your family and friends, so you can do the same!


1. Choose Your Zombie Victim

Our victim for this portrait is Ian Yates, who is the Web Design Editor on Tuts+. After joking around that I needed a photograph of him as a reference, he took a quick one from his web-cam. All I required was a photo of him facing straight on. He took the photo first thing in the morning, so a tired appearance will work in my favor for this project.

As you can see from the below image, it's a little dark and full of noise. Although the final portrait isn't going to look exactly like him, I do want to preserve some of his key features to make sure people can identify him straight away. The key features I've decided to maintain are the hair, the facial hair and face shape.

Zombie Tutorial

I've then brought the image into Adobe Photoshop and modified the contrast and cropped the image so it's easier to work from in Adobe Illustrator. With the image modified, it's time to jump into Illustrator.

Zombie Tutorial

2. Create Your Sketch

Step 1

I'm going to start by creating a New document in Illustrator. File > Place your reference image and position it on your Artboard. I've then set up my layers as shown below. Within the "BG" layer, there is a Rectangle (M) filled with white set to 50% Opacity. I've used this to dim the reference image, but also so I can hide/unhide when I need to see the image more clearly.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 2

I'm going to use the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B) to sketch over the reference. First, I'll double-click on the icon in the Tool panel to access the Blob Brush Tool Options window and modify the Size and Variation of the brush and for it to be determined by Pressure. This is so I'll get the full benefit of using my tablet when I'm sketching.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 3

Now it's time to sketch away over your reference. As previously mentioned, I intend on keeping the hair, facial hair and the face shape... everything else can be modified. Although I may not pick up on everything I've drawn, it helps to sketch your concept as it exercises your creative muscles and gives you a modified reference to work with.

The key feature I want to add is a more weathered look to the face. He's going to be a walking corpse, so his skin will be dried up and therefore pucker to create more creases and wrinkles. I want to give him a look of being "dead in the eyes", so what better than to remove his iris and pupils, so he has plain eyeballs. Let's take that a step further and put a tear in the skin near his eyeball. Then there will be slight changes in this clothing and possibly some blood here and there.

Zombie Tutorial

Hide your reference image and see what you're left with. Does the sketch you've created look like the person you're making a zombie? I think so in this case, so I'm going to plod ahead with rendering.

Zombie Tutorial

3. Render the Skin

Step 1

Zombie's don't traditionally have your everyday skin tones, however it's much easier to trace from a reference image using everyday skin tones first and then modify them later on. By doing it this way, you can still identify what colors you need to use for each area, for shadows or highlights.

So let's start off by drawing the base shape for the skin with the Pen Tool (P).

Zombie Tutorial

Step 2

The difficulty in creating extra creases in the skin is making sure you have the correct placement of highlights and shadows in order for it to look cohesive. So before you start adding your shapes for skin shading, identify where your light source is. From there you can begin to add you skin shading shapes. Use your reference image to get a general idea to where the light is coming from and use this as a guide.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 3

Begin to draw your skin shading shapes. You can use the Pen Tool (P) or if you've got a tablet, you may find it quicker to use the Pencil Tool (N). I've used the Pencil Tool (N) with a grey-brown fill set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 10%. Don't worry about your shapes being messy, in fact it will be a good idea to not be so precise. Remember that your zombie needs to look rough... when is the last time your saw model-worthy, smooth skin on a zombie?

Zombie Tutorial

Step 4

I've modified the tones in the skin using the Recolor Artwork function to create a more grey skin tone. I'm going to continue adding more shading and this time focusing on adding darker shapes around where the facial hair is. Even though there is hair in this area, drawing rough shapes around the chin and jaw will help when it comes to drawing the individual hairs.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 5

Group together all your skin shading shapes (Control-G) and then duplicate the skin base. Select both, with the skin base on top of the group and create a Clipping Mask (Control-7). This will hide all the overlapping areas.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 6

Time to add deeper shadows, using a darker skin tone. Draw them as you did previously and then add them to the clipping mask group.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 7

Create a transparent radial gradient with a light stone-grey shade and use this to create the highlights in the skin. Give special attention to the lumps and bumps in the face. Set these shapes to Blending Mode Screen and modify the Opacity as you see fit.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 8

To balance out the highlights, add your even deeper shadows. Bring out the creases and wrinkles in the skin, then Group up your shapes and move them to the clipping mask group.

Zombie Tutorial

4. Create the Lifeless Eyes

Step 1

Create an even circle using the Ellipse Tool (L) for one of the eyeballs and then duplicate and place it for your second eye.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 2

As the eyelids will be overlapping the eyeballs, you'll need to create shapes where the eyeballs will be visible. Use these shapes to then create a Clipping Mask (Control-7).

Zombie Tutorial

Step 3

I've then used the Appearance panel to create an eerie effect, using gradients and a variety of Blending Modes and Opacities. I want the eyes to have a blue-green look, but still give them a 3D appearance by using radial gradients.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 4

With the Pencil Tool (N), add shapes inside and around the eyes to create blooded eyes. After all, Ian's had his eyeball torn at, there would be blood right? Set these shapes to Blending Mode Multiply.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 5

As you can't really apply the same Appearance to both eyeballs, due to different amounts of skin covering them, you'll need to modify each eyeball to show shadow cast on the eyes. I've used a black transparent radial gradient for this.

Zombie Tutorial

5. Mess That Skin Up!

Step 1

The skin is a little too clean for someone who is a walking corpse. Time to add more blood and darken areas around the eyes, mouth and neck. Remember to use a red fill to bring out those gory tones!

Zombie Tutorial

Step 2

Select all of your skin shading shapes and then go into Recolor Artwork. Play around with the settings to create a more rotting corpse look. I've decided to make the darker shapes more green and the highlights a hint of yellow. These tones match the colors in the eyeballs a lot better don't you think?

Zombie Tutorial

Step 3

I've then drawn a Rectangle (M) in the background and use a yellow-green radial gradient behind our zombie.

Zombie Tutorial

6. Render the Hair

Step 1

I want to keep the hairstyle as true as possible to Ian's normal hairdo. In all photos you see of him, he has the same quiff of hair. By keeping this feature, you should be able to associate him more with the portrait.

I've drawn a rough off-black shape behind all the skin shading for the hair base, using the Pencil Tool (N).

Zombie Tutorial

Step 2

I've used one of my Width Profile Brushes from a previous tutorial (Width Profile 1) to draw the strands of hair. Include in this the facial hair, eyebrows and hair.

Zombie Tutorial

I've set these strokes to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 20% and built up the hair to create a solid mass of spiky hair.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 3

Then add some strokes to add texture to the hair, with a lime green color, set to Blending Mode Screen, Opacity 15%. Remember to add these strokes to all areas of hair.

Zombie Tutorial

7. Refine Your Zombie

Step 1

Time to add smaller details to our zombie.

First I'm going to add highlights to the skin flaps around the eyes. This will help prevent them from looking too flat.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 2

Using a default Adobe Illustrator Art Brush, "Splash", I've added strokes over the face to create a more rotted flesh look. This also helps create a more dirty skin look. Set these strokes to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 10%, with an off-black stroke color.

Remember to add these strokes into the skin shading clipping mask.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 3

At the moment, we've got a bit of a floating head situation. Although that sort of theme isn't entirely a bizarre one for Halloween, it's not often you see a floating zombie head. So let's give Ian a body.

I've roughly drawn in a t-shirt, remembering to add a torn collar. I've given the shape a fill similar to the darkest color in the background. This is so it looks like he's stepping into the light, from the darkness of death... mwahahaha!

Zombie Tutorial

Step 4

Grab your Pencil Tool (N) and then start drawing shading on the shirt. I've used an off-black fill and set the shapes to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 5%.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 5

Continue adding shapes for the shadows, paying attention to the light source. Then Group these shapes and add them to a Clipping Mask of the t-shirt base shape.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 6

Use a lighter shade in a transparent radial gradient to add highlights and texture to the t-shirt. Set these to Blending Mode Screen, Opacity 10% and then add them to the clipping mask.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 7

Use your "Splash" art brush to then add blood stains all over the shirt.

Zombie Tutorial

8. Create the Background and Finishing Touches

Step 1

The background is looking a little boring. So let's give our zombie a hoard of undead. Here's a little cheat though... I purchased these silhouettes from GraphicRiver and modified their fill and Opacities. I then layered them behind to create the impression of a zombie hoard.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 2

I want to add a subtle vignette effect so I've drawn a Rectangle (M) over the top of the composition. I've then filled it with a black to white radial gradient. Using the Gradient Tool (G), I've positioned the source of the gradient above the head of Ian. This has then been set to Blending Mode Multiply.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 3

The outlines to the hoard are a little too sharp, so I've added a subtle Outer Glow effect to each group of silhouettes.

Zombie Tutorial

Step 4

Only one more thing to change. For a torn t-shirt collar, that is looking a bit too clean. Use your "Width Profile 1" brush to add ripped fibers to the edge of the collar... and that will be your zombie complete.

Zombie Tutorial

The Zombies Are Coming!

Making zombies from photos of people can be an easy task. There is a wide margin of error, as the aim is to make your portrait as messed up as you want. Why not try making a zombie from your friends and family?

Zombie Tutorial