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How to Add Fur to Vector Animal Illustrations

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Vector drawings, particularly those of animals, have a tendency to look flat and stale. Adding fur to your animals can help to turn your drawing into a rich, textural piece without having to rely on Photoshop. This tutorial is geared towards intermediate to advanced Adobe CS3 Illustrator users.

Final Image Preview

Below is the final design we will be working towards. 

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Step 1 - Setting up Colors

First, we can want to set up a color palette that goes with our particular animal. If your animal is a rabbit, you might want creams and whites, a panther might require blacks and blues. Kuler is a great resource when setting up colors. You are going to want four to six different shades and tints of a similar color.

In this tutorial, I am going to be working on a teddy bear and will use six browns in the default Illustrator palette. From two of the mid-range tones create a base gradient. Click the New Swatch icon at the bottom of the swatch library to save this gradient.

setting up a color palette

Step 2 - Drawing Your Animal

We need an animal to work on. You can either draw your own, or you can place this picture into your file and use it as use it as a reference guide. If you choose to draw your own animal, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Whenever possible try to keep to the simplest shapes possible. The simpler the shape the easier it will be to have the fur lay in the right direction.
  • Create each part of your animal on a separate layer. This will make for much easier and faster working. Since we are going to be creating hundreds of thousands of lines it can cause Illustrator to run slowly if you don’t turn off the visibility of the layers that you have already completed.
  • You can apply your base gradient to each piece as you go. Don't worry about whether the gradient is radial or linear just yet. We will adjust it later.
  • I would hold off on animals with stripes and spots for your first try using this technique. Although not impossible, they will require a lot more work. Better to get the basics down first.

Below is the animal I am starting with. I drew this bear using the circle tool for the head, eyes, and feet pads and the Pen tool for the rest. I made sure to put each part of the bear parts on it's own layer.

Step 3 - Adding the Fur Overview

To add fur to the animal we are first going to create a custom brush that is composed of many small lines (to create the actual fur hairs). Next, we'll take each section of the animal, duplicate it, and use techniques to create lines through the shapes. Then we'll apply the fur brush. Lastly we are going to layer the fur-i-fied shapes to create the warm, fuzzy, cuddle-licious animal we are after. The final design shows the bear once the fur has been added.

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Step 4 - Creating the Fur Lines

Using the Line tool draw a horizontal line. Draw it off to the side or off the artboard, somewhere it won't be in the way. The line doesn't need to be very long. About 100px will do. Let's call this the skin line. It will only be used temporarily as a guide for drawing the fur.

Still using the Line tool, draw twenty to thirty smaller lines perpendicular to the skin line. Use primarily the midtones from your chosen five colors - throwing in a very dark line and a very light line here and there.

Tilt a few of the hairs about 5-10 degrees right and left. Have a few of the lines start a little above the skin line and a few start a little under it. This will give depth to your fur. Make sure that the left most and right most lines are straight up and down and that none of the tilted lines extend beyond them (this will keep there from being huge gaps in our fur once we make a brush). You should have something that looks like the image below.

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Step 5 - Creating the Fur Brush

Take note of where the it says Scale. We are going to have to adjust this later. The percent we change it to will be determined by how thick we want the fur to be and how large our fur was when we originally dragged it into the brush palette. For now you can leave it at 100%.

You can now delete that little patch of hair in the corner. Although I would suggest keeping it around until after you see your fur brush in action. You may want to make adjustments to the way the hairs are laid out and it is easier to do it to that existing patch then it is to have to make a whole new one.

The longer you make your vertical lines the longer the fur will be. Once you are satisfied, you can delete the skin line. Select the whole patch of hairs. Use the bounding box to shrink them down as a group. The total length of the hairs should be no more than 50px. It doesn't matter if it is the exact size because that can be adjusted once we apply it to the animal, but it helps if it is a little bit smaller to start.

With the fur patch still selected drag the entire group of hairs into the brushes palette. A dialog box will pop up. Choose New Pattern Brush and press OK. On the next dialog box change the Method under Colorization to Tints and Shades. This will make our fur transform to the color of the line we apply it to.

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Step 6 - Copying the Object and Setting the Gradient

Click to select the head of the teddy bear (or the most basic shape in your animal’s body.) The bear’s head is a simple circle so it will be an easy place to start applying fur. I would suggest locking all of the other layers at this point except for the one you are working on.

With the head selected go to Edit > Copy, then Edit > Paste. Drag the second circle off to the side, as we won’t be using it right away. On the first instance of the shape (the one that is still in place) adjust the base gradient so that the direction of the gradient’s color lines up with the direction you want the animals fur to lay. On a teddy bear, fur would flow from the nose area towards the back of the head. A radial gradient will work well here. Our gradient is already radial so we don't have to change anything.

setting up a color palette

Step 6 - Expanding the Object

With the same object still selected go to Object > Expand. A dialog box will pop up asking you whether you want to expand the object to a gradient mesh or to a specific number of objects. Click the option Specify. This is where it can get a little tricky and you may have to try a number, then undo it several times to find the right amount.

What you are looking for is the number that will give you lines that are spaced about the same distance as the length you want the fur to be. For my bear's head, this number is 45. If the circles come out too tightly or loosely spaced, then go to Edit > Undo Expand Object, and try Object > Expand using a different number.

setting up a color palette

Step 7 - A Visual Guide to Object Expansion

Below is a quick guide to achieve ideal spacing for object expansion.

setting up a color palette

Step 8 - Applying the First Fur Brush

Once you have found spacing that works well you are ready to start applying the base coat of fur. With the object still selected, change the line color to a mid to dark color from your palette. We are making a base fur now, so darker colors will add depth to your fur. Then go to your brush palette and click on the fur brush that we created earlier. Yeah! We have fur!

setting up a color palette

Step 9 - A Visual Guide to Brush Scaling

Does your fur look okay? At this point you may need to adjust the scale of your fur brush. If your fur looks clunky, then it may be too big. Double-click on the fur brush in the Brush palette to open the dialog box. Try dropping down the scale by 25%. If it looks like there are rings of circles on your bears face, then your fur is too small, try upping the scale by 25%.

Play around until you find the perfect combination for your animal. Click OK, and another dialog box will pop up, then click the Apply To Existing Strokes button.

Note that if you want to add extra depth to your bear, you can add a drop shadow to this base fur object by going to Effects > Stylize > Drop Shadow. I recommend an Opacity of around 40% and a Blur of 3 pixels.

setting up a color palette

Step 10 - Setting up the Blend

Click on the copy of the head that you made earlier. Remove the fill color and change the line color to your darkest tone. Now in the center of that circle draw another very tiny circle and set it’s line color to the lightest tone in your set. Make sure it has no fill color applied to it. With both circles selected go to Object > Blend > Blend Options…

A dialog box will pop up. Select Specified Steps. This means that Illustrator will take our first object and transform it into our second object over a certain number of steps. Again we are looking for the number that will produce lines that are about as far apart as the length of our fur. 15 is going to be about right for this head. Click OK.

Nothing happened right? Well that is because we just set up the options for the blend. With both objects still selected go back to Object > Blend > and this time choose Make. If your circles are too tight, or too loose, you can go to Object >Blend >Options and edit the number of specified steps. You should end up with something like the image below.

setting up a color palette

Step 11 - Adding and Positioning Highlight Layer

Click on your brush palette and apply the fur brush to the rings. Drag this layer of fur so that it sits directly on top of the other layer of fur. You can use the white arrow to adjust the position of the center circle. I moved mine so that it sitting almost directly behind the bears nose. Tada! Look how much more alive the little bear already looks!

setting up a color palette

Step 12 - Applying These Steps to Other Body Parts

Now we have to go and apply these same steps to each part of the bear you want to be furry.

With the First Objects

  1. Copy the shape and move one copy to the side.
  2. Apply a gradient in the direction you want the fur to lay. If you are stumped, try and think about the direction that you would pet the animal on that part of their body. Adjust the type and angle of the gradient to fit this.
  3. setting up a color palette
  4. Expand Object—Try and get the lines to be about as far apart as the length of your fur. Larger body parts will need higher numbers. Smaller parts will need smaller numbers. The ears only needed to be expanded to 12 objects because they are so small.
  5. setting up a color palette
  6. Make line color one of the darker tones from your fur color palette.
  7. Apply the fur brush—your brush’s scale shouldn't need to be adjusted again.
  8. Go to Effects > Stylize > Drop Shadow to add extra depth.

With the Second Objects

  1. Remove fill and make the line the darkest tone you have.
  2. Make a small circle, line, or simple shape inside of the object in the place you would like the highlighted fur to be. Make sure it has no fill and that it’s line is a lighter (if not the lightest color).
  3. Select both lined shapes and go to Object > Blend > Make.
  4. Go to Object > Blend > Blend Options… and adjust the blend until you have lines that are spaced about as far apart as the length of your fur. Some complicated shapes might require that you make more than one fur blend in order to get the coverage that you want. Some shapes work better if you cut them into smaller simpler pieces. The arms of this bear are by far the most complicated shape in his structure. In order to get the fur to apply properly, I had to not only break the copy of the shape down into smaller bits, but I had to add an extra layer of fur as well.
  5. setting up a color palette
  6. Apply the fur brush.
  7. Drag the object so it sits directly on top of the first object.
  8. Use the white arrow to adjust the position, size, and shape of the inner blend shape until you are satisfied with the way the fur is layered.

Step 13 - Add Accents to the Design

If you want things to look like they are embedded in the fur (like the inside part of the bear's ears, his feet pads, and his eyes and snout. Select the shapes and apply your fur brush. If you need to adjust the length and size of the fur on a single line or shape, you can do it by adjusting the stroke size in the stroke pallet (for instance around the eyes you may want a much thinner fur line).

You can add extra decoration to your animal as well. I drew on a bow, but I think a candy cane could have been nice too. You can put your bear on any sort of background or just bask in his super cuddle-ability.

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Conclusion

This technique doesn't have to stop at fur either. Fur is just the beginning. You can make custom brushes and apply them to expanded gradients for all sorts of things: grass on a hill, bricks on a house, chain-linked fences, leaves on a bush, wallpaper patterns, rugs and carpets… the possibilities are endless!

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