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How to Create a Neon, Stylized, 60's Inspired Portrait in Illustrator

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Turn out the lights and turn on the black light where neon shapes pop from fuzzy posters and the psychedelic fashion scene of the 1960's is alive once more. Join me in Adobe Illustrator, where we'll use the Gradient Tool, Pucker & Bloat Effects, and manipulate shapes to indicate a fuller composition within our picture plane. It'll be bright, fun, and down right retro.


1. Prepare your Artwork

Step 1

Open up a New File in Illustrator measuring 7 inches by 10 inches, or so (I like the ratio of this size). Draw a rectangle of the same size with the Rectangle Tool (M). I've used the Paintbrush Tool (P) to quickly sketch out my composition. The main idea of this one being round face, long neck, giant eyes, and flowers in the hair. Group (Control-G) together your sketch and let's move on.

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Step 2

For the palette of this piece, I'm going a bit basic: Visibone2 found in the Swatches panel library. It's a program default and contains a lot of super bright, retina-burning colors. Perfect for this tutorial.

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2. Build the Head and Body

Step 1

The head is very simple. Draw it with the Rounded Rectangle Tool with a 5 inch radius (if the size of the shape is smaller or larger, your radius may be different) so it's quite rounded, but not an ellipse.

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Step 2

Use the Rectangle Tool to draw a thin rectangle for the neck. Manipulate the corner anchor points with the Direct Selection Tool so the neck curves outward at the top and bottom and inward at the center. you may need to use the Convert Anchor Point Tool (Shift-C) so the anchor points have two handles each.

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Step 3

For the shoulders and a bit of the chest, I started with a rounded rectangle (the radius was around 0.5 inches) that was placed below the neck. Play with the handles of the anchor points on the top and bottom edges by bringing them toward the center and the top ones upwards so you get a vase-like shape. Unite the neck and shoulder/chest shape in the Pathfinder panel.

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3. Customize the Body

Step 1

Use the Gradient Tool (G) to apply a linear gradient going from black to whatever bright color you've chosen as your character's skin tone. Concentrate the darker color at the top of the neck so there's a shadow between it and the head. Adjust the angle in the Gradient panel.

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Step 2

Bisect the body shape with a rectangle. Select both shapes and hit Minus Front in Pathfinder.

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Step 3

Copy (Control-C) and Paste (Control-V) the body half and Reflect the new shape over a Vertical axis.

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Step 4

Place the new shape next to its other half, below the head shape in the Layers panel, and slightly lower down as seen below. Apply the same gradient from the body pieces to the head.

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4. Build the Eyes

Step 1

Draw a circle with the Ellipse Tool (L). Pull the right anchor point with the Direct Selection Tool and change it into a point with the Convert Anchor Point Tool. Rotate slightly (to your liking) and Copy, Paste, and Reflect for the other eye. Move them around the head to your liking.

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Step 2

I like to build up layered details on the eyes. For some of the lashes and eye line detail, use the Pen Tool (P) to create a thin, curved sliver. Copy and Paste this shape a couple times and rotate it a bit so there's three layered shapes.

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Step 3

Copy and Paste the outer eye shape, Scale it down and apply whatever color you want the insides of your character's eyes to be. For the shadow behind the eye, draw a large, fan-like shape with the Pen Tool, apply a linear gradient going from black at 0% Opacity to 100% Opacity (in the Gradient panel) and place it behind the eye in the Layers panel. Copy and Paste the inside of the eye and apply the same gradient from the eye shadow shape. This will be placed over the eye details to create some depth later.

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5. Add Eye Details

Step 1

Draw curved shapes that have sharp corner edges. Layer them on top of each other to create depth in the eye and additional details in the eye. For the base of the iris, draw a circle with the Ellipse Tool and select the inner eye. Using the Shape Builder Tool (Shift-M), select the portion of the black circle that does not intersect with the pink inner eye. Deselect and Delete this extraneous shape.

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Step 2

Repeat Step 1 from this section for the blue and yellow portions of the iris. Make sure each circle is smaller than the last. Repeat these steps for the right eye.

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Step 3

Move the inner eye gradient shape from Step 1 over the iris shapes in the Layers panel. Draw additional gradient shapes within the eye to create depth. For the pupil, draw a circle, again with the 0% Opacity black to 100% Opacity black linear gradient applied. Draw a black star with the Star Tool and add the Round Corners effect to it with a radius of 0.07 inches. Expand the rounded star under Object and Delete non-intersecting shapes from the pink inner eye shape.

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6. Add Eyelashes and Eyebrows

Step 1

For the colorful eyelash shape, see how I built it below. I drew it with the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B), starting with the curved base and drawing little scallops above and around, each smaller than the last. Play with the size, roundness, and length of these feather-like shapes.

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Step 2

The eyelash shapes I've added are as follows: pink feather-like shape with a black to black gradient shape on top of it, rounded rectangles on the bottom edge, and a pink curved shape lining the bottom lash line. The star in the eye was Copied, Pasted, and changed from a black fill color to a light yellow stroke. I also changed the inner eye color to a light grey.

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Step 3

For the eyebrows, I drew a stroked, curved line with the Pen Tool and applied a Dash of 1pt and Gap of 7pts.

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Step 4

Copy and Paste a couple instances of the eyebrow and Group them together.

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7. Add the Mouth

Step 1

The build-up of the mouth of broken down below.

  1. The first three parts are sketched out with the Blob Brush Tool as a guide. Two curved carrot-shapes are connected by a downward-curving half circle.
  2. The bottom lip curves upward and connects the other sides of the mouth corners.
  3. Inside the mouth are the teeth and tongue (gap in tooth optional).
  4. Let's build the mouth with shapes! Or shape, rather. Draw an ellipse with the Ellipse Tool.
  5. Convert the side anchor points (with the Convert Anchor Point Tool) to curves.
  6. Manipulate the side anchor points with the Direct Selection Tool so the bottom curves inward.
  7. Repeat on the other side.
  8. Rotate the mouth around so its shape is just like part 3 of this list.
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Step 2

Let's add details to the mouth.

  1. Draw a hot pink ellipse overlapping the mouth.
  2. Delete the non-intersecting part of the tongue from the mouth using the Shape Builder Tool.
  3. Repeat with light grey for the teeth. Draw an ellipse.
  4. Delete it from the mouth.
  5. Scale each down a bit so they fit better inside the mouth.
  6. Draw a triangle with either the Pen Tool or the Polygon Tool and Delete it from the teeth using either the Shape Builder Tool or Minus Front in Pathfinder.

Draw a bottom lip in light pink and a top lip in black if you so choose.

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8. Add the Body Details

Step 1

Let's work on some body details. Draw an ellipse overlapping the neck. Layer three of them on top of each other, each with slightly harsher gradients than the last. You'll be using the same 0% Opacity Black to 100% Opacity Black linear gradient from the eye details. Delete the components of the ellipses that do not intersect with the neck/body shapes using the Shape Builder Tool as demonstrated in Section 5, Step 1.

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Step 2

For the brightly colored cheeks, draw three circles with a linear gradient going from Hot Pink at 100% Opacity to Bright Blue (or whatever your skin tone is) at 0% Opacity as defined in the Gradient panel. Layer the progressively transparent circles (alter a shape's overall opacity in the Transparency panel) and delete them from the face with the Shape Builder Tool.

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Step 3

Change various face detail colors as you see fit. In this case, the light pink lashes were changed to hot pink, blush was added on both sides of the face, and the colors in the eyes were changed a couple times through the last few sections. A gradient shadow shape was also drawn over the teeth to add depth to the mouth.

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Step 4

The nose is fairly simple. Draw two circles and align them in the center of the face. Like the eyes, pull the anchor points on the center sides of each and convert them to harsh points so you have two little tear drops in the center of the face.

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Step 5

Finally, additional lash details were drawn with the Pen Tool and the linear gradient seen below was applied. Feel free to layer up more shapes, colors, and gradients to create interesting, detailed eyes.

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9. Build the Flowers

Step 1

Now that our character's face is complete, let's move onto her headpiece. The flowers in this design began as simple geometric shapes. Use the Star Tool, Ellipse Tool, and Polygon Tool to create an array of simple shapes.

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Step 2

Select each polygon and apply various effects to create fun star burst and flower styles to them. To create star bursts, apply the Zig Zag effect to circles. For flowers, apply the Bloat effect to polygons. For sparkle shapes, apply the Pucker effect to circles. The initial polygon shape and the options you apply will determine the kind of headpiece shapes you'll create.

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Step 3

When satisfied with the various shapes you've created, Expand your new shapes in Object and get ready to build the headpiece.

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10. Create the Headpiece

Step 1

Apply radial gradients going from a bright, neon color at 100% Opacity to 0% Opacity black to the flower shapes and keep star burst shapes as a simple bright fill color. Layer multiple shapes and colors on either side of the head.

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Step 2

For an example of one of the flower gradients see the Gradient panel below.

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Step 3

For the flowers going across the head, I applied radial gradients going from bright teal at 100% Opacity to 0% Opacity bright blue (or whatever your skin tone is). Copy, Paste, and Resize flower shapes around the head. If they overlap the head, make sure the transparent color is the skin tone. If they overlap the background, make sure the flower's color is fading to black.

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Step 4

Like a collection of glittery flowers and fireworks, her headpiece is complete. Group the flowers and such together. Let's move on to the hair.

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11. Create the Hair

Step 1

Like many other features of this design, I started by sketching out the hair with the Blob Brush Tool. Her hair will be compiled into five sections. Each is the same gradient as the body's shadow details: 0% Opacity black to 100% Opacity black.

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Step 2

Concentrate the opaque black to the top of the head so the hair and head fade into the background.

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Step 3

Play with the Blend Tool (W) to add hair shapes by selecting adjacent hair pieces and playing with the Blend Tool's options.

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Step 4

You can specify how many steps occur between shapes, if the blend is specified by smoothing the color between the two, or even a specific distance. Doing so can create interesting hairstyles for this piece, as well as other features (eyelashes, headpiece sections, etc).

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Step 5

When you're satisfied with the overlapping hair sections, Expand the blended shapes so you have complete pieces.

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Step 6

Group the hair together. Place it beneath the headpiece group in the Layers panel.

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12. Add Earrings, Sparkles, and Ears

Step 1

This character needs some funky earrings to go along with her headpiece. Layer up basic polygons with linear gradients applied, similar to those used in the flowers. In this case, draw a circle with the Ellipse Tool and another, smaller one, inside of it. In Pathfinder, hit Minus Front. Copy, Paste, and change the gradient color to layer up three of these for her earrings.

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Step 2

For some additional sparkles in the headpiece, on earrings, on the face, etc, draw a small circle and apply the Pucker effect to it at 88%. Expand in Object and Copy and Paste around your composition.

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Step 3

The ear is drawn the same way the eyes were. Start with a circle, pull the lower anchor point down with the Direct Selection Tool, and squish the ear a bit with the Selection Tool (A). Place the ear behind the head in the Layers panel.

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Step 4

Place the earrings over the face, near the earlobe.

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13. Add Hands and Heart

Step 1

I don't like to get terribly detailed when drawing hands for pieces stylized in this manner. The hand is broken down below:

  1. Using the Pen Tool, concentrate on the side of the palm and the pinky.
  2. Then focus on the thumb and other side of the palm.
  3. The other three finders were separate shapes Copied and Pasted, and United in Pathfinder.

In terms of proportions, the pinky is the smallest finger, the pointer and ring finger are around the same size, and the middle finger is the largest. While the thumb is the thickest, it's also lower than all of the fingers.

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Step 2

Now let's focus on how adding linear gradients to these hand shapes effects the look of the hand.

  1. The thumb's gradient starts with the lighter color at the top and darker color at the bottom.
  2. The pinky shape's gradient concentrates the brighter color at the tip of the pinky and is angled with the use of the Gradient Tool in accordance with the angle of the shape itself.
  3. The rest of the hand is behind the other two pieces and the gradient's lighter color is concentrated at the top. It's more gradual than the other pieces (see below).
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Step 3

For a final touch, I'm adding a heart to the body. Draw a circle, pull the bottom-most anchor point down and inward a bit. Convert it to a point. Copy, Paste, and Reflect over a Vertical Axis so you've formed a heart. Place on the body.

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Groovy Baby!

Voila! You've used the negative space of your piece in conjunction with gradients to let a stylized portrait fade in and out of view. It's vivid, fun, and shows just how little information is necessary sometimes when creating dynamic compositions within a vector piece in Illustrator.

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