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How to Create a Painted Vector Effect in Adobe Illustrator

by
Gift

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In this tutorial we are going to take a look at using the Paintbrush Tool and its options to achieve a painted effect with vector in Adobe Illustrator. I will be using it on one of my characters and we will focus on her only, not the background. What is nice about this technique is that you can apply it on anything and it is quite simple. So even if you aren't that advanced yet, you should have no difficulty using the Paintbrush Tool in this manner.


Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used in this tutorial:


1. Create the Sketch, Line Art and Flat Colors

Step 1

For many of my drawings I use reference images to make sure I get the anatomy and perspective on things correct. Using Poser for the character and the tank (as Poser has a tank model available in its library) reference and I looked around Photodune to find reference images of a desert and some palm trees.

I have explained in a previous tutorial on how I create reference images in Poser, so if you are interested in finding out for yourself, please be sure to check out my Superhero Tutorial.

Painting with Vector
Reference images for the illustration.

Step 2

After I having put together the reference images in Adobe Photoshop, I then used it to draw my sketch. This illustration is a scene from a book, so following the book's description of the character and the scene, I drew out how I imagined it.

Before moving on to Adobe Illustrator, consider working out the light source. If you have that in place, you won't need to figure it out whilst picking colors and sorting out contrast and atmosphere.

Painting with Vector
Sketch of the illustration.

Step 3

Now that the sketch is ready we can start in Adobe Illustrator. Create a New file by going to File > New and once it is open, we want to place the sketch in the AI document. Go to File > Place and continue to place the sketch on the artboard.

After having resized it to fit to the artboard, we want to lower the opacity of the Sketch's layer so it doesn't hinder us when drawing the line art. I have lowered the Opacity of the sketch layer to 50%.

Painting with Vector
Opacity setting of the sketch layer in the AI document.

Step 4

I have written about how I create line art and how I apply flat colors under the line art via Live Paint before in How to Create a Detailed Fantasy Scene, so instead of repeating myself in this tutorial, you may take a look at it if you're interested or simply continue straight on to the painted effect.

Painting with Vector
Final look of the line art.
Painting with Vector
Final look of the line art with flat colors.

Step 5

Before we start painting though, we will make some adjustments to the line art to help us enhance the shading and highlighting we will be applying later on. This is a personal preference, so not necessarily the way to do it and you may of course keep the line art one color alone and work onwards from there. But I find that one colored line art, either black or usually a dark brown in my case, tends to become omnipresent in the illustration when shading it in a painted look. While we aren't going to try and make the line art disappear, we do want it to be subtle so the shading can take the focal point.

So for this illustration we are going to apply color-holds, which is a technique where the line art is a color rather than black. In this case I waited until I had put in the flat colors to know which colors to use for the color-holds You'll notice that each area is of a different color now and each is a slightly darker shade of the flat fill color underneath the line art.

Painting with Vector

Line art with applied color-holds

Step 6

After having completed the color change in the line art, I set the layer containing the line art to Blending Mode Multiply and locked it. As you can see, the line art is now still present but not quite as obvious as it was when it was still entirely brown!

Painting with Vector

Line art with color-holds and flat colors underneath.

2. Create a Sharp Edged Shadow

Before we start with the Paintbrush Tool, we want to define the light source on the character so that we have something to work with when we start painting. Since I decided on a light source whilst creating the sketch, I simply used that as a reference to create a sharp edged, black shadow on top of the character by using the Pen Tool (P) and Pencil Tool (N). You can see in the screenshot that when drawing over the character in solid black it can look a mess, but don't worry about it because once you have applied the shapes, we want to select them all, set the Blending Mode to Multiply and lower the Opacity somewhere between 40 and 50%.

Painting with Vector
Image on the left shows the sharp edged shade without Blending Mode and the image on the right shows the sharp edged shade with Blending Mode set to Multiply and lowered opacity.

3. Change Your Paintbrush and Blend Settings

Step 1

The settings for the Paintbrush Tool (B) (a comprehensive guide: Paintbrush Tool and Brush Panel) are very similar when it comes to the shading and highlighting. The only difference between them would be the Blending Mode.

The Brush I picked to use throughout the entirety of the illustration is from a brush collection I bought on GraphicRiver called Easy Hair Brushes by ChewedKandi. There is a brush in that collection that has a shape I like very much, so I use it all the time. It is the second "Easy Brush" in the collection, the ends of the shape thin out into points.

When it comes to the Blending Mode there is an important point to consider. You want to set the brush up with a Blending Mode, not the layer you are going to paint in. If you were to set the layer to the Blending Mode, whenever you'd draw the strokes on the area you wish to shade or highlight, the strokes would turn into the same color. Whereas if you set the brush up with the Blending Mode, the strokes overlap onto each other and each stroke will blend with the next one.

After having selected the Paintbrush Tool (B) and chosen your brush, we want to set the Blending Mode to Color Burn and the Opacity somewhere between 10 and 20%. The reason I have it at such a low Opacity is because it will 'force' you to keep creating strokes until you achieve the wanted darkness of contrast. That same reason applies on the highlighting. The only thing that is different is that the Blending Mode for highlights will be set on Color Dodge.

Painting with Vector
The Paintbrush Tool settings for the shading on the left and the settings for the highlights on the right.

Step 2

The second tool that we will be using to paint with vector is Blends (a comprehensive guide: Blend Tool). Similar to the Paintbrush Tool (B) settings, the Blends used for the shadow areas will be of a black color set at Blending Mode Color Burn, and the Blends used for the highlight areas will be of a soft beige color set at Blending Mode Color Dodge. But before we start, we want to set up the Blend Options so that we don't have to do that later on.

Go to Object > Blend > Blend Options. A dialogue box will open (as shown in the screenshot) and in the drop down menu you can select Specified Steps. I set mine at 60 Steps, which will create a very smooth fade out as shown in the screenshot beside the dialogue box of the Blend Options.

Painting with Vector

Blend options specified steps are set at 60 Steps to obtain a smooth fade out.

4. Begin Painting With Vector

Step 1

Now that we've covered the settings, we can start painting! I personally find it easier to start with the shadows first and then work the highlights on top of it afterwards. So, selecting the Paintbrush Tool (B) and making sure the Blending Mode is on Color Burn and the Opacity on 20%, we can start darkening out the areas that will help create depth. As you keep drawing strokes on top of each other, you'll notice that the Color Burn Blending Mode will do it's job and blend the color nicely.

If you find the shadow to be too dark, you can always select the layer you drew the shades in and lower the Opacity of it further. Just remember that if you are trying to achieve deep contrasts, it's okay to leave them quite obviously dark.

Tip for the hair: To give more volume to the aspect of the hair, you can detach the end of a shadow from the strand, that way it will give it a look as though the strand is detached from the rest.

Painting with Vector
Start of the shading with the Paintbrush Tool.

Step 2

To add further shadow, we are going to use Blends in areas that are lacking most in light. To do this, select the Pencil Tool (N) (or the Pen Tool (P), whichever you prefer) and draw out shapes with a black color in the areas that need darkening. Make sure the fill is set on black and the stroke is set on null.

Making a blend is quite simple. After you've drawn a shape, select this shape and duplicate it on top. Select the duplicated shape and while holding Shift-Alt (so it doesn't deform and lose its shape), size it down towards the center of the shape underneath. Select both shapes and then turn it into a Blend > Control-Alt-B. Select the bigger shape underneath and lower the Opacity to 0%. If you made sure the Specified Steps in the Blend Options are set at 60 Steps, then you should now have a blend!

Painting with Vector
How to create a blend shown in steps: 1. Create a shape. 2. Duplicate shape and size down. 3. Select both shapes. 4. Create a Blend (Control-Alt-B) (make sure the specified steps in the Blend Options are at 60 Specified Steps). 5. Select the outer, bigger shape and lower the Opacity to 0%.
Painting with Vector
Blends shown with Blending Mode set on Normal and the Opacity at a 100%.
Painting with Vector
Blends shown with Blending Mode set on Color Burn and the Opacity at 30%.

Step 4

Now we want to add some highlights to make certain areas pop out and give the darker areas more of a contrast. Select the Paintbrush Tool (B), setting the Blending Mode to Color Dodge and the Opacity at 20%. You will have to see for yourself which Stroke Width works best for you. For more detail, go with a thin width and if you are wanting less detail, go with a thicker width. I tend to use thicker widths for the shadows and thinner widths for the highlights.

Because the brush is set on a Blending Mode, you can play around with how prominent you want the highlight to be in different areas. As you can see in the screenshot, the strands in the back, furthest away from the light source, aren't as pronounced in brightness as the others.

If you feel you want to add more, you can always pick a different color to add on top than the black used for the shadows and the light beige used for the highlights. For the hair I added some red strands because the character has auburn streaks in them. I alternated the Blending Mode between Color Burn and Color Dodge, but the Opacity is always at 20%.

Painting with Vector
Highlights applied with the Paintbrush Tool with the Opacity at a 100%.
Painting with Vector
Highlights applied with the Paintbrush Tool with the Opacity at 20%.

Step 5

Occasionally you'll find that some areas need a bit more clean shading to help with the painted effect afterwards. Often, when it comes to skin, I add a second layer of sharp edged shadow, defining the light source further before I cover the area with the Paintbrush Tool (B).

Painting with Vector

Step 6

Like we did with the hair, use the Paintbrush Tool (B) to define the darker and lighter areas. As always, for shadows we use a black color, Blending Mode set on Color Burn and the Opacity set on 20%. For highlights we use a light color beige, Blending Mode set on Color Dodge and the Opacity set on 20%.

Highlights are a lot of fun to help make a drawing look detailed or help pronounce certain areas of a face or whatever it is you are drawing. When it comes to the face, I use highlights to accentuate areas such as the cheekbones, chin and nose. It helps unflatten them from the rest of the face and gives it more of a '3D' feel. Much like was done for the hair!

Painting with Vector

Step 7

To help blend the colors further, just like we did with the hair, we are going to use Blends. Whilst I did use black colored Blends to darken the areas such as under the chin and the neck closest to the hairline, you can also use Blends to highlight certain areas. Using the same light beige used to create highlights with the Paintbrush Tool, we can create some Blends on areas such as the cheeks, chin and side of the neck, with the Blending Mode set on Color Dodge and the Opacity somewhere between 10 and 20%.

Painting with Vector

Step 8

Returning to the Paintbrush Tool (B) with a black color, Color Burn as Blending Mode and the Opacity at 20%, make the Stroke Weight of the Brush thin and darker areas of the facial features to make them stand out more. I drew around her eyes, nostrils and the right side of her mouth. Those areas can be left quite dark because if you set them at a low opacity the contrast of those darker areas may not translate well when looking at the illustration at full view.

Painting with Vector


6. Repeat this Technique Throughout

Step 1

Now that we've walked through a few times, I am happy to tell you that that is all there is to it. For those who have a basic knowledge on light sources and shadows, this will be extremely easy. For those who don't it may be a little bit tricky. But because it is just a matter of setting up the tools the right way, playing around with the opacity to obtain contrast and repeating the same technique over all the areas until your character doesn't look flat anymore, it's fair to say that it still shouldn't be difficult to paint with vector!

Painting with Vector
Paintbrush strokes selected.
Painting with Vector
Blends created and used in this illustration selected.

Step 3

Occasionally when painting the shadows on light flat colors, such as the armor on this character, you'll find that the black is much too dark. In those cases, simply select the layer you drew those shadows in and lower the Opacity to a percentage you find more appealing.

Painting with Vector

Step 4

It's okay if the strokes look rough when you are viewing the illustration up close. It is very hard to achieve the same smoothness of the painted effect up close as it appears when viewing the illustration at full view. So if you're using this technique to paint with vector and find yourself worrying over the roughness when zoomed in, you don't have too, it's normal.

Painting with Vector
Painting with Vector

Step 5

You don't have to change the highlight and shadow colors from black and light beige to draw over clothing or objects that are of a different color. Because we used the Blending Mode Color Burn and Color Dodge, those Blending Modes will blend into the flat color underneath automatically.

Painting with Vector
Shading and highlighting with Blending Modes shown without flat colors underneath.

Now You Know How to Paint With Vector!

While the end result of this technique may look complex, as you found out through this tutorial, it is extremely simple to achieve this kind of look in Adobe Illustrator. Depending on how detailed you want the look to be, it does take time. I hope that some of you will enjoy playing around with this way of using Illustrator's Paintbrush Tool and Blending Modes and if you end up making something with it, be sure to share it so we may see!

The character from this tutorial is called Solenum, who features in my fantasy trilogy, Zinc. The first two books in the Zinc trilogy are available on Amazon: Altors and Regius.

Painting with Vector
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