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How to Create a Stylish Vector Image from a Photo Reference

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This tutorial will show you how to create a professionally illustrated vector image from a photo reference. I'll show you an easy workflow to follow, that includes selecting an appropriate image and setting up documents. With a basic understanding of the Pen Tool, the Eyedropper Tool, and the Pathfinder Palette you can create a stylized vector image that's sure to wow your clients or friends.


Step 1 - Image Selection

You can make vector images from people in a lot of different ways, but I like to use an image as a base. This way you keep it realistic. So there we go, you can either look for an image online or make one yourself. For this tutorial you can use the same picture as I did. If you are using one of your own pictures, always keep these two points in mind:

  • Image size: the bigger, the better! It's difficult to work with an image with dimensions set at 200 pixels wide.
  • Contrast: you need to have enough contrast to work with, when the image is to flat you can’t pick out the details.

The image used in this tutorial is big enough and has plenty of contrast. There’s a lot of mess on the ground, but we can leave out those details. When I started with this image I added more contrast with photoshop, this is something you can do when you aren’t sure about the amount of contrast. The image below is from a friend of mine.
Give him a visit to his portfolio: Roy Hoes.



Step 2 - File Set-Up

While working with illustrator, I always like to have a clear view of my layers. Therefore, I always use the same set-up in my layers pallet. I place the picture I’ll be using and any other reference I might need in the bottom layer. This layer should be locked at all times. You don’t want to get in trouble with this later on.

I stack all my other layers on top. I like to name my layers, as you can see in the image below. It’s easier when you want to change a little part later on. Give your layers short and clear names for a quick workflow.



Step 3 - Image Focus

With these kind of images things can get to crowded when you go into detail on everything. Especially with this image, all the trash on the ground. With this in mind you need to choose the objects you want the viewer to focus on. In my case I chose myself as the focal point. To keep the image interesting, I also gave some detail to the bottles of ink on the ground.



Step 4 - My Way

When creating vector artwork like this, I tend to only use three tools: the Pen Tool, the Eyedropper Tool, and the Pathfinder Palette. You can create almost anything you can think of when you combine the use of these three tools. In the next part of the tutorial, I will guide you trough the different parts of the image.

When I create an image in a style like this, I never use the stroke function. The stroke function doesn't give enough control when it comes to thickness of the line. I recommend you draw your outlines, which gives more control, rather than use a brush. The disadvantage of using this method is that it takes more time. Either way you could create professional results, this is my preferred method though.

Every time I stop working with a layer I lock it, just to be sure I don’t mess up my set-up. Below you see an example of how you should create a path. On the left I used a stroke, this is wrong (at least wrong for the purposes of this tutorial and workflow). On the right side, you see how I make a path in the correct way, as a filled shape.



Step 5 - Outline The Face

I like to start with the outline of the face. It’s always a good point of reference on how the total image is going to look. If it doesn’t look good, I usually start over or work on something else. Most of the time it’s also one of the hardest parts of an image. It's best to complete the difficult parts first!

When tracing the outline of the face (cheek, jawline, and ear) it’s easy to see where the edges are, but when you are tracing the nose and lips it becomes harder. The right feeling is very important, you don’t want a correct image that doesn’t feel good, so remember you're going for an illustrated feel. Practice this a few times and you'll get a feel for it.

Start off with making a new layer above the locked reference layer, call it "outline." Trace the main shape of the head, the hair, and some details. Keep the amount of detail relatively low for the result we are working to achieve.



Step 6 - Colors

Picking colors is always hard for me, it usually involves a lot of trial and error. Again the feeling is all that counts. Try to keep the amount of colors to a minimum. In this example I used four colors for the skin: one base color, one highlight color, and two colors for the shadows. You can use one more or less, but be aware of the style you want to end up with. The number of colors for each area equals the number of tones for that area of the illustration.

Make a new layer under the "outline" layer. Call this layer something like "Skin." Make a new path with the Pen Tool and give it the desired color. Be sure to stay under the outlined black borders with your tonal paths, see below for examples of building up the tone with overlapping shapes.



Step 7 - More Outlines

After I’ve made the face how I liked it (thickness of outline, amount of details, and colors), I start outlining the rest of the image. It’s pretty straight forward, use the Pen Tool and decide where you want the outline to be. It’s always nice to play with the thickness of the outline. I like to make the lines of little details thinner than the outline of the overall shape, it just gives a little bit more focus to the subject.

Don’t forget to switch the layer and lock the other one! While outlining, keep in mind which part of the image you want to focus on and don’t go to far into details. Just stay within the same style as the face, as demonstrated below.



Step 8 - Color the Rest of the Skin

The outlines are done, yay! You’re now looking at a nice image already. It’s time to give the rest of the skin some tone. Use the same colors as with the face. In most cases, the same colors scheme will be good, sometimes I like to bring in a lighter or darker color for different areas. For example, when the face is in the sun and the arms are in the shade.

Sometimes it’s hard to see where the edge of the path should be, be sure to hide/unhide your skin layer a lot, which will help with determining this. It’s also useful to first make the smallest shape and then place a larger shape beneath, this way you have a clear view while making the smaller shape.



Step 9 - Color the Clothes

An often used technique, is to pick colors that are not in the original image. For example, I didn’t recreate the colors in the shirt, I just made it blue, which simplifies the shirt and saves time. Again, only a few colors for each part: one base color, one highlight color, and shadow color.

Make a new layer and call it "clothes." Place it under the outline layer, it doesn’t really matter if it’s above or beneath the "Skin" layer. Use the same method described in Step 6 to fill up the blank parts of the clothes.



Step 10 - Color the Extras

When I’m satisfied with the main subject of the image, I start working on the little extra details, such as the brush and the bottles of ink. These shouldn’t attract too much attention, so I keep the saturation down. I only used a base color on the inkpots and on the brush I added a highlight color.

Don’t spend too much time on these little details. Spending to much time on details is a common trap to fall into when creating any illustration, work to avoid that. Balance the time spent and level of details with the overall goal of the illustration.



Step 11 - Background Issues

Now all the parts of the image I want the viewer to focus on are done, but the image isn’t finished yet! I roughly traced some of the parts in the background, using just one color’s hue. This way it doesn't pull the attention away form the focal points of the illustration. The background is kept realistic and simple. After making the background, let's add a border to the image.

Don’t forget: Make a new layer and lock the layer you were working on! Place this layer under all the other layers, though not beneath the reference layer of course. Roughly go around a few of the details in the background, just to give the background some shape. When you are making the background, don’t bother trying to make a perfect box at the edges, I’ll explain in the next Step. It's OK to overlap the edges of the illustration.



Step 12 - Crop Area Tool

Again, make a new layer. This time place it on top of all the other layers and create a rectangle in the desired color. Using the Pathfinder Palette and another rectangle you can cutout the border shape, and color it black, as shown below.

Your almost done. Remember I told you not to worry about shapes going over the edges of the illustration? Select the Crop Area Tool (Shift + O) and drag a rectangle around the border you just made. Now you can export the image, only the parts inside the rectangle will be visible in the exported image.



Conclusion and Final Image

Finished! You can now create a nice image of your favorite portrait. Remember, the more you practice these skills the easier it gets. I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and I would love to see some of your results in the VECTORTUTS Flickr Group!