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Using a Stock Base to Create a Playful Cat Illustration

Read Time: 6 mins

My pets often inspire my animal illustrations, and this one is no exception. As do most cats, mine loves chasing flies, so why not turn my Harley into a pop culture icon while she's chasing one? In this Adobe Illustrator tutorial, I'll show you how I've created this illustration from a sketch and stock image, in my own cat's colors. This tutorial is an exclusive free tutorial from my book, Adobe Master Class: Illustrator. This is used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and Adobe Press. Copyright © 2013.

Step 1: Sketching the Concept

Using the Blob Brush Tool (Shift + B), I sketch the concept I have in mind. The idea is to have the cat coming out of darkness, so I only want to illustrate the key features of her face, her paw holding the chopsticks, and the fly. I then use the Line Segment Tool (\) to draw the chopsticks with Round Caps and the Width Tool (Shift + W) to increase the Stroke Weight toward the top of the chopsticks.

Step 2: Placing the Stock Image

Next, I purchase a stock image of a cat with the pose I want to use. I choose File > Place to place that image onto the Artboard, where I also place an image of my cat so I can easily refer to it. I draw additional details with the Blob Brush Tool (Shift + B) for the eyes, because I wish to achieve a cartoon look in the final illustration.

Step 3: Using Gradients as a Fur Base

I add a square with an off black/brown fill with the Rectangle Tool (M). I begin to build up the areas of color on Harley's face and paw using transparent radial gradients. I use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to sample colors from her reference image. I then set these gradients to Blending Mode Screen with an Opacity of 5% to 15% (depending on how bold I want to have the colors). I draw these shapes using the Pencil Tool (N).

Step 4: Creating an Art Brush

In this step, I draw a black fill flat circle with the Ellipse Tool (L) and use the Convert Anchor Point Tool (Shift + C) to pinch the sides of the shape. Then in the Brush panel I choose Add Brush > New Art Brush. For the Colorization Method, I select Tints.

Step 5: Starting the Fur

I then use the Paintbrush Tool (B) with my new Art Brush to draw short strands of fur, working with the colors used within the transparent radial gradients. I set these strokes to Blending Mode Normal and Opacity 30%–50%, again depending on the placements and how bold I want to have the colors. I've also paid attention to my Harley reference image to make sure the fur is going in the correct direction.

Step 6: Adding Definition

I add strokes around the lighter areas and set the strokes to Blending Mode Screen and Color Dodge to add further highlights and contrast. I add darker strokes with a gray/brown stroke color. These strokes are set to Blending Mode Multiply with an Opacity of 50%–80%. These help shape the fur patches. I've also added strokes to define the paw that will hold the chopsticks.

Step 7: Adding Facial Feature Bases

Using the Pen Tool (P), I draw base shapes for the eyes and nose. The eyes consist of two shapes each, one off-black/brown for the inner eye and one for the eyeball. Based on the contrast they've produced, I decide to add more transparent radial gradients to help soften the strokes. I also add some more contrast against the off-black background.

Step 8: Using Gradients on the Features

In the Appearance panel for the shapes for the eyes and nose, I add New Fills and use gradients to add variety in color and shape to the features. Using the Gradient Tool (G), I reposition the gradient source. I use the Ellipse Tool (L) to add pupils to the eyes and then a pale, inverted transparent radial gradient to add a shine to the eyes. I then use the Pencil Tool (N) to add further shapes to the fur and around the eyes to add more depth with brown transparent radial gradients.

Step 9: Starting on the Chopsticks

I use the same chopsticks used in the sketch, but this time I reposition them. I use Pathfinder > Minus Front to create the shape I need (minus the paw). I then use a duplicate of the chopsticks in a Compound Path (Ctrl + 8) and then a Clipping Mask (Ctrl + 7) to add gradients for shadows cast by the paws. Because Harley is a different breed from the cat in the stock image, I use the Lasso Tool (Q) to select sections of the face and then the Free Transform Tool (E) to resize and reposition the snout and side of her face.

Step 10: Finishing the Chopsticks

More gradients are used within the chopstick Clipping Mask as well as detailing for the ends of the sticks. I draw a rough sketch of a fly in the direction of Harley's eyes so I know where to draw next.

Step 11: Drawing a Quick Fly

I create the fly with two Ellipses (L) and use rough scribbles for the wings. I then use the Pen Tool (P) to draw a random curved line for the path the fly has flown. This approach adds to the cartoon look of the illustration but also helps show that the fly is moving.

Step 12: Modifying the Face Contouring

I add further strokes around the face set to Blending Mode Screen. My goal is to emphasize the slim face Harley has, with her more pronounced cheekbones. I add highlights around the eyes and also around the lower lip (so it's not lost in the illustration). And adding fine whiskers is essential if you're drawing a cat!

Step 13: Finishing Touches

Finally, I add two Ellipses (L) per eye for a reflection of light and then fine lines around the waterline and corner of the eye. This helps give the eyes “life” and character. I finish off the illustration by using the Artboard Tool (Shift+O) to reposition the Artboard crop so I have the right composition.


I hope you've enjoyed this cat illustration tutorial and can see how using a mixture of transparent gradients with the Pencil Tool (N) and a custom Art Brush with the Paintbrush Tool (B) can lend a soft edge to an otherwise hard-edged vector composition.

About the Book

Adobe Master Class: Illustrator, published by Adobe Press/Peachpit, features 30 established and emerging Illustrator artists, their masterful work, and tutorials demonstrating their techniques for using Adobe Illustrator. The how-to content, comprising 25 to 30 percent of the book, is based on general Illustrator features, so this book can be useful for users of recent and future versions of the Illustrator software.

The book features tutorials from talented artists such as Maria Goubar, Cristiano Siqueira, Jared Nickerson and more, as well as tutorials from Vectortuts+ writers Asher Benson, Helen Huang, Mary Winkler and Nastasia Peters!

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