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Create a Beautiful Retro Futurism Portrait

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This post is part of a series called Mastering Vector Portraits.
Creating a Detailed Eye from Stock in Adobe Illustrator
Creating a Wild Hair, Pin-up Inspired Portrait

In today's tutorial, I'm going to show you how I've created this retro futuristic inspired portrait, using transparent radial gradients, Blending Modes and Opacities. This portrait has lots of bright neon glows and a graphic looking hair style. This is inspired by how the 1980's saw the future with a science fiction twist.

Step 1

I opted to work from a stock image that has a strong light. With the focus of the portrait going to be neon glows, I wanted this to be reflected in the stock I used. Once I choose my image, I Cropped (C) it in Photoshop.

After increasing the contrast via Curves (Command + M) using the preset "Strong Contrast", I adjusted the Color Balance (Command + B) with the following settings:

  • Shadows: +100, 0, 0
  • Midtones: -3, -100, +39
  • Highlights: +20, -5, -19

The reason I've done this is that it shows up which areas are in definite shadow (the really dark red/pink) and which are in extreme light (the white/yellow). This makes it a lot easier when it comes to vectoring the image as you can clearly see the areas you need to define.

Step 2

Time to open up Adobe Illustrator and set up your layers as shown below. I've created a base shape of the skin with an off black/brown fill (C=50, M=70, Y=80, K=95) using the Pen Tool (P). The white fill Rectangle (M) in the "BG" layer folder is set to Opacity 50%.

Step 3

The shapes used to create the shading will have a cyan transparent radial gradient fill and will be set to Blending Mode Screen with Opacity 5%. This doesn't seem much, but I'm wanting the shapes to give as few hard edges as possible. Using gradients will help soften these edges due to the gradual color change.

The shapes drawn will be covering the yellow/white areas as well as the midtone pink areas.

Use the same settings and gradient for each area of the face and skin; including the details within the eyes and lips. Don't be afraid to go over the edges of the base shape as this will be rectified in the next step.

Step 4

Group all the shapes you've created for the shading (Command + G). Duplicate the base shape and use this to create a Clipping Mask (Command + 7) with the group of gradient filled shapes.

Step 5

Due to the Blending Mode (Screen) and the background being a brown/off black shade, the shading shapes have produced a brown/yellow figure for us to work from. I want to change this to a blue shade. So I'm going to duplicate the base shape again and fill it with the cyan radial gradient.

Using the Gradient Tool (G) I'm going to modify the ratio and position of the gradient so the blue is more intense towards where the light will be. Then I've set the Blending Mode to Overlay and Opacity is kept at 100%.

Step 6

I'm now going to add shapes where there are yellow/white areas. You'll notice the shapes below are slightly larger and overlapping the light pink areas. This is because I want my cyan, transparent radial gradients to be fading into these areas. The shapes are set to Blending Mode Overlay with Opacity 15%. They are then Grouped (Command + G) and placed in the Clipping Mask group.

Step 7

Not all the shapes will look smooth and if you find one which doesn't, first locate the gradient by using the Direct Selection Tool (A).

Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to then modify the handle bars of the points in the area you wish to alter. Use the Pen Tool (P) if you need to add and remove points and use the Gradient Tool (G) to reposition/alter the gradient.

If that doesn't work, you can always add additional shapes/gradients to the skin to help smooth off the area. However remember to add it to the Clipping Mask group when you're done.

Step 8

So you've drawn your shading gradients and not all the areas will be as crisp as you like. You can rectify this by drawing shapes with the dark brown/off black fill set to Blending Mode Normal, Opacity 100% over the areas required. These will typically be the pupil, where the lips meet, creases in the skin and nostril. Once done, you'll need to Group the shapes (Command + G) and then place them in the Clipping Mask group.

Step 9

When I originally thought about this style of portrait, I immediately thought of Tron and then I thought about the 60s with their graphically chunky look bob hair styles. I want to replicate this style on this illustration. I'll be using the Width Profile 1 brush from a previous tutorial, but you can use the Profile itself located in the Stroke panel.

When sketching the hair, I've drawn the fringe/bangs first and then the sides of the hair. I wanted the fringe/bangs to be as chunky as possible.

Step 10

After I Grouped the hair sketch (Command + G), and then reduced the Opacity to 10%, I'm going to use the Pen Tool (P) with the Width Profile 1 brush, and a cyan stroke color to draw some initial strands as a guide. If you notice, especially on the fringe/bangs and the right of the hair, the stroke length goes from long on the left to short on the right. This is due to the light, the hair on the left will be illuminated more.

I've then made the Stroke Weight 4pt. I've then used the Paintbrush Tool (B) to draw further strands in between the guides.

And then reduced the Opacity of the strokes to 10%.

Step 11

I've created a base for the hair which is split into two layers... one for the left of the hair (Hair Back) and the fringe/bangs and right of the hair (Hair Front). These shapes will use two fills (within the Appearance panel). With the cyan transparent radial gradient set to Overlay 100% on top of the dark brown/off black color as shown below.

Step 12

Now we have a base, I'm going to draw some additional 4pt strokes for the hair.

I then added some 1pt Stroke Weight with 20% Opacity strokes around the hair to give a more refined detailing to the hair and make it less flat looking.

Step 13

At this stage, I took a moment to compare the hair and the skin shading together, and noticed the hair is much brighter. So to even this out, I've duplicated the base layer for the skin, and then used the cyan gradient fill. This is set to Blending Move Overlay with Opacity 20%.

Step 14

The eyebrows have been a little delicate to draw in this case. I've used the Paintbrush Tool (B) to draw the strokes with the Width Profile 1 brush and a 1pt Stroke Weight.

I first added strokes to the brow bone with a dark brown/off black stroke, set to Opacity 50%. I then Grouped the strokes (Command + G) and reduced the Opacity of the Group to 10%.

The next are cyan strokes set to Screen at 10%, then Grouped (Command + G), and then the Group set to 50%.

Now further cyan strokes are set to Overlay at 20%, Grouped (Command + G), and then set to 50%.

Finally, dark brown/off black strokes are added to define the eyebrows further, set to Normal at 25%, Grouped (Command + G), and then set to 50%.

Step 15

The eyelashes are made in a similar way as the eyebrows, in the way you're laying several strokes down. However, these are more organized strokes. The initial strokes are off black/dark brown, made using the Width Profile 1 brush with a 1pt Stroke Weight. The top lashes are 100% Opacity with the bottom set to 30%.

Now add highlights on the lashes on top with the below Appearance panel settings.

Step 16

Time to add some further shines to the hair and the eyes. I've used the below Appearance panel settings with the cyan transparent radial gradient used for the shading. I've used Ellipses (L) for the shapes in the eyes and the Pen Tool (P) to draw shapes for the hair.

Step 17

I'm going to use some art brushes created from Blends, which you can find in this Performance Car tutorial and Jellyfish tutorial. The first is created from two squares which create a transparent linear gradient effect.

I'll apply that, along the profile of the portrait, with the below Appearance panel settings. It's worth noting that in all cases, the Stroke Weight is set to 20pt and with a stroke color of magenta.

Step 18

As there is light coming from behind, I'm going to create a subtle back light effect. I've done this by adding 1pt cyan strokes around the hair, set to Blending Mode Normal, with Opacity 20%. Focus the strokes on the left side of the hair, as it's the side the light is on.

Step 19

Now using a Blend art brush, which is created using two Ellipses (L), I'm going to use the Line Segment Tool (\) to draw several horizontal lines across the canvas. These will have a magenta stroke color with a 2pt Stroke Weight, Blending Mode Overlay, and Opacity of 100%. Group them once done (Command + G).

Step 20

I'm going to color the glowing bars by overlapping a rainbow on top. You can access this gradient by going into the Swatch panel and then going to Open Swatch Library > Gradients > Spectrums > Spectrum. I've then filled a Rectangle (M), and set it to Blending Mode Hue, with Opacity 100%.

Step 21

With the same brush was the glowing bars, I'm going to add some magenta neon glows around the face and on elements of the features. These will have a 1pt Stroke Weight and Blending Mode Overlay.

Step 22

To intensify the magenta neon glow further, I'm going to use a magenta transparent radial gradient on several areas to the left of the portrait. The position of the gradient will need to be towards the left of the shapes. These shapes are set to Blending Mode Overlay with Opacity 100%.

Step 23

As a futuristic element, I'm going to add some neon glow hooped earrings. These are created with the Ellipse Tool (L) and then rotated with the Free Transform Tool (E). They are positioned top and bottom of the skin shading layer.

From top to bottom, the Stroke Weights in the Appearance panel should be 1pt, 4pt and 2pt and use the below settings to create the Neon glow.

Step 24

As the earrings would produce a glow themselves on the skin on the right, I've added a magenta glow with transparent radial gradients on the cheek. This is using a similar method of putting one gradient over the top of anything, with one set to Blending Mode Overlay, the other to Screen.

Step 25

Finally, I'm going to add some more magenta glows with the Paintbrush Tool (B) using the circle blend art brush. They will have a 1pt Stroke Weight and be set to Blending Mode Overlay with Opacity 100%. Remember to put some strokes on the shoulder as the bottom of the right earring would reflect on there as well.


I've finished off the portrait with a couple of neon stars on the shoulder/arm using magenta transparent radial gradients with the Star Tool, instead of my usual mole/beauty spots. With techniques you've learned from today's tutorial, you can go on to create some retro futuristic inspired pieces of your own.

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