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Create an African Silhouette Sunset Using Image Trace in Illustrator CS6

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This post is part of a series called Simple Silhouette Exercises.
Create a Sunset Scene Using the Blend Tool in Illustrator
Create a Vintage Vector Framed Silhouette Design

Adobe Illustrator CS6 introduces a revamp of the previous tool of Live Trace to a much easier to use Image Trace. In today's beginner tutorial, I'm going to show you how to create a silhouette using Image Trace and overlap it onto a gradient and brush stroke sky to create an African inspired sunset scene.


I'm using two stock images from Photodune for this tutorial: a silhouetted tree and a springbok silhouette. I purchased the "small" copies of these stock image. The larger the image you get, the more details Image Trace will pick up on. However, as we're only going to be creating silhouettes, you'll only need the small versions. So let's get on with it then!

Step 1

Let's create a swatch palette from the silhouetted tree stock image. The quickest way to do this is to use Adobe's own Kuler.com. Using your Adobe ID (it's free to register if you've not got one), log in. In order to download swatches and save them for a later date from Kuler, it requires you to be logged in.

Click on Create > From an Image and click on "Upload". Select your image and click on OK.

It will automatically generate five colors from the image. However, if you're unhappy with the ones you're given you can always alter it by changing the "Mood" or even selecting "Custom" and moving the colors around.

Step 2

In the top right corner, fill in the name for your palette and any tag keywords you may want to use. Select Public or Private to whether other people can search on your palettes and then click on Save.

Once it's saved, you'll be taken to a new page with your new palette along the top of the UI. There is the option to download the palette as an Adobe Swatch Exchange file. If you'd like to download this specific color scheme, it's available on Kuler. I've just saved this final to my desktop for now.

Step 3

To add your palette to your Swatch panel, click on the drill down menu in the top right corner and go to Open Swatch Library > Other Library and locate your African Sunset palette. You'll get a pop up tab with your five colors. Click on the folder to the left of the palette and this will automatically add your palette to your Swatch panel.

I'll be using these colors throughout the tutorial. From left to right, I'll be referring to them as the following colors:

  • Off Black: C=31, M=0, Y=100, K=95
  • Pale Yellow: C=0, M=20, Y=45, K=5
  • Brown/Gray:C=0, M=7, Y=17, K=45
  • Orange: C=0, M=45, Y=84, K=5
  • Sand: C=0, M=21, Y=39, K=25

Step 4

We're going to use our first stock image, which will be our silhouetted tree. Go to File > Place and locate the image. You'll notice it might be rather small on the canvas.

Using the Free Transform Tool (E) while holding Shift + Alt, drag out one of the corners to evenly increase the size of the image. I brought it out past the edge of the artboard boundaries.

Step 5

When you have a raster image on your canvas selected, you'll notice along the top of your screen you'll have some basic buttons for using Image Trace. The one we're most interested in here is "Image Trace", so just click on that.

This will trace your raster image straight away as a default black and white image. It's not until you go into the options of the Image Trace Panel that you can modify it. To the left of the drop down menu of the Tracing Result, there is a button to click to go into the Image Trace Panel.

Step 6

In the panel, you have access to some basic options, which includes the usual presets such as "3 Colors", "6 Colors", "Grayscale" and "Black and White Logo". We're going to be sticking with the Black and White.

Adobe have simplified the options after giving you the basic drop down menu presets, with a singular option to modify underneath the "Mode"/"Palette" drop down menus. This completely depends on the presets you've selected. So for Black and White, I'm given "Threshold", which means "pixels darker than a threshold value are converted to black". Another example would be setting the Preset to "Low Color" and it will give you the option of "Colors", which means "Maximum number of colors used for tracing".

By presenting a relevant, singular option, you can modify your tracing outcome effectively and quickly. And as long as you have "Preview" ticked, you can check out what the result of tracing will be live as you flick through the options.

Yet, if you're not satisfied with the end result of playing with the basic singular option, you can drill down into the Advanced section and modify the Paths, Corners and Noise. You can mouse over each of these sections to find out more.

With using Image Trace, it's worth keeping in mind that the greater number of Paths and Anchors, the larger the file size will be. This is of course traded off with how detailed your tracing will be. So it completely depends on how much your system can take! I've used the below options for this specific illustration.

Step 7

Once you're happy with your Image Trace result, I'm going to Expand it. You can click on the button "Expand" along the top of the interface.

Now Expanded, you can go into the Layer panel and see that it creates a Group containing several shapes. The reason I'm doing this is I want to change the black from the Image Trace default to the Off Black shade from our Kuler African Sunset palette.

Step 8

If you were going to change the color of the tracing by selecting the Group from the Layer panel, you'd notice your Fill value in the Color panel would show up as a Question Mark - which means there is more than one fill color used. This is because within the Group there are several shapes that have their color Nulled or have no fill color at all. We're going to have to rectify this.

Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select the largest black filled shape of the tracing and then go to Select > Same > Fill Color. This will select only the shapes which have a black fill. Then create a Group with these shapes by going to Object > Group (Command + G). This will put your Group of black filled shapes at the top of the tracing Group.

I then drag and dropped the black fill Group outside of the tracing Group and then deleted the tracing Group as it's no longer required. Always remember that unnecessary points and paths make a bigger file size. With your black fill Group is selected, change the fill color to Off Black.

Step 9

Create a New Layer and Double-click on it to rename it "Sky". Drag and drop it underneath the tree silhouette. Use the Rectangle Tool (M) to draw a rectangle across the canvas and fill it with the default black to white gradient from your Swatch palette. There is an option in the Gradient panel to change the angle of the gradient, set this to 90 degrees.

Modify the gradient by drag and dropping colors into it. I replaced the black Gradient Slider with Gray/Brown and the white with Orange. The Pale Yellow is then placed at 30% (you can edit this in the Location field) and Sand is placed at 70%.

Step 10

As previously mentioned, the more points and paths means the larger the file size. A great way to reduce the amount of points and paths is to get familiar with the Appearance panel, as you can apply multiple effects, fills and strokes to just one shape!

With your rectangle still selected, go into the Appearance panel and go to Add New Fill. By selecting this option, you will only add a new fill with the previous fill's fill color. If you select Duplicate Item, this will duplicate the highlighted item - be it stroke or fill, to include the color, any effects, any transparency settings etc...

Back in the Gradient panel, I changed the Type to "Radial" and then used the Gradient Tool (G) to reposition the center of the gradient along the horizon of our silhouette. Imagine the center of the gradient is the sun in our sunset. Click on "Opacity" in the Appearance panel for the radial gradient and you can then change the Blending Mode to Darken and the Opacity to 50%.

Step 11

Now we'll add a cloud-like texture to the sky. I'm going to use the Paintbrush Tool (B) to draw some horizontal scribble lines across the canvas.

I gave them a Gray/Brown stroke color with a 1pt Stroke Weight (the default weight so no need to alter it). I changed the Blending Mode to Multiply and Opacity to 10%. In the Brush panel, I used the Bristle Brush "Mop" which is there by default. Group the strokes together (Command + G).

I then used the same stroke color and brush to draw highlights along the bottom of our Multiply clouds. I changed the Stroke Weight to 0.5pt and set the Blending Mode to Screen with Opacity 30%. Then Group these strokes together (Command + G).

Step 12

You should have two groups which contain strokes, one set to Multiply, the other set to Screen. Group both of these together (Command + G) and then duplicate them (Command + C to Copy and Command + F to Paste in Front).

Select one of the groups and go to Object > Transform > Reflect, then reflect it on the Vertical axis and click OK. Use the Selection Tool (V) to then reposition the group so it's spreading the clouds out more across the canvas and not overlapping too much in one area.

Step 13

Now we'll create a sun on the horizon. Use the Ellipse Tool (L) to hold on Shift + Alt to create an even circle and then move it behind the cloud groups on the Layer panel. Give it a Gray/Brown fill and set it to Blending Mode Color Dodge with Opacity 100%.

Adobe Illustrator CS6 has a new feature which allows you to apply a gradient to a stroke. I'm going to use a transparent, linear gradient on stroke with the Gray/Brown shade. When you click on the Gradient Sliders at the 0% and 100% positions, you can reduce the Opacity to 100%.

Now the reason why I created the linear gradient shown below is that you're unable to Align the stroke inside or outside when it has a gradient applied to it. Therefore the center of the gradient (Location 100%) is where it intersects the stroke (which has an Opacity of 100%).

I then selected the option "Apply gradient across stroke" in the Gradient panel. Back in the Stroke panel, I changed the Stroke Weight to 60pt. In the Appearance panel I changed the strokes Blending Mode to Color Dodge and the Opacity to 50%.

I then changed the overall Opacity of the stroke and set the fill to 90%.

Step 14

Now to add further textures to the clouds in the sky. I used the Paintbrush Tool (B) and drew short wavy lines across the canvas with the Gray/Brown shade set to a 10pt Stroke Weight.

I'm going to use the Profile "Width Profile 1" to taper both ends and then apply the brush "Chalk", which is a default brush in the Brush panel. All these strokes will then be set to Blending Mode Color Dodge with Opacity 5%. Once done, Group all the strokes (Command + G).

Step 15

After I added loads of highlights with the Chalk strokes, I'm going to increase the darker clouds. So go into one of the Groups which contained the Multiply 10%, Mop Bristle Brush strokes, and select it.

Go to Select > Same > Appearance and this will select all strokes which use the Mop Bristle Brush at Blending Mode Multiply and Opacity 10%... basically the same Appearance panel settings!

This is especially useful as we have several strokes with this Appearance, however across several groups. Go into the Appearance panel once selected, change the Opacity from 10% to 15%, and keep the Blending Mode as Multiply.

I then organized my groups by having the Chalk strokes an top and then my two groups which contain 1 Screen Group and 1 Multiply Group inside.

Step 16

Create a New Layer and rename it "Springbok" and then File > Place the stock image of springbok silhouette. In order to line it up so it looks lik4 part of the foreground, I'm going to Command-click on the eye icon of the "Reference" layer to put it in Preview Mode. I'm going to use the Free Transform Tool (E) to rescale and position the springbok on the horizon.

Step 17

Time to use Image Trace again. I used the Black and White preset again, this time with the settings shown below:

I then went through the same process of Expanding the trace and removing the null shapes to then recolor the tracing with the Off Black shade.

Step 18

Now I'm going to add some fine details to the trees, grass, and some cliché birds in the sky. These will be done with the Paintbrush Tool (B) using a1pt Stroke Weights (3pt for the birds) and an Off Black stroke color. I'm going to be using the Profile "Width Profile 1" for the tapered ends.

Step 19

Finally, I'm going to increase the intensity of the colors in the sky and around the sun. So go into the "Sky" layer folder and select the rectangle used for the sky. In the Appearance panel "Add New Fill". I'm going to apply an Orange, transparent, linear gradient, at 90 degrees as shown below. Now set it to Blending Mode Color Burn with Opacity 70%.

Then I'm going to add a Pale Yellow, transparent radial, gradient around the sun on a New Fill set to Blending Mode Color Dodge with Opacity 70%.


There are so many different ways you can use the new Image Trace feature. In my opinion it is an improvement, if anything it's a lot easier to use and produces a better result. How did you find using the new Image Trace tool? Do you prefer it to Live Trace?

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