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Create Whimsical Artwork Entirely in Adobe Illustrator


Drop your pencils and paper, turn off the scanner, and forget about Live Trace, it's time to illustrate with vectors. This tutorial will step through the process of creating artwork -- from concept to finished product -- entirely in Illustrator.


Bad news: there's no secret to creating artwork entirely within the confines of Adobe Illustrator. If you're looking for a magic pill to wean you off of the scan-and-trace approach, I'll tell you right now that there is none. That said, Illustrator offers artists so many amazing options for creating art that if you are interested in drawing using only vectors, there are a ton of benefits and time-savers that might get you hooked on bezier curves and points forever. What follows isn't so much a tips and tricks tutorial; it's a step-by-step breakdown of my creative process with some techniques, ideas, and opinions thrown in along the way.

You can find the source files in the directory labeled 'source' that came in the files that you downloaded. You may wish to look through them briefly before we begin.

Step 1

My work is born 100% from imagination, so I don't use models, photos, or objects as reference too often. This means I have to start drawing my ideas and then refine them after I finish rough versions. Illustrator is the perfect tool for this because you can mutate your objects and rearrange colors and composition freely and without limits. You never have to pull out a new piece of paper to resize a character or move a house. It's endlessly changeable, offering the artist a smorgasbord of ideas and variations.

Once I come up with an idea (in this case, a big cyclops is eating town and one resident bunny decides to take a stand by unleashing a monstrous smoke rabbit from his chimney), I start drawing it out on a blank document, making sure to isolate primary objects or groups of objects on their own thoroughly-labeled layers.

Usually, I clear out all of the panels (swatches, brushes, styles) to make room for my custom-created items. Also, even though I use a Wacom drawing pad, I tend to use the Pen tool to draw nearly all of my objects because I like the precision and the ability to easily switch from curved lines to straight lines. Here's my initial rough version of the illustration in question.

Step 1A

As an example of how I begin an image like this one, lets look at the creation of the cyclops. Using the Pen tool, I draw the basic, rough shape of the body with virtually no detail. This gives me an idea of how the character is going to look and directs the placement and size of appendages, features, etc.

It's really important to note that creating items like these is heavily reliant on your personal style. My style is a mix of precision and purposely off or messy lines. Some people are really tidy, some are really loose, but there's not really anything incorrect with regards to style. It's your choices that make your art yours.

Back to the cyclops, after I finish the body, I add arms and make them a totally different color. I'll unify them later, but for now I use a contrasting color in order to make them stand out, defining their boundaries. Later, when shading comes into play, the yellow-orange will be gone.

Step 1B

Now that I've formed a more concrete idea of where I'm going with this character, I can add a few details to enhance his personality. For the color of the white of the eye, I sample the orange of the body and turn it down, or make it lighter, in the color panel. To do this see the image below.

The reason I create the color using this method is simply for control. Constantly creating new colors from scratch can lead to a really unwieldy palette, whereas basing new colors on old colors can bring a level of control and uniformity to an image. In essence it's a stylistic choice, but I'd say it's a pretty good practice, especially for people who aren't comfortable with color. Also, I almost always add new colors to the swatches panel, just in case I need to easily get them later. Even for the craziest, most off-the-wall artists, organization is really helpful.

I know he's going to be a cyclops and I know danger is approaching from above (in the form or a giant smoke bunny), so after I draw in the eye shape, I create an upward-glancing iris. Although I'll use a Clipping Mask to fully incorporate the iris into the eye, I leave it free while I continue to rough out the monster. This makes for easy repositioning and helps speed up the early stages of the drawing.

I add a mouth (color based on the body's orange again, this time with black (K) added in the color panel). Finally, I add in a semi-chomped piece of house behind the hands. To quickly place the hands above the piece of house, I select both of the arms and press Command + Shift + Left Bracket key (bring to front) on the keyboard. I tend to use the keyboard for as many things as possible to reduce clicking, as it really slows down workflow.

Step 1C

Monster's done... for now. I repeat this method for all of the primary objects in my concept, trying to define the colors I want while I create new objects. Color is really important to the mood and feel of my artwork. When I feel I have a fully-formed concept and I'm happy with the colors, it's time to move on and flesh out the composition.

Step 2A

Once I'm happy with the concept, basic composition, and direction of the artwork, I add and change items in anticipation of detail work. In this case, I wasn't happy with the shapes of the clouds and I wanted to add more broken houses to fill out the composition, add depth, and enhance the sense of desolation. I try to avoid copying and pasting items to give my illustrations a more hand-drawn feel. Again, the look I'm going for relies on irregularities, so the uniformity of copy-and-paste probably isn't the best option.

Step 2B

Usually while I'm working, I see opportunities to add extra items that will enhance the feeling of the work. In this case, I thought a nice touch would be to add a rabbit hiding, disguised as a bush, so I drew him in on his own layer. In order to properly pull off the addition, I also add shrubbery to the "vegetation" layer of the image.

Step 2C

Some of the broken houses are on top of the cyclops monster. They need to be selected, cut, and pasted on a new layer that's behind the monster (I call this layer "houses behind").

Here's a quick look at the entire composition before we move to the next step.

Step 3A

Now it's time to dig in, adding details and refinements. I like to work the entire image at once if I can, not focusing too much on any one detail or area. That said, I do attack things with a plan. I usually start with the top-most layer, adding approximately the same level of detail to each element as I work my way down the list. It helps stave off boredom and really makes a piece feel like it's coming to life. In the case of this particular illustration, the top-most layer is "hidden rabbit," the layer containing the rabbit disguised as a bush.

The first detail I'll add to this element are little crescent shapes to give the bush a sense of, well, bushiness. I draw the crescents using the pen tool and I use a crazy bright color to distinguish them from the bush.

Step 3B

The bright color not only helps the crescents stand out, it also makes them easily selectable. I select one, go to the top of the screen, and choose Select Same > Fill Color. I use Select a lot during the course of an illustration.

After I select all of the crescents, I use the eyedropper to choose a previously-used color for the new shapes. I choose the color of the bush, which might initially sound strange, but I change the blending mode to Multiply in the Transparency panel. This allows the crescents to use a nice, shadow-like variation of the original bush color.

Now it's time to feather the objects in order to soften the edges. There are a multitude of ways to soften edges and shadows, but feathering is my favorite because it's fast and easily quantifiable. The amount of softness directly corresponds to a number, so it's a cinch to change and control and it makes sense.

I'll be feathering objects throughout this entire tutorial, so be ready for it. In this case, I set the amount of feather to 0.75 pixels, blurring the edges of the crescents ever so slightly:

If you're organized and think of it while you're creating, do what I did and add the appearance of one of the crescents to the Styles panel. This will help speed up the illustration process, especially given that you've still got to apply similar details to the other bushes.

Step 3C

Another element I use really often in my artwork is the clipping mask. I know some people prefer the elegance of the pathfinder, but there's something really great about clipping masks that makes them superior, in my opinion: they're entirely non-destructive and the elements inside remain editable. In Illustrator CS4, clipped items act just like regular items (the clipped areas are completely hidden from your eyes and your cursor), making them even more powerful.

In the case of this rabbit, I'm going to mask the irises of the eyes, unifying the entire eye as one object (which will help later when I shade the eyes). To do this, I select the white of the eye, copy it (Command + C), paste it in front (Command + F), send it to the front of the stack (Command + Shift + Right Bracket), and swap the color of the item, switching the fill and the stroke (Command + X). I then hold Shift to select the other two eye elements (the original white and the iris) and press Command + 7 to create a clipping mask. This might sound like a complex process, but once you get the hang of it, it's super fast, only taking a second or two.

The ears are masked in the same manner. Basically, I cycle through the rest of the layers adding details and collecting the objects, and then make up detail elements (eyes, ears, windows, etc) in clipping masks. I leave shading and texture for the end as they tend to be the most processor-intensive elements of the design.

Step 4A

Moving down the list of layers, I get to the "smoke" layer, which contains the monstrous smoke rabbit. I'd like to make this element a bit more cloud-like, so I take out the trusty Pen tool and add these green objects on top of the original.

Step 4B

After they're drawn, I make them the same color as the originally smoke object and merge all of them (except for the little clouds) together using the Unite button on the Pathfinder panel. I'll also go in and draw little smoky teeth and a sinister-looking eye.

Step 5A

Even though I've already added details to the shrubs, I've yet to detail the pine trees. In order to suggest the spikiness of the pines, I like to use a simple triangular Art Brush. I draw a triangle, fill it with 100% black (K) and leave the stroke empty. I rarely use the stroke as my style doesn't really call for it. After it's drawn, I drag it into the brush panel and create a new art brush. The settings are shown below.

Filling the triangle with black and setting the brush's colorization method to Tints allows the art brush to inherit any color you choose for the stroke, making it really versatile. Toggling Proportional locks in the proportional integrity of the brush, shrinking and growing the entire shape to fit the size of your stroke.

Step 5B

Now it's time to brush on the triangles. I apply them to each tree, making small strokes going from top to bottom. I try to avoid making the marks look too tidy or uniform. I vary sizes and even subtly curve my strokes to mix things up. When I'm done it looks like this.

After drawing in all the triangles, I simply select all of them (select one, then go to Select > Same Stroke) and change the color, using a the same color I used for the trees themselves, setting the blend mode to Multiply, and turning the Opacity to 70%.

Step 6

As I continue to add detail to the image, I also refine areas and change things I don't like. In the case of the cyclops, I add fur detail in the same way I added cloud-like detail to the smoke rabbit, add teeth, refine the eye, and toss in some bits of house for extra measure. I also change the feet and reshape the legs a bit to make them more to my liking. Nothing too fancy here, mostly just some Pen tool work and a couple Clipping Masks.

Adding in extra details really helps elevate an illustration, and I think the changes here make it quite evident.

Step 7

I really hate leaving big, empty, flat-looking areas in my vector illustrations. The clean look of vector art can look too sterile and technical sometimes. Some people import textures or add elements in Photoshop. I like to add vector details that suggest abstract elements and enhance the mood. In the case of the mountains, I add jagged lines and snow caps:

As you can see, I keep the contrast low by using subtle color variations and transparencies. After they're all drawn in, I incorporate them into the mountain range using a clipping mask (the same method used above in Step 3C).

Step 8

As I add detail, I make color tweaks and move some of the elements slightly to improve the composition before I begin shading. Here's a look at the illustration after the detailing phase.

Step 9A

Shading is by far one of my favorite steps in creating an illustration. It's when I feel the piece really comes to life. There are thousands of different methods and combinations of methods vector artists use to shade their objects and it seems everyone likes their way best. I use a combination of feathered objects, gradients, and clipping masks, but if you have a different shading method you personally prefer, by all means, use what works for you. My method works for me because it's fast, it's based on shading as objects (I tend to break my images down into objects), and it's really easy to edit.

Sticking with the same procedure I used when adding details to my image, I start with the top-most layer, which is the hidden rabbit. This is a good object to focus on for this step because it's fairly simple.

I'll start with an ear. When I created this character, I used clipping masks to encase all of the elements (ear and inner ear) for each ear. This helps immensely with the shading process because now all I've got to do is step into the clipping mask (Double-clicking on either ear will do the trick). After I step in, I draw the shape of my shade object.

As with before, I keep my colors simple, using a multiplied version of the original ear color. This makes for a really nice, deep blue shadow color. Also notice the big extra swath of shade object outside the boundaries of the clipping mask. I'll need this to properly pull off the feathering.

Step 9B

With the shade object selected, I pull down Effect > Stylize > Feather. I adjust the level of feathering until it looks the way I want it to, making sure to click the Preview option so I can see what I'm getting.

After I finish shading one ear, I add the appearance of the shade object to the Styles panel (there are still three more rabbit ears to go). If I want to change the level of feathering, I can always access the object's feather settings in the Appearance panel.

Step 9C

In addition to shade objects, I almost always add a gradient to the original base object. For example, here I add gradient to the bush the rabbit's hiding in.

In this case, there's a shade object sitting on top of the base object (the bush) already, so the gradient just enhances it, adding to the illusion of depth and giving the object another aesthetic element that helps stave off the dreaded overly-clean look some vector images can have. One tip for gradient users: subtlety. Keep the gradients low-contrast as high contrast extreme gradients can often lead to an amateurish feel.

Step 9D

I also add shade objects to smaller items like the eyes and feet, but I like to mix things up and leave them unfeathered. The reason? It's a stylistic choice. To many soft and shadows tend to make the image look a little gauzy and sometimes (though not in this case) even a bit too realistic. Adding in some hard, defined shading brings in a cartoony feel that I really like.

Again, I work through the different layers in much the same manner, adding shading and gradients.

Step 10A

For the smoke rabbit, I used a slightly modified version of the feathered shade objects technique detailed above. Basically, I created a graphic style (light blue fill, blend set to multiply, feathered -- as seen below in the Appearance panel), then added it to the Styles panel, selected the style, and used Illustrator CS4's new Blob Brush to apply it. The Blob Brush adds a really natural feel to shading and incorporating a feathered style into it creates a whole new, more natural approach to shading in Illustrator.

Step 11

The houses really don't deserve a lot of time because they're quite simple vector shapes. I draw them to look 3D, so the shading is pretty much in place very early on. Aside from adding some gradients and small detail shading (under the eaves and around the top of the chimney), there's one other element I added: the stripes. The stripes might seem unimportant, but I think they really add to the overall style and feel of the piece. Their irregular shapes and colors add to the dynamism and help justify the purposely-flawed perspective.

Techniques like these were popularized back to the mid 20th century when illustrators borrowed endlessly from the modern art movement. Google artists like Jim Flora and Mary Blair to see what I mean. They're an endless source of inspiration.

Step 12A

The big cyclops monster is without a doubt the most complex character to shade, especially given his arm situation. It's time to fully integrate his arms with the rest of him. Before I do, I refine his hands by adding points with the pen tool and manipulating those points.

And add stripe detailing and windows to the chunk of house he's holding.

Step 12B

I copy and paste the arms into a new layer called "extra arms." I'll be using them in a little bit, but for now, I'll hide them. I select the arms on the "Big Monster" layer, send them to the back (Command + Shift + Left Bracket key), and use the Pathfinder panel to unify them with the rest of the body.

Then I add a subtle gradient to the body.

Step 12C

Next, I show the "extra arms" layer again. Using the eraser tool, I cut the hands away from the arms making what look like gloves.

And I select and delete the upper arms.

Step 12D

I apply a gradient to each hand to help both separate them from and blend them in with the rest of the body. I'm using Illustrator CS4, so I choose to blend the hands in by making one side of the gradient completely transparent (Opacity 0%).

Step 12E

Finally, I lock the "extra arms" layer and add feathered shade objects to the cyclops in the manner detailed above. I also clean up any details or inconsistencies that I notice.

Here's a look at the image after the shading and gradients have been added.

Step 13

Usually as I'm working, I tweak colors and even add elements that I think will enhance the image. In this case, I thought the mountains needed some extra depth and I wanted to deepen some of the tones, especially those of the smoke rabbit.

Step 14A

We've got a bunch of shading, but no shadows have been cast? Time to fix that.

Right above the "roads" layer, I add a new layer called "shadows." I draw in vague shadow shapes in three different bright, easy to distinguish colors. The reason I use three different colors for my shadows is simple: I'll be creating three different graphic styles and apply them using Select > Same Fill.

You may notice that I've created some art outside the bounds of the Art Board. I nearly always do this when I'm creating artwork intended for walls or gallery shows. This allows for flexibility when printing, especially if you need to resize or leave some overlap. For instance, I've had to print images on canvas before and I needed some extra bleed so the image would wrap around the stretcher bars without compromising the original composition. If you need to clean up your edges for a client, there are plenty of ways to do so, but when I'm creating art for the sake of art, sloppy edges aren't going to hurt a thing.

Step 14B

I think you know my approach to color by now: variations on colors already existing in the image. In this case, I'll be using a sort of red clay color, a darker variation of the colors used for the ground. As I mentioned before, I'll be creating graphic styles for each color region. Basically, each style will have a fill color with Blend Mode set to Multiply, opacity turned down a bit, and Feathering applied. Sound familiar? It's the same way I created the shading. I always preview the styles before I apply them en masse to a group of color-coding objects. As the image below shows, the shadows in the back are muted versions of those in the front, helping establish the illusion of depth.

Step 15A

Now it's time for the last major addition: texture. I always create my own textures in Illustrator, mostly using brushes. In order to fake a fur "texture," I'm going to use a custom triangular art brush like the one used to decorate the pine trees in Step 5, same brush settings and everything. After I create the brush, I step into a character's clipping mask and apply the new brush to the character, using bright, distinguishable colors to designate the direction the hairs are pointing.

Step 15B

I select one of the brush marks and Select > Same Stroke. Notice the Appearance panel's contents shown below.

Then I expand the appearance and completely ungroup the objects. The Appearance panel should show them as Path, not Group.

Step 15C

At this point, I select a single hair and use it to set a graphic style for the rest of the hairs moving in the same direction. I apply a two-color gradient to it, both colors set to be the same light-orange hue (surprise, a variation of the original orange used for the body), but I set one of the gradient's stops to 0% opacity. This helps the hairs blend in. I apply the gradient to the object, covering only the portion of the hair I want to blend into the body. I then add the new appearance to the Graphic Styles panel.

I then select one of the purple objects, Select > Same Fill, and apply the style I just created.

I repeat this technique for the other colors, using the same gradient, but altering the direction according to the direction of the individual hairs.

Step 15D

After all of the hair has been styled (har, har), I notice the fur on the left side of the monster is too similar in color to the monster's body. I want to lighten it, but first, I've got to select all of those hairs. To do this, I click on one of the hairs and Select > Same Fill. This, of course, selects all of the hairs, so I switch to the Lasso Tool (Q), hold the Alt key, and draw a lasso around all of the hairs I don't want to change. This will subtract them from the selection.

Then I edit the colors of the gradient for the objects still selected, opting for a lighter orange color.

As with before, I repeat these steps for the other objects that need fur (the two rabbits).

Step 16A

The final bit of texture I'll be adding is to the sky and the ground. I'm going to speckle them with a scatter brush. I start by drawing an irregularly-shaped black circle and shrinking it down to a really small size, about 2pt by 2pt.

Step 16B

I drag the shape into the Brush panel and choose Scatter Brush. I'm using a Wacom pad, so I like to set my brush options to react to the pressure of the pen. Notice the little triangles on the sliders in the image below. The gray triangles determine what happens when the pen has little or no pressure applied. The corresponding value appears in the box on the left. The black triangle indicates what happens at full pressure and the corresponding value is in the box on the right.

So I've set the Size of each dot to grow when the the pen is pressed and I've set the Spacing between each dot to grow smaller as pressure intensifies, causing the dots to sort of grow and clump when pressure is applied. The great thing about creating brushes like this is that you can always go back and edit the brush later (just Double-click it in the Brush panel) if the results aren't what you wanted or expected.

Step 16C

Now that I've created the brush, I can apply it. With the "land" layer isolated (all of the others hidden), I brush onto the ground, applying more pressure in the foreground (the bottom of the land mound) and less pressure in the background (the top of the land mound). Here's what happens.

Step 16D

Why did I make the brush black? To employ the brush's Tints method, of course. I select all of my brush strokes and change the stroke color to a red-clay color similar to the ground. I then change the lend Mode to Multiply and turn the Opacity way down.

People are constantly asking about my textures and wondering how I create them using Illustrator. They're not that complex. The secret really is subtlety. A lot of artists have a tendency to draw to much attention to the textures, making them the focal point of the image. If this is your goal, then by all means, make really loud, attention-catching textures. But if you're just looking to enhance your work, tone them down so they're just barely there.

Final Image

And there you have it, a finished piece with a distinctive style created entirely in Adobe Illustrator. Sure I used a lot of tools and techniques to create the image, but it's hardly a mastery of tricks or technical knowledge that creates art; it's the artist. No one becomes a better artist because of software. It takes practice and observation.

Look at other artists' work, dissect their styles and techniques, and see how you can work new ideas into your work. Focus on creating what you like in your own style, with your own artistic voice. Learning the tools is the easy part; applying them to you're own unique vision is the challenge.

If you'd like to see more of what I've done with Adobe Illustrator, visit my website or catch up with me on flickr. The final image is below.

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