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Creating a Dramatic Portrait with Chunky Line Art

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Read Time: 8 min
This post is part of a series called Mastering Vector Portraits.
Creating a Stylish Line Art Portrait with Illustrator CS5
Creating with Vector Blends In-Depth
This post is part of a series called Vector Portraits.
Modeling the Human Face in Illustrator
Tracing a Vector Face From a Reference Photo

In today's tutorial I'm getting back to my old vector line art roots and showing you how to achieve a chunky line art style. This can be created in any version of Illustrator CS and is a great comic look for your illustrations.


There are many different ways to achieve line art in vector illustrations. Using a stroke path and no fill is the first which comes to mind with a variety of tools such as the Pen Tool, Paintbrush Tool and Pencil Tool. You can modify these lines using art brushes and more recently in CS5, using the Width Tool which helps you change the Stroke Weight on an otherwise uniform line. There is another way you can create similar styles without the need of CS5 and give your work a more stylized appearance.

In today's tutorial I'm getting back to my old vector line art roots and showing you how to achieve a chunky line art style. This can be created in any version of Illustrator CS and is a great comic look for your illustrations.

It's with gratitude, I'm going to be using another great stock image by Tasastock, who's stock inspires me greatly!

For some elements of this tutorial, you'll need to create the "Width Profile 1" and "Width Profile 4" brushes from this tutorial. They can be created in any version of Illustrator CS.

Step 1

After resizing my stock image in Photoshop, I've created a New portrait orientated document in Illustrator and then File > Place the image onto my artboard. With all my vectors that I use stock as a reference I set up my layer palette as follows:

  • The stock image is placed in its own layer folder and is locked and renamed "Reference." This is so I can quickly hide the image when required.
  • Create a New Layer and rename it "BG" and I place a white filled rectangle using the Rectangle Tool (M) set to Opacity 30%. I tend to trace shapes and contours from the stock image in "Outline" mode, so the black lines stand out more against the white background. You could argue you could just reduce the Opacity of the reference image, however sometimes if you're not using "Outline" mode and want your lines to show up more from the reference, it's easier to change the color of the rectangle in the "BG" layer than anything else. So that's the theory of my "BG" layer folder.
  • Then I Create New Layer for the actual "Line Art." This layer will be done in "Outline" mode when using the reference image.

Step 2

Using the Rectangle Tool (M) I've drawn two large shapes with a black fill. The idea is that this would be the boundaries of my frame. Within the smaller rectangle is where my line art will be. I've placed the frame so it clips the top and right hand side of her hair so her portrait fills the majority of the composition. More on these rectangles in the next step.

Step 3

The basic method of creating this line art is using the largest rectangle and "cutting away" shapes using the Pathfinder > Minus Front and Pathfinder > Unite options. However the starting point is to cut away the largest shapes of the composition first.

The smallest rectangle from the two drawn in Step 2 is locked as this is used only as a guide. The shapes will be cut away from the largest rectangle. The first shapes I draw will be the space on either side of her head and the area for the shoulder. I can draw these shapes up to the small rectangle so I know not to go beyond it. Below shows how my Layer Palette looks before I use Pathfinder.

Now with using Pathfinder > Minus Front, it has removed the three shapes from the largest rectangle. Note that I've added volume to the models hair to give it a more dramatic effect.

Then I draw the area of the face to use Pathfinder > Minus Front. Note I have now hidden the smaller rectangle guide as it's no longer required.

Step 4

What I'm left with is a very basic guide to where elements are placed. I'm now going to begin adding shapes of the darkest and most prominent areas of the face (eyes, nose, lips and eyelids). If you notice the bottom of the nose there is a large area. With this method of line art you need to make a call as to whether the shadow cast will be illustrated or not. I've decided to include it, therefore we have the nose shadow attached to the line art.

Select All (Command + A) your shapes and use Pathfinder > Unite to combine them into one Compound Path.

Now draw the area for the eyeball and use Pathfinder > Minus Front so you have the line art for around the eyes.

Step 5

I'm going to create the outline of the eye using the Ellipse Tool (L). Hold Alt + Shift and pull outwards to create an even circle and then set the Stroke Weight to 4pt. Go to Object > Expand to convert the stroke to a filled object. Copy (Command + C) and Paste (Command + V) the circle and place it over the other eye so you have the same sized circle for both eyes.

I'm going to draw around the circle and use Pathfinder > Minus Front to remove portions of the circle I don't wish to be seen. Then use Pathfinder > Unite to add it to the larger line art shape.

Step 6

Now to add further shapes to the line art. I've used the Ellipse Tool (L) to create even circles for the pupils and then shapes for the nostril and other areas. Some of these will not be attached to the main line art shape, so when you use Pathfinder > Unite it will produce a group with all the shapes contained within. To make all the shapes one path, you can Select All (Command + A) of your shapes and then create a Compound Path (Command + 8).

Step 7

Apart from the blue/green background and eyes, the portrait is going to be relying on the chunky line art to look dramatic. When relying on such a simple style, it's a good idea to add finer details to areas which garnish more attention. Typically this is the eyes and lips.

I'm going to create an art brush to add detailing to the iris. Use the Line Segment Tool (\) to draw a horizontal line and then in the Brushes palette add strokes from the line with the Width Profile 4 brush. Select All of the elements (Command + A), then Object > Expand them, and use Pathfinder > Unite to make them one shape.

Step 8

Click on New Brush and create a new Art Brush as shown below:

Apply the brush to a circle created by the Ellipse Tool (L) and then put them within Clipping Masks (Command + 7). To find out more about Clipping Masks, check out this tutorial on the basics of clipping paths and opacity masks.

Step 9

Continuing with the "Width Profile 4" brush, I'm going to add eyelashes using the Paintbrush Tool (B). The top lashes are to 1pt while the bottom are 0.5pt in Stroke Weight. Group these once done (Command + G).

Step 10

Using the "Width Profile 1" brush, I'm going to add strokes for the eyebrows. Group these once done

Step 11

Back to using the "Width Profile 4" brush, I'm going to add fly away pieces of hair. First adding thicker pieces using an 8pt Stroke Weight...

...then reducing the Stroke Weight to 3pt to add finer pieces.

Once done, Select All of the strands (Command + A) and Object > Expand them and Pathfinder > Unite them to the larger piece of line art.

Step 12

I'm going to add more refined details around the mouth and nose by using the "Width Profile 1" brush.

Step 13

There may come a time when you're drawing your chunky line art when in order to add additional elements to the work, you might otherwise think of going back and modifying the area, removing/adding lines. However, this can be quickly rectified by adding white fill/black stroke shapes, as you can see from the examples below of adding a light reflection and tears to the portrait.

Step 14

As I've added tears to the portrait, I want to add some subtle puffed up eyes. To do this I'm going to add some additional lines using the "Width Profile 1" brush around the eyes and on the eyelids.

Step 15

For my last piece of line art, I'm going to add two moles to the skin using the Ellipse Tool (L). I've been adding moles/beauty spots to my work for a long time now, as I feel there is beauty in our "flaws."

Step 16

You could leave the line art as it is, however I'm going to add one more element to it and that's including a background color which will match her eye color. Create a New Layer below the "Line Art" layer folder and roughly draw the required shapes. You can change the color of these with ease and chose a color you feel suits it the most. I decided to stick with this green/blue shade as it's the color I recently dyed my hair!


I hope today's tutorial has introduced you into another way of creating line art. With understanding how the basic Pathfinder options work and clever use of Art Brushes, you too can get creative with this dramatic, chunky line art style!

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