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This post is part of a series called Mastering Vector Portraits.
Creating a Dramatic Portrait with Chunky Line Art
Creating a Portrait Using Only Four Colors!
This post is part of a series called Vector Portraits.
Create a Backlit, Elegant Female Portrait in Illustrator
Create a Male Portrait from a Photo Reference

Have you considered the possibilities of the Blend options in Adobe Illustrator? Today I'm going to show you ways to get creative with Blends by illustrating a whole portrait using primarily Blends!

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.


In today's premium tutorial I'm going to show you in depth how to create a glamorous portrait using mainly vector blends. I'll go into the theory and technical aspect of Vector Blends as well as showing examples of how to use them effectively and in creative ways.

Using vector blends, you can create a gradient, almost airbrush art appearance which further pushes the boundaries of the medium and strays away from the layered object/cell shading style often associated with detailed portraiture art. Furthermore, let's not forget that while the portrait takes on the appearance of airbrushed art (raster based), it is 100% vector with no rasterizing live effects!

I'm going to be using stock provided by the amazing Tasastock.

Color Preparation

As vector blends can be complex in themselves, to make the illustration as smooth as possible I would strongly advise working in grayscale. Last month I tackled a portrait using only four colors, this month the tutorial will be with three shades of gray! Throughout the tutorial I'll refer to the following shades:

  • Light gray (C=0, M=0, Y=0, K=30)
  • Mid gray (C=0, M=0, Y=0, K=60)
  • Dark gray (C=0, M=0, Y=0, K=80)

As a prerequisite of this tutorial, you'll need to be able to know when to apply shades and Blending Modes to Objects. For highlighting areas, the use of the Light gray tone and Blending Mode Screen will be used. For darkened areas, depending on the severity of the shadow, Mid or Dark gray's will be used with a Blending Mode of Multiply.

Step 1

Open the stock image in Photoshop and go to Image > Adjustments > Curves. From the drop down menu select "Lighten" and click on OK. Go back into Curves and apply the preset "Strong Contrast" from the drop down menu. This is to increase the highlights on the skin to make it easier when it comes to shading the portrait.

Step 2

Using the Patch Tool (J), select and drag areas of the skin to smooth it out; for instance around the eyes.

Step 3

Go back into Curves and lighten the image further by dragging the center of the curve upwards as shown below.

Step 4

Go to Image > Adjustments > Black & White and select the Default preset from the drop down menu. Once done, Save for Web & Devices with a width of 800 pixels.

Step 5

Create a New Document with a portrait orientation. Go to File > Place and place your reference image on the artboard. Use the Free Transform Tool (E) to rescale the image to fit within the art boards boundaries.

Double-click on the layer folder and rename it to "Original" and click on OK. Lock the layer folder. Create a New Layer and rename it to "BG." Within this layer folder draw a white fill rectangle with a 30% Opacity using the Rectangle Tool (M) across the artboard. Lock the layer folder. Create a New Layer and rename it "Bases."

Step 6

Using the light gray, create the "base shape" for the skin using the Pen Tool (P). Use the Pathfinder > Minus Front tool to remove the gaps around the arms.

Step 7

Create a New Layer and rename it "Shading."

The first type of vector blend we're going to look at is using lines within a blend. For shading, if your area isn't of similar shape from one point to another within the blend, using lines is an effective way to create a smooth transaction in color without distortion. It's probably most easiest way to achieve a blend with amazing results.

In this example, I'm going to use a curved line to create the darkening on one side of the face. If we look at the image below, you'll notice the line on the left touches the edge of the face towards the top and bottom of the face but not in the middle. The reason for this is that you do not want the blend to overlap into the arm areas, so you have to place the line as exact as possible. As precise as this is, if there is a way to create the same effect and not require to be exact, you can do this and use Clipping Masks. Vectortuts+ readers who have previously read my tutorials will know I'm big on using Clipping Masks for skin shading!

Let's get technical for a moment: breaking down a blend using two or more lines, the transaction from one line to another, Illustrator will morph the start of one line's anchor point to another. So to create a smooth blend from lines, the starting points for both lines (or more) must be placed in the same direction.

Once you've drawn your two lines, then you will need to Blend them together. You can do this by going to Object > Blend > Make or by presses Alt + Command + B. Then go to Object > Blend > Blend Options to modify the style and consistency of the blend.

I'm going to be using a "Specific Distance" with my line blends of 0.5pt to give an almost gradient effect. Then by reducing the Opacity of the line on the right to 0%, I can create a transparent gradient effect.

Then I'm going to change the lines to Light gray and select the whole Blend and change the Blending Mode to Multiply.

Step 8

Our first example with lines and Blends are with both lines being independent from each other. This gives a four "sided" gradient effect. However there will be some cases where you need more of a three "sided" gradient effect. To product this sort of effect you'll need to place either the starting or end points in the same area of the art board (almost touching) which can be seen below.

In addition if you require a "bulge" or "bump" within the transaction, this can be created by modifying the behavior of one of the lines, as shown in our next example.

Step 9

Our next example shows how I began placing the line Blends for the arm. Note how it's a three "sided" effect to show how it can be used in a different aspect.

Step 10

In this example, instead of the gradient effect going from 100% Opacity to 0% Opacity, the gradient is going the other way around, creating an inverted gradient effect. These can often be tricky to master. You will need to ensure that the 0% Opacity line is longer than the 100% Opacity line. This is to ensure a smooth edge.

In addition, note the right side of the Blend. If I was to limit the lines within the boundary of the "Base" object, the blend would not carry on beyond the boundary and would look as if it's been cut off. This brings in further benefits to using Clipping Masks for this element of the skin shading as you can place the lines beyond the boundaries of the "Base" object to give a smooth gradient effect to the edge.

Step 11

I'm going to use a line Blend to create an inverted gradient effect within an "enclosed" area. This also shows how you can create a "fold" effect in the Blend. If you look at the bottom right corner of the Blend you can see the angle at which the line meets. Due to the line not being curved at this point, it creates a "fold" effect. This can be useful for other areas in the skin, for example wrinkles or other creases in the skin.

Step 12

We're going to look at a more complex type of line Blend and that's when there are more than two lines present. With a two line Blend in the below example, the overlapping of the Blend to the shoulder doesn't look tidy. This is because the Blend travels in a straight line and doesn't know to curve around the shoulder.

To combat this issue, add further lines (traveling in the same direction) within the Blend so it goes from one point to another to another and then to our bottom line. However if you're creating a transparent gradient effect, you'll need to reduce the Opacities accordingly. For example: if you have placed just one line within the center of the other two and want a smooth, even transition; you'd set the Opacity of that center line to 50%.

Step 13

Sticking with more than two lines within a Blend, here I'm using three lines to create a three "sided" blend; however, the center line is at 100% Opacity and the lines on either side are 0%.

This makes for a perfect blend for the cheek bone shading!

Step 14

So now I've placed all my Blend lines for the dark shading of the portrait.

These will then be Grouped (Command + G) and then used within a Clipping Mask to hide the messy edges (Command + 7).

Step 15

Now we're going to move onto using Blends from one shape to another. Again, I'm going to be using them to create transparent gradient effects.

Shape based Blends work best when you wish to add a radial gradient effect to your illustration. The key element to remember for a smooth transition is that the internal and external shapes will need to be of similar shapes. If you don't do this, it may result in "folds" or distortions in the flow of the blend. Below I've used a shape Blend to create the highlight on the side of the nose.

Consider the size and shape of the highlight on the nose. Where the most brightest reflection of light is, this is the shape and size of your 100% Opacity shape. The 0% Opacity shape is where the light is faded until.

As you can see, along the bottom of the nose I have created a slight crease to give the impression of a nostril. Even when a Blend has been created, you can modify the shapes within. I'd recommend using the Direct Selection Tool (V) to carefully modify each point and their handles to ensure you get the best result. I've filled these highlight shapes with our Light gray and changed the Blending Mode to Screen.

Step 16

I've used these radial gradient effect shape Blends throughout the skin to give the impression of highlights, as shown below:

Step 17

There will be areas on the skin, for example the top of the brow and top lip, where the light is reflected most at the bottom of the Blend shape. As you've done before, draw the shape at 100% Opacity where the light is more intense and then align the edge of your larger 0% Opacity shape with it.

Step 18

Below we have all the highlighting shape Blends in place.

These are then Grouped (Command + G) and then placed in the Clipping Mask group.

Step 19

So now we know the two main basic Blend effects you can create, I'm going to now add the highlights to the ear using shape Blends...

Step 20

And then I'm going to create the shadowed areas using line Blends. These are then Grouped (Command + G) and also added to the Clipping Mask.

Step 21

When I put together my skin shading, I would usually integrate my skin shading with the lips. However in this case, due to the complexity of the Blends, I'll be tackling the lips as a separate entity.

Create a New Layer and rename it "Lips." I've added a base shape for the lips and then duplicated it.

On top of the duplicated base shape I have added an additional shape to create an inverted gradient effect with the shapes.

Step 22

Now I'm going to use shape Blends to create the highlights for each of the lips.

Step 23

Now to use a darker blend within the crease of the lips. If you notice here I've used tight angles to create a "fold."

Step 24

I've aligned the bottom of the starting shape with the end shape to create the highlight on the top lip in this instance.

Step 25

Now I'm going to add darker shape Blends to the nose and underneath the bottom lip to create shadows and a crease on the nostril.

Step 26

Create New Layers for the hair and move the "Shading" layer folder within the "Bases" layer folder. Then using the Pen Tool (P) with a Dark gray fill, draw shapes for the hair and top as shown below:

Step 27

With the gaps in between the sections of hair on the scalp, I'm going to add a shape Blend to create a gradient effect over onto the edge of the forehead.

Step 28

I've decided to redo the hair at the back of the portrait into a more geometric style and to show you another use of line based and shape Blends. What if you create a Blend using shapes, however the shapes have no fill and here is a stroke applied to it?

Using the Ellipse Tool (L) I'm going to create a circle. Duplicate it and use the Free Transform Tool (E) to reduce the size of the circle by a small amount. Then remove the fill and add the Mid gray to the stroke. Duplicate the outlined circle you've created and then reduce the size and move it to the side as shown below. Then create a Blend with a "Specific Distance" of around 3-4pt. You'll end up with the below result.

Step 29

Let's take this a step further and duplicate the outlined circle again however delete one of the points to create an arc.

Apply to the lines the Width Profile 1 from the Stroke palette. If you're not using CS5 you can create the same effect by creating the "Width Profile 1" brush from this tutorial as it will give the exact same effect. Then Blend the two arcs together.

Step 30

I've Grouped together the elements for this circle (Command + G) and duplicated and resized them to create the buns at the back of our portrait's head as shown.

Step 31

So let's take this a step even further. You're now familiar with using brushes with line Blends; however, have you considered creating a brush from a line Blend?

Our first step is to create a pinched ellipse by using the Ellipse Tool (L). Then with the Convert Anchor Point Tool (Shift + C), just click once on the end points to create the required shape.

Step 32

With the Pen Tool (P), draw a line towards the top of the shape then lock it. If you've got Smart Guides enabled you'll be able to get this part precise: draw a line towards the bottom of the shape, intercepting the points from the top line. As the top line has been locked already, you'll be able to create two independent lines without them joining.

Unlock the lines and then create a Blend with them with a "Specific Steps" of 4. Apply the Width Profile 1 to the strokes and then Object > Expand the Blend twice so you get shapes for the lines. Once done, Group them together (Command + G).

Now click New Brush in the Brush palette to create a New Art Brush with the below settings.

Step 33

Use your new brush to create a sort of "pinstripe" effect to the hair – which will also play on the "glamorous" 1930-40s style pin up we're working towards.

Step 34

Duplicate the base layer of the hair and use it to create a Clipping Mask of the pinstripe hair.

Step 35

As much as I'd like to add finer details with Blends to remain consistent, they do consume a lot of memory. So I'm going to use the Width Profile 1 brush to add fly away strands of hair around the hair line using the Paintbrush Tool (B).

Step 36

Create a New Layer and rename it "Eyes." I'm going to create a "Specific Distance" line Blend applying the Width Profile 1 brush with several lines to create the eyebrows. The additional lines help create the arch in the eyebrows and turn the direction of the strokes, which can be seen after the arch.

Step 37

Then using shapes, I'm going to create a shape Blend with 0% Opacity for the eyeball.

Step 38

Breaking the trend, I'm going to use solid shapes for the eye-line, iris and eyelid crease, though set to Multiply. This is so you can see the slight gradient behind the eyeball coming through on the iris.

Step 39

Using the Width Profile 1 Brush, I'm going to add lower Opacity lines throughout the whole portrait to define some of the regions clearer. Although Blends can work well, they do give a blurred/airbrush effect, which unfortunately means it's hard to get edges exact.

Step 40

Use the Ellipse Tool (L) to create the dark circles for the pupils.

You could of course create eyelashes using multiple line Blends, but I feel it wouldn't fit this style I'm aiming for, so I'm going to use solid shapes instead.

Step 41

So we've used line Blends to create a stylish pinstripe brush, how about using shape Blends to create a brush? I created a brush like this awhile back to give a blurred/airbrush effect to some elements of my work while maintaining the scalability of vector.

Create an ellipse with the Ellipse Tool (L) and duplicate it. Resize it using the Free Transform Tool (E) and create a shape Blend. Once done you will need to Object > Expand the shape twice. Ensure the circles are black (as apposed to the three tones of gray we've been using).

In the Brush palette, create a New Brush and select the New Art Brush option with the settings below. It's good practice to great multi-use brushes in black, as you and use the Colorization mode as Tint. This is so you can use this brush in future projects.

Step 42

I've used our airbrush like Blend brush to add more refined highlights to the below areas of skin. Then I have Grouped them (Command + G) and placed them in the skin shading Clipping Mask.

Step 43

Now I've used the same brush on Blending Mode Multiply to add detailing around the eyes and the center of the lips.

Step 44

You can use the brush to create darkening on the roots of the hair with a smaller stroke weight (depending on the size you've made your original brush).

Step 45

Then you can use the same brush to create highlights on the hair. Once this is done you can Group the darkened roots and highlights, then add them to the hair Clipping Mask.

Step 46

Within the "BG" layer folder, I'm going to draw an even circle with the Ellipse Tool (L). For the stroke, you can apply the line Blend brush to it to create the below effect. I needed to rotate the tool so the tips of the pinstripe effect were at the bottom of the circle.

Step 47

With the white rectangle in the background, refill it with the Dark gray to match the top and reshape it to a square using the Free Transform Tool (E).

Step 48

Create a New Layer and rename it "Detailing." I'm going to add a shine to the eyes and a mole using the airbrush effect Blend brush.

Step 49

As I'm unhappy with how the hair is at present, I'm going to draw strands over our Clipping Mask group for the hair, to give it more volume. This is with our line Blend brush.

Step 50

Create a three sided line Blend with the Dark gray on Multiply for subtle shading on the top.

Step 51

Then with our pinstripe brush, use the Pen Tool (P) to draw a line across the top of the corset top. I needed to use the Direct Selection Tool (E) to modify the points on this line to ensure the pinstripe trim covered the top of the corset and created the curve I required.

Step 52

Going back to the lips, I'm going to draw some jagged lines and apply the airbrush effect Blend brush to create little creases and folds in the lips.

Step 53

Now I'm going to use the Paintbrush Tool (B) and our airbrush effect Blend brush around the major areas of the portrait, overlapping onto the frame and background at a low Opacity and Blending Mode of Multiply. This will give the portrait a slight dreamy/blurred effect... and remember it's still all vector!

Step 54

Finally, Object > Expand the circle used to create the circle frame in the background and then apply the airbrush effect Blend brush to the outside of the pinstripe frame. This will give a drop shadow effect to the frame.


With the majority of the elements within this portrait created from Blends, you've created an airbrushed effect portrait, which is still 100% vector! Who said you need to use raster tools such as blur to create this effect. So let's run down the types of vector Blends we've used:

  • Line Blend to create a four sided blend
  • Line Blend to create a three sided blend
  • Line Blend with more than two lines to reshape the direction of the blend
  • Shape Blend to create a centralized radial gradient effect
  • Shape Blend to create a crisp edge radial gradient effect
  • How to create folds/creases using blends
  • Shape Blend with more than two shapes
  • Changing the direction/rotation of a line blend using multiple lines (remember the eyebrows!)
  • Brush with line blends to create a pinstripe effect
  • Brush with shape blends to create an airbrush effect

People may think that the Blend tool is limited to creating minimal effects; however, given a little technical thinking and creative uses, today we've shown you an in depth way to create a portrait using primarily blends of different combinations! Hope you've enjoyed this Premium tutorial.

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