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How to Create a Fantasy Character in Illustrator

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Read Time: 13 min

This tutorial covers the process of creating a fantasy pinup illustration with Illustrator CS3. This tutorial uses Live Paint, so you will need CS2 or above to follow. If you need an alternative method for a legacy version of Illustrator, please download my Creating Comics with Illustrator tutorial tutorial, which includes instructions for that.

Final Image Preview

Below is the final image we will be working towards. Want access to the full Vector Source files and downloadable copies of every tutorial, including this one? Join Vector Plus for just 9$ a month.

Step 1

Create a new document that is 11" wide by 8.5" tall. The color mode should be set to CMYK to ensure that colors are printable. Set raster effects to 300ppi for the highest quality print results.

Next, set up your layers. I like to start with a layer named after the character (in this case, "Suko"), with these sub layers:

  • g – for character-specific guides (optional)
  • d – for top details and line work
  • sh – for shading and shine details that will be filled paths
  • c – for color and shading with Live Paint

Feel free to use longer names that make more sense to you. You should also create a template layer at this point for your foundation drawing. I dim mine to 60% and set to unprintable in case I forget to delete it.

Center the template image on the artboard and lock your template layer. My pencil sketch is available here. I used a reference for the pose, but the clothing and character design are original. Suko is a character from my comic series, Green Corner.

The swatches for this file, if you'd like to use them, are available here. They are labeled and organized, so it should be easy to tell what each swatch is for. Note that the "main blue" swatch is a spot color so that I can use tints of it.

step 1

Step 2

With the "d" layer active, start drawing with one of the calligraphic brushes with a black stroke set to 0.05 pt. Using a small stroke weight allows for a more delicate line. The brushes are angled to give subtle line variation. If you need a copy of the brushes, you can download them here.

It's easiest to start by drawing simpler lines first and leave the finer details such as facial features until later. I use the Pen Tool for drawing most lines. Use your pencil sketch as a guide, but don't be afraid to make corrections if you feel a line will look better if adjusted. Switch between the two brushes as necessary, if you find a line to be too thin or thick in a certain place.

A note about using these brushes: If you get the variation you like from a brush, but the weight needs adjusting, then adjust the stroke weight slightly for that path. Try 0.03 pt for finer lines, 0.07 pt for thicker lines. If a path has an unusual thickness in a certain area (like around the fingers and pointy ears), cut the path on a point with the Scissors Tool (C). Cutting on a point helps maintain the integrity of the path but can give you more control over the line quality.

Step 3

Sometimes it's easiest to draw a continuous line and then cut out the section you don't need to be visible. The guide through the leg in the image below represents a continuous path that was cut, with the cut section converted to a guide (Command + 5). I move all character guides to the "g" layer as they are created. Make sure you're back on the "d" layer before you continue drawing.

Step 4

For the eyes, I used the Ellipse Tool to create the iris, pupil, and shine. Remember to cut off and delete the excess of the iris. Alternatively, you can draw the sides of the iris with the Pen Tool. Depending on the view of the face, the Ellipse Tool may not be useful for the iris.

For symmetrical and nearly identical features, such as the eyes and eyebrows, draw one and copy. If you need to flip the copy, use the Reflect Tool (O) and hold down Option while flipping to copy. Then adjust with the selection tools as needed by moving, rotating, and reshaping. The image below shows the process of drawing one eye and eyebrow to creating two of each.

Step 5

Your line work should be mostly done at this point and look something like the image below. Continue adding some more details, like the rose on its own layer above (using the same sub layer structure), but don't draw the thorns yet. Also, add the belt buckle by using the Rounded Rectangle Tool and the Subtract From Shape Area button in the pathfinder palette.

Step 6

Now is a good time to make sure that the facial features are correct. Unlock and show everything on all layers and sub layers. Rotate everything 90 degrees clockwise with the Selection Tool (V), while holding down the Shift key.

Adjust the facial features as needed, but ignore how the brush styles look altered. Use outline view (Command + Y) to see the paths without styles if that helps you while adjusting. I changed Suko's expression at this point to a slight smile. When you're happy with the changes, rotate everything back to the original position.

Step 7

When the line work is done, select and copy all of the paths on your "d" layer. Just click on the circle on the right side of the layer to select all paths on that sub layer and press Command + C. Then lock all the layers you are not using and activate the "c" layer. Make sure that Paste Remembers Layers is off.

Paste the copied line work on the "c" layer and delete the belt buckle. Compound paths can't be added to a Live Paint group. Then, select everything on the "c" layer and convert it to a Live Paint group by pressing Command + Option + X. You may receive a warning about brush styles being discarded. This is why our line work is on a separate layer.

Step 8

Once you have your Live Paint group, hide your other layers. Then, use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select any superfluous paths that you won't need for Live Paint and delete them. Once you've deleted all the extras and top details, it should look like the image below.

Step 9

Select your Live Paint group and set the fill and stroke to none. Press the Forward Slash key then X then the Forward Slash key to do this quickly. Make the "d" layer visible again, but make sure only the "c" layer is unlocked. Now you can use the Live Paint bucket (K) to fill in your flat colors. Fillable areas are highlighted with a red outline, like in the image below.

Step 10

If a path doesn't seem to fill correctly, pull points with the Direct Selection Tool (A), or extend paths with the Pen Tool (P), as shown in the image below. Outline view is very helpful for this, so switch back and forth as you need to by pressing Command + Y.

You may find it easiest to have the Live Paint group deselected and to view in normal view when filling areas. Sometimes the fill color won't stick in outline view or if any paths are selected.

Step 11

After a while, your flat color should look something like the image below. The belt buckle is on the "d" layer above and filled with a gradient. Use the Gradient Tool to adjust the angle of the gradient. Don't forget to change the fill color for the eyebrows and paint the irises.

Step 12

Use the Pen Tool to draw in lines for the whites of the eyes. The fastest way to do this is to click on an end point of the lower lash line then continue the path up to the upper lash line. Deselect by pressing Command + Shift + A and do the other side. Make sure to do both eyes.

When you go back to normal view, you may want to adjust the positioning of the points for the eye whites, so that they don't awkwardly extend past the lash lines.

Step 13

Now we can move on to shading. Lock your "Live Paint" group and choose a bright color that you are not coloring with. I usually use pink. Make sure you have no brush selected and set your stroke to 0.25 pt. You need to see the lines, but you don't want them too thick as you need to make sure the shaping is correct.

Draw outlines for the areas where you will add your shading. Some areas are easier to create shading outlines for by copying existing paths, ignore those for now. If you shaded your sketch well, use outline view to use your sketch as a guide. When you're done outlining, use the Magic Wand Tool (Y) to select all the paths.

Step 14

With your shading paths selected, press the Forward Slash key to change the stroke to none then send them to the back of the layer by pressing Command + Shift + Left Bracket key. Unlock the "Live Paint" group and drag your selected paths into it.

The easiest way to drag them is to select the square on the right side of the layer (see the topmost red square in the image below) and drag that into the Live Paint group. When done correctly, you will see only your "Live Paint" group in the layer, but your paths will still be selected.

Step 15

Deselect the paths and fill with your shading colors. Make adjustments as needed if there are gaps between paths that prevent you from filling. When the bulk of the shading is completed for Live Paint, move to your "sh" layer to start adding extra details.

I like to add a shaded accent to the eyes (alternatively, the accent can be lighter than the iris), and add small shading paths for the lips and the nose. You can also add shiny details to the skin and clothing. Use shiny accents on the skin minimally, you usually don't want you character to look like they have greasy skin.

Step 16

To make the line work more subtle, you can go back to your "d" layer and start cutting your paths (but don't delete anything) any time a line crosses an area of one color to another. then, select the lines for an area and change the stroke color to be a little darker than your shading color. Leave the pupils black. You can use a dark brown for the eyelashes. Note that a really dark brown may print as a rich black.

For the hair shine, use a white fill set to 60% transparency on the "sh" layer. Having the hair shine below the line work allows the lines to remain dominant while you add dimension.

Step 17

Suko is wearing jeans, so let's fix the details on his pants to add some thread. Select the paths you want to change and discard the brush style. Then change the color to a dark yellow or light, warm brown. Set the stroke weight to 0.5pt with a 2pt dash and 1pt gap. You can also draw any additional paths you want to look like thread.

Step 18

The rose is drawn and colored the same way as the rest of the art. However, you will need to copy some of the paths from Suko's "d" layer to overlap the edges where his fingers touch the rose. Cut off and delete any excess.

For the thorns, I draw little chevrons that overlap the stem. The thorns will use the same base color and stroke as the stem. The image below shows the thorns overlapping the stem in outline view and the initial shading. You can add some shine details to the rose as well. Use a pale pink for the shine on the rose petals, and use the skin base color on the leaves set to 60% transparency.

Step 19

To create a shadow for the character, there are two methods. Either you can use the "live paint" group to create a drop shadow (set to multiply and 40% transparency), or you can create a shadow path. If you want to be able to rotate or modify the shape of the shadow, you need to use a path for the shadow.

Since I want to rotate and modify the shadow shape, I copied the outer paths from the "d" layer and pasted them onto a new layer below all other layers, the "shadow" layer. Convert these paths into a Live Paint group and fill with a single color (I used a 40% gray).

Make sure you leave the appropriate blank holes that coincide with the art above. When you're done filling, expand the "Live Paint" group by clicking the Expand button in the top toolbar or selecting Object > Live Paint > Expand from the menus. Then click on Merge in the pathfinder palette to remove any overlapping paths and simplify the shape. You will now have a compound path. If there are any stray points in the middle of your compound shape, select them with the Direct Select Tool (A) and delete.

Step 20

Soften the edges of the shadow by selecting Effect > Stylize > Feather from the menus. Set the feather radius to 10 px. Adjust the positioning of the main shadow path and scale to 99% horizontal, 95% vertical (Object > Transform > Scale).

Rotate the path slightly. Use the Ellipse Tool to create a shadow for the rose. Set the feather radius to 8 px, and don't forget to move the path a little below the rose.

When you're done, it should look something like the image below. Remember to set your shadows to multiply if you will be adding a background. Depending on your background color, you may also want to adjust the fill color of the shadows later.

Step 21

Now's the time to double-check that we haven't missed any details.

We're missing the shading cast by Suko's hairline, so we'll add that now. Lock your "Live Paint" group. Unlock the "d" layer and select only the paths you need to copy for one area (e.g. the hairline), copy them and re-lock the layer.

Then, paste in front on your "c" layer and offset the paths by moving them with the Selection Tool (V). You may want to discard the brush style and change to a pink stroke again. Cut off any excess of the paths you just moved. When you have deleted all the excess, select the paths with the Magic Wand Tool (Y) and drag to the "Live Paint" group as before. Now you can fill in the shading for that area. Fix any gaps as needed.


And here's the final image with a simple, gradient background. You can use a more detailed background if you prefer. I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and learned something new!

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