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How to Create a Portrait With One Colour in Adobe Illustrator

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

When you've not created a new vector in a while, Adobe Illustrator can seem very scary. And if you've been creating vectors as long as I have, you don't want your first vector in over a year to be a "run of the mill" one or predictable. You want to set yourself a challenge, whilst still in your comfort zone.

In today's tutorial, I'm going to show you how to create a portrait by following a stock image, using only one colour. So the final image above may seem like click bait, and you'd be right in saying that's more than one colour... but the portrait itself is entirely one colour. Check out the one-colour portrait and the colourful one below:

Comparing portraits

There are only a couple of steps at the end to add the colour and crop, which use only three additional colours. This is an advanced vector portrait tutorial, so previous knowledge of creating portraits is required. If you're looking to learn how to create detailed vector portraits, please check out my main tutorials and video courses, available here on Envato Tuts+.

So without further ado, let's get started!

1. Pick Your Stock Image & Prepare

Step 1

You can pick any stock image you want to work with for this exercise, as the steps and theory work behind this will be the same. I've specifically picked this stock image as there's nothing too complicated about it (a simple hairstyle, no difficult shadows/lighting effects, and it looks fun to vector).

If your stock image isn't black and white, then modify it in your software of choice. I've also rotated and cropped the image over in Adobe Photoshop.

Reference image

Step 2

Open up Adobe Illustrator and create a new document. I've set up my Layers panel with the reference image File > Placed in the bottom layer, a 50% white rectangle over the image in BG, and then a new layer for my bases.

Layers panel

2. How to Create Skin Shading With One Colour

Step 1

For all of the shapes I'll be creating, I'll be using a mid-grey (#999999). The trick for this project is to play with different Blending Modes and Opacities. I'll be letting you in on which settings I use for this throughout.

So let's start by creating the base layer for the skin. I use the Pen Tool (P) for this to maintain accuracy. I often switch between the Pen Tool and the Pencil Tool (N) depending on the level of detail required. 

Create the base shape

Step 2

If you've tried my other portrait tutorials, you'll be familiar with the process I'm going to use for the skin shading. I use a duplicate of the skin base layer and use Pathfinder > Minus Front to remove shapes to create large shapes of shading. I will then combine the shapes into a Compound Path (Control-8) to keep them organised into "single" objects.

Creating Compound Paths

Step 3

Once the initial shapes are created, set these to Blending Mode Multiply and Opacity to 7%. Blending Mode Multiply and Color Burn are both great modes to use to darken your colours. Blending Mode Multiply will darken overall, whereas Color Burn works more by enhancing contrast. 

Initial Skin Shading

Step 4

Smaller, more focused shapes will have a higher Opacity. So these shapes are set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 15%.

Darker areas

Step 5

As these shapes are overlapping the skin shading base, I'm going to use a duplicate of the skin base shape to create a Clipping Mask (Control-7).

If you're going to be adding multiple shapes to a clipping mask, I would suggest keeping each type of shape (as in settings, colour, etc.) within its own Group (Control-G) as it will be easier to go back to. Organised vector files are the best vector files!

Use Groups and Clipping Masks

Step 6

Here's where the Pencil Tool (N) comes in handy. I like to create the highlights on the skin using radial gradients as they create soft edges. This helps the highlights blend into the shapes below. 

I tend to go over the top with the gradients as well and reduce their Opacity to a low percentage as this helps to create an even more seamless effect.

Highlight shapes

These gradients are set to Blending Mode Screen, Opacity 15%. They're then Grouped (Control-G) and included in the shading clipping mask.

Highlight gradients with the Gradient Tool

Step 7

A tip for when you're working with shadow and strong light sources from one direction is to use duplicates of the skin base and fill it with a transparent radial gradient. I'm using an inverse one here, set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 100%, and placing it underneath all the other shading. 

You can see from the placement of the source with the Gradient Tool (G) that the transparent source, where there will be no darkening, is where the highlight is on the face. Therefore it darkens the edges, and especially the mid-back area on the shape. 

Shading the back

Step 8

You can do a similar thing with multiple gradients on a duplicate of the base shape, by using the Appearance panel. 

Here I'm adding highlights to the cheekbone (x2), the forehead, and the shoulder. I've used Blending Mode Screen as it adds overall lightening rather than Color Dodge which works with contrast.

Adding Highlights

Step 9

When you want to darken areas further, Blending Mode Color Burn is the way to go. And if you want a smooth transition of contrasted darkness, then using a transparent radial gradient helps.

I've used the Pencil Tool (N) to create shapes where I need more intense darkness. These are set to Opacity 10%. A little goes a long way with Color Burn.

Adding contrast

3. How to Add Detailing to the Face

Step 1

When it comes to adding details to a monochrome image such as this, you don't need to put too much detailing into the focal points, such as the eyes and lips. This is where you can rely solely on tracing the image underneath with the Pen Tool or Pencil Tool

For the eyes, I've used radial gradients again, and these are set to Blending Mode Screen, Opacity 30% as I want to create shapes which are lighter than what is underneath.

Creating the eyes

Step 2

For the teeth I've done a similar process of creating lighter shapes... this time with a solid fill and set to Blending Mode Screen, Opacity 15%.

Teeth close up

Step 3

I'm going to add darker detailing around the eyes by adding solid shapes of Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 40%. Use higher opacities sparingly as you don't want to have so much contrast it sticks out above everything else.

Darkening the eyes

4. How to Vector the Hair

If you're new to creating vector hair, may I recommend two of my tutorials. One will especially be helpful, as we're creating short hair.

Step 1

For the hair, I'm going to be using solid shapes and a tapered Art Brush

You can create your brush using a squashed Ellipse (L) and then Convert Anchor Points to Corners for the points on either side. Alternatively, you can purchase this brush as part of a Hair Brush set available on Envato Market.

Create a taper brush

Step 2

In order to lay the strands of hair, I'm going to need to work from a base shape. 

Using the Pen Tool, I've created a shape on top of all the shading layers and one underneath all the shapes, so I have hair behind her head. 

Create the hair base shape

Step 3

For the time being, I'm going to darken the hair so I can see it in comparison to the skin shading. 

I'm going to add strands of hair around the outside of the base shape with the Paintbrush Tool (B). Depending on how big you've created your brush, start by adding larger Stroke Weight strands first and then adding smaller ones. I started with 10 pt Stroke Weight and then 3-4 pt.

Adding hair strands

Step 4

As I want to keep the same colour throughout, I then selected all the strokes and Object > Expanded them. I then combined them with the top hair base, using Pathfinder > Unite. I've then applied the below Appearance panel settings to create a dark grey without straying from my original plan.

Creating the hair

Step 5

I use the taper brush for the eyebrows and eyelashes too. The eyebrows are set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 50%.

Adding the eyebrows

Step 6

The eyelashes are set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 100%

Do not add the eyelash and eyebrow shapes to the skin base clipping mask as you may trim off any hairs which overlap the base.

Adding the eyelashes

Step 7

To add depth and detailing to the hair, I've added strokes with our tapered Art Brush set to Blending Mode Screen, Opacity 5%. I've overlapped the strokes several times to create varied levels of highlight throughout. 

My tutorial on creating vectored short hair goes into this process in more depth if you want to learn more.

Adding details to the hair

5. How to Add Finishing Touches & Colour

Step 1

You could leave the portrait as it is; however, I do like to tinker with my portraits towards the end.

In this case, I've added my standard collection of moles on the skin. I love adding them to the skin as no one's skin is flawless, and moles hold a lot of symbolism

I also added texture around the eyes by using Blending Mode Screen and Color Dodge to add dots to create a glitter effect. I added lines around the lips and nose to add a highlight to help define these areas better.

Adding details to the face

Step 2

You could finish your portrait now, and here would be the end result you'd be aiming for with just one colour:

One colour portrait

However, I want to add a dash of colour and do some easy cropping. 

I first add a pink to blue gradient, using only two colours. This is included in a filled Rectangle (M) over the top of the portrait with the below Appearance panel settings.

Adding colour

Step 3

I finish off the portrait by adding a white filled shape of an Ellipse (L) removed from a Rectangle (M) to create a curved edge to the back area. 

You could do this with a clipping mask, but it can be memory intensive when you're working with so many shapes. Sometimes it's easier to cover up the area with a white shape.

Adding a curved crop

Awesome Work, You're Done!

Thanks for joining me in this project. I'd love to see what others have created with just one fill colour or using very few colours. 

It's not the first time I've used a limited palette for a portrait. You can check out my four colours portrait if you're looking for something more vibrant. 

Until next time, happy vectoring!

Final result
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