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How to Create a Professional Candidate Caricature Illustration

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Read Time: 10 min

This tutorial will take you through the entire creative process for developing and creating a precision vector based caricature illustration. You can learn more about the illustrative design creative process at my site Let's get started with this tutorial.


Rather than focusing on a tip or trick approach for you to repeat, this tutorial will take you inside a complete creative process you'll be able to adapt and customize for your own illustrative projects moving forward. In a nutshell, it goes beyond mere tools, and gives you insight into laying a proper foundation for creating well crafted vector artwork.

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 1a

Even when creating vector art, the ultimate success or failure of your final product will come down to the fundamentals and how strong of a creative foundation you build upon. This requires not just tool skills in AI, but also analog skills like thumbnailing, sketching, and refined drawing of you art you'll then flesh out in vector form.

This shows my initial thumbnail sketch. I was pulling this from memory. At this point you want to capture the raw essentials, don't worry if it's not dialed in because you'll be making improvements as you move forward. Just work out the basic idea no matter how loose it may appear at this point.

Step 1b

When drawing a caricature of anyone you need to study their face. Isolate those attributes that best exaggerate his/her identity. The best way to do this is to gather reference images to help you study their appearance. Sometimes the attributes you exaggerate aren't really true to life, but help the overall effect.

Step 1c

Once I know what I need to exaggerate, I draw on top of my initial thumbnail sketch tightening and improving the overall drawing, while adding details I've gleaned from the reference material.

Step 2

This may seem redundant, but I once again re-draw on top of my previous drawing, making further improvements and tightening it up even more. Note how I only need to draw half of the art since this is a symmetrical illustration.

Step 3

I scan this tighter sketch into my computer, then using Photoshop I copy the art and flip it. I want to get a good idea of how my art will feel. I then print this out and use it to draw my final art from which I'll then use to build my vector shapes from.

Step 4

Using the print out I refine my drawing and nail down exactly what my vector shapes will look like. Think of this as a blue print, it will leave no guess work as you begin creating your vector artwork. I am now ready to scan it in.

Step 5

This is my final refined drawing scanned in.

Step 6a

I place my tiff into AI, adjust the transparency so it's toned back and lock the layer. I'll be drawing on another layer above it.

I now simply start building my vector shapes following my tight sketch. There is no guess work. I know what I need to create and just follow my sketch.

Step 6b

I create my final vector shapes either point by point using the Pen Tool, or I use the Ellipse Tool. The more you can think in terms of Shapes, the easier it is to build your art in vector form. I avoid using strokes and stay with fills only.

Step 6c

Using the Pathfinder palette I select two shapes and intersect the shapes to arrive at the final shape needed. In a complex illustration, I'll perform this type of function hundreds of times.

Step 6d

When building point by point I lay down my points at the key locations. As shown in these images, the eyebrow has a total of five points at the key locations. I go in after I have all five placed and the raw shape is in place and then I adjust the bezier curves to match my scanned sketch.

Step 7a

Illustrators path editing tools are at best antiquated. With each new version Adobe adds more and more feature bloat, but rarely ever improves anything regarding the basic build methods in AI. Because of this, I use a plugin called Xtream Path by CValley Software.

Step 7b

I lay down my base shape and then go back in using the Segment Direct Edit Tool, which allows me to grab a path and bend it out or in to shape it. Far faster and easier then trying to pull out the bezier handles from the various points.

Step 7c

If you visit the CValley Software site you can see all the cool things this helpful plugin offers. The time you'll save in the long run will more then cover the price of the software.

Step 8a

I lay down my base shape and then go back in using the Segment Direct Edit Tool, which allows me to grab a path and bend it out or in to shape it. Far faster and easier then trying to pull out the bezier handles from the various points. Using the Pathfinder palette, I subtract from shape to arrive at my final shapes to create the art for the ears.

Step 8b

Once again I use the Pathfinder palette to Subtract From Shape Area to arrive at my final shape needed.

Step 9

I now have all my base vector shapes finished. You may have wondered why I use pink lines when building my base shapes? This is just my personal preference, and since I've been doing it for over a decade now, it represents the build stage of my creative process.

Step 10a

I copy my vector shapes and flip them to get everything I'll need for my final art. At this point I usually make a copy of my art and store it on an unused layer. This is just in case I screw something up later on. That way I'll have the originals I can go back to. Vector insurance if you will.

Step 10b

Using the Pathfinder palette, I Add To Shape Areas everything to create the final compound paths I need.

Step 11

Now is the time to work out your color palette and start fleshing out the color in your artwork. I like to have all my shapes finalized and read to color rather then trying to do both as I go along.

Step 12a

I like to start with the eyes most times. Mainly because it's fun. In this case, I copy and pasted some eye art from another illustration and decided to rip off myself and use it as the basis to model my new eye detail for this illustration.

Step 12b

Note the black shadow shape I created under the top eyelid. I now have selected that shape, then I set the Blend Mode to Multiply and adjust the transparency as well.

Step 13

I now have all my base coloring done. Time to create my shading detail.

Step 14a

I print out my colored version and begin drawing out how I want my shading shapes to appear. When doing this you need to know what your light source for your illustration will be. In this case it's straight ahead so once again I get away with only having to draw half and will flip it to get the other side.

Step 14b

This shows my shading tiff placed in AI. I put it on a layer above my colored art, set it to Multiply, adjust the Transparency, and then lock it.

Step 14c

Like my base vector art: I build it out, flip it, and get my final shapes.

Step 14d

I now have all my shading vector paths built.

Step 14e

I played with the density of the shadow color for a while before settling upon a nice balance that was dark enough to offset itself from the base flesh color, but not too dark as to compete with the other facial details.

Step 15a

My shading shapes were hard edged. But I want my highlights to be softer and somewhat contrast my shadowed areas, so I decided to use the radial gradient and a circle shape. I always use global colors because it makes editing far faster and easier so I suggest you get into that habit as well.

Step 15b

This shows where all my radial gradients are placed. I sandwich them behind the shadows and above the skin in terms of the layered hierarchy of this illustration. If you look at the source file you'll see what I mean.

In addition to highlights, I also created radial gradients for shadow areas to help emphasize depth and add needed contrast.

Step 15c

Getting closer. A few minor tweaks are still needed however. It's at this point, I tend to set aside my art and then approach it with fresh eyes later. I usually always spot areas I can improve on.

Step 16a

One thing I notice about my subject is his hair. You can see his scalp through his hair on the sides of his head. So I decided to mimic that via a gradient.

Step 16b

This may seem like a no brainer, but I had to play with the angle of the gradient for a while before I got the blend looking good.

Step 16c

My art is almost done now.

Step 17a

You may think this is a lame step in this tutorial. I mean come on were only talking about five small ovals right? Well it may seem less important then other aspects of this illustration but it's one of the most important.

Step 17b

Think of these hotspots as the cherry on the sundae. The illustration wouldn't look terrible without them, but it looks so much better with them. It's that nice simple finishing touch that adds a lot.

Step 18a

I wanted to review a key component in this project. The detailing of the art via the shading and highlights makes the final art what it is. Without these it would be flat and boring. This image shows you the shading and highlight detail minus the background skin color it blends into.

Step 18b

It's a balance of blend modes and transparency settings throughout. Make sure to poke around in the source file to understand this to it's fullest. Note the layering of elements as well.

Step 18c

Once the skin color is integrated everything melds together nicely. I know some may think Why not use the gradient mesh tool? Because if you can accomplish an effect with simple means, then that is the way you should do it. Don't over complicate your files. Keep them lean and mean!

Step 19

The last thing I do before using the illustration is to add a nice thick black stroke around the edge of the art. I only do this to the skin areas because the hair doesn't need it. Sure the art looks OK without it but it's far more dramatic with it. My artwork is now complete, time to put it to use.

Final Image

If I plan to use an illustration within a design context I always illustrate the artwork in it's own file. Once done I copy and paste it into my design file. In this case it's a poster design layout. My art is now completely done.

Illustration is a skill. The more you draw the better you get. Anyone can learn software so you'll make your biggest improvements by fine tuning your overall creative process, how you approach a project, how you work through it and execute the vector art. Take your time, commit to precision, and have fun!

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