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How to Create a Stylized Chinese Zodiac Icon Set in Adobe Illustrator

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:LongLanguages:
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Perfect for Chinese New Year! In this tutorial you'll learn how to draw animal characters from the ground up, trace over their contours, and add details in Adobe Illustrator CC 2014. Additionally, we'll prepare them for printing, making sure there are only two objects per icon design, so that they're ready to be compiled into a zodiac calendar with Grace Fussell.

1. Setting Up Your Document

Step 1

Open up Adobe Illustrator CC 2014 and create a New Document. Mine measures 800 px by 600 px and has the color mode set to RGB. You can change both of these settings at any time when working in Illustrator.

Create a New Document

Step 2

Select the Rectangular Grid Tool from the Toolbar and Left-Click the Artboard to bring up the tool's options. Enter in the following attributes:

  • Width: 800 px
  • Height: 600 px
  • Horizontal Dividers: 2
  • Vertical Dividers: 3

Hit OK and Align your newly made grid to your Artboard. Now you've got 12 cells in which to draw each icon. Lock the rectangular grid in your Layers panel.

Create a rectangular grid

2. Sketching Animals: Rat, Ox, and Tiger

Step 1

Let's start sketching out our animal icons! You can do this in Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, another drawing program, or on paper and import them into the program. 

If you're working in Illustrator, I've found it easiest to use the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B), keeping the Fidelity in the center of the slider, a round brush, and both the Size and Pressure Variation at 6 pt.

Draw each icon in one of the rectangular grid's cells and Group (Control-G) together the icon's components before moving on to the next design in order to keep your Layers panel organized.

Blob Brush Tool Settings

Step 2

We'll start with the rat!

  1. The head is a lumpy circle or apple-like shape. Consider the two lower sides to be the rat's chubby little cheeks.
  2. I drew large ellipses for the ears. Make the rightmost ear smaller and obscured by the head.
  3. The body is an ellipse. Note how imperfect these shapes are. You definitely have the option of using shape tools or templates as needed.
  4. Follow the curve and contour of the body shape and bring it to a point, curving toward the body itself. This will help you create the rat's tail, legs, and the bulk of the body.
Drawing the rats head

Step 3

Now we'll draw the rat's legs, tail, and details.

  1. Continue the outer contour of the rat's body to form the tail. It's thin, whip-like, and forms a C shape.
  2. The feet are curved triangles. The outer leg is a half circle.
  3. Both forefeet are curved triangles missing one side (see below).
  4. The face is simple: two U shapes for the eyes, an X for the mouth, and three little whiskers on either side. I'll be using the same (or similar) eye shapes for the entire icon set.
Drawing the rats limbs tail and face

Step 4

Next up is the ox.

  1. Start with a triangle whose leftmost corner is rounded.
  2. Cut out a triangle from the left side. This forms the mouth. If working in Adobe Illustrator, use the Eraser Tool (Shift-E) or just draw a small triangle on that side. Start the body by drawing a circle on the right side, near the face.
  3. Connect the circle to the triangle with a curving line at the top and a large curve at the bottom of the body. Draw an elongated U for the ox's ear.
  4. The legs start with simple lines: three straight and one curved.
  5. The legs sort of look like elongated Ws. Draw a small line on the right side of the ox's bottom for the tail.
  6. Finally, draw two horns, a face, and consider scallop details to later be incorporated into the final design.
Sketching out the ox

Step 5

Our next zodiac symbol is the tiger.

  1. The bottom of the head is a wide V shape.
  2. The top is a connecting curve.
  3. Start the body with the two front legs: two slightly curving lines on either side of the head.
  4. The bottom of the feet are brought in at two points with a curve in the center for the bottom of the chest.
  5. Start the rest of the body with a curve extending toward the right.
  6. The leg and feet are similar to those of the rat, which we drew earlier.
Draw the tigers basic forms

Step 6

Let's continue with the tiger.

  1. The ears are rounded triangles on either side of the head.
  2. When drawing the tail, consider a loose S shape with the end being bulbous and thick and tapering downward.
  3. I drew the tiger's stripes as little triangles scattered along the edges of the design, pointing inward.
  4. Finally, the face has U-shaped eyes, and triangles for the nose and mouth.
Draw ears a tail and details on the tiger

3. Sketching Animals: Rabbit, Dragon, and Snake

Step 1

The rabbit, or hare, is the next icon in our set of icons.

  1. The rabbit's face is similar to the rat's: sort of circular with a flat bottom (or close to flat).
  2. The ears are like a very rounded M. Note how they're angled to the upper right corner.
  3. Since the rabbit is sitting, its body starts with the right side as a backward C.
  4. Draw a straight line on the bottom of the design going to the left and little curving lines to make a note of each (visible) limb.
The rabbit is comprised mostly of curved and circles

Step 2

Add straight and angled lines for the rabbit's feet and scalloped details for the rabbit's tail. The face is similar to that of the rat's, drawn previously in this tutorial.

Complete the rabbits design

Step 3

Let's move on to the dragon.

  1. The head starts with a triangle.
  2. Add a square on to the right side of the triangle.
  3. Starting with the right side, draw a long, bumpy curving shape that forms the dragon's body.
  4. Draw a smaller line on the left side of the first to show how thick the dragon's body is.
  5. Add triangles for spikes and horns all over the dragon's body.
  6. Add a bat-like wing to the right side of the body.
  7. Finally, fill in details like limbs, an eye, and a nostril.
Draw the dragon from simple shapes

Step 4

The snake is constructed like the dragon: from triangles and curving S shapes.

  1. Start with a triangle whose bottom point is a flat edge.
  2. Starting at the leftmost corner, draw a curving S shape around to the right side to form the snake's body.
  3. Add a bumpy rattle to the tip of the snake's tail.
  4. Draw a forked snake tongue to give the snake more personality. In my final image, I decided to place the tongue to the left side so it could be more easily seen. Your design's composition, however, is entirely up to you.
  5. Finally, thicken up the snake's body and draw a small face. Remember to Group together each icon's components as you complete each design.
Snake sketches

4. Sketching Animals: Horse, Goat, and Monkey

Step 1

 The horse has a similar design to the ox.

  1. Start with a triangle whose leftmost end has been flattened out.
  2. Continue the horse's head with two straight angled lines going to the right and downward (note it does not form a perfect 90° angle).
  3. The horse's body is a jellybean or kidney-like shape.
  4. Like the ox, the horse's leftmost leg curved inward and is picked up.
  5. The other legs are rectangles.
  6. Two triangles form the horse's ears.
  7. Finally, add in details like the face, mane, tail, and saddle.
The horses design is similar to the ox

Step 2

We're going to construct the goat, another similar design to the horse and ox, differently since we're already familiar with their construction.

  1. The head starts as a less-than (<) symbol.
  2. Two triangles form the ears along with a straight line for the top of the head between them.
  3. The eye is a V or U shape.
  4. Curving, pointy shapes form each of the goat's horns.
Drawing the goats head

Step 3

  1. The top of the goat's body is a U shape while the tail is feather-like and drawn to the right side.
  2. Start the leftmost leg with a long, curving line from the center of the head and indicate the goat's chest and belly with two curves.
  3. Like the ox, the goat has four hooved feet.
  4. Finally, add details like fur lines or scalloped edges along the goat's body.
Draw the goats body

Step 4

Let's move on to the ninth design in our Chinese zodiac icon set: the monkey.

  1. Start with a heart for the face (similar to a Snub-nosed monkey or Snow monkey).
  2. Draw two C shapes for each ear and a curve for the top of the head over the heart face.
  3. The body begins with the back to the tail, drawing a curve from the center of the face heading down. Also note the leg begins with a curve as we all, similar to how the legs were drawn for the rat and rabbit.
  4. The feet are wedge-like and the arms start with two lines at a 90° angle.
  5. Continue with hatch-like notations for the monkey's hands and feet.
  6. Finally, add in details like the face and S-shaped tail.
Draw the monkey starting with a heart

5. Sketching Animals: Rooster, Dog, and Boar

Step 1

And so we begin the final set of our Chinese zodiac icons, starting with the rooster.

  1. Like many of the designs before it, the rooster starts with a triangle, this time forming a beak.
  2. The bottom of the body is a wide U shape while the tail is similar to that of the goat's.
  3. Draw assorted points that curve around the top of the of the design for the rooster's comb.
  4. Another wide U shape forms the rooster's wing.
  5. A small, curvy W forms the rooster's wattles, while two little legs were drawn from Vs and straight lines.
  6. Finally, add a U and straight line to form the rooster's eye and mouth respectively.
Drawing the rooster from an assortment of triangles and curves

Step 2

Next up is the dog.

  1. Start with a U shape for the ear.
  2. Two curving lines that meet in the center form the top of the head and face.
  3. The dog's snout is a curved V shape.
  4. Its body is similar to the rooster's in that its formed from wide U shapes, or curves starting near the head. Note how long the body looks when compared to the shapes of the rooster.
  5. Add a small tail on the right side of the design, similar to the shape of the dog's snout.
  6. I drew a quick collar so that the design looked more dog-like than duck-like.
Drawing the top half of the dog

Step 3

Finally, details like little pointy Vs for the legs and a small face finish the dog design splendidly.

Complete the dog design with little pointy legs

Step 4

Our final icon design is that of the boar. Mine is more like a cute little pig, keeping in line with the design style of the rest of the set.

  1. The ear of the boar is leaf-like or heart-like.
  2. Draw a slightly curved line from the right to the left to form the top of the head.
  3. This small curve forms the top portion of the boar's snout.
  4. A large curved line, starting at the underside of the boar's nose, moves down and around to complete the boar's head.
Draw the boars head

Step 5

  1. The boar's body is a large oval or ellipse that starts at the end of the head and curves around to the middle of the ear.
  2. Draw a little spring-like shape for the boar's tail.
  3. Its legs are elongated Ws.
  4. Finally, its face is similar to those of the previous icons: a U for the eye and a small curving line for the mouth (if desired). Add small scalloped lines or flowers to the body of the boar to complete your design.
Draw the body of the boar

Step 6

Here's a final look at my animal icon sketches. I cleaned each of them up while keeping the sketches loose and have Grouped each animal design's components together so that there are 12 separate groups in my Layers panel. Create a New Layer for each icon design and place the corresponding sketch group on it.

My final animal sketches

6. Tracing the Contours of Each Icon

Step 1

Instead of going through every icon design, I'll demonstrate how I broke down each design's contour to create a simple red silhouette. I'll use the tiger icon as an example below.

  1. Using the Pen Tool (P), start with the head and trace its contour. This is the time to make sure each side is as symmetrical as you want it to be.
  2. My next step was to take each ear as separate shapes. I traced the left one, Copied (Control-C)Pasted (Control-V)and Reflected it over a Vertical Axis.
  3. Continue tracing each component of the animal. Next are the chest and legs.
  4. Then you'll trace the body and tail.

Breaking down the design by parts allows you greater control with its silhouette, especially if your sketch was as loose as mine. If you sketch was more polished, you may want to simply trace the contour of the design in one go. Repeat this step for each of the 12 icon designs.

Trace the contour of your designs

Step 2

Some of the animal designs may benefit from the use of other tools.

  1. Once the head of the snake is drawn, use the Paintbrush Tool (B) with a 5 pt Calligraphic Brush selected from the Brushes panel to outline the snake's body.
  2. You can either draw the rest of the snake's body with the Pen Tool, or quickly draw the squiggle with the Paintbrush Tool and Join the paths together at their ends.
  3. When you've closed your path, set your stroke color to null and the fill color to the same color you're using for the rest of your design.
Use other tools to draw more difficult shapes

Step 3

Another quick technique to use is Copying and Pasting identical limbs and Reflect them over a Vertical Axis in the same manner that I described with the tiger's ears previously. Doing so will not only speed up your production time, but also continue your use of the same drawing style throughout each icon.

Copy and paste identical limbs

Step 4

When you're satisfied with each design, Select its individual red components and hit Unite in the Pathfinder panel in order to merge them together into a single Compound Shape. Repeat this for each of your 12 designs.

Unite completed designs

Step 5

Here's a look at all 12 of my zodiac silhouettes. Note how most of the details of the sketches' contour are intact, though some details changed including the snake's tongue, the dog's neck, and the shape of the dragon's feet.

The 12 zodiac sign silhouettes

7. Drawing Surface Details

Step 1

To begin, set the Fidelity of the Blob Brush Tool closer to Smooth than was set previously. Change the Size and Pressure Variation of the brush to 4 pt. If you're not using a pressure-sensitive tablet, this step won't be useful to you and instead you may want to use the Pencil Tool (N) or Pen Tool (P).

Adjust your blob brush tools options

Step 2

Move the sketch group over your compound silhouette shape in the Layers panel and lock both of them. Using the Blob Brush Tool, or the drawing tool of your choice, to trace the simple face details we drew previously for each icon design. Note how I've begun to add additional details, like those on the ears of the rat.

Start with the face details

Step 3

To show the separate between limb and body, Zoom (Z) in on the icon and carefully draw curving sliver shapes to denote the space between each arm and leg and the animal's body itself. Make sure the end of each white shape lines up with the edge of the red silhouette. Your sketch should help inform you where these shapes need to be.

Draw shapes to define the animals form

Step 4

As a means to unite each design in style, I've taken to drawing little dots for eyebrows, eyelashes on some, and flowers on each animal. Additionally, many of the animals have scallop-like designs on their backs. It's up to you on what sort of designs you add to each animal that unite the whole set with one style. Flowers, triangles, tiny clothes; whatever you use, make sure each zodiac symbol is connected in some way.

Add eyebrows eyelashes and other details

Step 5

As an example, see the three designs below for a small explanation on some of their defining features:

  1. The ox has a pointed, scalloped scruff. This shows where its head ends and body begins. It sort of works like a collar.
  2. The dragon has its nostrils and some scales defined. Later it will also have flowers drawn on it.
  3. The monkey has a wreath of flowers drawn on its head. Its face is also white while its facial features are red. You'll have to Unite the red facial features and hit Minus Front in the Pathfinder panel in order to Subtract the features from the white face.
Note some of the animals defining features

8. Prepare Your Designs for Printing

Step 1

At this point, you could call your designs complete. Note how each has a similar style and you can tell that they are a cohesive set. Or you can follow the next few steps below in order to simplify your designs and the number of paths and points that make up each.

All 12 of the final designs

Step 2

You'll want to repeat the following four steps for each of the 12 zodiac designs.

  1. Select and Unite the white details in the Pathfinder panel. Make sure, before doing so, that any stroked paths are Expanded into objects.
  2. Copy and Paste the red silhouette, change the color to white, and set it aside. Select the white details group and the red silhouette and hit Minus Front in the Pathfinder panel in order to Subtract it from the red design.
  3. Place the white silhouette you set aside previously behind the red cut-out shape in the Layers panel.
  4. Align the white silhouette behind the red cut-out shape to their centers in the Align panel.
Simplify your icons objects

Great Job, You're Done!

Finally, add a white stroke to each of the icons' white silhouette of 6 pt or so (the thickness is up to you) to really make them pop from whatever background color you've chosen for your icon set.

Now that you've completed your Chinese zodiac symbol set, continue this project in Adobe InDesign with Grace Fussell in "Creating a Zodiac Calendar to Celebrate Chinese New Year". Share your design results in the comment section below of each of these related tutorials.

The final icon designs
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