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How to Create a Vector Illustration and Prepare it for Micro-Stock Sale

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There are numerous micro-stock websites that vector designers can design for and make consistent earnings through. Envato runs a few stock sites, such as Graphic River, which you may be interested in participating in. You may find the article on Freelance Switch about making money through selling your work on stock sites enlightening as well. There are some great tips in that article.

I have quite a bit of experience working with Shutterstock and iStockphoto. This tutorial details a professional workflow for creating vector illustrations and prepping the artwork for these sites. I've also included a bunch of time-saving tools and tips as well. Let's get started!


The world of vector graphics opened it's door for me after I discovered the royalty-free micro-stock community and the business possibilities for a start-up digital artist. It's been more than a year since my first vector uploaded to Shutterstock and then iStockphoto.

During this time I've collected some knowledge of how to prepare vector illustrations for sale on micro-stock websites and I would like to share it with you in this tutorial. Now I sell my vector illustrations royalty-free exclusively at iStockphoto, but I'll tell you some tips for Shutterstock as well.

You Will Learn

  • How to create a vector illustration from sketch to finish in Adobe Illustrator according to the demands of micro-stock websites.
  • How to clean up your Adobe Illustrator file before saving it in EPS format.
  • How to find and close all open paths.
  • How to save EPS and JPEG files correctly for micro-stock sale.

You Will Need

  • Paper and pencil
  • Photo camera or scanner
  • Adobe Illustrator (I used CS3, but the method works with other versions too)
  • Drawing tablet
  • Scripts for Adobe Illustrator (download them using links in this tutorial)

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Step 1: Making a Sketch

Draw a sketch of your illustration. I made this sketch with an H pencil and played with it until I was satisfied with the result. Your sketch is a reference for forms and composition of your future illustration, so work on it.

Scan your sketch or photograph it. As I do not own any scanner, I took a picture of my drawing with my camera and imported it into Photoshop. Then I clean it up and saved it in usable size for Illustrator (File > Save for Web & Devices). My sketch is 600 pixels by 786 pixels.

Step 2: Importing to Illustrator

Open Adobe Illustrator. Create a new document 700 px by 800 px (File > New). Import your sketch to Illustrator (File > Place).

Check the box Template.

Your sketch will be automatically placed on a separate layer with a lower opacity for your convenience. You could move your sketch on the artboard to find the best position. I placed my sketch a little bit to the right to give more space on the left part of the illustration.

Step 3: Creating Shapes of the Boy

Create a new layer and name it "Boy." Using the combination of Pen (P) and Shape tools create the shapes of a boy. Try to close all the shapes while you are creating them, as you need all your shapes closed in your final vector illustration for micro-stock sale.

I usually don't stick to my sketch and try to experiment with the shapes. I also refine my lines and shapes at this stage. For example, I changed the shape of the eyes. After you finish creating your shapes, your boy character should look like the image below.

Step 4: Coloring the Boy Character

Now start selecting the shapes and coloring them. At this stage you can send the parts forward or backward according to each other.

I like to add basic color to a character at this stage so that I have a nice difference. This way it doesn't get boring if I change the types of work during the process. I don't have any typical system for choosing colors. Playing around with colors to see what looks better, works for me.

So far we have the basic colored shapes of a boy. The details, shadows and highlights, as well as the map and hands of the boy, will be added after we finish creating and coloring other elements of this illustration.

Step 5: Map

Create a new layer and name it "Map." Create the shape of the map using the Pen Tool (P). Using the Pencil Tool (N), draw the shapes of a forest and lake. Make sure you close them by holding the Alt key while drawing with the Pencil Tool (N). The shapes that reach the edge of the map should go beyond it.

Using the Pencil Tool (N) with a stroke color, no fill, and set to 1 pt, draw the paths in the forest. The lines should reach beyond the main shape of the map. Select them and expand (Object > Expand), then check Fill and Stroke. Use the Pen Tool (P) and Rectangle Tool (M) to create houses.

Select each shape with the Selection Tool (V) and color the shapes.

Duplicate the base shape of the map and put the copy in front. Lock the base shape (Object > Lock > Selection). Now select all the shapes together with the copy of the main shape and press Crop in the Pathfinder menu. Unlock the base shape. You should have a result similar to the image below.

Now we will be making the folded edges of the map. With the Pen Tool (P) or Line Segment Tool (\), draw the lines where the edges of the folded parts of the map should be. Theses lines should go beyond the main shape.

Next select all the lines together with the map shapes and click Divide in the Pathfinder menu. Ungroup the object.

Your map will be cut into small pieces. Carefully group all the objects of each folded part of the map together.

Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to color the darker and the lighter parts of the map. Group the whole map together.

Use the Pencil Tool (N) to draw the shapes of the hands. Color them, group and put them in front of the map.

Step 6: Squirrel

Create a new layer and name it "Squirrel." Use the Pencil Tool (N) to create a rough shape of the squirrel. Always close the shapes by holding down Alt. Where the shape should close in a corner, use the Pen Tool (P). Use the Ellipse Tool (L) for the eyes. For the whiskers use the Pen (P) or Pencil (N) Tools (0,5 pt, flat brush, white stroke, no fill).

Color the shapes.

Step 7: Road Sign

Create a new layer and name it "Road sign." Using Shape Tool, create the shapes of the road sign. I used the Rounded Rectangle Tool for the post and the Rectangle Tool (M) for the upper arrow. To make the point of the arrow I added the point with the Add Anchor Point Tool (+) in the center of the right side of the shape and dragged it to the side with the Direct Selection Tool (A).

Copy the shapes, reflect (right-click > Transform > Reflect > Vertical). Make two copies and position the lower arrows in their places on the post. Use the Ellipse Tool (L) for the nails. Color all the shapes.

Step 8: Ground

Create a new layer and name it "Ground." Use the Pen Tool (P) to create the shape of the grass. Close the shapes carefully. I didn't follow the sketch precisely and extended the grass a bit to the left.

Use the Pencil Tool (N) for the rough shapes of the flowers and the Ellipse Tool (L) for bright shapes in the center of each flower. Create stems of the flowers using the Pen (P) or Pencil (N) Tools (0,5 pt, flat brush, green stroke, no fill).

Using Pen Tool(P) create the shape of the road. Use Pencil Tool(N) for the stones. Remember to hold Alt while drawing the shapes to close them.

Color the shapes.

Step 9: Sky

Create a new layer and name it "Sky." With the Rectangle Tool (M), create a big rectangle the size of your artboard (700 px by 800 px). Align it to Artboard using the Align palette.

Make a gradient that goes from a more intensive blue to a lighter blue. I like to select a color, apply it to the gradient on both sides and then adjust each side in the Color palette.

Create shapes of the clouds with the Pen Tool (P) and apply the gradient to them using the same technique as with the sky, but make the colors lighter. Use the Pen Tool (P) to create the shapes of the birds and color them.

Step 10: Details, Shadows, and Highlights

At this point your illustration should look like the image below.

You can create a separate layer to place all the details, shadows and highlights of the illustration, but I will add the details on every layer one by one starting with the boy character.

Create the shapes of the shadows with the Pen Tool (P) and color them darker than the color of the main shape. Repeat this process with the highlights on the hat, hair and the bottle etc., but use lighter colors than the main shapes.

Create shapes for the cheeks and the shadow near the nose with a gradient from skin color to the darker color. I decided to change the cheeks of the boy to smooth round ones at this stage.

Make the lines on the shoe soles by drawing two identical lines and placing them to the left and to the right of the white rectangle. The lines should go beyond the rectangle above and beneath it.

Then blend them (Object > Blend > Blend Options... > Blend distance > 4 px, then Object > Blend > Make).

Expand the strokes (Object > Expand...) Copy the rectangle of the shoe sole and place it in front of the lines. Select them all and crop (Pathfinder menu > crop).

Use the same technique with the lines on the t-shirt. I made the lines freehand in different directions. Create the shapes of details, shadows and highlights on all the layers one by one. At this point, you should have a finished vector illustration that should look like the image below.

But this vector is not yet ready for the sale on micro-stock website. Now we will prepare this illustration for micro-stock sale.

Step 11: Closing All Open Paths

Create the copy of your vector illustration file and name it "traveler_stock.ai". Open it in Adobe Illustrator. Delete the layer with your sketch. It is a raster image and we should have only vector in our file.

Your vector illustration should not contain any open paths. The examples of open paths are: broken outlines of shapes, single points, or brush strokes.

Our illustration is rather complex, so it is difficult to find all the open shapes in it at once. For this purpose you can use the Select menu, which is a free plugin for Adobe Illustrator. Download it, install it and use it on your illustration to find all open paths. After you've installed it and relaunched Illustrator, you can find the script in Illustrator under Menu > Select > Open Paths Directory.

After that you can close them by hand or use other useful scripts for Adobe Illustrator, like Close Selected Paths and Close All Paths that you can download via this this link (found on iStockphoto forum). These plugins will brilliantly help you with your broken shapes, but they will do you no good with stray points and single strokes.

You should carefully separate these three types of open paths in your illustration and close them with a separate methods. Stray points should be simply deleted and strokes should be expanded (Object > Expand > Fill and Stroke).

After you've installed the scripts, you'll find them in File > Scripts Directory.

Step 12: Check for Transparencies, Hidden and Locked Objects

Now that we have closed all the shapes in our vector illustration, we can check it for transparencies. You can not use any transparencies in your vector for micro-stock sale because as you save it in EPS 8 format all your transparencies will become open shapes. Check carefully for any transparencies that you might have used by mistake.

Also, go to the Object menu to see if there are any hidden or locked objects in your illustration. If yes, unlock them and show them all by pressing Unlock All and Show All.

Step 13: Making Groups

Go to every layer one by one and group all parts of every object together (e.g. all parts of the boy character like basic shapes, details, shadows and highlights should be grouped together).  This is important because in the EPS 8 file that you will create later there will be no layers, and without objects grouped together you will have a mess of pieces for your client to download. I also make the sub-groups inside of the bigger groups (e.g. hat is a sub-group and boy is a group).

Step 14: Cleaning Your Palettes

Go to your Swatches palette and click on the drop-down menu. Click on Select All Unused... and as all the swatches that you haven't used are highlighted, press on the Delete Swatch button. Do the same with your Brushes palette.

Step 15: Saving EPS 8 File

Go to File > Save As, select the location and click on the drop-down menu, then choose Format > Select Illustrator EPS (eps) > Save.

The EPS Options panel appears. From the Version menu select Illustrator 8 EPS. Leave the rest at the defaults and press Save. You should now have an EPS file appropriate for sale on micro-stock website.

Step 16: Saving JPEG File

Go to File and select Save For Web and Devices. When the window appears select JPEG as the type of file.

Go to image size tab below and set the height to 2800 pixels, the width will be automatically set to 2450 pixels. The iStockphoto rule is that you need an image with the sides not smaller than 2800 px by 1900 px or visa verse. Press Apply and Save.

For Shutterstock you need to save a much smaller JPEG file. Use the same directions for that. You can also save ZIP archive for uploading additional files to iStockphoto like AI files or different versions of EPS files.

For the last couple of months I've been using a script for saving files for micro-stock website that my husband Alex wrote for me. It is working great and saves me some time. It is called "Save For Stocks". This script saves an EPS8 file, 2800 px by 1900 px JPEG for iStockphoto and a smaller JPEG for Shutterstock. You can download it for free and read the instructions at my website.


At this point you should have a package of files ready for upload to micro-stock websites and sale.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and found the information useful and that it will help you with your micro-stock vector experience. If you have other tips and tricks for preparing your vector illustrations for micro-stock websites, I would be happy to hear from you. Below is another look at the final image.

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