Do you want to learn how to draw in Illustrator? In this tutorial, I'll show you how to draw a vector illustration step by step, proving to you that Illustrator is not as scary as it may seem. It may not be as intuitive to use as raster drawing apps, but if you don't have a graphics tablet, you'll love how precise you can be with these tools!
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What You'll Learn in This Illustrator Basic Drawing Tutorial
- How to draw in Adobe Illustrator
- How to draw line art with Illustrator
- How to create a simple drawing using Illustrator
- How to color line art in Illustrator
- How to shade in Illustrator
1. How to Prepare the Sketch
Let's get started then! Create a New Document. In Illustrator, the resolution is not that important—you can always change it later without any loss.
Now, go to the upper right corner and set the Workspace to Painting. This will give you better access to all the tools you need in your illustration work.
Although it's possible to sketch in Illustrator, it would be counter-productive, since there are other programs better equipped for this job. So create your sketch in a separate program, or even traditionally, and paste it onto the canvas. You can also download my sketch.
Take the Selection Tool (V) and grab one of the corners of the image. Hold both the Shift and Alt keys, and drag until you fill the whole canvas with your sketch.
Double click on Layer 1 and check Template. Set Dim Images to 20%. We want this sketch to be visible, but not distracting.
The sketch is now locked so that you don't draw on it by accident. Create a New Layer by clicking the plus icon at the bottom of the Layers panel.
2. How to Draw Line Art in Illustrator
Next in this Illustrator basic drawing tutorial, let's look at line art. There are at least four ways of drawing lines in Illustrator—you should choose the one that works the best for the task at hand.
1. The Paintbrush Tool (B)
First, you can simply use the Paintbrush Tool (B). Press D to reset the swatches, and then draw a few test lines. You can change the size of the brush by holding the square bracket keys: [ and ]. Some brushes, however, can only be resized by selecting the Stroke Weight in the upper bar.
You can change the style of the brush by clicking the presets in the Brushes panel. There aren't many Illustrator brushes in there by default, but you can open the menu in the upper right corner and select Open Brush Library. If you select any of the sets, it will open as a new window. You can keep all your sets in one window, or in separate windows for easier access.
If you double-click the Paintbrush icon in the toolbar, you'll get access to a couple of useful settings. First, if you feel your lines are too shaky, you can tell Illustrator to smooth them out for you by dragging the Fidelity slider to the right.
If the opposite is the case—if you feel the lines are not as precise as you would like—drag the slider to the left.
If you check both Keep Selected and Edit Selected Paths, you'll be able to edit the recently drawn line just by drawing over it. And if you want to modify any older line, just select it with the Selection Tool (V) and you'll be able to change it the same way. However, if you want to draw a lot of lines next to each other, it's better to leave the Keep Selected option unchecked.
If you have a graphics tablet with pressure sensitivity, you can also use it in your drawing. Just double-click the brush on the list, set the Size to Pressure, and increase the Variation. This will give you that familiar tapered line effect.
You may notice that various Illustrator brushes have various settings once you double-click them. This is because Illustrator has five types of brushes. If you want to learn more about these types, check out this tutorial:
If you want to simply draw lines, without worrying about the brush properties, you can also use the Pencil Tool (N).
2. The Pen Tool (P)
The paintbrush method is great for drawing if you have a graphics tablet. However, if you have a mouse, you may need a more precise method. The second method is the Pen Tool (P). With this tool, you can draw your lines segment by segment, turning these segments into curves by clicking and dragging. We call such lines paths.
It may look complicated at first, but just take a close look at what happens here. When you're dragging the anchor point—the end of the segment—two handles appear. When you drag one handle, the opposite one moves too. That opposite handle pulls the line to itself like a magnet. So you can create any curve you want by moving that handle in a chosen direction.
Once you release that anchor, the new segment will be automatically pulled to the handle you were dragging before. This ensures a smooth transition between both segments.
But if you don't like it, and you'd rather draw the new curve manually, hold the Alt key and click the previous anchor. This will remove that second handle and will allow you to draw a new segment on your own.
If you want to stop drawing the line, press Escape. To deselect the line, click the canvas with the Selection Tool (V), or use the shortcut Control-Shift-A. If you want to continue drawing after that, just click the last anchor point with the Pen Tool.
You can also modify the line after it's been drawn. You can remove the anchor points by clicking them, or add new anchor points by clicking on the segments.
If you hold the Control key, you can select the anchor points to move them or to drag their handles.
You can also hold the Alt key and adjust the shape of the curves directly by dragging them.
If you click an anchor point between two segments with the Alt key, you'll remove its handles—and by dragging, you can create them from scratch.
Alternatively, you can use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to drag the points around without having to hold any keys.
Now, let me show you a cool thing. If you draw a line with the Paintbrush Tool, then select it with the Selection Tool (V) and pick the Pen Tool, you'll notice it's made of anchor points too—and it can be modified the same way! So even if you have a graphics tablet and you prefer to draw with the Paintbrush, understanding the Pen Tool will give you more control over the shape of your lines.
Because it's so easy to modify the paths, here's a very simple trick to make drawing with the Pen Tool more efficient. Instead of dragging the curves, just click around the shape you want to draw. Then add the handles by holding the Alt key and dragging the points, or move them with the Control key, or add or remove the points.
3. The Curvature Tool (Shift-~)
If you still find the Pen Tool too complicated, Illustrator offers a simplified version of this tool—the Curvature Tool (Shift-~). The general rule is the same, but it's much more intuitive to use—there are no handles, and the line just curves as you change direction. And to modify its shape afterwards, you don't have to remember any shortcuts—just click and drag. The cool thing is, you can modify any path with this tool—no matter what tool you used to draw it!
4. The Ellipse Tool (L)
The last method is useful especially for outlining big, smooth shapes. Instead of drawing the lines, draw an oval with the Ellipse Tool (L)—hold the Alt key to have more control over its position. Resize it by dragging its sides to roughly fill the shape that you want to outline.
Then take the Pen Tool or the Curvature Tool and drag the outline to reshape it like a piece of clay. This method may be less precise than the others, but this is the point—the lines drawn this way will seem smoother, simpler, and more deliberate.
Another useful trick is that you can create complex shapes out of simple shapes. Just draw multiple shapes, select them, and draw over them with the Shape Builder Tool (Shift-M). This will give you a nice, complex shape without having to draw it by hand.
We've been talking about drawing lines for a while, so let's now talk about erasing. If the line doesn't make a closed shape—its beginning and end are not connected to each other—then you can simply use the Eraser Tool (Shift-E) on a selected path.
If the line makes a closed shape, it's not so easy—Illustrator applies the eraser to the shape, not to its outline. If you want to edit the outline, there are a couple of ways to do it.
First, you can turn the outline into a shape. Go to Object > Path > Outline Stroke. Now you can use the Eraser on it normally, but the line is no longer a path, and you can't edit it like one.
The alternative is the Scissors Tool (C). You can select the segment of the path that you want to remove by clicking on it twice. Then press Delete to remove it.
You can also erase with the Shape Builder Tool (Shift-M)—if one shape intersects the other, you can remove the intersected part by drawing over them with this tool.
Sometimes you can even make erasing automatic. For example, if you draw an eye, you may want to draw the iris with an oval, but some part of the oval will land outside of the eye. To avoid this, select the eye shape, go to the toolbar on the left, and click the third icon from the bottom. Select Draw Inside. Now anything you draw will be automatically cut to the selected area.
If, after doing this, the stroke of the eye disappeared for you, go to the Stroke settings and make sure the Align Stroke to Center option is selected. Also, remember to go back to Draw Normal mode after you're done.
Draw the Line Art
Now that you know how to draw the lines, finish your line art. Use your favorite method of the ones I've just presented, or use a mix of them, switching between them depending on the task.
During the drawing, you may find it useful to go into the Outline Mode—press Control-Y to see the paths better.
When cutting or erasing a part of the shape, it's also good to separate the shape from the rest by double-clicking it. You can go back to the previous mode with the Escape key.
You may notice that drawing in Illustrator is more like building—it's more precise, and because in vector art every line counts, you need to place them more deliberately. Drawing a lot of lines all over each other, like in raster art, would result in chaos. It may feel limiting to you, but you need to remember that this is what this program has been designed for—if you want to create art with a mouse, this is the way to do it.
3. How to Ink Line Art in Illustrator
Let's talk about the visual side of the lines now. As I've mentioned before, Illustrator doesn't care what tool you used to draw a line—they're all paths, and they all can be edited the same way. So just as you can choose a brush preset to paint with the Paintbrush, you can apply any of the brush presets to the existing lines. Some of them will allow you to create a tapered line effect without using the graphics tablet.
If you used the Draw Inside mode before, you may notice that some of the brush presets don't work for the Clipping Masks you've created this way. To fix it, select the group, go to Object > Clipping Mask > Release, and copy the missing outline.
Undo, and paste the outline in front with Control-F.
You can also control the width of each line in a more precise way. First, you can select a width profile from the list—experiment with them to see which one looks best on your lines.
Second, you can use the Width Tool (Shift-W). This tool allows you to change the width of any point of the line, separately from the anchor points. With this tool, you can create a piece of line art with nicely variable lines, using the mouse only. However, this method won't work on the lines drawn while using pressure sensitivity.
Finish your line art now, choosing the brush, the width of the lines, or their variable width profile. It's often good to make the main outline thicker than the other lines. Spend some time making sure that all the areas that are supposed to be separated are actually outlined with closed shapes—this will be important during coloring. Take your time and make your line art as clean and nice as possible.
When you're done, hide the sketch layer and go to Window > Pathfinder. Select your Clipping Masks and click Divide. This will cut the parts hidden by the mask.
Select the whole drawing and go to Object > Path > Outline Stroke to turn the paths into shapes. You won't be able to edit their properties anymore, but this will make them more predictable during the coloring process. Open the Pathfinder panel again and click Merge to remove the intersections.
4. How to Color in Illustrator
Let's get to coloring now! Name your layer colors. Open the Layers menu and select Duplicate. Name the copy line art, lock it, and go back to the colors layer.
Let's plan our color palette before we start coloring. Click the Swatches panel and Add a New Color Group.
Now, look at these two squares—the upper one defines Fill, and the lower one defines Stroke. So far, we've only been using black strokes without any fill, but if you want to add some color inside the outlines, you can just double-click the upper square and pick the color. You can use the same method to change the color of the stroke.
If you want to remove the fill or stroke, just select the red-crossed swatch from the list.
To add new color swatches, select the new color on either Fill or Stroke, then select the new group, and press the plus icon. Do this as many times as needed to prepare all the colors you want to use in your artwork. Of course, this doesn't mean you won't be able to choose anything else later—it will just give us something to start with.
Now, press K to access the Live Paint Bucket. This tool automatically detects the areas outlined by your line art, as if it were a coloring page. You just have to tell it what colors to use, so remove the stroke and add the chosen color to your fill. Then simply click the area that you want to fill.
You can easily load the bucket with a different swatch by using the left and right arrow keys. You can also pick swatches from the other sets.
That was easy, but such flat colors look a little boring. Let's add some gradients to the mix. First, select the whole image and click Expand in the upper bar. Now you can easily select the individual areas of color with the Direct Selection Tool (A).
Select the area that you want to add the gradient to, and take the Gradient Tool (G). Pick the style of the gradient in the upper bar, and adjust the direction of the gradient.
Then, open the Gradient panel and apply your own swatches to the gradient.
You can save the gradient as a new swatch, and then apply it to the other parts of the picture. You can easily adjust the orientation of the gradient by clicking and dragging with the Gradient Tool (G).
Our tiger won't be complete without its stripes, though! Show the sketch layer again and press Control-Y to get into outline mode. Create a New Layer and name it stripes. Lock the color layers.
Now use your chosen drawing method to draw the stripes. Feel free to go outside the main outline of the body—we're going to fix it in a minute.
When you're done, go out of Outline Mode (Control-Y), hide the sketch, and color your stripes. They may look better without a Stroke. Then, select all the stripes and go to Object > Compound Path > Make to turn them all into one shape.
Let's clip the stripes to the body now. Unlock the colors layer, copy its content, and then lock it back. Go back to the stripes layer, and paste in front with Control-F.
Open the Pathfinder and click Merge, then Unite, and go to Object > Compound Path > Make.
Then, once the selection turns into one shape, select everything and go to Object > Clipping Mask > Make.
Because the stripes are now a single object, you can select them with the Direct Selection Tool (A) and apply a gradient to them. It will look especially nice with some transparency.
You can easily make the stripes more interesting by copying them and pasting them at the back with Control-B, and then styling the copy a different way—for example, making it brighter and more transparent.
5. How to Shade in Illustrator
Let's add some shading now. Lock the stripes layer and create a New Layer. Name it shading. To quickly draw the shadows, you can use the Pencil Tool (N)—just make sure to check Fill New Pencil Strokes in its settings.
Copy the Clipping Mask from the stripes layer just as we did earlier with the eyes—release it for a second, copy the outline, undo, and paste in front with Control-F. Set the mode to Draw Inside.
Start drawing the shadows. Draw the areas of shadows separately—this will help us adjust them individually later. Remember that you don't have to be precise—you can use the colored areas in combination with the Pathfinder panel to cut that part from the shadow area. However, using a graphics tablet may mean you don't need it at all.
When you're done, select all the shadows and go to the Transparency panel. Change the Blend Mode to Multiply, and lower the Opacity to blend the shadows nicely with the body. Set the mode back to Draw Normal.
To make the shadows look even nicer, you can apply a gradient to them. Making one side of the gradient transparent will help you blend the border of the shadow—you just have to adjust the direction of the gradient to the position of the shadow.
To make the body look even more 3D, we can use the same method to add some light on the top of the body. All the steps are the same—except this time you should use Overlay instead of Multiply.
To finish the shading, let's just add a shadow on the ground. A radial gradient with transparent sides will look great here.
You can also add some detail to the eye by filling the iris with a radial gradient and adding a white highlight on top.
Now you know how to draw in Illustrator! Although this was quite a long tutorial, we've just scratched the surface of what Illustrator can do, so if you want to learn more, make sure to check out our other Illustrator tutorials!
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