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How to Make a Parrot Illustration with Custom Brushes

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Read Time: 8 min

In this tutorial, I will show you how I made this parrot illustration. You will learn how to use the standard Illustrator brushes and make your own brushes to add more detail to your illustrations, for example the feathers on the parrot. You will also learn how to make a thick outline around your subject and how to make a soft focus background with the Mesh Tool.

Final Image Preview

Below is the final image we will be working towards. Want access to the full Vector Source files and downloadable copies of every tutorial, including this one? Join Vector Plus for just 9$ a month.

Step 1

Normally you would start with a sketch, then make the line-art, add the base colors and finally add some shading and your illustration is finished. For this tutorial that's only the state where we just begin. As you can see in the image below, I already made the line-art and colors for my parrot illustration. Here is the reference photo I used.

I only used the Pen Tool for this and made sure I painted everything on a different layer. This is handy if you want to select and edit specific parts. You can lock the layers you don't want to edit, which makes it easier to select the things you do want to edit.

I made the base colors in 1 layer, shading for each body part on different layers and placed line-art on different layers. For example, I wanted the claws to have a different line thickness than the rest of the body so I made them on a different layer.

Step 2

When drawing animals I always think eyes are very important. Animals have beautiful eyes and it's one of the first things viewers look at. The first opportunity to use a brush is on the white spots around the eye.

Select the Brush Tool (B) and open the Brush Window (Window > Brushes). Select the first standard Illustrator brush (2 pt Oval) and then paint some short lines around the eye, the result will be more like ovals than stripes because you are painting with an oval brush.

If you want the brush to be bigger or smaller you can double-click on the brush in the Brush Window and change the diameter. If you have a pressure sensitive tablet you can also change Fixed to Pressure and set an amount of points for Variation. In the image below you will get a 1 pt brush if you press softly and a 2 pt brush if you press harder when using a tablet.

Step 3

You can experiment with different standard Illustrator brushes and the brush options like angle, roundness and diameter. If you still can't get the exact shape like you have in mind, you can also select the shape you made and go to Object > Expand Appearance. This will break the brush into a normal vector shape and you can edit the anchor points like you are used to with normal vector shapes.

Personally I like the randomness of brushes and don't use this very often. Most of the times I remove a brush stroke if I don't like it (Command + Z) and try again and again.

Step 4

Now Let's work on the branch the parrot is sitting on. In the first image the only hint that it's wood is the color, but it looks more like brown plastic. To solve this we will add some wood texture.

In the Brush Window, click on the arrow with three horizontal lines next to it, just under the cross (see image below). Go to Open Brush Library and you will see some categories containing brush libraries. Illustrator has a pretty nice collection of brushes, be sure to check them out! For this step, we will use a charcaol brush, so go to: Open Brush Library > Artistic > Artistic_ChalkCharcaolPencil.

Step 5

I made the textures with the brush "Charcaol pencil." For the first step, I drew some waves with the Charcaol pencil and stroke set to 0.5. In the second step, I used the same brush, but with a darker fill color and stroke set to 1.0. This time I also drew some circles instead of only waves.

Step 6

Now you know how to use the standard Illustrator brushes. We're going to make our own brushes! We'll make a brush for the feathers of the parrot. First you have to draw one feather using the Pen Tool. It's handy if you draw it horizontal or vertical (instead of diagonal).

Select your shape and click on the arrow button in the top-right corner of the Brush Window, then go to New Brush. In the new window that will pop up choose New Art Brush. Don't delete the original shape you made with the Pen Tool, as you will need it for making more brushes.

Step 7

Now you can set the options for your new brush. The Direction is very important. Here you can see why it's handy to draw your shape horizontal or vertical.

If you use a diagonal shape, it will not follow the line you make. In this window you can also change the size, but it's handy to get the size right before you make the brush. At the top of the window you can also give your brush a name, which is handy if you want to use your brush more often.

Step 8

Your new brush will appear in the Brush Window. Try it out by drawing some random lines next to your real drawing, just to see how your brush reacts. Draw straight lines, curved lines, go from right to left, from left to right, vertical, etc.

Maybe you want to change the direction or the size, you can do that by double-clicking on your brush in the Brush Window. Once you're satisfied with your brush, you can start painting your first feathers.

Step 9

To achieve some depth I will paint multiple layers of feathers, each with a different color. The feathers on top will have brighter colors because they get more light. To make the same brush in a different color simply select the single feather you made with the Pen Tool, change the color and make a new brush like in Steps 6 and 7. I also set the size of the top feathers to 60%, which makes them smaller.

Step 10

For the feathers on his belly and wings I made a second brush because the feathers are smaller and thinner in those areas. You can see the shape of the brush in the image below with the result on his belly next to it.

Step 11

If you want to use as many brush strokes as I did in this illustration, I highly recommend a drawing tablet. It's possible with a mouse, but it just goes quicker with a tablet.

It also isn't necessary to cover your whole drawing with feathers or texture, as this effect also looks great if you only use it on certain areas where you want some extra detail. After I'm done with all the brush strokes (this took me a lot of hours), my parrot looks like the image below.

Step 12

There are two more tricks before this image is finished. First I made a thick outline around the parrot. Unlock all layers that contain line-art and lock all other layers.

Select all line-art and copy it (Command + C). Make a new layer under all other layers and paste the line-art in the exact same place, you can do this by pressing Command + F instead of Command + V. With Command + V it will past in the middle of the screen. Using Command + F will paste it in the same place you copied it from, which is what we want.

Now set the stroke size higher than the other line-art. I used 5 pt while my normal line-art is 2 pt. This will make a thick outline around your subject because the lines in the middle of the drawing are hidden by the colors. You can see the result in the image below.

Step 13

Now the illustration only needs a background. I made a background with the Mesh Tool. First draw a normal rectangle with the Rectangle Tool (M) and make it the right size. Then select the Mesh Tool (U) in the toolbar and click somewhere in your rectangle.

A white anchor point will appear every time you click. Each anchor point can hold a different color and the lines between it will make a gradient that changes the color of one point to the color of another point. Make a few points, then select a point with the Direct Selection Tool (A) and change the color. Do this with a few points and then move the points and lines around. Simply play around until you get a nice result.

I was going for the look of a soft focus photo of a forest.


The final image is below. Have fun applying these techniques in your work.

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