In this tutorial you will learn how to transform a fun sketch into a bold and clean vector style character that's perfect for turning into a street-art sticker. Popular in most cities around the world, stickers such as these can be seen almost everywhere you look. You will learn how to use the pen tool to make a perfect outline and some special tips and tricks on how to achieve a dynamic character style.
First we need to create a new document. You can use a similar document set up like the one I've used but it’s not too important.
Go to File > Place, and find the sketch you’ll be using and hit place. Sometimes a sketch will be too dark, so it’s best to fade it out a bit. You can do this by going into the transparency toolbar (Window > Transparency) and move the slider to around 50%.
I find it well worth working with layers, as it will help you keep track of the many different elements that we’ll eventually work with. Bring up the layers toolbox and double click on the word Layer 1, rename it to Sketch. There is an empty square next to the eye icon, click it to lock down the Sketch layer. Now create a new layer by clicking the folded paper icon (or alternatively Ctrl+ L), and rename it Lines. This layer will contain all our line work.
Ok we’re ready to start using one of the more tricky tools of Illustrator. The Pen tool. If you haven’t had previous experience with it then it can really make you crazy when using it for the first time, if you take it slow you’ll pick it up in time. Click the pen tool icon from the toolbar menu (or P).
Make your first vector point by clicking once along the line work (I suggest starting from the top), it’s now live and ready to make the second point. Make your second vector point somewhere to the left and before you let go of your mouse/wacom, slowly, and I mean very slowly, drag it down and to the left. This will start to create a curve in the line work. You should have something that looks like the example shown.
You’ll see on your second vector point there are two antenna-like points that have sprouted out of the end (caused from curving the line), we won’t worry about those now, they help in editing vector lines, but I’ll get to that later. For now continue along the sketch by making your third vector point, though before you do, click your second point again, this will delete one of the antenna-like points. Doing this will give you a bit more control of where your next line goes.
If you don’t click the second vector point again you’ll find the line may not go where you want it to and will seem to warp out too far or do something else less predictable (give it a try both ways, there’s always Ctrl+Z to undo) see if you can notice the difference. Unless you have an understanding of how vectors will react then I’d recommend working with the first option.
Continue around the artwork in this fashion. Make your vector point, click the vector point again to delete the antenna-like point, make your next vector point (curving the line in the direction you need slowly), repeat. Do this until you get get back around to the starting point and close the gap by clicking back to the original point. You’ll have something like this. Don’t worry that there may be gaps that are needed in the linework (for example, where the arm connects to the body), I’ll explain this later.
Now bring up the colour palette toolbox and change it from a coloured fill shape into a coloured stroke. Like so.
Now this will seem a little bizarre, but start to follow the vector lines you just created again, but this time make it on the inside of the line work, like so.
When you come to it, you can get some nice sharp points by bringing the lines up higher into the body, like so.
Ok, so now with both of your lines done we’re going to turn them into a fill shape to combine the two strokes in the one. To do this select both the lines by highlighting them with the black arrow tool (or V), now bring up the Pathfinder toolbox. Under the shape modes, click the "Minus Front Option" (the second from left, on the top row). This will knock out the object on top from the object below it.
From the Colour Palette toolbox, turn it from a black stroke into a coloured fill shape. Ok, now that we’ve got the body done we can keep going with the other line work. Not all the lines need to be done in the manner previously shown, most lines will be made as they are in this next step.
It’s probably best at this point to make a note. When thinking of the line work as shown in the methods here, it’s always best to think of them as fill shapes. It’s also always best (as you’ll be doing here) to work in small sections and keep things separate, eg. Hands, arms, limbs, to allow for alterations later. It will become clearer the more and more you work on the lines.
Most of the line work will be connected to the central body shape. We’ll start at the top left ear. Start by making some more vector lines that follow the sketch of the ear and continue around until you hit the body again, but don’t close the line off. Instead (and depending on the thickness of the line you want) go back over the line, as if running parallel to the original line, as shown, until you come back to the start again. Now close off the line. (I’ve shown you in pink just to give you a clearer picture.
There will be certain points in the artwork where you’ll want the ends of the lines to be looking pretty sharp (or rounded). This is easy enough. Just like how you’ve been making the lines thus far, use this example to show you how to finish off some lines.
For the mouth, use the pen tool to draw simple stroked lines, as shown here (mine are pink). You can create an oval with the Circle Shape tool in the toolbar to make the outer mouth shape if you like.
Ok so now that we have the basic stroke lines drawn up for the mouth we need to use flatten transparency, which will turn the stroke lines into fill shapes. Select the mouth lines and go to Options > Flatten Transparency and make sure the Raster/Vector Balance slider is scaled all the way up to 100 (this will make sure everything is converted to vectors) and the "Convert All Strokes to Outlines" box is checked
Now that we have an expanded line work, we need to bring up the Pathfinder toolbox again and click the top left option which is Unite, which will combine all those lines and make them into the one fill shape.
Now that it’s all grouped as one fill shape we need to delete the empty space inside, you can do this by choosing the white arrow from the toolbar (or A), this direct selection tool allows you to select individual vectors as opposed to the regular black arrow which selects entire objects.
Select just the inside area by selecting a vector like shown. Once you have selected it press the Delete button twice, the first one will get rid of the selected vector and the next will get rid of the rest of the selection. Do the same for the hole in the characters tooth too. Now you have your mouth.
As you continue to make your line work around the character sketch you’ll come across areas that need to be “knocked out”. By this I mean like in the example shown. The body line work will need to be edited to allow a gap for the arm line work to fit in.
To do this, make a fill shape over the body line work, like so, and bring up the Pathfinder toolbox again. Select both the new fill shape and the body line work with the black arrow (V) and again we use the same "Minus Front Option" selection, this will knock out the top object from the body shape which is underneath it
Putting all these techniques together, you should hopefully have something that looks like this.
Now lock down the Lines layer and create another layer and rename it Colour and place it underneath the lines layer. You can do this by simply grabbing the layer and dragging it down under the lines layer.
You can use different techniques for this but it’s probably easiest just to stick with the pen tool to keep getting experience with it. You can also use the pencil tool, but I find the pen tool gives the best control. Colouring is pretty easy. It’s basically just creating simple fill shapes that fill in the areas behind the line work. You can get messy at this stage because no one will see what’s behind the lines.
You can play around with the colours all you want until you get a good combination that you’re happy with. A quick time saver for when you want to change colours that are the same, just go to Select > Same> Fill Colour. Alternatively you can do something a little more technical and select all the coloured fill shapes that you know are going to be the same colour and bring up the pathfinder toolbox and select the "Unite" option, then whenever you select one area to colour they’ll be joined and all change.
Shading is much the same as colouring, though this will give the character a little more depth. In this case I’ll imagine the light is coming from above and make my shading accordingly. In the colour palette change the fill colour to white and draw up some simple fill shapes in the places you feel the character needs some lighting.
Now with the fill shapes drawn up you can group them together with Ctrl + G or Object > Group. Now bring up the Transparency toolbox and change the colouring style to Lighten and take it down as low or and high as you like. I like to use 70%
The darker areas are much the same. Go to the colour palette and change your fill colour to black and draw up some shading areas
Select the shading fill shapes and then bring up the Transparency toolbox, this time choose the multiply colour option and set it to around 70%. This blends the colour (in this case black) with the colour below (in this case purple) and gives a good darkened blend of the two. Try it with just the normal colour setting and a 70% blend and you’ll notice the difference.
Now lock down the Shading layer and unlock the Lines layer (just click the lock icon again and it will unlock)
In this example I’ll show you how to edit some vector points to increase or decrease some of the line weights. Select the Direction Selection tool (the white arrow) from the toolbar and highlight a vector point on your line work you’d like to alter. (I’ve also turned off my other layers and made my line work pink just to give clearer example and also exaggerated the line work to show how to fix specific lines)
With you direct selection made you’ll notice either one or two of the antenna-like vector points will appear. In this example select the vector on the left.
Holding down the mouse/wacom, just very slowly move around and watch how it reacts, in this case I’d need to slowly bring it back to the right which will thin out the line.
Once you’re satisfied with everything there’s a couple more things you can do to clean up your artwork. Go to the Lines layer and highlight everything on the layer. Now go to the Pathfinder toolbar and select the Unite option. This will make the lines all one fill shape.
Turn back on all the layers to view the piece. You can now delete the Sketch layer. Once you’re happy with it (this part is optional) you can unlock all the layers and select everything with Select > All or Ctrl + A, you can now group it all together with Object > Group or Ctrl + G. Congratulations you now have a finished artwork ready to turn into a sticker!
Tips on Stickering
- If you’re just starting out in stickering, the best and easiest way to get some physical stickers to put around town or give out to your friends is to go to your local stationery suppliers and get some full size mailing labels which have sticker backings. They’re relatively cheap and they can go through your average household printer.
- The trickier the shape of the sticker, the longer you’ll spend cutting it out by hand so generally the simpler the better for bigger runs. It’s easier to peel back and slap up and be on your way in comparison to one that has lots of fiddly bits and easy to tear pieces.
- The best material to use is Vinyl – it’s a much sturdier material and lasts longer in the streets. Getting a hold of vinyl is more expensive, but you can find plenty of businesses around that will print these up for you.
- If you want your stickers to stay up for longer, make sure not to put them on businesses windows, they’ll take them straight down. Street signs, phone boxes & light posts are always the easiest as they mostly always have surfaces that can take a sticker.