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How to Make the Vector Character "Cactus King"

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In this tutorial I show how I create a character I've named the "Cactus King." My normal approach to designing is to create a sketch on paper first, scan and then build in digital form. However for this character project I wanted to explore creating in vector right from the get go.

You can find the source files in the directory labeled "source" that came in the files that you downloaded. You may wish to look through them briefly before we begin.


Before getting started with the artwork, it helps to find reference images. Once I've decided what it is I want to create, I find the reference images that will give me enough information to feel I understand the subject.

Now, I don't live anywhere near a desert so the internet is where I did my search. Funny enough I found an image I could've used for reference after I finished the character. Note: Please respect the ownership and copyrights of the materials you use.

Step 1

There isn't any particular size for this project so I've selected tabloid for the new document size in Landscape Orientation. Once that page is open, save the file to the directory of your choosing.

As your progress with this or any project, it is super important that you develop a strong save habit, and save often. It so easy to get caught up in making a new shape or playing with a color idea that you lose track of the last time you hit save, and that is inevitably when the power will go out or on your computer a hick-up will cause you to lose all the work you've done.

Step 2

You can use the pen tool for this and pull bezier points to create the shapes for this character, but I would encourage you to give the pencil tool a go. First thing I want to do is create the basic shape of the character. This may take a few attempts to get it to the point where you're happy, but just keep at it until you get a shape you like

Step 3

Close up end by drawing over the area making sure to start on the line and move across the area to wish to close.

Step 4

Next I create the arms in the same way I created the body. Save.

Step 4b

For this image I'm able to copy and flip the first arm to create the foreground arm.
I use the reflect tool and then scale the shape up to create the feeling of perspective. Select all three object and fill them white. Now you can start to see the perspective effect.

Step 5

The next step is to create the shapes that will form the ribs. I create the ribs making sure they help to contour the body.

Step 5a

Make small adjustments to each rib to make sure they add to the overall contours of the basic body structure. This will be important later when creating the strokes around the final piece.

Step 5b

Here I've filled the shapes to better show how they are drawn. An additional rib is needed for the front of the body to allow for more visual structure once gradients are dropped in.

Step 6

Here's a shot of the layer structure so far. I try to always keep them labeled (although they sometimes get out of control). Have you been saving?

Step 7

After unifying the line weights to (.5), I move on to the face. I draw shapes for the basic features until I'm happy. To create the illusion of holes cut into the surface, I duplicate the shape and scale it down to the desired size and reposition.

Then copy the first shape (Command + C), select the inner shape you just created and then paste in front (Command + F). Now select both objects and hit (Command + 7) to create a clipping path. Note that objects grouped together will be clipped as a group.

Step 8

Create the hint of a third mouth hole on the far side of the body by copying and scaling one of the mouth shapes. This needs to be done for both the main body shape and the rib shape. Duplicate the object to be used as the cutter. First select both the cutter shape and the rib object the cut is to be applied to. Then select Pathfinder > Minus Front. Repeat this for the body shape below.

Step 9

After looking at the front arm, I decide it needs some tweaking. I contoured the area that connects to the body to give more definition to the ribs.

Step 10


Step 11

Next we'll make the needles. Stylistically, I decided that big, fat cone shapes would be the best look for this guy. I can get away with only two angles of cones to create all the needles.

Step 11a

Use a circle to create the first cone. With the Convert Anchor Point Tool, click the top anchor. This will reset curves.

Step 11b

Then using the Direct Selection Tool, extend the height of the cone.

Step 12

For the other cone I start with an ellipse. Then using the Direct Selection tool, extend the height of the cone.

Note: The Direct Selection is the white arrow not the black arrow shown.

Step 12b

Then with the Convert Anchor Point Tool, click the top anchor. This will reset the curves. Draw in the handles to sharpen up the point.

Step 12c


Step 13

Place the cones along the ribs. Rotate and scale each cone to create the illusion of perspective...

Step 14

You can see the diagram below uses color to indicate the placement and variation of rotation and scale using the two different cone shapes.

Step 15

Apply the same technique on the "body" layer and other arm. In the second image, I've shown with color the placement and variation of rotation and scale using the two different cone shapes.

Step 16

You can see the separation and groupings of the elements below.

Step 17

Next is to create the fat strokes. I start by selecting the arm branch parts, then copy and paste in front (Command + F) of the needles positioned at the back of the layer. By Shift selecting the background needles and then pasting in front (Command + F) you will insure that your stroke is on top of those objects.

Step 18

Add stroke weight of 10pt and shift the shape to the left.

Step 19

Repeat this for body and other arm. Save!

Step 20

I had some tapering strokes at the elbow joint show the contour of the arm.

Step 21

Now it's on to adding a stroke weight to the needles, but instead of a stroke weight, I'm able to copy and paste in back then scale up to a size that feels good. Repeat this for each needle.

Step 22

At this point it's ready for print out and shade key test. This is where I might play with my felt markers and drop in some shadows just to experiment, but for this tutorial it'll stay digital.

Step 23

Time to get started in on the color. I’ve isolated the first piece to show the size of the gradient circle needed to create the illusion of volume. This technique is repeated for each rib.

Step 24

Some ribs require the use of Radial gradients.

Step 25

Moving on to the arms, a smoother gradation can be used here. Note the colors are spaced a little further apart.

Step 26

Again I adjust the size of the gradient to suggest the shape of the back arm. Note the colors of the gradient are in the reverse order with the dark on the inside.

Step 27

Add a small highlight under the arm.

Step 28

The face uses the same radial gradient but with a fourth lighter green added to add more pop.

Step 29

Adjust the radial of the gradient to form the spheres of the eyes.

Step 30

Eye sockets and inside the mouth need some extra drama. I used a redish purple to very dark purple radial gradient here. This image is a comp of the different radial for the eyes and mouth.

Step 31

Needles are treated with either a radial or liner gradient depending on lighting.

Step 32

I adjust the outline of the needles to a deeper color to match the gradient fill.

Step 34

Add colors to the other strokes on the needles and a deep green around the body and arms.

Step 35

Notice that the three layers are still intact.

Step 36

Use the Pen Tool and the same technique to create rocks and grass to add to the scene

Step 37

Place each rock and grass set on their own layer in front and below the main "body" layer. Although you can group and hide the objects when needed, it's nice to be able to simply make the layer invisible and not have to worry about other hidden objects popping up when you unhide all.

Step 38

What would a King be without a crown? Create one layer for the basic cactus flower adjusting the angle of each peddle so they're not too acute. Then create the first inner peddle shape and scale it down. Repeat this a few times to build up the shape.

Step 38a

After building up the shape, fill them with a gradient, as shown below.

Step 38b

The base and all subsequent shapes of the flower get filled with the same gradient that goes from dark to light pink. Select the peddles of the crown, copy and paste in back. Then while still selected use the pathfinder Unite tool.

Step 38c

Apply a stroke weight to this united shape as shown.

Step 39

The shadows help tie it all together. The technique of applying the shadow is simple. I always use this method when building this type of shadow. Once you've determined the direction of the light source, follow these steps:

  1. Use the Pen Tool to draw the desired shape and location of the shadow, then use Transparency set to Multiply.
  2. Copy (Command + C) and paste in front (Command + F) of the object that the shadow will be applied to.
  3. Select both the shadow base object and duplicated object.
  4. Perform a Pathfinder Intersection operation.

  5. Step 40

    Using the Pen Tool and the same technique, I create rocks and grass that are to be added to the scene.

    Step 41

    As with the needles, the shadows are placed below (under) or above (over) objects on their relative layers. All of the shadows were made using the method from Step 39. I've isolated the different shapes and colors. There is room to experiment with the shadow shapes, so I will just show you the end-result. Any shapes that overlap may need to be united to eliminate dark spots.

    Note: When creating shadows it's generally better to not use black. This tends to visually flatten out the image. For a richer result, try using a deeper value of the color you are casting the shadow on, or try various other colors to see what happens.

    Step 42

    Finally, let's work on the background. I'll use a circle as a frame. Now create the sand dune shapes using the Pen Tool, and fill them with a subtle gradient of light to medium tan to look like sand.

    Step 42a

    Use a square shape for the sky, and fill it with warm orange to yellow gradient.

    Step 42b

    Group the sand and the sky objects, then use a circle shape at the upper most level to apply a clipping mask (Command + 7).

    Step 42c

    Here is the result of the clipping mask.

    Step 43

    Having done this, I can now select all and create a copy of all the objects and paste them into a new layer in front temporarily.

    Step 43a

    To make a copy of the circle used in the clipping mask, double-click to access isolation mode and copy the circle. Click Artboard to return to normal mode. Paste the circle into the layer with the copy of the character.

    Step 43b

    With all the other layers hidden, select all of the objects in the temporary layer and select Pathfinder > Unite.

    Step 43b

    Move the layer containing the now united shape to a position below that of the character and circular background image. Now apply a double-stoke weight to the appearance.

    Final Image

    Drop in a warm gray gradient behind it all and it's done. I hope you enjoyed this tutorial! The final image is shown below.

    Whether analogue or digital, the more you practice the sharper your illustration and design skills will get. But don't forget, the most important tool is developing a strong creative process. This is what will truly bring your work to the next level. If you are patient, stay focused, and remain true to your inner voice your characters will rule!

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