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How to Use Image Trace to Create a Surreal Portrait in Adobe Illustrator

This post is part of a series called Simple Silhouette Exercises.
Create a Vintage Vector Framed Silhouette Design
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

I have no shame... I love a good vector illustration which uses simple silhouettes. They're great for beginners and are simple, quick exercises to ease you into Adobe Illustrator. 

In this tutorial, I'm going to show you how to use Illustrator's Image Trace (in legacy versions it's known as Live Trace) to create a quick and surreal portrait scene as well as a fun way to create clouds. 

What You Will Need

In order to complete this tutorial, you'll require the following stock images from Envato Market:

I've specifically picked a selection of stock images with the background removed. This will make it easier for me to use Image Trace. If you're using different images and want the background removed, there are services on Envato Studio which can help you with this. Otherwise, let's jump straight into the tutorial.

1. Use Image Trace on the Stock Images

Step 1

Before I put together our composition, let's get straight into using Image Trace on our stock images.

Create a New Document and use File > Place to insert your first stock image into your document. Use the Free Transform Tool (E) to reduce the size of your stock image. I'm then going to hide the artboard boundary by going to View > Hide Artboards.

I often hide my artboards when I'm creating fun little illustrations so I don't feel I'm limited to the boundary of the artboard. 

Place your stock image

Step 2

Duplicate the image by Copy and Pasting in Front (Control-F). This is so we can apply two different Image Trace settings to our image.

Select the top stock image and you'll notice a button along the top of Illustrator saying Image Trace. When you click on this, default settings are applied to the photo.

To the left-hand side of the button, there is an Image Trace panel button. Click on this and you'll open the settings, where you can modify to change what is traced and what isn't.

Each one of these images I'll be tracing in Black and White with Ignore White ticked. However I'll be playing with different Threshold and Advanced settings, and I'll tell you why. If you want to know about each specific setting with Image Trace, consider checking out our tutorial on How to Use Image Trace.

For this trace, I want to pick up on as much detail as possible around the edges of my shape, so I've put the maximum values on Paths, Corners and Noise. However, I only want to trace some of the face which is in shadow, so the Threshold is just past halfway. 

When I'm finished with each Image Trace, I click on the Expand button to release the trace to editable paths. Select each group of shapes and create a Compound Path (Control-8).

Trace the face in shadow

Step 3

For the bottom stock image, I want the overall silhouette. I've opted for one less than the full Threshold amount of 255. This is because if I use 255 I'll get an entirely black image. With one less than the maximum, it doesn't trace the white background.

I've modified the Advanced settings to create smooth curves around the portrait. This means reducing the Corners, Paths and Noise values, which creates rougher outlines on the overall shape.

Create the sihouette

Step 4

Next I'm going to Image Trace the trees. As I want to show the detailing in the leaves and branches, I'm going to reduce the Noise to a minimum. Noise will only add texture to the edges and not create the look we want.

Image trace the trees

Step 5

Select the Image Trace of the trees and as with previous traces, click the Expand button. This time, while the group is selected, go to Object > Ungroup.

With the Direct Selection Tool (A), draw a shape around a tree and create a Compound Path (Control-8). Do that to each of the trees so you have eight shapes in total when complete.

Compound path each tree

Step 6

The final image to trace is the castle. This time I've reduced the Corners and Noise to create sharper points for the towers and smoother curves all over.

I adjusted the Threshold so I can see the smaller details in the trellis. 

Trace the castle

2. Create a Tapered Art Brush

There will be some additional details added to the portrait which Image Trace hasn't picked up on.

Draw a black filled circle using the Ellipse Tool (L). Using the Free Transform Tool (E), squash the circle. Then with the Direct Selection Tool (A), select each of the side points and use the Convert point to corner option in the Control panel. 

Once done, I select the shape and in the Brushes panel, select Add New Brush, select Art Brush and then keep the options as default apart from Colorization Method: Tints. Click on OK once done.

Create an Art Brush

3. Bring Together Your Composition

Step 1

Time to begin arranging the traced images. First I'm going to use a basic colour scheme of dark and light green for the face.

Adding colours

Step 2

I wanted to add a castle for a crown or tiara in the composition. It may sound strange but I thought about building a scene around her hair with trees and foliage and the castle idea seems right... even though it looks bizarre!

You may need to resize images while you're placing them. If that's the case, use the Free Transform Tool (E) and hold down Shift-Alt to ensure an even resize.

Add the castle crown

Step 3

I'm going to use duplicates of the trees and position them around the portrait. The majority of them will be a dark green fill, with the exception of the one on the shoulder.

Adding the trees

The trees help add texture around the edges of the hair and help the castle blend into the head.

The trees and castle

4. Refine the Face

Using the tapered brush and the Paintbrush Tool (B) to refine the details for the eyes, eyebrows and lips. 

Add details to the face

It doesn't have to be precise, just enough detailing to create more definition for the face.

Add details to the face

5. Create the Sky

Step 1

I first create a Rectangle (M) behind the composition and fill it with a gradient going from light to medium blue, both desaturated tones. 

Then with the Ellipse Tool (L) I create a circle with the same fill, this time set to Blending Mode Screen. This helps create a sun. I've lined the sun up with her eyes as it appears it's in a position where the light is coming from.

Add the sun

Step 2

I'm going to show you how to create some quick and easy clouds. It all starts with the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B).

Double-click on the Blob Brush Tool to get the options. Change the settings so the Size is influenced by Pressure—this will give it a variable size when pressure is applied with a graphics tablet.

Access the Blob Brush Tool Options

Step 3

With the gradient as a fill and set to Blending Mode Screen, Opacity 50%, just doodle some looped lines where you'd like the clouds using the Blob Brush Tool.

Add loops for the clouds

Step 4

With the paths still selected, go to Effects > Blur > Gaussian Blur. I've used a value of around 45 pixels to blur it enough that it softens the edges but is still visible on top of the background.

Blur the paths

Step 5

Add strokes on top of the portrait to create clouds overlapping in the foreground.

Add clouds to the foreground

6. The Finishing Details

Step 1

I think we need a bit more detailing in the background. What I'm going to do is add some further duplicates of trees in a layer behind the current ones and give them a lighter fill colour. This will give the impression of the trees being further away in the distance. 

Adding further trees

Step 2

Using the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B) and the different shades of green, create little curved "V" shapes to give the impression of birds flying in the distance.

Add birds to the background

Step 3

Group together all of the shapes for the illustration. Then, using a duplicate of the sky rectangle, create a Clipping Mask (Control-7).

Add all of the shapes to a Clipping Mask

Step 4

Time to change the colours around. I select all of the shapes apart from the ones for the background and the sun. Then along the top of the Control panel, select Recolor Artwork, and then the Edit section.

I'm going to change the colours of the portrait and trees to a reddish/brown hue to complement the blue, desaturated sky... a warm colour against a cool colour. 

Using Recolor Artwork

Awesome Work, You're Now Done!

A lot of people may get down on the use of Image Trace, but I think when it's used for creative compositions and to add texture to an illustration, it can add that extra level of panache.

Try this one out, and show me in the comments what you've come up with. 

Final result
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